20 Essential Pilgrimages to Inspiring Art Destinations

Casey Lesser
Aug 16, 2019 2:20PM

You’ve roamed the Louvre and the Met. You’ve ogled the Sistine Chapel and the David. You’ve hunted down Gaudí’s extravagant architecture in Barcelona and Klimt’s glittering paintings in Vienna. Perhaps you’ve even braved stifling crowds to see the legendary pyramids of Giza or the lauded Terra Cotta warriors. If you plan your vacations around seeing art, or make a point to see it during wanderlusty jaunts, you may be in need of some future adventures.

Here, we share a list of 20 art destinations beyond the well-trodden art capitals. While seeing art is generally a tame experience, these pilgrimages are not necessarily. Expect to go out of your way—and maybe even out of your comfort zone—to see famed gardens, prehistoric cave paintings, dazzling museums, and surreal landscapes encrusted with sculpture. Whether you’re up for a rugged adventure or a really spectacular place to meditate, there’s something here for you.

The artist-designed gardens that inspired Yves Saint Laurent

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech, Morocco


The French painter Jacques Majorelle began his greatest work when moved to Morocco in 1923. He bought a grove outside of Marrakech, commissioned an Art Deco studio, and started building a bountiful botanical garden. Over four decades, he cared for the land and sourced plants from around the globe. The finishing touch was the cobalt blue he used to paint his studio, which he would trademark as “Majorelle blue.”

After the artist died in 1962, the property languished until 1980, when Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé bought the studio and gardens, and restored them. Saint Laurent would later attest to the great inspiration he gleaned from Jardin Majorelle. Today, you can book a visit to the gardens, which are part of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech.

While you’re there: Majorelle’s former studio is now the Berber Museum, dedicated to the creative output of the Berber people.

The land art road trip through the American Southwest

Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona, United States

It’s nearly impossible to pick just one work of land art to see in the American Southwest. Why would you? Given the relative proximity between the works, many visitors choose to turn their outings into art-fueled road trips.

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) is probably the most famous work of American land art, and you might want to plan your journey around it. Due to its location in Utah’s Salt Lake, visibility differs depending on the weather. You can check Dia’s website for tips and updates.

Other favorites include Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973–76) in Wendover, Utah; Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969) near Overton, Nevada; Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field (1977)—which you’ll need to reserve well in advance via Dia—in Quemado, New Mexico; Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains (2016) in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Think ahead: The remoteness of some works, like Double Negative and Spiral Jetty, means that you may not be able to rely on GPS or cell service to navigate there. Make sure to save driving directions on your phone or print them out!

The Japanese island that’s an art and architecture sanctuary

Naoshima, Japan


A small, remote island in the Seto Inland Sea, Naoshima is a tranquil escape where striking art installations, museums, and architecture are couched in serene nature. The island became an art destination in the 1990s, when the Benesse Corporation chose it to house its impressive collection of modern and contemporary art.

That art—works from Monet and Yves Klein to Yayoi Kusama and Bruce Nauman—can be witnessed in all its grandeur within the various Tadao Ando–designed properties of the Benesse Art Site. At the core is the Benesse House, a series of surreal buildings beholding works by Japanese and international artists. This is the site of the famed yellow Kusama pumpkin perched on a pier, and it’s considered by some to be the ultimate place to stay. If you book a room, you can wander the galleries after hours.

Other highlights include the underground Chichu Art Museum, which includes James Turrell “skyspaces”; the Lee Ufan Museum, dedicated to the esteemed Korean artist; the abandoned residences-turned-artworks of Art House Project; and the Ando Museum, dedicated to the architect himself.

Getting there: To get to Naoshima’s Miyanoura Port, you’ll need to take a ferry from Takamatsu, Uno, or Inujima.

The West Texas Minimalist mecca

Marfa, Texas, United States

At just 1.6 square miles, Marfa has earned its reputation as a serious art enclave thanks to Donald Judd. In the 1970s, the artist settled in the town—a disused military training facility from World War II—and began transforming it. These days, you can visit the artist’s work and the works of fellow artists that he commissioned; plus, the Judd Foundation offers tours of his former home and studios.

Any visit to Marfa is not complete without the Chinati Foundation, the museum Judd founded. Book a tour to see the site-specific artworks that the artist commissioned—including six buildings dedicated to Dan Flavin neons, plus works by John Chamberlain, Roni Horn, John Wesley, and others. A highlight is Robert Irwin’s untitled (dawn to dusk) (2016), which becomes particularly ethereal at sunset. You can also see Judd’s work in two warehouses filled with reflective steel sculptures and a kilometer-long row of concrete blocks.

The town also offers a smattering of contemporary art spaces, including the nonprofit Ballroom Marfa and various galleries. On the drive in or out, you can’t miss the artwork that’s become synonymous with the town itself: Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa (2005).

Getting there: Fly into El Paso International Airport. Rent a car and drive three hours south to Marfa.

The secluded Brazilian art oasis

Inhotim, Brumadinho, Brazil

A bright, sunny day is ideal for visiting Inhotim. Set on 5,000 acres of lush green space and gardens, the art and botanical institute is also the largest open-air contemporary art center in Latin America. A visit involves plenty of walking outside to see its installations and architectural pavilions.

One of the stars of Inhotim is Brazilian Neo-Concrete artist Hélio Oiticica’s Invenção da cor, Penetrável Magic Square # 5, De Luxe (1977). Set between a placid lake and palm trees, the work is a series of crisp, cement walls in warm hues that form a square, inviting solitary reflection or a shared experience of color and wonder. Bound through the grounds and you’ll find equally enticing works like a kaleidoscopic telescope by Olafur Eliasson, a “Narcissus Garden” by Yayoi Kusama, and a floating tree by Giuseppe Penone. Inside the pavilions, find otherworldly installations like Cildo Meireles’s domestic interior filled with red furniture and a haven of blue-and-white tiles by Adriana Varejão.

Getting there: Drive or take a bus from Belo Horizonte. On Wednesdays, admission to Inhotim is free.

The iconic home of the Bauhaus

Bauhaus Dessau, Dessau-Rosslau, Germany

When architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in 1919, he couldn’t have anticipated the school’s indelible influence on art and design. During its 14-year run, the school had three homes and an illustrious faculty, including Anni and Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer, Paul Klee, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Wassily Kandinsky, among others. Today, the most emblematic site of the Bauhaus is Dessau, where the school operated from 1925–32; students convened in the now-iconic modernist Bauhaus Building that Gropius designed.

An asymmetrical volume of glass facades and clean lines, Gropius’s Bauhaus Building is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can visit to wander its halls; take a guided tour to see more of the site, including the auditorium. And venture to the Masters’ Houses to see the living quarters of professors, including Gropius, Kandinsky, Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, László Moholy-Nagy, and others. Those keen to live like a Bauhausler may choose to stay the night at The Studio Building, in bare bones dormitories that students once used.

New in 2019: The Bauhaus Dessau Museum is opening on September 8, 2019, to coincide with the centenary of the Bauhaus.

The art world’s Olympics

The Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy

You may not be a fan of Venice—but no art lover can deny the wonder of the Venice Biennale. Every other year, the event sees the small city of canals become a powerhouse of international contemporary art. The two anchor venues, the Giardini and the Arsenale, are host to national pavilions where respective countries appoint prominent artists who fill them with exhibitions. There is also a central exhibition, organized by a world-renowned curator, who invites dozens of influential contemporary artists to respond to a unifying theme. Across the city, arts organizations fill palazzos, churches, and other historic structures with bold and ambitious contemporary art.

Visiting the Venice Biennale, which runs from early May through November, is a bit of an art marathon. Give yourself a long weekend or more to take in the abundance of international art—which also extends to the city’s prominent art institutions.

Getting there: Take a train directly to Venice or fly into Venice Marco Polo airport. From the airport, you can easily get to Venice by boat or bus.

The oldest cave art you can experience firsthand

El Castillo cave, Cantabria, Spain

The most renowned sites for cave art bear the world’s earliest traces of creative expression. Due to the fragility of such prehistoric markings, many have been closed to the public for years, sending visitors instead to see a replica. To experience the real thing, head to the Spanish cave known as El Castillo.

Archaeologists have studied El Castillo—discovered in 1903—to learn about how prehistoric people lived and thought. Primarily dating to the Paleolithic era, the cave art includes 275 depictions of humans and animals, including horses, bison, deer, goats, ibex, and mammoths.

El Castillo is best known for the Panel of Hands, a wall of some 20 deep ochre contours that hauntingly echo where hands rested over 40,000 years ago. Scientists have suggested it could be the earliest-known cave art and may even be the work of Neanderthals. That controversial theory spurred debate back in 2014, suggesting that creativity may predate human life.

Getting there: Located around 50 miles from Bilbao, El Castillo can be accessed from the town of Puente Viesgo, via a short drive or a 25-minute walk.

The Basque city with a mind-bending museum

Bilbao, Spain

The Guggenheim Bilbao has incited debate since opening in 1997, but it’s endured as a critical juncture of wild starchitecture and world-class contemporary art.

A visit to the spectacular museum begins outside—not just to see Frank Gehry’s design from various angles, but to see the public artworks, including Jeff Koons’s giant topiary Puppy (1992) and Louise Bourgeois’s 30-foot-plus spider Maman (1999). Inside, there’s a sprawling gallery dedicated to the steel ellipses of Richard Serra, as well as impactful temporary exhibitions.

Beyond the Guggenheim, Bilbao’s Museo de Bellas Artes has a strong permanent collection ranging from El Greco and Francisco de Goya to leading contemporary and Basque artists, plus a lively slate of exhibitions. And various institutions offer a window into the history and culture of the Basque region, including Euskal Museoa, Arkeologi Museo, and Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao.

Architecture lovers should not miss: The 15th-century Bilbao Cathedral; Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Montero; Santiago Calatrava’s Zubizuri footbridge; and the cultural center Azkuna Zentroa, which was redesigned by Philippe Starck.

The transcendent desert art festival

Burning Man, Black Rock, Nevada, United States

Photo by Alexander Forbes, with image design by Philip Warner Patton for Artsy.

In late August each year, over 60,000 people head to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for a celebration of inclusion, decommodification, and self-expression. Established in 1986, Burning Man is known for its attendees donning outlandish outfits and riding bikes across the desert to convene at camps and parties. And central to it all is art.

The Playa—the footprint of the festival—is home to hundreds of artworks. Each year, teams of artists, designers, technologists, and other creators spend many months, if not years, creating large-scale sculptures and installations that are often interactive and involve light and sound components. They become sites for inspiration and community. High-profile names like Leo Villareal, Hank Willis Thomas, Studio Drift, and Bjarke Ingels have taken part in past years.

Further reading:Why I Consider Burning Man the Greatest Cultural Movement of Our Time”; “16 of Burning Man’s Biggest Artists on Showing Their Work at the Smithsonian”; “See How a Massive Burning Man Sculpture Comes to Life.”

The remote cliffside caves carved with Buddhas

Bingling Temple, Gansu, China

Bingling Temple, or Bǐnglíng Sì, is a series of caves filled with Buddhist sculpture and frescoes dating from 420 C.E. to the 17th century. Though Dunhuang’s Mogao Caves are more famous and elaborate, Bingling—located in a canyon on the Yellow River—is more difficult to access, making it far less touristy. It’s one of the best places to see ancient Buddhist art in China.

Despite erosion and looting over the years, there are still 183 caves, over 700 sculptures, and more than 9,600 square feet of frescoes intact. While Bingling boasts many finely hewn sculptures of the Buddha, Bodhisattva, and guardians, the highlight is Maitreya, a seated Buddha carving that’s over 88 feet tall.

The main caves, which are numbered, include 169, where you’ll find the earliest art, including a giant Tang Dynasty Buddha; 126, which has the most sculptures and walls covered in bas-relief; 6, which includes a pair of standing Bodhisattva and narrative frescoes; and 3, which includes a Tang Dynasty pagoda. Beyond the Maitreya cave, you can take a mile-and-a-half hike to a Tibetan monastery.

Getting there: Bingling Temple can be a day trip from Lanzhou. You’ll need to take a car or bus to Liujiaxia, then hire a car or a boat to take you to the caves.

The sculpture-filled Chilean island cloaked in mystery

Easter Island, Chile

At the southeasternmost corner of Polynesia, Easter Island is home to a prodigious collection of moai. These enormous sculptures—around 1,000 in total, some 33 feet tall—are figures representing ancestors and protectors. Not just awe-inspiring, they’re feats of art and physics.

The moai were created by the Rapa Nui people in what is now Rapa Nui National Park, a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site. They are estimated to date back to 800–1200 C.E. The park covers around half of Easter Island’s 63 square miles. While many of the moai still reside by the island’s quarry, a vast number are spread across the island, facing inward, watching over the land. The great mystery of Easter Island is not just the meaning of these substantial sculptures, but how they were transported across the island. There is concern over the inevitable erosion of the moai; despite conservation efforts, the statues’ features are fading.

Getting there: Easter Island is very remote and not easy to navigate—you may want to consider booking a tour. From Santiago, Chile, you can take a five-and-a-half-hour flight into the capital, Hanga Roa.

The U.A.E.’s art hub

Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates’s art attractions are no secret. The Sharjah Art Museum is esteemed for its contemporary art programming and its biennial exhibition, while the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a target of endless intrigue and angst. As the museums of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island are still under construction, an established art center is thriving on Alserkal Avenue in Dubai’s Al Quoz neighborhood.

A cluster of sprawling, silver warehouses, Alserkal is a buzzing hive of some 60 contemporary art galleries, nonprofits, performance organizations, and other creative businesses. Among them are some of the region’s leading galleries such as Leila Heller Gallery, the Third Line, Green Art Gallery, Lawrie Shabibi, Ayyam Gallery, and Carbon 12. Alserkal hosts year-round programming to engage its community, including late nights for gallery openings, creative workshops, performances, and talks.

Do not miss: Concrete, a multipurpose cultural space with an ethereal-meets-industrial design by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA.

The new art destination in South Africa’s capital

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town’s vibrant arts scene is evident at first blush. Various neighborhoods around the city are blanketed in compelling street art. Perhaps the most popular, Woodstock, has become known for its murals, created by local and international artists. You can venture through the creative neighborhoods on your own, or book a walking tour.

The most attention-grabbing art center of the city is its museum of contemporary African art, Zeitz MOCAA. The waterfront museum building, designed by Heatherwick Studio, was formerly a grain silo complex. The architects carved into the concrete tubes that once held grain to develop an open, light-filled space. Though the museum garnered controversy—due to the lack of diversity among its leadership and the resignation of its original director due professional misconduct—the museum is the largest dedicated to contemporary art of Africa and its diaspora. With a focus on the 21st century, it includes works by emerging and established artists including El Anatsui, Joël Andrianomearisoa, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Kendell Geers, William Kentridge, Mohau Modisakeng, Zanele Muholi, Gareth Nyandoro, Wangechi Mutu, and Chris Ofili.

Do not miss: Cape Town is also home to an array of contemporary art galleries. During monthly street art festivals, First Thursdays, the art community convenes for music, performance, and new gallery exhibitions.

The gems of Mexican muralism

Mexico City, Mexico

While art lovers flock to Mexico City to see Luis Barragán’s architecture and Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, the ample, awe-inspiring fruits of the Mexican muralism are equally impressive. The city is flush with emblems of the political art movement that thrived from the 1920s to the ’70s, when leading artists filled the walls of public spaces and institutions with social realist masterpieces.

A muralism-focused trip will involve seeking out work of los tres grandes: painters José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The Palacio de Bellas Artes houses works by the big three—including Rivera’s reproduction of the notorious fresco Man at the Crossroads (1934)—as well as an impressive pair of murals by Rufino Tamayo.

At the campus of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), academic buildings are enveloped in stunning murals by Siquieros, Juan O’Gorman, and others. And for a more off-the-beaten-path experience, see the Mercado Abelardo L. Rodríguez—an active produce market that Rivera invited his students to paint in—including works by Antonio Pujol, Isamu Noguchi, and Grace and Marion Greenwood.

Other sites for seeing murals: Museo Mural Diego Rivera; Palacio Nacional; La Secretaría de Educación Pública; Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo; Museo Nacional de Historia at Castillo de Chapultepec; Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros; Museo Nacional De Antropología.

The eccentric art museum of Tasmania

Museum of Old and New Art, Berriedale, Tasmania, Australia

Photo by Mona/Jesse Hunniford. Courtesy of the artists and the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona).

David Walsh amassed his fortune as a professional gambler, then built a museum to house his free-wheeling art collection. The Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) is his personal “megaphone” to question: “What is art?” The far-flung, intentionally absurdist work on view ranges from Egyptian antiquities to Madonna memorabilia to controversial contemporary art, such as Wim Delvoye’s artwork that is a large tattoo on a man’s back. The architecture itself is alternative, too—designed to disorient the visitor, rather than guide them.

In addition to Walsh’s permanent collection, the museum holds two exhibitions per year, often inviting artists to interact with the space. Artists including Simon Denny, Matthew Barney, and Marina Abramović have notably taken Mona up on this offer.

If you’re keen to understand more about Walsh, the handheld guide device you’re given upon entering Mona has a “Gonzo” mode that offers “ramblings from the man himself and some of his buddies about what the stuff on show means on a more personal level.”

Getting there: Mona is located about seven miles north of Hobart. You can get there by ferry, in around 25 minutes; or by car, around 20 minutes.

The Surrealist architectural park tucked in a Mexican jungle

Las Pozas, Mexico

The English poet millionaire Edward James was a collector of Surrealist art and known to have promoted the likes of Dalí and Magritte. Late in life, he devoted himself to realizing his own Surrealist masterpiece: Las Pozas.

A sculpture park rife with natural waterfalls and pools, Las Pozas is spread across 80 acres of subtropical rainforest in the mountains of Xilitla, Mexico. It features monumental staircases to the sky and otherworldly architectonic creations that call to mind Surrealist paintings, as well as the mind-bending constructions of M.C. Escher.

Courtesy of El Jardín Escultórico Edward James, Las Pozas.

James started work on the architecture in 1962, and construction would continue until his death in 1984. His designs tapped into the work of the Surrealists, as well as the jungle’s vegetation and the orchids he was so fond of growing. The name—Las Pozas means “the pools”—was inspired by the nine natural pools of water on the property.

Getting there: The nearest airport is Tampico, which you can reach from Houston, Mexico City, or Monterrey. From there, it’s a four-hour drive to Las Pozas.

The erotic carvings of ancient Hindu temples

Khajuraho Temples, Chhatarpur, India

View of the Khajuraho Temples. Photo by Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images.

The Khajuraho Temples, which date back to 950–1050 C.E., are best known for their spectacular carvings of erotic encounters: sculptural reliefs that portray couples and groups performing sexual acts or striking intimate, loving poses. Those sculptures have led to their nickname as the “Kamasutra temples,” but in reality, those works represent only a fraction of the incredible artistry on view.

Magnificent achievements in art and architecture, the temples display narrative scenes representing all manner of daily life in medieval India, from farming to pottery-making. The temples are split between the Hindu and Jain faiths, and the 25 that remain today, spread over a four mile span, are divided into three groups: Western, which includes the most famous temple, Lakshmana; Eastern, with its notable Javeri temple; and the Southern, with its Duladeva temple. Beyond exploring the temples’ countless treasures, visitors enjoy the verdant jungle surroundings, too.

Getting there: Khajuraho has an airport that can be reached via Delhi, Varanasi, and Agra.

The gardens where Monet painted

Claude Monet’s home, Giverny, France

You’ve seen Claude Monet’s water lily paintings, but you’ll see them differently after going to the source: the Impressionist master’s home and gardens in Giverny.

A day trip from Paris, Giverny beholds the idyllic candy-pink farmhouse and dreamlike gardens where Monet spent the four decades before his death. You can wander through the chambers where the artist and his family lived; the impossibly charming blue-and-white tiled kitchen is the stuff of dreams. But the real draw is the garden, cared for by horticulturists who keep the artist’s paintings in mind as they maintain it.

The main garden, with its overflowing rows of blooms, is connected to the water garden by a tunnel. There, soak in the Japanese-inspired oasis and walk over the iconic, kelly-green footbridges.

While you could spend hours tracing Monet’s footsteps, Giverny is also home to a small art museum with Impressionist artworks. If you walk down the town’s main drag, you’ll find the small churchside cemetery where Monet is buried.

Getting there: Take a train to Vernon, which is located between Paris and Rouen. Outside of the Vernon train station, you can hop in a shuttle bus that goes straight to Giverny, or—if you’re a confident cyclist—rent a bike for a scenic, four-mile ride.

The Byzantine chapels cut into Turkish cliffs

Göreme Open Air Museum, Cappadocia, Turkey

Photo by Staff Sergeant Lauren Padden. Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

While Göreme is known as the go-to locale for those picturesque Cappadocia hot air balloon rides, it’s also a destination for Byzantine art.

The volcanic rock formations led early inhabitants to build architecture into the craggy landscape—including the former monastery and churches of Göreme Open Air Museum. The monastic complex, dating back to 1000–1200 C.E., is filled with Byzantine frescoes that were painted by orthodox Christian monks.

Head to Karanlık Kilise, the “Dark Church,” to see the best-preserved frescoes, including biblical scenes such as the Annunciation, Nativity, Last Supper, and Crucifixion. The church originally had very few windows, which helped to keep its frescoes vibrant, but the works have also undergone conservation. There is a fee to see this part of the museum, to support the conservation efforts.

Getting there: Göreme Open Air Museum is a 20-minute walk from the Göreme city center. To get to Göreme, you can travel by bus or plane from Nevsehir; or by bus, plane, or train from Kayseri.

What did we miss?

Want to share your favorite art pilgrimages? Send a 150-word summary of your art journey to [email protected] with the subject line “Art Pilgrimage.” We’ll publish a collection of our favorite submissions.

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.

Header and full width videos (in order of appearance): Video courtesy of Instituto Inhotim. Video of Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, NY. Video by Charles Uibel/Great Salt Lake Photography. Video courtesy of Instituto Inhotim. View of Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island, Chile by VideoFort via Pond5.