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Ortaköy Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Best cities for arts & culture that may surprise you

Ortaköy Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

From walking Iznik-tile halls in Istanbul to admiring intricately tessellated celadon pots in Seoul, exploring a city’s arts and culture is one of the best ways to get to know how an area really ticks — and there’s no better way to do so than in a museum or gallery.

Using data compiled from TripAdvisor, we’ve identified which cities across the world have the greatest number of five-star museums and galleries, making them some of the best cities for arts and culture. Among this selection are a few that might not be the most obvious, so we’ve shared why we think they’ve made the list — and how you can make the most of these cultural cities.

Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

An imperial capital for almost 16 centuries, Istanbul has seen rule by the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans, as well as having Greek and Venetian influences. Here, bazaars exhibit a panoply of wares collected over three continents, while cobbled streets are banked by patchworks of synagogues, mosques, and churches. Put simply, Istanbul is a diverse cauldron of cultures that have bubbled together for millennia, and it’s for this reason that it ranks on our list of the best cities for culture.

It helps that crafts and artistry are embedded in the foundations of this ancient city, with sights like the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque constructed of cupolas and halls of intricate Iznik tiles. And, the palaces double as museums — wander the sprawling complex of Topkapi Palace and you’ll find Islamic relics passed down through the Ottoman sultans and artworks from across the Byzantine Empire.

For a more unconventional take on the museum experience, take a stroll through the bohemian district of Çukurcuma, where you’ll find the unorthodox-yet-endearing Museum of Innocence, which was curated in tandem with a novel of the same name.

Get me there: From sixth-century cisterns to Turkish coffee on the banks of the Bosphorus, explore one of our favourite cultural cities on this nine-day trip around historic Turkey.

Seoul, South Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village
Bukchon Hanok Village

From extensive restoration projects of its ornate palatial grounds to maintenance of its intricate celadon masterpieces, South Korea brings a fervent attention to detail when it comes to preserving its multifaceted heritage — especially in its capital city. In Seoul, you can taste kimchi in vibrant 500-year-old markets, walk fortress walls of Korea’s most powerful dynasty, and explore tranquil temples and bold K-fashion alike in the Gangnam district, making it one of the world’s best cities to experience culture.

Many of Seoul’s historical locations — often architectural marvels in themselves — enclose a multitude of museums and galleries. Wander among the gabled houses of Bukchon Hanok Village and you’ll find the Bukchon Asian Cultural Art Museum. Or, enter the colorful grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace to access the hanboks and calligraphy of the National Folk Museum of Korea.

A short trip outside the city will take you to the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone, the buffer zone that separates North Korea and South Korea. Here, you can explore the DMZ Museum’s exhibitions, which sensitively but comprehensively depict South Korea’s wartime past.

Get me there: Discover more Korean culture in Seoul and elsewhere on a 13-day trip to South Korea.

Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo National Museum
Tokyo National Museum

Tokyo is gargantuan — as is its approach to arts and culture. You can explore over 100 museums within the city wards, dedicated to myriad subjects like parasites, tattoos, and the history of the city itself. Tokyo’s methods are archetypally Japanese, too: meticulous and detailed, with one such example, The National Art Center, housing as little as two or three revolving — and incredibly specific — exhibitions at a time.

And, if there’s one thing that Tokyo does best, it’s balancing the traditional and the ultra-modern. The origin of countless cultural aspects, from ukiyo-e woodblock prints to modern-style sushi, the city has a lot of traditions to exhibit, which it does in diligently curated museums like the Tokyo National Museum. While, at the Miraikan (National Museum of Emerging Science & Innovation), you can get up close and personal with talking, bipedal robots like Honda’s ASIMO.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Ghibli Museum exhibits Japan’s premiere animation studio in a multicolored, maze-like mansion on the edge of the unassuming suburbs — showing the city’s artistic flare knows few bounds.

Get me there: Get to the heart of Japanese arts and culture and experience one of the best cultural cities for yourself on an 11-day trip through central Japan.

Read more about trips with a cultural flavor

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They're just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.