12 top destinations for art holidays in Britain

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 27.03.2019

If you fancy indulging your inner artist on your next British break, try one of these excellent galleries and art spaces across Britain.

The Baltic, Newcastle

Towering over the Tyne is Baltic, Gateshead's striking contemporary art centre. Still emblazoned with the words Baltic Flour Mills, this uncompromisingly modernist building has just as much presence as London's Tate Modern - and even more volume - it claims to be the biggest gallery of its kind in the world. Best suited to large-scale installations, its four galleries host an exciting and ever-changing programme of shows including headline-grabbers such as works by Yoko Ono, "musical paintings" by Malcolm McLaren and a fresh dose of Damien Hirst's 1990s classic, Pharmacy.

Whatever the current crop of exhibitions, it's worth visiting for the views. Look down from the glass-fronted lifts, the viewing terraces or the rooftop restaurant and you can admire the elegant geometry of the Tyne Bridge. Modelled on the design for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1920s, it's still a potent symbol of the city.

Like its Australian counterpart, it now has a slinky performing arts centre for a neighbour: the miracle of computer-assisted architecture that is The Sage, nestling like a glossy-skinned pupa on the riverbank. Spanning the river in a graceful curve is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, better known as the Blinking Eye - surely the wittiest modern bridge in Britain. The whole scene is so inspiring that avant-garde photographer Spencer Tunick has used it as a location; the resulting series of studies, created with the help of 1700 naked volunteers, is one of his best to date.

For local visitor information, see www.newcastlegateshead.com.

Essential art at the Sainsbury Centre

You approach the pared-down hangar-like Sainsbury Centre on the UEA campus across a lush lawn, and step into a modernist temple of art. The building, an early work by Norman Foster, has simplicity and functionality at its core; it was designed to showcase the superb collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury.

High glass walls give space and light to the works, which are displayed not with an attempt to categorize or contextualize but to showcase each piece in its own right. This aesthetic approach sees an elongated Modigliani juxtaposed with an ancient marble figure from Cycladic Crete, with its long nose and neatly folded arms. There are moments of connection, and also of dislocation: your path through the gallery might take you from a silver Inca effigy of a llama to a carved wooden Polynesian icon or a masterful Roman portrait head.

The eclectic layout is also particularly effective at highlighting the well-documented influence of ethnographic art on modern masters such as Henry Moore, represented by a rounded non-realist Mother & Child, and Picasso, whose early gouache nude shows a mask-like female figure.

Elsewhere, temporary exhibitions explore contemporary photography, painting and ceramics, and there's usually space given to two other outstanding collections held by UEA. To round things off there's the excellent light-filled Gallery Café and a gallery shop selling genuinely covetable crafts and gifts.

The Sainsbury Centre is on the campus of the University of East Anglia, Norwich

The De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill


© kentaylordesign/Shutterstock

Built in 1935 as a cultural house for the people - the vision of the ninth Earl De la Warr, the aristocratic, socialist Mayor of Bexhill - the De la Warr Pavilion is an architectural masterpiece by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, and one of the first Modernist buildings in Britain. Curving, majestic but intimate and informal, it's worth the trip to the coast for the building alone. It stands in a marvellous setting right on Bexhill's beach, with an elegant spiral staircase protruding out towards the sea, huge glass windows, sleek terraces and a quirky, wavy bandstand.

It hosts a packed and eclectic programme of events. The light, airy gallery shows contemporary art exhibitions, the auditorium attracts an impressive line-up of international artists and entertainers, and the pavilion offers courses and talks, summer Sunday gigs on the bandstand, and a host of imaginative events - what better use is there for a flat white Modernist exterior wall than to project films onto it on summer evenings (just bring a blanket)?

De la Warr Pavilion, on the seafront, Bexhill, East Sussex 01424/229111

Tate Modern, London

From oversized upstart to national treasure in just ten years, Tate Modern has been adopted by the British public in a way that no one imagined possible for a gallery of modern art. Though its collection is an impressive survey of the big names of twentieth-century international art - including Monet, Matisse and Rothko - the real stars are the building itself, huge, grand and proudly displaying its industrial past as a power station, and Tate's ambitious and playful curating.

At the outset Tate Modern did away with stuffy, chronological displays, instead hanging its collection thematically in a thought-provoking and irreverent approach. Architecture and art as adventure come together most strikingly in the Turbine Hall, and its headline-grabbing commissions of the Unilever series.

And Tate Modern continues to grow - literally. Three vast oil drums behind the main building are currently being excavated and will be turned into performance spaces and more galleries, while a Herzog & de Meuron-designed extension is planned above them.

Tate Modern, London SE1 020/7887 8888, Sun-Thurs 10am-6pm, Fri & Sat 10am-10pm. Main galleries free, special exhibitions around £10.


© Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

Quietly presiding over the lions and pigeons of Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is Britain's second most popular visitor attraction, pipped only by the British Museum. Perhaps what really sets the National apart, though, is that despite walls heaving with the work of da Vinci, Raphael, Monet and Van Gogh, no single picture dominates in the manner of a Mona Lisa with all the iPhone-clicking crush that ensures. Instead, the collection's strength in depth encourages more relaxed contemplation. Yet with over two thousand paintings to choose from, deciding precisely what to contemplate can be a daunting prospect. The secret is to plan your visit and stick to one era or even one painting at a time.

If you can attend a free talk given by the gallery's team of experts so much the better. Sprinkled with anecdotes (for example, did you know Gainsborough was often too hungover to paint, leaving his portrait subjects out on the street?), they provide that modern term "infotainment" in spades. As you exit back into the tourist hubbub of the square you'll be left if not ennobled then certainly enlightened.

National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2 020/7747 2885

Banksy's Bristol

The street artist known as Banksy has spray-painted walls in London, Detroit, Melbourne and, perhaps most controversially, the separation wall built by Israel in the West Bank. It was in the graffiti-hotbed of Bristol, though, that he fostered his talent and developed the stencil style that defines his work.

Much of Banksy's early paintings around the city have been lost, but several key murals remain. Perhaps the most iconic is The Mild Mild West (1999), a striking image sprayed across a wall on Stokes Croft and showing a wobbly white teddy bear pitching a Molotov cocktail at advancing riot police. There's great affection for Banksy's image of Death (2003) on the waterline of The Thekla, a nightclub boat moored in Bristol Harbour. His original tag was removed by the city's harbourmaster, prompting Banksy to return and paint a Grim Reaper figure rowing in the same spot.

The Banksy that most symbolizes his evolution from scourge of the council to Bristol's favourite son, however, lies off the bottom of Park Street. Secretly created beneath sheet-covered scaffolding, The Naked Man (2006), an adulterous lover hanging from a window, was recently saved thanks to a petition from a Liberal Democrat councillor.

See www.bristol-street-art.co.uk/category/banksy-street-art for the exact locations of The Mild Mild West, the image of Death and The Naked Man.

The Lowry, Greater Manchester

The Lowry in Salford Quays opened in 2000, a strikingly designed arts centre housing theatres and gallery space. It owns 55 paintings and 278 drawings by the artist - the world's largest collection of his work, many featuring those gritty, industrial scenes of Manchester and Salford. Yet as Lowry aged his fascination with people on the streets focused increasingly on the more bizarre characters. Take The Funeral Party (1953), a motley line-up of nine odd-looking individuals, most staring disconcertingly at the viewer in what looks like a British version of The Addams Family.

Lowry's oil paintings often reflected this interest, through unflattering and brutally stark portraits. His "horrible head" series includes the haunting Head of a Man (1938), whose haggard face and bloodshot eyes seem to stare straight through you. When you finally tear yourself away, there's almost a feeling of embarrassment, as if you've turned your back on a starving man. Indeed, the key to understanding the Lowry collection is his fascination with people, not industrial decay - Lowry was interested in everyday folk, not just outside mills, but at fairgrounds, football grounds and busy markets. As he said, "You don't need brains to be a painter, just feelings."

Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays, Greater Manchester

By far the nicest way to reach Edinburgh's Gallery of Modern Art is by walking from the New Town along the Water of Leith. The imminent presence of the gallery is signalled by a rusting naked male statue by Antony Gormley, standing ankle-deep in the water. Steep steps take you up the riverbank to a hulking green Reclining Figure by Henry Moore, and the elegant symmetrical gallery itself.

The theme of art in the landscape is continued with Charles Jenck's monumental earthwork Landform in front of the gallery, comprising spiralling paths and crescent-shaped pools and usually overrun with kids.

Inside, there's a substantial collection by those glamorizers of the Scottish landscape, the Colourists: J.D. Fergusson, Peploe and Cadell, whose Fauvist palette and Post-Impressionist sensibility were a fervent rejection of the Victorian genre painting. Elsewhere, thematic rather than chronological displays juxtapose an early Francis Bacon with a late Stanley Spencer nude depicting his second wife.

Upstairs there are displays on Constructivism, plus a witty Matisse depicting himself painting a young model. And there's a room simply devoted to "White", with Ben Nicholson's card reliefs, a white metal piece by local boy Paolozzi, and Mondrian monochrome squares enlivened by a dash of citrus yellow. Back outside, the sculpture- and flower-filled café garden makes the perfect end to a visit.

Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Rd, Edinburgh

The Wallace Collection, London

The result of five generations of connoisseurship and collecting, the Wallace Collection is housed in the private home of the Hertford family, which was bequeathed to the nation in 1897, and is now a free, public museum jam-packed with art, porcelain, furniture and sculpture in ornate silk-lined and chandeliered rooms, which have been immaculately and lovingly restored.

The Great Gallery, with works by Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and the iconic Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals, is the artistic star, but if you go on one of the excellent (free) guided tours, the enthusiastic expert will point out all sorts of other gems, such as pieces of Marie Antoinette's personal furniture, portraits of Madame de Pompadour, glitzy Sèvres porcelain, the ornate staircase from Louis XV's bank, and an impressive armoury. The furnishings might not be to everyone's taste, but when coupled with the fascinating stories and titbits of gossip about the family peppered throughout the tour, the result is to draw you into the rarefied world of this eccentric family and their unique collections.

Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1 020/7563 9500

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park


© Alastair Wallace/Shutterstock

West Yorkshire might not seem like the most obvious location for a centre of modern art, but step into the glorious grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and it all suddenly makes a lot of sense. Situated on the Bretton Estate in the village of West Bretton, the 500-acre park encompasses hills, fields, lakes, woodland and formal gardens, which provide the perfect backdrop for the sculptures it shows, a juxtaposition of the natural and the man-made.

Most fitting of the sculptures are those by Henry Moore, who was born in nearby Castleford; the surrounding countryside inspired his work, so it feels a real privilege to be able to experience it within this context. Alongside Moore, the permanent, revolving, collection also includes work by Antony Gormley, Eduardo Paolozzi and Barbara Hepworth.

In addition to the outdoor exhibitions, there are four indoor galleries, which are worth exploring in their own right. The Project Space is a particular highlight, housing changing exhibitions from the Arts Council Collection, which could include film and photography in addition to sculpture.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, West Yorkshire

Jupiter Artland, West Lothian

Sitting in a tangle of busy roads in an unattractive semi-rural stretch west of Edinburgh, Jupiter Artland doesn't appear to promise much. But its swirling metal gates are a portal to another world, one of parkland and woodland set around a seventeenth-century mansion, and a series of sight-specific artworks wonderfully woven into the natural environment.

Commissioned by the owners of the house, the works comprise a deeply personal collection, and one that is still evolving. The drive winds past sizeable rocks wedged in the branches of coppiced trees by Andy Goldsworthy, and then opens out to Life Mounds, monumental stepped earthworks created by Charles Jencks to evoke and celebrate the cell. The walk begins at Shane Waltener's A World Wide Web, a scruffy shed in the trees with peepholes of varying heights which reveal a tangle of intricately constructed cobwebs within. Beyond, Anish Kapoor's Suck is a disconcerting rusty iron sinkhole in the earth; then a break in the trees reveals Antony Gormley's Firmament, a huge crouching figure composed of steel hexagons that frames the view of another iconic metal structure: the rust-red Forth Rail Bridge. The place is packed full of more artwork, see www.jupiterartland.org for more.

Tate St Ives, Cornwall

This magnificent building on the site of a former gasworks is more than just an art gallery: Tate St Ives is an experience of modern and contemporary art which reflects and highlights the natural environment that inspired much of the artwork on display.

While artists have been drawn to St Ives and its famous quality of light since the early nineteenth century, the gallery's main collection celebrates a succession of painters and sculptors whose work is firmly rooted in modernist traditions, a tribute to the seaside town's unique connection with many renowned twentieth-century artists. The gallery's permanent collection includes some of Cornwall's big names, with displays changed around frequently to showcase the works, while the gallery also features temporary exhibitions of current international stars and a programme of artists in residence to encourage the creation of new work relating to St Ives and its surrounds. Inside, the architecture and art beautifully fuses with the scenery and light, and the seaside location works a treat in the top-floor café from where you can feast your eyes on the vista as you tuck into delectable Cornish produce.

Tate St Ives, Porthmeor Beach

Ready to travel and discover

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

Plan my trip ⤍