Our experts round up the most exciting happenings in art, music, film and performance in 2019. Follow the links below for our pick of the 50 best cultural events worth travelling for.
The best escorted tours
Cultural tours, led by an expert. are one of the best ways to enjoy a touring holiday or city break and to get a more satisfying insight into the world’s most interesting sights and events. First there is the social side. You will be travelling with a group of like-minded people who share the same interests – there is an excellent chance that you will get on with most of them and a good one that you will make lasting friendships.
Then there is the itinerary. Any company worth its salt will plan things so that you visit at the best times, you don’t have to queue to get in, and enough time is allowed to see a sight properly. If you are lucky and pick the right itinerary, there will sometimes be special arrangements that will get you into some of the more crowded churches or museums after hours so you have the place to yourself. This is becoming more common in Italy in particular, though such access is expensive and will be reflected in the price of the holiday. Similarly, some tours offer access to private homes, villas and palaces that are not usually open to the public. Transfers between sights, airports and hotels will also be sorted, so you won’t have to pay extra or worry about this.
The other great appeal is the expertise of the guides accompanying the trip, usually alongside a tour leader who will sort out the practical arrangements, leaving the expert free to answer questions. The calibre of these experts is often extremely high – with professors, museum curators and leading authors regularly accompanying groups on itineraries built around their specialism. Experts of this kind are clearly in a different world to standard tourist guides, and can revolutionise your understanding of a sight and its cultural context. If you are interested in real detail then these are the ones to choose. You can easily tell who are the more generalist among the guides because they will be leading several different tours on different themes throughout the year. This doesn’t mean they won’t be engaging, informed and entertaining but, by definition, they are unlikely to be experts.
There are a few points to take into consideration before booking, however. Stamina is one point that several companies do their best to warn potential travellers about. Some of these tours are relatively demanding and involve a good deal of walking or time spent standing up. Companies are not legally allowed to set age limits, so they try to set out the level of fitness needed for each itinerary. It is worth paying attention to this to be sure that you are happy with the likely demands. It won’t be comfortable if you feel you are holding up the rest of the group.
When choosing a tour, be sure you are also clear about the maximum group size. All reputable companies will specify this and the vast majority of the tours below will have a maximum size of about 24 people. Any more than this and it can start to impinge on your ability to hear and see properly when you are visiting museums, for example.
Finally, it’s worth having a look at what different operators are offering. Sometimes they offer similar trips but prices, departure dates – and of course the expert leaders – will be different. If you want to go to Pompeii, for example, there are lots of options. On the other hand, do book well in advance; if a particular tour really appeals to you once it is sold, there may not be anything similar on offer for a year or two.
Below we have picked a selection of the best cultural tours from the 2019 brochures. For reasons of space, we have not given full details of what is included in the price, but flights, accommodation, some meals, most visits and local excursions are normally included, and prices are based on two sharing a twin or double room. Please check the itinerary and what is included in the cost before booking. Dates given are for the tour in question.
This long-standing culture specialist has a particularly wide choice of tours. For example, Karelia & Archangel: Architecture of Northern Russia (Aug 10-22, £3,785) explores the isolated north-west territories of Russia, visiting the 18th-century wooden architecture and monastic communities of Karelia and Archangel. By contrast, Derbyshire Halls & Houses (Sept 9-13; £1,095) sticks much closer to home with an itinerary that visits the pick of the county’s stately homes, from Haddon Hall to Kedleston Hall. And Art & Architecture of Puglia (Oct 8-14, £1,875) is another interesting tour, focusing on the ancient and distinctive architecture of this alluring region of southern Italy.
Andante is an archaeological specialist that – after years of trips based around very focused and detailed site visits – has broadened its offering to appeal to a broader audience. Provence – Food & Archaeology (June 13-20, £2,805) is a good example of one of its new tours. It includes dinner at a wine chateau, a cookery class and tours of the region’s Roman ruins and ancient sites. There’s a similar concept behind its Bologna – Food & Archaeology tour (May 11-17, £2,595), while Japan – An Exploration of its Arts (Sept 4-18, £6,995) focuses on Japanese arts and crafts rather than archaeological sites. It’s led by Professor Toshio Watanabe – of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures.
One of the smaller operations, with a portfolio of 28 tours for 2019, it is now part of the Arena Travel group of specialist holiday companies, but still operates under its original name. In the Footsteps of Albrecht Dürer (March 12-17, £1,990) is an excellent chance to explore the life and work of the hugely influential painter, printmaker, goldsmith and humanist scholar. The itinerary starts in Nuremberg and ends in Munich. Another eye-catching trip is Medieval Milan – From St Ambrose to the Visconti (March 6-10, £2,090), which includes visits to the city’s extraordinary early Christian churches and is led by specialist medieval art historian Dr Sally Dormer, of the V&A.
Another smaller programme, of some 32 tours, plus some UK study days this year, includes some classics such as Et in Arcadia Ego: Rome & the Grand Tour (Feb 23-March 1, £2,685), which visits some Grand Tour highlights and includes private visits to both Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Stanze when closed to the public and is led by company founder Tom Duncan. There are also some contrasts, such as Look Up, Look Up! Art & Architecture in Chicago (June 11-17, £3,335 excluding flights) – an remarkable introduction to Chicago’s high-rise architecture guided by a panel of architectural historians and museum experts.
This is a sister company to Martin Randall Travel (see below), which focuses on offering tours at the lower end of the price scale (prices exclude international travel). Château de Versailles – The Power and Glory of France (March 29-April 1, £990) looks an excellent antidote to the usual tourist experience, spending four days exploring the palace (and gardens) led by the historian Professor Tony Spawforth, author of Versailles: A Biography of a Palace, leads the trip. Villas of the Veneto (June 6-10, £1,160) visits Palladio’s most important villas and buildings around Vicenza. And, given the price of opera tickets generally, The Ring in Budapest – Wagner on the Banks of the Danube (June, 12-17, £1,225) is an excellent-value way of seeing all four operas, although note that Hartmut Schörghofer’s production is a semi-staged performance.
Kirker’s small offering of escorted tours supplements its main programme of high-end, tailor-made city breaks. A couple of new trips stand out this year. Gardens of Marrakech (May 2-9, £3,396) is led by David Wheeler, the founder and editor of the gardening journal Hortus, and takes in some of the most impressive gardens in and around the city at a time of year when the roses are blooming. The Villa Medici Giulini Collection – The Progress of the Piano (May 7-11, £1,947) is based at the private 17th-century villa of Fernanda Giulini, close to Monza and Lake Como. It houses an extraordinary collection of early keyboard instruments, and concert pianist Melvyn Tan demonstrates the development of the modern piano through talks and private recitals.
Randall offers what is comfortably the most comprehensive and carefully tailored programme of any operator specialising in cultural tours. And they are led by an impressive line-up of experts. Among the many that stand out is Ruskin’s Venice – Through 19th-century Writers & Artists (Nov 20-24, £2,410), marking the bicentenary of the great art writer John Ruskin’s birth with a tour of the buildings and paintings that influenced his famous book, The Stones of Venice. Also in Italy, Courts of Northern Italy – Princely Art of the Renaissance (May 12-19, £2,410) has an excellent itinerary visiting Mantua, Ferrara, Parma, Ravenna and Urbino. And for something completely different, how about Orkney: 5,000 Years of Culture (July 27-Aug 2, £1,890)?
This music and ballet specialist covers many of the world’s festivals, offers escorted and also tickets to regular productions and events. For Wagner fans, The Ring in Chemnitz (April 17-23, £1,990) is of particular interest as each opera is staged by a different female director. Chemnitz is in Saxony, Germany, and there is more Wagner nearby in Dresden (Feb 28-March 3, £1,375) with Der Fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser both performed at the Semperoper in one weekend. Further afield, Treasures of Oman (Feb 8-13) includes a performance La Traviata starring Plácido Domingo at the Royal Opera House in Muscat. The dance highlight is New York City Ballet (May 6-10, £2,275) which includes three performances at the David H Koch Theatre, with a particular emphasis on the choreography of George Balanchine.