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.