Travel

The Best of Europe: Top Cities for Culture

The Best of Europe: Top Cities for Culture
Jennifer Walker
By: Jennifer Walker
Reading time: 15 min

Europe is a continent bursting with culture. From Italy’s cradles of art to the homeland of classical composers, discover the best cities for culture for your next city break in Europe.


Get inspired and exploring with our guide to the best of Europe, where to find the best places for art, music, dance, theater and literature. So get those bags packed and get out to explore these European cities for culture!


Paris: The Louvre, Impressionists and the Left Bank 

Cities for culture - Paris


Any culture vulture will have Paris high up on the list of destinations to visit. Paris is home to some of the best museums in the world. You can stop to admire the Mona Lisa in the morning at the world famous Louvre, visit the impressionists and the French 19th classics in a converted train station on a visit to the Museé D’Orsay, or you lose yourself in Monet’s waterlilies displayed in a pull panorama in the oval room of the L’Orangerie. But beyond the museums, Paris also offers culture in spades. You can dress up to the nines and attend a performance inside the gilded Opera Garnier, the famed setting for Degas’s ballerinas or Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, or embark on a literary pilgrimage to sights featured in the grand works of Victor Hugo or Guy de Maupassant.


However, the best thing about Paris is being able to walk in the footsteps of the greatest artists and writers from the 20th century. Hang out in La Dôme, a café in Montparnasse famed for serving some of the greats of the Left Bank, from Henry Miller and Robert Capa to Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin, and even Hemingway. Or you can cross the Seine up to Montmartre for more artistic haunts in the footsteps of Toulouse-Lautrec. If you’re interested in culture, you don’t just come to Paris for the museums, but for the experience of walking in the footsteps of some of the most important artistic giants of our time!


Madrid: The Golden Art Triangle

Cities for culture - Madrid


Madrid may not boast the architectural splendor of Barcelona, but there is plenty in the Spanish capital to enrapture any culture lover. At the heart of the city, clustered around the leafy Paseo del Prado, you’ll find three of the world’s greatest museums within walking distance of each other. The Museo del Prado is home to a wonderful collection of excellent Spanish art, showcasing the work of Velázquez, El Greco and Goya in easy to access one spot, as well as an extensive collection spanning from gothic to the 19th century. The Museo del Reina Sofia is a hub of the 20th-century greats, including the Picasso’s Guernica, which spreads out across a huge wall in the room of its own. You’ll also find countless work by Dalí, Miró and other great modern artists. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza offers an eclectic range of art spanning a variety of eras and countries, from renaissance to pop art.


Beyond the great art galleries of Madrid, the city also offers a range of cultural programs, from the operas at it main opera house, to smaller concerts in the Ateneo de Madrid or the Circulo des Bellas Artes. The great thing about Madrid is how it’s a city where there is always something going on, from top exhibitions to concerts, Madrid is a cultural city that seldom sleeps and one of the best cities for culture in Europe.


Florence: The Heartland of Italy’s Renaissance  

Cities for culture - Florence


Once home to Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, Florence was the cradle of Italy’s Renaissance. Over the centuries it changed the way we see the world and Western art and has captured the imagination of travelers ever since. Today, it’s a city defined by its artistic legacy, where you can visit the Italian greats of the Uffizi Gallery or gaze at Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia. Without Florence, art as we know it would be a different place altogether, so it’s a city to which any culture and art lover must make a pilgrimage. But Florence doesn’t just dazzle you with its art, but also with its architecture. The Duomo was once a feat of architectural innovation in its time, and today it’s become synonymous with the terracotta hues of the city.


If the iconic views of the River Arno feel familiar, that’s because Florence captured the imagination of writers and filmmakers the world over, whether it was in E.M. Forster's romantic A Room with a View to Danté’s Divine Comedy. So explore the city streets where great artists like Botticelli and Raphael once walked, explore the palaces where the great Florentine families like the Medicis resided and step into Italian history before sipping an espresso on one of Florence’s many plazas.


Berlin: Island of Museums and the Opera Capital

Cities for culture - Berlin


Is Berlin still cool? While Berlin has become a hub for contemporary art, culture and gritty hedonism that takes place in and around the street-art laden Kreuzberg, Berlin is a city that has culture calling you from around each street corner. You could easily spend days cast away on Museum Island, wandering around Greek ruins in the Pergamon museum, or exploring the Altes Museum, the Museum of the Ancient World, before you leave to immerse yourself in history closer to home at the poignant Jewish Museum. There are over 30 museums in Berlin, and you can even buy a Berlin museum pass that gets you into the city’s museums at a discount price.


Being the capital of Germany, Berlin is also a city for great music. Beyond the techno cathedral of Berghain, classical music is ingrained into German culture. Berlin is the Opernhaupstadt, the opera capital, being home to three-state subsidised opera houses and enough capital music venues to rival most cities. So whether you take in a show inside the stark modernist interior of the Deutsche Oper or in the Philharmonie, Berlin’s most famous concert hall home to its world-renowned Berliner Philharmoniker, you can enjoy some of the best music the classical music world has to offer. Except, you may need to book in advance to get into the best performances! 


Vienna: A City of Secession and Music

Cities for culture - Vienna


Among the winding cobbled streets adorned with Habsburg grandeur, offset with buildings gilded with gold art nouveau motifs and echoes of Mozart playing in the squares, Vienna is a city for any lover of art and music. From Gustav Klimt’s gilded The Kiss hung up in the palatial rooms of the Schloss Belvedere to the innovative MuseumsQuartier featuring Austrian art from the 19th and 20th centuries at the Leopold Museum to more contemporary pieces on display at MUMOK, you’ll find all kinds of art in place.


But Vienna is also famed for having housed some of the most famous composers in Western Music, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, the Strauss family, Gustav Mahler, and more. It’s no reason that Vienna earned its nickname as the City of Music, and even today you can still enjoy some top performances in the Musikverein or lose yourself in the architectural beauty of the Vienna Opera House, the Staatsoper. If you want to learn more about Vienna’s captivating heritage of classical music, then head over to the Haus der Musik Museum.


After being on your feet all day exploring the city’s culture, you can settle down with a cup of coffee in one of Vienna’s grand coffee houses before paying a visit to the next cultural destination.


St. Petersburg: Romanov Palaces, Ballet and the Hermitage

Cities for culture - St. Petersburg


Russia may spread across two continents, but St. Petersburg is very much a European city and an artistic powerhouse in its own right. This city of the Tsars is home to sumptuous palaces belonging to the Romanov Dynasty, elegant plazas and intimate canals. However, what makes St. Petersburg stand out is its art and culture scene. Inside the iconic mint-blue-green palace, the Hermitage museum is one of the world’s most important museums in the world. It’s easy to lose yourself for days exploring the endless gilded corridors and halls of this former palace, exploring art and artifacts from mummies to Matisse paintings. And if that’s not enough for you, you can then move onto the Russian Museum, a complex spread over four palaces with the best collection of Russian art in the world.


The Bolshoi Ballet may have its home in Moscow, but ballet as an art form began in St. Petersburg, and you can easily immerse yourself in the city’s music and dance scene by taking in an opera or a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre. To pack a true cultural punch, make sure you come to St. Petersburg in the summer when it’s the festival season to see why St. Petersburg is one of the best cities for culture in Europe.


Rome: Archaeology, the Vatican Museums and Fellini

Cities for culture - Rome


Rome has been a cultural hub for over 1000 years and is one of Europe's most historic cities, so whether you want to scramble over ruins or admire some of the greatest art of the Renaissance or follow in Fellini’s footsteps, Rome has it all! You can fit two cities, or rather two countries, into a visit to Rome is you pay a visit to the museums in the Vatican City. Marvel at Raphael’s School of Athens or look up at Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, as well as explore a collection of some of the finest sculptures from antiquity. But even in Rome itself, where you’ll find sculptures by Bernini or relics taken from Roman ruins, culture and history lie around every corner.


But if you love Italian cinema, then you can embark on a pilgrimage to the locations from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Roma on your next visit. And once you’re suffering from a cultural overload, why not eat some fantastic Italian cuisine in a trattoria in Trastevere? 


Basel: Home of Art Basel

Cities for culture - Basel


Set on the Rhine River wedged between France and Germany with its heart in Switzerland, Basel is a curious city that has a lot to offer any art lover. While Basel may be home to Switzerland’s pharma industry, this small Swiss city can boast over 30 museums, as well as being one of the main arts hubs in the summer when Art Basel, one of the world’s most contemporary art fairs, is in full swing.


Among its museums, you’ll find the Kunstmuseum, a huge collection with an incredible collection of art from the Holbein paintings all the way to Van Goghs and Picassos. Outside of the Kunstmuseum, the Museum Tinguely and the Foundation Beyeler are also places where to get your dose of art. You’ll also find smaller, quirkier museums, such as the Paper Mill, a 500-year-old paper mill tucked in behind the historic canals that are dedicated to the history of paper and the first printing presses and books.


Barcelona: The Wonder of Catalan Modernism

Cities for culture - Barcelona


In a city filled with dreamlike and surreal architecture, Barcelona is a place where art takes itself to the streets. Many flock to Barcelona for Gaudí’s architectural masterpieces, such as the almost-finished Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera or Casa Batlló. However, while any visitor could spend days exploring the city or enjoying views over the Mediterranean from the undulating mosaic tiled lookouts in Park Güell, Barcelona is a city that is also full of incredible galleries and cultural hubs.


Being a place where artists like Picasso and Miró once lived, you’ll find some excellent museums dedicated to Barcelona’s once resident artists. But to combine art and architecture, you can pay a visit to the Palau de la Musica Catalana for a concert under the art-nouveau splendor of the building’s stained glass roof and colorful columns. Or if you’re looking for a night at the opera, then pay a visit to the Gran Teatre del Liceu, one of the greatest opera houses in Europe, located in the heart of the famous Las Ramblas. 


Barcelona is a city where you can lose yourself in the art and innovation of Catalunya, where you can discover the homeland of Dalí and Miró and take a stroll around the historic backstreets of the Gothic Quarter before embarking on a pilgrimage to Gaudí. The great thing about Barcelona is not only is it a great destination for those passionate about architecture, but it's also one of the best cities in Europe for food.


Dublin: A City of Literature

Cities for culture - Dublin


Once home to James Joyce, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde, it’s easy to see why Dublin is a city famed for its literature. The Irish capital has a slow, relaxed pace during the day, and at night pulses with its exciting nightlife in Temple Bar. But even in the famous pubs, you’ll find literary history had been made. Pop into Davy Byrne’s Pub if you’re a James Joyce fan for a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich, just like Leopold Bloom did in Ulysses, or grab a Guinness in Toner’s, a favorite with Bram Stoker and other literary greats, not to mention it was the only pub visited by the poet W.B. Yeats.


Beyond the bars, you can visit the Dublin Writers Museum, set in a restored Georgian mansion, to learn more about 300 years of the city’s literary history. You’ll find rare editions of books and curious personal items. You can delve deeper and visit the National Library of Ireland, or Trinity College for more literary curiosities, like the medieval Book of Kells. But if you pay a visit to Dublin, keep a look out for statue cameos from your favorite writers, like Oscar Wilde or Patrick Kavanagh.


Bilbao: A Modern Center of Art and Architecture

Cities for culture - Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum


Bilbao may not have the reputation that Madrid and Barcelona have, but on the grand scale of things, this city nestled in the green hills of Spain’s Basque Country is a curious place for anyone interested in contemporary art and design. Bilbao was once an industrial city, which has seen a transformation over the past few decades into a center of art and architecture.


At its heart, you’ll find the iconic Guggenheim Museum, an imposing modern titanium structure, and the Museo de Bellas Artes. It might not be a city to rival the beauty of Barcelona or Paris, but its real attraction is its contemporary art scene. Bilbao is an exciting art and culture hub, with quirky architecture blended into its industrial history.


London: The Best of Theater

Cities for culture - London, The Globe


London is a unique metropolis, home to eclectic buildings where you’ll find a Tudor house sitting side-by-side with a 1960s office block. While London bursts with history around each corner, it’s also a bustling city for culture. Home to world-class museums like the Tate and the National Gallery, when it comes to London, it’s the theater scene that shines.


If you want to go back in time, you can start at The Globe, the original theater where Shakespeare staged his plays, but if you find the works of the Bard slightly antiquated, there is plenty more on offer in the British capital. The West End is famed for world-class theater, from the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber to something more avant-garde, you’ll easily find the best theater in London! 


For music, take in a show at the Albert Hall or catch an opera at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. London is a buzzing, cosmopolitan capital where you can find arts for all interests and background. Being a multicultural hub, you can explore London’s culture beyond the galleries and concert halls.


Venice: Canals and Carnivals in La Serenissima

Cities for culture - Venice


Venice might be one of Europe’s most romantic canals, but beyond the gondolas, it’s a city that has a rich cultural heritage. Venice may look like a city that’s come out of a dream world, but it was a hub of trade and culture for centuries. Whether it’s the paintings of Titian, Tintoretto and Bellini you can find in the Accademia Gallery, or the collection of modern art you’ll find in the Peggy Guggenheim collection, Venice is a place for art lovers.


But beyond art, it’s also a place that brought the world composers such as Vivaldi and Corelli. You can enjoy a concert in one of the city’s spectacular churches or an opera in the famous La Fenice opera house. And of course, two of the biggest cultural events in Europe take place in Venice - the Carnival and the Biennale, dedicated to the best in modern film.


Venice may feel like a living museum, but it’s certainly a city that is alive with culture and one of Europe’s most important cities for culture! 

Europe is a continent bursting with culture. From Italy’s cradles of art to the homeland of classical composers, discover the best cities for culture in Europe for your next city break.


Get inspired and exploring with our guide to the best of Europe, where to find the best places for art, music, dance, theater and literature. So get those bags packed and get out to explore these European cities for culture!


Jennifer Walker

Created by: Jennifer Walker

Jennifer is a Budapest-based writer with bylines in Condé Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet, The Guardian, The Independent, among others. You can read her work and get in touch at jenniferdeborahwalker.com

Read more