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Lots of factors go into making a great cultural city. Excellent art galleries and museums are a good starting point. Then there need to be venues for theater and music of all types, from symphony halls to jazz clubs. A few literary connections are helpful too, and some distinctive cuisine. Here’s our round-up of the 12 best US cities for culture.
The cultural capital of America and one of the great cultural cities of the world. For musicals and theatre head to Broadway or check out the smaller off-Broadway venues. New York was also the home of punk music in the ’70s and a great jazz city with clubs like the Iridium on Broadway where Les Paul used to play. New York is the home of modern art with hundreds of galleries to see. They say there is more culture on the Museum Mile than anywhere else in the world. World renowned galleries include the Met, the Whitney Museum and the Guggenheim. And New York is also one of America’s great literary cities, with The Chelsea Hotel hosting the likes of Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, and William Burroughs.
San Francisco was the center of the Beat movement during the ‘50s and home at to the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth and Neal Cassidy. The Beat Museum is an excellent place to start where you’ll find memorabilia and first editions associated with the Beats. The City Lights Bookstore established by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti were the publishers of Ginsberg’s seminal volume Howl. The Haight-Asbury District was where hippie counterculture had its home in the ‘60s with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead being based here. And for more traditional culture the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hosts works by Matisse, Pollock, Duchamp and Klee, and the War Memorial Opera House and Performing Arts Center are home to the city’s opera, ballet and orchestras.
Milwaukee is a big art and music city. The Milwaukee Art Museum holds a brilliant collection of works dating from the 15th century up to the modern day including pieces by Picasso, Rodin and Warhol. Then there’s the Grohmann and the Haggerty collections, and the Milwaukee Public Museum and Discovery World that cover natural history, technology and the history of science. There are also more unique museums like the Harley-Davidson Museum and the Black Holocaust Museum. For music fans there’s one event, in particular, that Milwaukee is known for. Summerfest – ‘the World’s Largest Music Festival’ – is held every year in the Henry Maier Festival Park, drawing crowds of up to a million and has seen the likes of Bob Dylan, Ed Sheeran and the Rolling Stones play in recent years.
After New York and Chicago, Minneapolis is America’s top theater city. The Guthrie is a great one visit, not just for the performances but also the architecture – it was rebuilt a few years ago by the award-winning French architect Jean Nouvel. It’s a major literary city too, with lots of writers heading to the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and the Loft Literary Center which provides support to aspiring authors. The Northeast Arts District is full of artists’ studios and small galleries. And for major galleries there are the Weissman Art Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art where you’ll find works from Rembrandt up to Gauguin, and the exceptional Walker Art Center, one of the big five modern art collections in America.
The ‘Athens of America’ is full of cultural sites. There’s the Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Ballet, and the Lyric Opera to keep you entertained, or you can head to the Theater District to venues like the Majestic Cutler, The Colonial or The Orpheum. In the 19th century many great American writers used to meet in Boston at the Old Corner Bookstore, including Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Thoreau. The Public Library and the Athenaeum are two of the finest libraries from the era in America to explore. Then there are galleries like the National Center of Afro-American Artists and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the internationally renowned Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to explore.
The theater and museum districts of Houston are packed with treasures. The Theater District is home to just about every kind of performing art, from orchestras to ballet and opera at venues like the Hobby Center and Jones Hall. And there are countless spots for blues and country music across the city. The Museum District has over 20 locations each representing its own specialist field. Everything from natural science to contemporary art is covered. The Menil Collection houses works by 20th century masters like Magritte, Picasso, Duchamp, and Rauschenberg. Watch out for the Rothko Chapel with 14 works by the Abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, and the huge Museum of Fine Arts whose collection of antiquities covers 6,000 years of human history.
Known as the ‘Paris of the Plains’ for its wide boulevards, Kansas City in Missouri is famous for its musical heritage. It’s been a great jazz city since the 1930s when the likes of Count Basie and Charlie Parker developed the Kansas City Style. You can explore the history of the genre at the American Jazz Museum in the 18th and Vine Historic District. Modern venues like the Kauffman Center are home to the Kansas City opera, ballet and classical orchestra for something more traditional. And for visual arts Kansas City boasts the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art where you’ll find artworks by Caravaggio, Chardin, Van Gogh, and a key collection of the works by Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benson.
Philadelphia is full of wonderful cultural spots. Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and worth a look. On the Avenue of the Arts are venues like the Kimmel Center and the American Academy of Music, the oldest opera house in the country. The Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra is internationally-renowned, as is the Museum of Art where you can find pieces by Flemish Renaissance artists, Mannerist masters like El Greco, and Romantic painters like J.M.W.Turner. And the cuisine is famous too – not just for the Philly cheesesteak but for the local markets that show off traditional Pennsylvanian Dutch cooking.
Home to the Electric Blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and countless other artists, Chicago is still a major music venue. The Chicago Blues Festival is held each year at the Petrillo Music Shell. You’ll still find live blues played in clubs across Chicago. There are jazz and classical festivals too, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Grant Park Music Festival – a free classical concert held each summer. The Goodman and the Steppenwolf are some of the leading theatrical venues outside of New York. And for the visual arts you can admire outdoor sculptures by Picasso, Miro, Oldenburg, Calder and Anish Kapoor before going to the Institute of Art where you’ll find iconic works like Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.
Los Angeles boasts more museums and galleries per inhabitant than anywhere else in the USA. The big ones to see are the Getty Center made up of the Getty Museum and the Getty Villa that covers everything from Greek antiquities to medieval manuscripts. And the extensive Los Angeles County Museum of Art is home to Asian and Islamic artwork as well as contemporary work by Jeff Koons. The LA Philharmonic works from the magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry. And of course there are movie studios to see, the Los Angeles Film Festival, the American Film Institute, the Walk of Fame, as well as smaller art house theaters to check out.
Washington D.C is the nation’s capital and home to some major art collections. The Smithsonian Institute runs galleries like the American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Sackler, and Freer Galleries. The National Gallery is also well worth a visit. For performing arts the Kennedy Center is ideal, and hosts ballet, dance, jazz, classical and theater all year round so you’re guaranteed to find something to suit your taste. Then there’s the U-Street Corridor packed with smaller clubs and theaters like the historic Howard and Lincoln Theaters. The local African-American community gave us Duke Ellington, the great jazz musician.
A famous melting-pot, New Orleans is home to Creole and Cajun cuisine and the wonderful Colonial architecture of the French Quarter. And it’s another musical city, known especially for its jazz heritage. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival draws thousands to the city each year. Likewise the Voodoo Festival has become massive in recent years with headliners like R.E.M and the Foo Fighters. The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival has hosted talks from leading Pulitzer Prize authors, and for the visual arts the Louisiana State Museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art hold excellent collections of Impressionist and Post—Impressionist works.