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As much as I love getting outdoors, going for scenic drives, and discovering small towns, I also really love a good city break. And after a few years where we were discouraged from visiting anywhere too populated, it feels good to be planning one again!
Now, the key to a good city break is to pick a place brimming with culture. You want somewhere that not only has history on display in the form of landmarks and museums, but you also want somewhere with an engaging food scene as well as a thriving small business environment. A few quirky touches never hurts either.
Of course, there are some very obvious choices when it comes to culture cities. Most people immediately think of New York City, Rome, Paris, and London. However, I’d argue there are plenty of cultural cities closer and more accessible than you’d think, and I’ve rounded up some of my favorites below.
9 Incredible Cultural Cities to Visit Next
1. Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Montreal has to be my top cultural city destination this year. Its more northern location makes it perfect for summer visits as you won’t be sweating while walking or biking around, and as the largest city in Canada’s Quebec province, it’s got everything you could want. Once you arrive, head over to Vieux-Montréal (or Old Montreal) to be right in the city’s historic center. Traverse cobblestone streets, admire the European facades, and be sure to stop by one of the many bistros with outdoor seating. On one of your days, walk up Mont-Royal to take in the panoramic views, and if you’re here on a weekend, witness Tam Tams in the Park. For dinner, check into the city’s many neighborhoods like Chinatown or Little Italy for some truly authentic eats. And, of course, you can’t visit without trying poutine!
For more ideas on what to do, check out our “Montreal” episode
2. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
For many people who visit Asia often, Kuala Lumpur is usually just seen as a layover city. As the main headquarters of popular budget airline AirAsia, many people often fly in and fly out without ever seeing the city – which seems like a shame! Malaysia itself is an interesting blend of Indian, Malay, and Chinese cultures, and nowhere is that better seen than in Kuala Lumpur. Head over to see the colorful stairs and Hindu shrine at Batu Caves and then spend your days checking out different neighborhoods and their diverse architecture. From mosques to Chinese temples and from shophouses to modern skyscrapers like the Menara KL Tower, I promise you’ll be surprised by how much there is to see and do.
3. San Diego, CA, USA
Now when most people think of San Diego, they think of its proximity to the ocean. However, there’s so much more to this SoCal city that makes it fun for those looking for some culture as well. The first stop you should make is Balboa Park, which stretches over a thousand acres and is home to a number of museums and institutions. You could easily spend multiple days discovering its every charming nook and cranny from the Spanish Village Art Center to the Museum of Us. Another must-visit is Barrio Logan, a Mexican-American neighborhood filled with cool, local businesses, and restaurants. Shop for souvenirs at Simón Limón and pick up a one-of-a-kind outfit from Sew Loka before grabbing tacos at ¡Salud Tacos! When it comes to where to stay, there’s no better spot than the historic Hotel del Coronado. It’s been an icon of San Diego’s beachfront since the late 1800s for good reason.
For more ideas on what to do, check out our “California Road Trip” episode
4. Kansas City, MO, USA
Now if you’ve ever been one of those people who thinks midwest and culture don’t mix, Kansas City will change your mind right away. Nicknamed the Paris of the Plains, this city has it all for anyone looking for a fun trip. Explore its famous jazz history first at the American Jazz Museum and later at one of the many live music bars. Wander around Country Club Plaza, which looks like it’s straight out of Southern Spain, and for an incredible view of the city at sunset, head to the Liberty Memorial at the country’s only World War I Museum. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on the barbecue scene here – some might say it’s even better than the South!
5. Budapest, Hungary
Budapest is one of those cities where the past and the present really collide to create a unique atmosphere. This is best seen in the fact that it was actually once two different cities, Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube River up until 1873. Quieter, hillier Buda is known for its Castle District and some of the best views of the city (Fisherman’s Bastion is a must-stop). Meanwhile Pest is the most bustling with a cool nightlife and plenty of fun restaurants and shopping opportunities. While you should spend at least a day walking around Buda and checking out the famous landmarks, I recommend staying in Pest to really enjoy the city. Here you can get to know more about Budapest’s cafe culture as well as sample many of its hearty dishes and stews. Of course, no trip is complete without a soak in the Szechenyi Thermal Baths.
For more ideas on what to do, check out our “Budapest, Hungary” episode.
6. Seoul, South Korea
Of all the cultural cities on this list, Seoul has to be one of the most impressive. Not even 70 years ago, this entire city was more or less rubble following both Japanese occupation and the devastating Korean War. No one would have thought that in just a few generations, it would become one of the most modern, technologically advanced cities in the world.
Today, Seoul is a major metropolis with all sorts of skyscrapers and futuristic creations like the Dongdaemun Plaza or Lotte Tower. However, mixed in with all that modernity is where this city’s true charm lies. Check out any of its five grand palaces (Gyeongbokgung is the largest and most famous) before venturing off into alleyways and side streets for mom and pop shops as well as an abundance of trendy coffee shops. Seriously, I think there might be more cafes than people here! This’ll come in handy when you find yourself out all night, partaking in Seoul’s own BBQ and soju culture. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself at a late night noraebang (Korea’s karaoke) singing along to Celine Dion at the top of your lungs!
For more ideas on what to do, check out our “Seoul” episode.
7. Granada, Spain
Barcelona and Madrid kind of take up most of Spain’s cultural fame, but I challenge you to expand your future trip to include the southern region of Andalucía and specifically Granada. Known as the last Islamic stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, it’s this mix of influences that makes Granada feel like it’s in a totally different country. Start out exploring the UNESCO Site, the Alhambra, a massive palace-fortress that towers over the city and is one of the best preserved examples of Islamic architecture in the world. Next, walk around Granada to see an interesting blend of cultures from hammam experiences to convents that sell cookies. For fans of more modern culture, visit Parque Lorca to see where author Federico García Lorca once spent his summers. And, of course, don’t miss out on Andalusian dishes like salmorejo or gazpacho.
8. Vienna, Austria
When I think of Vienna, I think regal. For centuries, it was the capital of empires, and a major center for art, music, and architecture. More often than not, it’s been called one of the most architecturally rich cities in the world with a mix of styles from Neo-Gothic to Baroque. And, of course, there’s no shortage of incredible music in the city that produced Mozart and Beethoven. But don’t let all that largess scare you away – Vienna is as warm as it is grand. The key is to find places like Vollpension, aka the Granny Cafe, where grandmothers serve up homemade goods and make visitors feel like they’re visiting their own grandparents. Or do as the locals do and get out on the Old Danube and enjoy the nature within the city.
For more ideas on what to do, check out our “Vienna” episode
9. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Most people who visit Vietnam’s two biggest cities might tell you Hanoi is more charming. However, I challenge you to spend time exploring Ho Chi Minh City, sometimes called Saigon, to really witness its chaotic charm. All around District 1, you’ll find the biggest landmarks and best examples of Indochine architecture. However, as soon as you venture into the city’s other districts, you’ll start to see a whole different side. Think busy neighborhood markets, numerous street stalls serving up delicious Vietnamese dishes, and all sorts of crumbling buildings housing trendy cafes, boutiques, and pop-ups. Don’t miss an afternoon around HCMC’s chinatown, Chợ Lớn, and for a more relaxing visit, check out Thao Dien in District 2 for its pool cafes. And, of course, head up to a rooftop bar for the best night views of the city.
As you can see, the world is full of beautiful culture cities! From the U.S. midwest to Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia, there are so many cities brimming with all sorts of things to do, dishes to eat, and stories to share. Any I’m missing on this list? Let me know below!