With the easing of many Coronavirus restrictions around Europe, tourism is slowly getting back to normal. Europe is a wonderful place to travel for history, culture, and art, and many of the largest cities appeal to tourists looking for just that: Paris, Madrid, Rome, and London are among the most important cities in the world when it comes to art and artistic heritage. But there are plenty of more underrated cities throughout Europe which pack a punch in terms of their art.
For those who have ‘been there, done that’ in all the big cities, or for those who simply want to avoid the tourist hotspots, there are so many other places in Europe that provide a huge offering for art lovers. There are plenty of small, less touristic cities that have a great reputation for their art – and there are also many well-known cities whose art scenes are often underestimated.
Below, we explore some underrated cities in Europe for art lovers.
Basel, Switzerland - a prestigious art fair
Basel is a city located in northwest Switzerland along the Rhine river. While art is on offer all year round in Basel, one of the most prestigious art fairs in the world takes place here annually. Art Basel brings thousands of international artists together for a week-long fair that showcases paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations, and performances. The artistic atmosphere spreads to the rest of the city at the same time, with countless special events taking place in public spaces, museums and theatres throughout the week. There is also a child-friendly Art Kids section of the fair, to encourage families and people of all ages to get involved.
Bilbao, Spain - contemporary art lovers’ paradise
Madrid may be viewed as Spain’s capital of art – and one of the most important art cities in Europe – but Bilbao is undoubtedly the place to go for something more modern. Located in the northern Basque Country, Bilbao is a haven for lovers of contemporary art and modernist architecture. It is home to one of the five Guggenheim Museums, where permanent and temporary art exhibitions are on display. The stunning architectural marvel of this museum is an art piece in itself, complete with its famous spider sculpture outside. Aside from the Guggenheim, Bilbao’s Art District has over 30 museums, where visitors can lose themselves in a plethora of exhibitions to suit all tastes.
Bratislava, Slovakia - a true hidden gem in Europe
Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, is underrated both as a European tourist destination and as a destination for art lovers. The Danubiana Meulensteen Museum of Modern Art holds a particularly impressive collection, but the city’s Old Town is also home to a number of smaller galleries – with work ranging from medieval to contemporary pieces. Lovers of all kinds of art will be impressed with the variety of work on display. The city’s streets also play host to lively street art and sculptures, adding colour and a fun atmosphere that art enthusiasts will love.
Copenhagen, Denmark - an underrated haven for artists
The Danish capital of Copenhagen is known for its trendy restaurants and Scandinavian architecture, but it also has a thriving art scene, helped in part by the government’s financial support of new exhibitions. This has allowed both new and established artists to exhibit their work in a smattering of galleries and shops around the city. There is also a generous amount of larger galleries showcasing Denmark’s artistic legacy, making Copenhagen an underrated haven for art lovers and up-and-coming artists alike.
Ghent, Belgium - from medieval to modern
Ghent is the largest city in the East Flanders region of Belgium. The city has a fascinating combination of tradition and modernity; its history and culture blend beautifully with a trendy, youthful atmosphere, and this extends to its art scene. From medieval to contemporary, there is something for all kinds of art lovers in Ghent. There are a plethora of independent exhibition spaces throughout the city, along with larger galleries such as the multifaceted Ghent Museum of Fine Arts – which, interestingly, offers Belgium’s first LGBTQ+ art tour.
Glasgow, Scotland - the UK’s City of Architecture and Design
Many might not know that Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, has a strong art legacy, having been voted the UK’s City of Architecture and Design some twenty years ago. The city is home to one of the most expensive art collections of art in the world, which is spread throughout the 13 art galleries and is quite diverse in terms of artistic eras. Additionally, the Glasgow School of Art is considered to be one of Europe’s leading art schools, making the city a draw for emerging artists and creative minds.
Grenoble, France - Europe’s street art capital
Grenoble, in southeast France, is known primarily for its winter sports, which remains the city’s best attraction. Unbeknownst to some, a street art festival takes place in Grenoble annually, during which over a hundred local and international artists are invited to paint frescoes on buildings around the city. The artists use a variety of techniques and add their unique style to each fresco, with allows the audience a glimpse into their individuality. In effect, the city becomes an outdoor art museum for a month in a phenomenal display of beauty and creativity.
Istanbul, Turkey - a cultural blend
Istanbul is technically located on the border of Europe and Asia, which might be a reason it is often underrated in terms of European art. But this combination of cultures is exactly what makes it stand out. Traditional Turkish and Islamic art can be found throughout the city, but the contemporary art scene in Istanbul shouldn’t be underestimated; there are many galleries in Istanbul dedicated to modern exhibitions, along with the annual ‘Contemporary Istanbul’ art fair which features a fantastic array of Turkish and international artists.
Kaunas, Lithuania - a European Capital for Culture 2022
Kaunas is a 2022 European Capital of Culture, and it’s for a good reason. It is the historical capital of Lithuania and is particularly well-known for its preservation of the country’s interwar architecture. There is a plethora of independent art galleries throughout the city showcasing the work of local talent. Additionally, in recent years, Kaunas has become famous for its street art, with impressive graffiti murals being painted on buildings throughout the city, adding a splash with colour and energy.
Lisbon, Portugal - a budding art scene
Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon is a popular tourist destination for a fun-filled city break, with good food and great weather. It also happens to be a greatly underrated city for its art. The art scene in Lisbon is constantly developing, as many new galleries and exhibition spaces have opened in recent years. Additionally, with gorgeous traditional architecture and colourful tiles interspersed among modern murals, art can be found around every corner.
Munich, Germany - a vibrant and underrated art scene
Berlin may be the first place that springs to mind when thinking of the art scene in Germany. However, the Bavarian city of Munich is home to some of the country’s largest art museums. The city’s Art District (Kunstareal) is known throughout the world as an epicentre of culture. There are dozens of galleries and exhibitions ranging from Renaissance art to the more modern. Munich is also home to Germany’s only museum for urban art: MUCA Munich. With its vibrant creative scene, Munich is also known as a hub for artistic minds, and creatives often flock here from other parts of Germany and the world.
Nice, France - art and luxury
While Paris, France, might be one of Europe’s most important cities for art, the southern French city of Nice is another art lover’s paradise. Located on the French Riviera, Nice is a hotspot for foreign holidaymakers who want to experience some luxury. The abundance of beautiful art galleries only adds to this feeling of luxury, with exhibitions to please lovers of any era of art, and galleries dedicated to individual artists such as Matisse and Chagall.
Palma de Mallorca, Spain - an artistic city by the beach
Palma de Mallorca, the capital city of Spain’s Balearic Islands, is a popular destination for travellers looking for beaches, entertainment, and good food. It might be a surprise to discover that Palma has many art galleries and an Art Quarter to rival some European capitals. There are impressive collections of paintings and sculptures to be found around the city. The artist Miró made Palma his home for 30 years, and, along with an impressive museum collection of his work, his art studio is open for public viewing.
Pisa, Italy - an underrated Italian art city
Italy is a country of art; Rome, Milan, Florence, and Venice are well established on the world stage as must-see destinations for art lovers. But Pisa, in the Tuscany region, is also full of appeal for those seeking a glimpse into Italy’s artistic history. Art lovers will adore the city’s mixture of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance art and architecture. Those walking around the streets will discover Italian art history at every turn – not to mention the great selection of galleries for art enthusiasts of all kinds.
Rotterdam, The Netherlands - The Netherlands’ hidden artistic gem
The Dutch capital of Amsterdam is one of the leaders in terms of art in Europe, being famous for artists such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt. However, the country’s second-largest city of Rotterdam should not be underestimated. Art comes alive in this city, where the public spaces are full of innovative and creative designs. Rotterdam is also home to the country’s impressive national photography museum, Nederlands Fotomuseum.
Thessaloniki, Greece - ancient and new
Thessaloniki is Greece’s second-largest city and a hub for all things cultural. Many visit Greece for its fascinating history, and the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum is an ideal place to learn about and view art from ancient civilisations. But this city is not only ancient – in fact, it’s also known for its contemporary art museums and energetic street art. A visit to Thessaloniki is a chance to explore both the past and the present through art.
Valletta, Malta - art at every turn
Valletta, the capital city of the island nation of Malta, is famous among holidaymakers for its beautiful beaches but is undoubtedly an underrated spot for art lovers. From contemporary art museums to historical masterpieces and statues on every corner, the wealth of art in the city is massive. Walking the streets of Valetta, there are countless opportunities to stumble across local galleries and studios which are open to the public.
Zagreb, Croatia - galleries and murals
Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, is one of the oldest cities in Central Europe. It’s rich in culture and history and well-known for its traditional Austro-Hungarian architecture. The Zagreb art scene is varied and vibrant; traditional art museums mix in with small, independent galleries among the city’s winding streets. Zagreb also has an abundance of stunning street murals, which visitors can discover as they wander around the city.
Cover Credit: Mark Neal / Unsplash
Written by Tríona Marshall
Tríona is a writer from Dublin, Ireland, who specializes in travel, languages, arts, and culture. When not writing, Tríona can be found reading, trying out new local restaurants, or booking her next trip. @trionawrites