Each year, cities around the world are chosen as capitals of culture to be highlighted and celebrated throughout the year. The European Union began the tradition in 1985 and elects two cities in member states annually. The American Capital of Culture Organization was created to follow suit, and UNESCO chooses an Arab Capital of Culture. The International Organization of Turkic Culture also makes an annual appointment, while the UK picks a City of Culture to serve for four years. This week, we spotlight cities recognized for 2019.
Matera is serving alongside Plovdiv, Bulgaria, this year as a European capital of Culture. In Southern Italy’s Basilicata region, Matera has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years as travelers branch out from the usual Italian haunts. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with traces of civilization dating back thousands of years. Matera’s old town, the Sassi, was carved from cliffside caves on the edge of a ravine. Over the years, more and more buildings have been stacked on top of each other, creating a striking scene that has caught the eye of filmmakers using it as a substitute for the ancient Holy Land and travelers seeking new adventures in Italy.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
This colonial hill town 150 miles from Mexico City is this year’s capital of culture for the Americas. A colorful city full of colorful people, San Miguel has attracted expatriates from the world over for its lively arts and gastronomic scenes. Artisans’ markets and galleries seem to pack every street, and the scenery itself is straight out of a painting. The weather is just about perfect at all times, with average temperatures in the 60s and an elevation of around 6,000 feet. Outside the city is a pyramid complex at La Canada de la Virgen, and the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi get all the publicity, but there are five other emirates rounding out the UAE. Sharjah is widely considered the cultural capital of the Emirates, home to a museum of Islamic art and architecture, Al Noor Mosque and a large aquarium. The Emirates Fine Arts Society is located in Sharjah, as is a museum of calligraphy. While Abu Dhabi and Dubai have embraced the ultramodern, Sharjah seeks to preserve Emirati heritage. That isn’t to say that’s it all stodgy all the time, as there are picturesque beaches on both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, plus deserts and mountains to satisfy any outdoor thrill-seeker.
Osh made a name for itself producing fine silks for traders traversing the Silk Road, and in 2019 it’s Turkic capital of culture. The city remains a crossroads of cultures, with 80 or so ethnicities represented in the population. Sulayman Mountain, the only World Heritage site located entirely within Kyrgyzstan, supplies magnificent views of the city and its surroundings. There are traces of history commemorating pre-Islamic times, the Silk Road and Russian occupation. The mountaintop is considered sacred, and there are ancient petroglyphs at its base. Peruse the traditional bazaar and you’ll see more spices than you can count, another mark of the many cultures that have passed through.
Better known simply as Hull, this city on the east coast of northern England has been the UK city of culture since 2017 and will be replaced by Coventry in 2021. Hull’s Museum Quarter contains the Wilberforce House, home of William Wilberforce, who led the movement to stop the British involvement in the slave trade. The Deep is an aquarium at the confluence of two rivers with more than 5,000 sea creatures and a whopping 660,000 gallons of water inside. The city has a renowned theater culture, and the Hull City Tigers soccer team has enjoyed several seasons in the English Premier League in the last decade, reaching the FA Cup final in 2014.
Perhaps it’s just the company we keep, but a lot of friends made the New Year’s resolution to travel more in 2019. If you are one of them, we thought we’d help you out by offering our thoughts on some destinations to check out this year.
The islands are gorgeous, and there are way more to see than the old standbys most tend to flock to. If you have the chance to visit Rhodes or Patmos on a cruise, they will open your eyes to a whole different side of the Greek Isles. Many visitors to Greece tend to spend a day or two in Athens then head straight for the islands. But the mainland features the great sites of classical Greece. See the birthplace of the Olympics at Olympia, the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi and the ancient ruins of Mycenae that helped spawn Western civilization.
Don’t get us wrong, we love a beach vacation as much as anyone. But with great food, great places and an exchange rate of nearly 20 pesos to the dollar, colonial Mexico is worth a visit. Mexico City is home to the world’s 11th- and 13th-ranked restaurants (plus another in the top 100) and the beautiful Soumaya Museum. San Miguel de Allende is both an artist’s and an art lover’s dream, you should see before it gets too popular, and Puebla is a culinary capital with a downtown that is one big World Heritage site. Queretaro’s baroque architecture is a thing of beauty, and Oaxaca preserves key components of pre-Spanish cultures.
Most of the major cities Down Under are located on the eastern and southern coasts. There’s a whole lot of Outback separating Adelaide in South Australia from Perth, the capital of Western Australia. Perth, the fourth-largest city in Australia with about 2 million inhabitants, is the gateway to the Margaret River wine region, succulent seafood and black truffles just as good as any you’ll find in Europe. These factors contribute to Perth having the most restaurants per capita of any Australian capital and a great bar scene.
A safe destination and a gem of the Middle East, Jordan is inviting visitors to trek the Jordan Trail — about 400 miles traversing the country from Um Qais to the Red Sea — from March 1-April 13. If that’s too much for you, concentrate on such magnificent sights as Petra, an ancient city carved into cliff sides, and Wadi Rum, a valley with an otherworldly feel containing traces of culture from prehistory to the Roman era. Spas along the Dead Sea and resorts in Aqaba along the Red Sea will help you relax whether you brave the trail or not.
A trip to the “Arctic Riviera” will open your eyes to one of the last truly off-the-beaten-path spots on Earth. The people of East Greenland didn’t have contact with outsiders until the turn of the 20th century, and the area is still an isolated wonderland of Northern Lights and calving glaciers. Subsistence hunting is still very much a way of life and one that becomes harder to maintain as temperatures continue to rise and change the environment for animals and the people who rely on them to live.
It’s not quite the same as Christmas in July, but you can give yourself the gift of peace of mind by booking your festive season travel now. If you have a specific resort or destination in mind, you might be surprised to find how tight space is already for the period around Christmas and New Year’s. You can’t exactly go on vacation and leave a couple of your kids behind because you couldn’t get another room. So do yourself a favor and start planning as soon as possible.
People who stayed at resorts over the festive season last winter got first dibs on booking that space for the upcoming season. Perhaps they had such a good time, they invited more of their family members to join them this year and have already had their rooms secured for months. If the winters are cold in your neck of the woods, you can rest assured that your neighbors will be flocking in droves to sunny resorts in Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
If your crew still can’t get its act together for a few months, your travel advisor will be up to date on which resorts have last-minute space. But don’t leave things up to chance! You’ll be much happier and less stressed if you take the initiative now. If you’re waiting until the weather turns, you could find yourself left out in the cold.
If you’re out of luck on land or prefer hitting the high seas, a cruise could be your answer. Again, though, you need to act quickly, especially if you’re bringing the whole family and need multiple cabins. Virtuoso-preferred partners offer some great itineraries to celebrate in style.
If all else fails, think outside the box. There’s a whole other hemisphere where it’s warm when we’re cold. South America, Southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, they all have nice weather as one year turns into the next.
It’s not especially warm in Europe’s heartland, though the jet stream does keep things milder than many parts of the U.S., but a river cruise can let you catch the end of the beautiful Christmas markets along the Rhine and Danube. If you haven’t seen a European Christmas market before, they are a sight to behold. Plus, there’s plenty of mulled wine to help you keep warm, there are great Christmas dinners served on the river and you can ring in the new year a few hours ahead of your friends.
No matter what you end up picking, don’t wait until it’s too late and you no longer have your choice of options. There will be plenty of scrambling trying to track down those last-minute gifts. Getting started with your holiday travel plans now could end up as the best gift you and family receive.
Spend any time in San Miguel de Allende, and you’ll quickly see why so many people expatriate there. Soon enough, you’ll want to move there too. By day or by night, the place is a work of art. Colonial charm emanates from the town center and spills onto green hillsides. At just over 6,000 feet of elevation and with an average temperature in the 60s Fahrenheit, walking into San Miguel feels like stepping into a dream. Fair warning, though, if you’re driving in — especially at night — navigating the narrow and sharply angled cobblestone streets can be more of a nightmare.
Stroll through town, however, and you’re awash in colorful buildings, colorful people, and friendly dogs. In such a picturesque place, it’s no wonder there is a thriving artistic community. The Mercado de Artesanias (Artisans’ Market) is the perfect venue to sample the work of talented craftspeople hawking paintings, serapes, and handmade jewelry.
In such a beautiful setting, it’s a welcome challenge to turn your day into its own work of art. There’s a certain craft to drawing the hours out lazily while savoring every moment, but the locals seem to have it down pat. The entire fortified town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so just wander around and you’re bound to run into such architectural marvels as the San Francisco Church, Church of the Immaculate Conception or Ignacio Allende House. And you can barely make it a block without hitting a gallery.
Time moves slowly in San Miguel, so there’s nothing wrong with spending an afternoon sipping small-batch tequila with an expert from Casa Dragones, either in the eponymous casa when it’s available or in the new six-seat tasting room, “The Smallest Tequila Bar in the World.” Learn the history of the casa, which once housed the stables of the queen of Spain’s bodyguard and played a key role in the Mexican Revolution, and of the spirit, which was the brainchild of MTV founder Robert Pittman and Bertha Gonzalez Nieves, the first woman certified as a tequila master by the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters. In 2013, Casa Dragones’ Joven earned a 96 score from Wine Enthusiast, the magazine’s highest mark for a tequila.
To put the finishing strokes on your masterpiece of a day, get to a rooftop in time to watch the sun dip the below the hills and the sky fills with stars as a cool breeze wafts in. The day fades to night, and suddenly, there you are in that dream again.
WHERE TO STAY:
Rosewood San Miguel de Allende: Set in the heart of this charming artists’ village, the 67-guestroom Rosewood San Miguel de Allende promises a stay fit for dignitaries. All visitors appreciate its fine Mexican craftsmanship. The rooms are decorated with stunning wood-beamed ceilings and a private balcony or terrace, and most have fireplaces. Taste innovative cuisine from 1826 restaurant’s open artisan kitchen, then whip up your own in on-site cooking classes. Relax poolside or at Sense, A Rosewood Spa, while the children are entertained with daily hands-on activities at the kids’ club.
Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada: A stay at Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada is not just a hotel visit, it’s a beneficial experience, leaving you with an understanding of this enchanting region. This boutique hotel and cooking school caters to the world’s most discriminating travelers with resplendent guestrooms and suites; 37 bedrooms are scattered throughout six mansions and the Casa del Parque. Each room is individually decorated with antiques, lush fabrics, and vibrant Talavera tiles. As expected, the restaurant is one of the country’s top dining establishments; you can also dine in the privacy of your room or on the romantic terrace.