It's not hard to identify the cultural capitals of the world. Cities such as Paris, Rome, London, Istanbul, Berlin and New York are the first-round picks for travelers seeking the best of fine art, architecture, history, music and food. And deservedly so--any one of these towns offers such an embarrassment of riches, it would be easy to spend a lifetime exploring their greatest hits. With Paris's museums and Rome's architecture, Berlin's art scene and New York's gastronomy, why bother looking farther afield?
There are, actually, many reasons. Some of the world's best, most interesting cultural offerings, monuments and movements can be found outside the major centers. As any well-traveled polyglot knows, some of the best finds require veering off the beaten path (and perhaps down the stairs and through an unmarked door). For every well-trod favorite there is a lesser-known city with a buzzing cultural scene worth discovering and mercifully few tourists vying for access to the best sites.
Those visiting Germany, for example, might skip Berlin in favor of Dresden, a gorgeous Baroque metropolis that was the center of German high culture until it was destroyed during World War II. Its famous philharmonic survived, though, and a painstaking restoration process has revitalized the city as a destination for art and architecture.
Another revival to consider is Málaga, nestled on the southern coast of Spain. It is often overlooked in favor of Barcelona or Madrid, but it has much to offer the curious traveler: nearly 30 museums, including the notable Picasso Museum and the beautiful new Carmen Thyssen Museum; wonderful Andalusian food; and stunning architectural remnants from the city's Roman occupation in the first century and the Moorish rule in the Middle Ages. Or contemplate Helsinki: The Finnish capital rarely makes the list of European places to visit, but the city, named 2012's World Design Capital, is exploding with new design initiatives, cutting-edge architecture and creative innovation.
Whether undergoing a renaissance or remaining a well-kept secret, all the destinations on this list are--suffice it to say--worth the journey.
The Scene: A post-Perestroika bloom of experimental art and theater against a backdrop of traditional architecture flourishes. The Signature: For an introduction to Kazakh culture, visit the National Museum, which stands across from the presidential palace and offers exhibits on Kazakh art and history. Afterward visit idyllic Panfilov Park to see St. Ascension Cathedral, which is one of the largest wooden structures in the world built entirely without nails. Insider Knowledge: The theater scene is where the most interesting, cutting-edge art is happening. Catch a show at Art & Shock Theatre (49/68 Kunayev St.), the internationally acclaimed conceptual theater group, or visit Lermontov Russian Drama Theatre (43 Abai Ave.; 7-727/267-3131), which stages Russian plays Tuesday to Sunday and turns the theater into an exhibit space for local contemporary artists on Mondays. Don’t Miss: An exhibit at Arvest Art Gallery (75/78 Bogenbay Batira St.; <a href="http://arvest.kz" target="_hplink">arvest.kz</a>), which opened five years ago and has quickly become the contemporary arts center of the city. <a href="http://www.departures.com/slideshows/under-the-radar-cultural-destinations/2" target="_hplink">See More Under-the-Radar Cultural Destinations Here</a>
The Scene: Quirky and modern northern European style meets classic Flemish elegance. The Signature: Antwerp is a blend of the historic and the contemporary. For a taste of the historic, visit the iconic 14th-century Cathedral of Our Lady (Groenplaats 21; <a href="http://dekathedraal.be" target="_hplink">dekathedraal.be</a>), which houses several important paintings by Peter Paul Rubens. For a modern turn, stop by the flagship location of Dries Van Noten (Nationalestraat 16; 32-3/470-2510), Antwerp’s most significant avant-garde fashion designer. Insider Knowledge: Typeface enthusiasts will love the Museum Plantin-Moretus (Vrijdagmarkt 22–23; <a href="http://museumplantinmoretus.be" target="_hplink">museumplantinmoretus.be</a>), which honors the history of typography. The collection includes the two oldest printing presses in the world. Plan to go at the end of the week since the museum is located in the Vrijdagmarkt, a 16th-century square known for its Friday market. Don’t Miss: Rubenshuis (Wapper 9–11; <a href="http://rubenshuis.de" target="_hplink">rubenshuis.de</a>) the former home and studio of the painter Rubens. The house is an architectural curiosity, built to resemble a Renaissance-era Italian palace and featuring a Baroque garden and a portico. Guests can tour here now and see many of the artist’s most famous works, including Adam and Eve. <a href="http://www.departures.com/slideshows/under-the-radar-cultural-destinations/3" target="_hplink">See More Under-the-Radar Cultural Destinations Here</a>
The Scene: An old cultural hub revives 60 years after mass destruction. The Signature: Before World War II, Dresden was Germany’s arts capital, but many of its famous architecture was destroyed in the firebombing of 1945. The stone Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady (Georg-Treu-Platz 3; <a href="http://frauenkirche-dresden.de" target="_hplink">frauenkirche-dresden.de</a>), underwent a $218 million restoration in 2006 to mark the city’s 800th birthday and now anchors the Altstadt (Old Town). See other beautifully restored Baroque buildings here, like the Zwinger Palace (Innere Altstadt; 49-351/4914-2000) or the Semperoper (Theaterplatz 2; <a href="http://semperoper.de" target="_hplink">semperoper.de</a>). Insider Knowledge: Six times a year the illustrious Dresden Philharmonic (<a href="http://dresdnerphilharmonie.de" target="_hplink">dresdnerphilharmonie.de</a>) performs in the Frauenkirche—including concerts for Advent and New Year’s and two events this coming season to mark Wagner’s 200th birthday. Don’t Miss: Visit the Military History Museum (Olbrichtplatz 2; <a href="http://mhmbundeswehr.de" target="_hplink">mhmbundeswehr.de</a>) to explore how the city has been affected—structurally and socially—by war. The museum, one of Germany’s largest, is only a year old but offers important, if painful, insight into Dresden’s cultural past. <a href="http://www.departures.com/slideshows/under-the-radar-cultural-destinations/4" target="_hplink">See More Under-the-Radar Cultural Destinations Here</a>
The Scene: A seaside sampling of traditional Irish heritage. The Signature: Galway lies on the coast of Ireland, in a part of the country strongly connected to traditional Irish culture. (Many of the city’s outlying villages are primarily Gaelic-speaking.) Visit Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe (antaibhdhearc.com), the country’s national Irish language theater, to get a taste of the interplay between Ireland’s heritage and the city’s art scene. Insider Knowledge: Galway is a wonderful place to hear traditional Irish music—or “trad” music. Skip tourist traps and opt instead for local pubs like Crane Bar (2 Sea Rd.; <a href="http://cranebar.com" target="_hplink">cranebar.com</a>). Don’t Miss: The beautiful St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church (Junction of Mainguard and Lombard Sts.; <a href="http://stnicholas.ie" target="_hplink">stnicholas.ie</a>), which was built in 1320 and has the distinction of being the largest medieval parish church in the country. <a href="http://www.departures.com/slideshows/under-the-radar-cultural-destinations/5" target="_hplink">See More Under-the-Radar Cultural Destinations Here</a>
The Scene: Imaginative, hyper-current European design. The Signature: Helsinki is nearing the end of its year as the World Design Capital (<a href="http://wdchelsinki2012.fi" target="_hplink">wdchelsinki2012.fi</a>), a distinction that brought a major influx of artists, events and design-related projects. There is plenty to catch between now and December, including a food-and-design pop-up market at the city’s abattoir (slaughterhouse) and the timber-made Kamppi Chapel of Silence, recently built in bustling Narinkka Square. Insider Knowledge: Only Helsinki’s food scene rivals its design scene. Visit Chez Dominique (Rikhardinkatu 4; <a href="http://chezdominique.fi" target="_hplink">chezdominique.fi</a>), the city’s only restaurant with two Michelin stars, to sample Finnish gastronomy at its most elevated. Or swing by Herring Market (through October 13; <a href="http://helsinki200.fi" target="_hplink">helsinki200.fi</a>) for a taste of Helsinki’s fishier heritage. Don’t Miss: Wander Punavuori, the Design District, to get the most concentrated dose of Helsinki style. The neighborhood boasts a little of everything, from antiques and fine art at Haddadin (Iso-Roobertinkatu 20–22; <a href="http://haddadin.fi" target="_hplink">haddadin.fi</a>) to runway fashions from Ivana Helsinki (Uudenmaankatu 15; <a href="http://ivanahelsinki.com" target="_hplink">ivanahelsinki.com</a>), an art, fashion and film collective that just showed at New York fashion week. <a href="http://www.departures.com/slideshows/under-the-radar-cultural-destinations/6" target="_hplink">See More Under-the-Radar Cultural Destinations Here</a>
The Scene: A postcolonial time warp with a thriving music scene. The Signature: A decades-long embargo has taken Havana off the radar for most American travelers—and suspended the city in the aesthetics of the 1960s (picture old Ford Thunderbirds on the roads)—but the music keeps evolving. Hear Cuba’s biggest acts alongside up-and-comers at Casa de la Música Miramar (Calle 20 and Avda. 35; 53-7/204-0447). Insider Knowledge: Skip the government-run restaurants and opt instead for paladares, privately run eateries like La Galería (Calle 19, No. 1010; <a href="http://lagaleria-restaurante.com" target="_hplink">lagaleria-restaurante.com</a>), which serves elevated Cuban fare on a breezy terrace. Don’t Miss: El Malecón, an esplanade and seawall that begins in Old Havana and stretches four miles up the coast. The walk offers views of several of the city’s important historical landmarks, like El Morro castle and the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta. <a href="http://www.departures.com/slideshows/under-the-radar-cultural-destinations/7" target="_hplink">See More Under-the-Radar Cultural Destinations Here</a>
The Scene: Ancient history meets pastoral French charm. The Signature: While best known for its epic annual 24-hour auto race, Le Mans dates back to the first century B.C. and has a rich cultural history, including links to the Plantagenet dynasty. Visitors can wander cobbled streets among 15th-century timber houses in the old town, and the recently renovated Carré Plantagenêt (7-13, Rue de la Reine-Bérengère au Mans; 33-2/43-47-38-51) gives a good overview of the region’s history. Insider Knowledge: The Entre Cours et Jardins Festival (<a href="http://entrecoursetjardins.com" target="_hplink">entrecoursetjardins.com</a>) gives the public access to roughly 20 exquisite—and often classically French—private gardens in the region. Don’t Miss: The original Gallo-Roman walls and Roman baths that lie near the outskirts of the city. <a href="http://www.departures.com/slideshows/under-the-radar-cultural-destinations/8" target="_hplink">See More Under-the-Radar Cultural Destinations Here</a>
The Scene: An Andalusian port city with a Moorish legacy. The Signature: The Alcazaba: a gargantuan Moorish fortress and palace, dating back to the 11th century, which was famously seized by Ferdinand and Isabella in the 15th century. The fortress houses an archaeological museum with Roman-era mosaics and Arab ceramics. Right beside it sit the ruins of a second-century Roman amphitheater, which were discovered in the 1950s. Insider Knowledge: Go to the Mercado Central de Atarazanas (Calle Atarazanas 8; 34-95/221-3445), which has been in residence at an ancient Muslim boatyard since the 14th century, for fresh produce, local cheeses and the region’s culinary crown jewel: marbled jamón ibérico. Don’t Miss: Málaga was the birthplace of Pablo Picasso and is home to one of the world’s major Picasso museums, which features a collection of 235 pieces donated by the artist’s family. The Picasso Museum (Palacio de Buenavista; <a href="http://museopicassomalaga.org" target="_hplink">museopicassomalaga.org</a>) is located in a 16th-century building only a few blocks away from the house where the artist was born. <a href="http://www.departures.com/slideshows/under-the-radar-cultural-destinations/9" target="_hplink">See More Under-the-Radar Cultural Destinations Here</a>
The Scene: Hipster cowboys meet contemporary art in the desert. The Signature: Marfa’s significance in the art world is owed to Donald Judd, the minimalist artist who settled in Marfa and established the Chinati Foundation (1 Cavalry Row; <a href="http://chinati.org" target="_hplink">chinati.org</a>), which still functions as a contemporary art museum. The foundation offers exhibits year-round and celebrates Chinati Weekend (which took place October 6 and 7 this year) with open access to the collection, exhibits, talks and live music. Judd enthusiasts should also visit the Judd Foundation (104 Highland Ave.; <a href="http://juddfoundation.org" target="_hplink">juddfoundation.org</a>), devoted to preserving the artist’s libraries, archives and permanently installed work spaces. Insider Knowledge: The place to congregate is the Marfa Book Company (105 S. Highland Ave.; <a href="http://marfabookcompany.wordpress.com" target="_hplink">marfabookcompany.wordpress.com</a>), where locals, artists and the occasional celebrity come for coffee and art books. Don’t Miss: The galleries—with offerings ranging from the minimalist Eugene Binder Gallery (218 S. Highland St.; <a href="http://eugenebinder.com" target="_hplink">eugenebinder.com</a>) to the nonprofit Marfa Studio of Arts (<a href="http://marfastudioofarts.org" target="_hplink">marfastudioofarts.org</a>) to the art-music-film conglomerate Ballroom Marfa (108 E. San Antonio St.; <a href="http://ballroommarfa.org" target="_hplink">ballroommarfa.org</a>). <a href="http://www.departures.com/slideshows/under-the-radar-cultural-destinations/10" target="_hplink">See More Under-the-Radar Cultural Destinations Here</a>
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