Top 10 cities for artistic inspiration

Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011 brings you the cities where history's best artistic talents had their imagination fired - and left a legacy of their inspiration behind.

1. Edinburgh

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Scotland’s literary output is phenomenal and most of its notable writers have been influenced by the capital. Famous resident Robert Louis Stevenson enthused that Edinburgh was 'what Paris ought to be'. Off the Royal Mile, the Writers Museum presents a personal side to the lives of Scotland’s authors: exhibits include Robert Burns’ writing desk. City writers had fingers in other bowls besides the inkwell however: Sir Walter Scott even helped rediscover Edinburgh Castle’s Crown Jewels. Native artist Harry Raeburn preferred the city to both London and Rome: his The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch is one of Scotland’s most iconic artworks. More recently, JK Rowling
spent time in cafes such as the Elephant House drafting tales about a certain boy magician.

Drop into bizarre Surgeons’ Hall Museum and discover Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, among other medical oddities.

2. St Petersburg

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If street names sound familiar on your first visit to St Petersburg, it’s because they feature so heavily in Russian novels. Gogol, Dostoevsky and Turgenev all lived along grand thoroughfare Nevsky Prospekt and the city’s heart was frequently at the core of their work. There are more literary museums here than you can shake a ballpoint at, from the house of Pushkin (whose writing tackled the snobby superficiality of the St Petersburg wealthy) through to the digs
of Dostoevsky (whose novel Crime and Punishment contrastingly focused on the city’s deprived). Continue jaunting through literary history at the Nabokov Museum, the writer’s birthplace and subject of several of his books.

3. Buenos Aires

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It’s easy to tap into BA’s surging literary vibe: mainly because it’s so cheap to while away hours in the elegant cafes where the city’s best writers hung (and still hang) out. The San Telmo and Palermo coffeehouses are ideal for espresso-sipping with the artsy in-crowd today whilst the city centre’s glam Café Tortoni was formerly frequented by famed Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges. Borges’ house lies in Recoleta; his fictional El Aleph, the spot encompassing all other points in the universe, is supposedly located on San Telmo’s Juan de Garay St. Finish your literary tour at Palermo’s Garden of the Poets, bursting with writerly busts from Borges to Dante.

Treat yourself to San Telmo’s tangothemed Mansion Dandi Royal Hotel, and learn Argentina’s national dance at the attached Tango Academy.

4. Valparaíso

Image by Harry Plotter (original)

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda arguably did more than any other poet to preserve his country in words and Valparaíso, his home for many years, inspired him to plenty. He even dedicated a poem to his La Sebastiana house here, now a museum to the poet’s life. Valparaíso is a visual stunner and others too have been moved to make art by its colourful twisting alleyways. Novelist Isabel Allende has set fiction here whilst cartoonist Renzo Pecchenino (aka Lukas) adored the cityscape so much he recommended every aspiring architect should study there. Valparaíso has a museum devoted to his works.

Gran Hotel Gervasoni is a throwback to Neruda’s Valparaíso: full of haughty period furnishings and perched high up in the city’s hills.

5. Mumbai

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Being Bollywood’s capital hasn’t deviated Mumbai’s sizzling cultural scene from its strong literary traditions and legacy of cutting-edge art. The city’s love affair with literature dates back some way: in 1804 Scottish historian James Mackintosh founded the Literary Society of Bombay, now located in the neoclassical Town Hall. Renowned writers reared here include Salman Rushdie: his Midnight’s Children is partly set in Mumbai. Ever since Independence the city has nurtured India’s most important art movements: savour Fort and Colaba district’s snazzy galleries, featuring the country’s most prominent artists.

Gallery Chemould has long showcased top contemporary talent including the Progressive Arts Movement, which shaped modern Indian artistic identity.

6. Havana

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Without mentioning all that jazz, Cuba’s capital has been a big artistic draw. The American author Ernest Hemingway spent much of his later life in Havana. His former home here is now a museum – even the gin bottles used to make his cocktails are on display. Track the writer’s drinking trail to La Bodeguita del Medio, the bar where Hemingway liked to take his mojitos. Graham Greene visited Havana both before and after Castro’s takeover – his spy thriller Our Man in Havana is partly based on experiences there.

Check into Graham Greene’s favoured Havana hotel, the ornate 130-year-old Hotel Inglaterra.

7. London

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You could plot a long, long literary pilgrimage around London, a city immortalised by writers from Charles Dickens to John Betjeman. In Bloomsbury, check out the Charles Dickens Museum in the author’s former dwellings; the Bloomsbury Group, including Virginia Woolf, later frequented the district. Make Marylebone your mecca for a detective fiction foray. Sherlock Holmes’ fictional house is at 221B Baker St, with a museum to the sleuth nearby; up at Regent’s Park, Wilkie Collins was inspired to write The Woman in White after witnessing a lady screaming from a balcony. Drink like the artistic greats in East London’s riverside pubs: Whistler and Turner patronised Wapping’s Prospect of Whitby whilst Dickens sang for his supper at The Grapes.

Start your literary pub crawl at The Prospect of Whitby (57 Wapping Wall); continue downriver to The Grapes (76 Narrow Street).

8. San Francisco

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Any self-respecting writerly romp in San Francisco should kick-start at City Lights Books. Owned by onetime Beatnik Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights published Allan Ginsberg’s then-radical Howl poem in 1956. San Francisco’s famous Six Gallery reading later became the event which brought the Beat Generation into public consciousness. Ken Kesey was then too young to become a fully-fledged beatnik but during nightshifts at Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital he gleaned inspiration to pen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Fittingly, given its colourful past, San Francisco also sports world-famous street art – visit the Mission District for some moving murals.

Maybe get a glimpse of Ferlinghetti himself whilst browsing at City Lights Books.

9. Prague

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As you might expect in a country whose first president was a renowned playwright, the Czech capital is a literary hotspot. Franz Kafka is among Prague’s most influential exports: don’t look any further than the Kafka Museum to get to the crux of the writer’s relationship with the city. The capital has spurned a bookstore’s worth of authors besides, including Milan Kundera, who writes about Prague politics and love during the 1960s and 1970s. The best spot for smooching with today’s top writerly talent? Try Tynska Literary Café – a favourite with Czech writers promoting work.

Get the low-down on Kafka’s life and times in Prague at Kafka Museum.

10. Mexico City

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‘The bottom of the road’ exclaims Jack Kerouac of Mexico City in On the Road and for a bunch of beatniks, Mexico’s main metropolis was the ultimate inspiration. The beatniks had riotous times here; not least in the Zona Rosa bar where William S Burroughs accidentally shot his wife in a William Tell–type stunt with a champagne glass. Artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived in the capital, creating a clutch of attractions: start with Rivera’s bright Aztec-influenced mural at the Museo de San Ildefonso, Kahlo’s Coyoacán house, or Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art), with works by both.

Party with the city’s chic at Zona Rosa’s Bar Milán (Calle Milán 18).