Travelling for culture can sure lead to misunderstandings. Culture, on the one hand, represents the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. But culture also encompasses the customs and social behaviours of a particular people or society. As a cultural traveller, I am guided by both meanings of culture. I like to explore local arts but also customs and traditions of a local society that define it as an ethnic group or a nation.
Either way, I travel with a purpose. I do not set foot in a country to check it off my list and I do not visit a new location because it is hyped on social media. I do know why I wish to see a specific destination. This is why, as a cultural traveller, I never arrive anywhere unprepared. Preparation is key and I am often guilty of researching places to death. As an over-prepared cultural traveller, I sometimes struggle to be spontaneous, but I like to think of myself as an informed visitor rather than an uninformed tourist.
National Museum of Beirut mirrors Lebanon’s past – and present
For a frequent museum goer like myself, the ultimate test of a history museum is how much it says about the present in addition to the past. The National Museum of Beirut, Lebanon’s premier cultural shrine, delivers on both.
Baalbek: More Roman than Rome
There are Roman ruins and there’s Baalbek: the sheer size of this temple complex outstrips anything found in Rome itself today. This isn’t out of place in Lebanon, a small country where you can barely move for ancient sites.
In the bizarre world of Soviet hotels
Architecturally, Soviet-era hotels were prime examples of megalomania which knew no bounds. The Soviets tore down entire blocks and drained swamps to erect buildings that came across as bleak but also atmospheric.
Central Asia’s head-scratching national museums
The perennial questions of museology about what and how to exhibit in a country’s national museum for maximum cultural impact seem to have been answered in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan not by curators but by the authorities.
Girl Meets Tractor II: Central Asia
The Soviet art of Central Asia is a unique school of art. Like European colonial art, it retains the monumentalism of Soviet art but also romanticises local landscapes, faces and motifs drawn from traditional clothing and textiles.
Kyiv’s National Museum of Art holds its own
The National Art Museum of Ukraine presents a collection that spans at least a thousand years. It showcases a culture with deep roots in Slavic Orthodoxy and a shared European experience but also one with a distinct identity.
Amman: Jordan’s induction into Roman ruins
Despite the ever changing hands and the cataclysmic destruction in a quake, Amman’s surviving ancient structures have a Roman feel. In a country where Roman ruins reign supreme, this city ought to be everyone’s first stop.
Hunting for the sapeurs in the streets of Congo
Even before I set foot in either of the two Congos, I had a fascination for the sapeurs, a subculture whose faithful dress for the life they want rather than the one they have. Once there, finding a sapeur became an obsession.
Erell turns Brazzaville into Paris du jour
Brazzaville, until 1940 a colonial backwater, became the capital of the Free French after the Fall of France and suddenly the pressure was on for the city to look the part. Enter Roger Erell, Brazzaville’s famous architect.
Opening soon: Kinshasa’s new national museum
If any one country in Africa should be obliged to showcase its cultural treasures by way of a national museum, it is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, if only for its visually stunning and spiritually charged tribal art.
Fally Ipupa in Kinshasa: My brush with Congolese rumba
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) boasts some of Africa’s worst politicians – and best musicians. No visit to Kinshasa is said to be complete without a brush with Congolese rumba. Mine was with Fally Ipupa.
Carpet-bombed at Carpet Museum of Iran
Sightseeing in Iran is not only about an aesthetic overload from seeing too many beautiful Persian carpets everywhere but also about finding yourself one step ahead of a carpet seller at every turn.
Maputo: Tropical modernism of Pancho Guedes
Despite a long civil war and an equally destructive onslaught of Chinese-built highrises, Mozambique’s capital Maputo retains a modernist edge that continues to attract students of architectural history and design.
Uganda Museum: Crumbling design masterpiece
African museums are notoriously cavernous affairs, struggling with funding and relevance. Western tourists visit them largely out of duty because to them visiting a local museum in a new country is a conventional activity.
Love, life and Istanbul in objects
In the Çukurçuma neighbourhood of Istanbul, there is a museum of items that come straight from a work of fiction. The Museum of Innocence is possibly the oddest such institution I have ever visited anywhere.
Hagia Sophia: Unique, contested, awe-inspiring
Hagia Sophia’s Christian frescoes and mosaics, Islamic calligraphic slates and the large dome perfectly sum up the history of three cities this building represents: Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul.
Caravaggio’s triumph in Dublin
Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ may be the darkest, densest and the most claustrophobic of his works. It now hangs at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin where it miraculously re-emerged after centuries in limbo.
A slum break in old Karachi
Karachi, Pakistan’s first capital and modern metropolis, is no one’s idea of a city break. It’s not that the city is lacking in history or heritage sites, it’s rather that its historic centre resembles one massive slum.
Oslo’s Rådhuset: Far from ordinary
As a child, when I knew nothing of functionalism, I wondered why such an ordinary-looking building as Oslo’s red-brick city hall, or Rådhuset, was celebrated alongside the city’s Royal Palace.
Paying homage to Malawi’s comic strongman
As far as African dictators go, Dr Banda, a medical doctor by profession, stands apart from his more hardcore, more deranged and more murderous contemporaries as a more level-headed if slightly comic character.
Rwanda: Living with the genocide
In Rwanda just about anyone you meet in the streets today who is old enough to have been around in 1994 is a survivor or somehow related to survivors of the country’s genocide.
Kigali’s ‘House of Horrors’ turned art museum
Tourist sites sometimes miss their purpose and what would once have been Rwanda’s most bizarre spectacle, the Presidential Palace of former dictator Juvenal Habyarimana, has morphed into a sterile Rwanda Art Museum.
Pondering Ethiopia’s communist legacy
Communist ideology was a strange fit for a country that was so deeply steeped in religion and one that had always resisted foreign domination. In the end, the communists in Ethiopia engendered mostly famine, poverty and repression.
Lawren Harris and the Canadian identity
While the work of Lawren Harris is little known outside of Canada, the artist’s stature in his homeland and his influence on the country’s national identity are truly iconic.
Time travel to medieval France in Montréal
One doesn’t exactly expect a fully-fledged religious epiphany on a standard tourist itinerary but that’s just what happened when I visited the basilica Notre-Dame de Montréal.
Nam June Paik: Seoul-searching through vintage TV screens
South Korea’s most famous artist Nam June Paik is known for installations of multiple televisions in out of place settings, with his video art focusing more on the medium than its content.
Beijing/Taipei: China’s imperial palace inside and out
Beijing’s Forbidden City is all about exteriors, with the interiors of individual halls and chambers giving the impression it’s just been burgled. Which brings me to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Shanghai: Home of Chinese propaganda
In a world of conformity that is the People’s Republic of China, a visit to the private, makeshift and semi-legal Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre is the closest thing you’ll get to an adrenaline rush.
Pondering the onion domes of Russia
Nothing says Russia louder like the bulbous, candy-coloured domes of its Orthodox churches: they are both a distinct feature of Russian religious architecture and ubiquitous across the country.
Vasily Surikov: Russia’s textbook painter
Vasily Surikov’s realist artworks, I’ve been told by several Russians, have become familiar to the general public in their country through their use as illustrations in history textbooks.
Trip into space from a Moscow suburb
Today there isn’t much left of the Soviet Union’s cult-like love of all things cosmic. What is left is concentrated around the Monument to the Conquerors of Space and the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in a north-eastern suburb of Moscow.
Girl Meets Tractor I: Moscow
I have a confession to make: My name is Roman and I have a thing for Soviet art. To be precise, my morbid fascination is with socialist realist art. The place to binge is Moscow.
Pop art in Uccello’s Battle of San Romano
The cartoonish quality of Paolo Uccello’s majestic Battle of San Romano antedates many later artistic developments. In the mid-1400s, when it was painted, the picture must have seemed as sensational as it does today.
Cimabue reaches for Renaissance
Great Britain’s only Cimabue, The Virgin and Child with Two Angels, which hangs at the National Gallery in London, suggests that the transition from medieval to Renaissance art was fluid rather than sudden.
Unfinished business: Manchester Madonna
Some artworks are left incomplete by design, others by accident. In the case of Michelangelo’s unfinished Manchester Madonna, which hangs at the National Gallery in London, the reason is still a mystery.
Bouts’s Flemish Christ: A rugged individual
Dieric Bouts’s Christ Crowned with Thorns is a highly individualised representation of Jesus – without the dramatic impact of Italian Renaissance or clinical sterility of medieval art.
In Bogotá: Among Botero’s plump ladies
A signature style, like any brand, sets artists apart and makes them instantly recognisable. By this definition, Boterismo – depicting people, animals and objects in exaggerated volumes and proportions – is unmistakable.
São Paulo’s floating art museum
Right in the middle of the concrete jungle that is São Paulo, where high crime rates dictate that buildings be heavily fortified and where walking is not really an option, stands a true symbol of freedom.
Rio’s Christ without the crowds
By a stroke of luck, one early morning I had Brazil’s cultural icon and Christianity’s global symbol all to myself before thousands of selfie stick-carrying believers and non-believers streamed in.
Templo Mayor: Mexico City’s Aztec slaughterhouse
Only recently excavated Templo Mayor, the former centre of Aztec religion, is an open-air museum marking the spot with the famous eagle perching on a cactus with a snake in its beak – the symbol of Mexico today.
Frida & Trotsky: On neighbourhood watch in Coyoacán
A few blocks apart in Coyoacán on the outskirts of Mexico City stand former homes of Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky, both of them now museums filled with objects from the artist’s and revolutionary’s everyday lives.
Teotihuacán: Mexico’s mysterious megapolis
Teotihuacán, one of Mexico’s biggest draws, has an uncertain provenance. For a city believed to have once been the most populous in the Americas, little is known about its rulers or the circumstances of its collapse.
Mantegna’s hyper-realist Christ
This revolutionary take on the Lamentation over the Dead Christ from Andrea Mantegna comes very close to the hyper-realism of the 20th century with its use of colour, detail and dramatic perspective.
Perfect Mozart at the Concertgebouw
Dolf van Gendt, the acclaimed architect of Amsterdam’s Het Koninklijk Concertgebouw, although considered to be completely devoid of musical talent, was able to create a perfectly resonant concert hall.