Inspirational cities: 8 top places to get creative

written by Jonathan Bousfield

updated 16.12.2019

Unsure where you’re going with your creative projects? Suffering from writer’s block? Travel is a wonderful way of picking up new ideas – but where do you go to kick-start your creative imagination?

Unless you already have a germ of an idea – and you know what to do with it – escaping to a country cottage or desert island may be a mistake. Instead, head for a place that offers a degree of urban turbulence, cultural diversity and a strong local creative scene. And don’t forget to take your notebook.

1. Berlin, Germany

A divided and somewhat neglected city until 1989, Berlin has completely transformed itself. This diverse metropolis has deep historical resonances, an archipelago of urban nightlife scenes and a pop-cultural pedigree that embraces everything from Marlene Dietrich to Einstürzende Neubauten.

As well as the prestigious museums and galleries of the Kulturforum, there are plenty of smaller venues showcasing more offbeat artistic offerings. The Bauhaus Archiv Museum is the ultimate pilgrimage for design lovers. Meanwhile, the city’s fabled weekend flea markets allow you to rummage through a century’s worth of consumer culture.


Bauhaus Archiv © anjella1994/Shutterstock

2. Kanazawa, Japan

Horticulture can be just as inspirational as any other art form – and the Japanese city of Kanazawa is the perfect place to appreciate it. Here, the seventeenth-century Kenrokuen Park showcases the compositional qualities that make Japanese gardening so unique. Also known for its Samurai villas, geisha teahouses and traditional handicrafts, Kanazawa is the ideal destination for discovering the Japan of the Edo period, rather than its garish twenty-first century reincarnation.

But, if Kanazawa proves to be a bit too folksy, then fear not – you can always stop off in Tokyo on the way back.


© Joshua Hawley/Shutterstock

3. Tallinn, Estonia

Renowned for its medieval town centre, marzipan museums and faux-medieval restaurants, the Estonian capital may seem far too twee to cut the creative mustard. For Nordic cool with a twist, however, it is in a class of its own.

There’s a distinctive national style in the arts and crafts here – modernism and folk motifs come seamlessly together. Investigate this at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design and the KUMU art museum – the latter is a contemporary architectural statement in its own right. The Museum of Occupations, detailing the effects of both Nazi and Soviet power, provides gritty historical context.

You can also meet local creatives at the Telliskivi Centre. This building is a former engineering works that now houses a cluster of studios, design shops and nouveau-Nordic cuisine restaurants.


KUMU © yegorovnick/Shutterstock

4. New York City, USA

Celebrated in film, TV, literature and popular song more than any other city on Earth, this list would not be complete without a mention of the Big Apple.

New York took over from Paris as the planet’s leading urban muse some time in the mid-twentieth century – and NYC shows no sign of giving up that status. As a city swelled by immigration, many of the world’s great languages, cultures and cuisines are represented here, and a huge portion of the globe’s cultural output is on show too.

The list of big-hitting institutions speaks for itself: the MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim. And there’s not just one major design museum, but two: the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian and the Museum of Arts and design.


5. Amsterdam, Netherlands

With its neat canals overlooked by handsome merchants’ houses, Amsterdam is one of the most beautifully proportioned cities in the world. It is also a laboratory of post-industrial living, thanks to projects such as the NDSM-Werf, a former shipyard now containing workspaces, cafés and a strong community spirit. The Westergasfabriek, where red-brick factory buildings have been adapted to house an arts and entertainment zone, is also fantastic creative fodder. Meanwhile Borneo, a former dockland area, has been rebuilt as a residential district of cool, contemporary dwellings.

The city offers old-school artistic inspiration by the bucket load, too. Rembrandt’s House, the Van Gogh Museum and the modernist masterpieces of the Stedelijk are among the highlights.


NDSM-students housing in containers © misign/Shutterstock

6. Sao Paulo, Brazil

Gruff, gritty and overwhelming, Sao Paulo is an altogether more abrasive prospect than Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s more popular tourist city. But, in many ways, it’s also more culturally potent.

The Sao Paolo Biennial and the MASP contemporary art museum are the flagships of South America’s most diverse cultural scene, and the nightlife has a famously uninhibited, anything-goes reputation.

The sprawling city also has scores of bustling neighbourhoods suited to endless urban roving. Whichever part of the megalopolis you find yourself in, the music blasting out of bars, cars and private flats is a revelation.


MASP © Thiago Leite/Shutterstock

7. Bandung, Indonesia

It’s smart to aim for a city yet to establish itself as a tourist hub – that way you'll avoid too many preconceptions. One such outlier is Indonesia’s textile and fashion industry capital Bandung. It’s a raucous, chaotic, scooter-clogged metropolis that's yet to find its way into much film or literature.

More than just a place to buy cheap denims, it’s the undoubted centre of Indonesia’s art, design and indie music scenes, and has the teeming café life to match. It can also boast some truly inspirational one-offs: the Regia inner-city forest comes complete with treetop walkway and alfresco cultural events. The perforated cube that is the Al-Irsyad Mosque is one of the most beautiful contemporary sacral buildings in Southeast Asia.


© Sony Herdiana/Shutterstock

8. Istanbul, Turkey

If you want to absorb the entire span of world history in a single destination, with art, architecture and design from every imaginable epoch lined up for leisurely viewing, then head to Istanbul. This Turkish city is one of the most visually intoxicating places on Earth. It offers Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman architecture on a monumental scale. It also boasts a never-ending parade of evocative alleys, bazaar quarters, tea gardens, markets, trams and bustling shoreline ferry stations.

Istanbul is also the contemporary art capital of southeastern Europe, with a spread of cutting-edge galleries including Istanbul Modern. The Istanbul Biennale kicks off on September 16, 2017.


© Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

Top image: Museumsinsel (Museum Island) with excursion boat on Spree river and famous TV tower, Berlin © canadastock/Shutterstock

Jonathan Bousfield

written by Jonathan Bousfield

updated 16.12.2019

Planning your own trip? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Ready to discover
tailor-made travel?

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍