Every traveller has their own definition of culture. Whether it has something to do with social customs and rituals or is inscribed into the local art, literature and architecture, the culture of a place can be what initially inspires our travels and is one of the most meaningful aspects we take back home with us.
In Lonely Planet’s new book Culture Trails our experts have scoured the globe to bring you 52 adventures into some of the world’s richest cultural enclaves. From myths to legendary outlaws, rock stars to rock-hewn churches, incredible artisanal markets and unusual street art, here's a round-up of our 10 favourite culture trips for the curious traveller.
Myths and legends of old Hong Kong – China
Deities, filial offsprings, fantastical creatures and more — Hong Kong has inherited China’s enormous wealth of myths and legends. Alongside this dazzling collection of stories are the unique tales spun from major events in the city’s modern history.
Ghostly anecdotes about Sheung Wan and Western District are often found to have roots in the Bubonic Plague that swept through these parts in 1894. Reports of mystery wailings and poltergeist sightings are de rigueur at sites where people had been executed by the Japanese military in WWII, such as Murray House and St Stephen’s College in Stanley.
But the most fascinating narratives in Hong Kong, arguably, are the urban legends, born of the fantasies, obsessions and taboos of ordinary Hong Kongers, and made wilder through decades of retelling, often outliving the circumstances that inspired them. Opium dens may be a thing of the past, but the tales of squandered fortunes and thwarted love may live on in an ancient operatic aria faintly heard on a minibus.
Brussels and the 9th art – Belgium
It may be the headquarters of the European Union, but there’s much more to Belgium’s capital than stuffy institutions and bureaucrats. Fun, friendly and cosmopolitan, it is also the irreverent European Capital of the Comic Strip.
Known as ‘La Bande Dessinee’ (shortened to BD and pronounced ‘bay day’), and grandly christened ‘The Ninth Art’, the humble comic strip here is a far more surreal, absurd and often political medium that lampoons politicians and addresses sensitive issues such as global warming, racism and terrorism.
Hergé’s Tintin may be Belgium’s most famous creation, but there is a whole universe of weird and wonderful characters waiting to be discovered by those who make a pilgrimage to Brussels — the laconic cowboy Lucky Luke, the bouncy spotted Marsupilami, cheerful Smurfs, and Asterix and Obelix, to name a few.
Ned Kelly’s bushranger trail – Australia
Ned Kelly: hero or villain? Or a bit of both? One thing that is certain is that the story of Australia’s legendary outlaw (1855-1880), a bushranger about whom we still talk today, is interwoven with one of the most beautiful and fascinating corners of Australia, the high country of northeast Victoria.
Numerous books and films have been produced about Ned’s exploits. Forget the films. Instead, bring two paper companions on this trail: local author Ian Jones’s Ned Kelly: A Short Life, for the facts, and Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang. It’s a rare treat to read a true story in a pub that the protagonist would have frequented.
The trail touches on the country towns about a three-hour drive northeast of Melbourne that sprang up during the 19th-century gold rush. Using the Hume Freeway out of Melbourne as the spine of the story, it’s possible to get an evocative snapshot of the legend and the man while travelling through the country he called home.
Capoeira in Salvador – Brazil
Once a proud Portuguese colonial settlement, Salvador was a stronghold in the New World during the 16th century. But the slave trade quickly cast a shadow over the brand-new city’s picturesque houses and wide beaches. It was in the senzalas — crowded, poorly maintained slave quarters — that the stage was set for the invention of a new art form: capoeira. This strand of martial arts, likely based on a ritualistic African dance, was created as a form of self-defence against oppressive masters. To disguise their training, early capoeiristas made their sport look more like acrobatics or dance, using simple percussion instruments to create rhythm and music.
In the early 20th century, two modern practitioners, Mestre Pastinha and Mestre Bimba, developed capoeira into two distinct schools, elevating the slaves’ self-defence system to a nationally recognised (and legal) art form. Today, Salvador da Bahia is the best place in the world to see real capoeira — in all its elegance, athleticism, and melancholy — in action.
Rock star London – England
The sound of London and its music history reverberates in everyone who has sung a song, played a tune or turned on a radio station. If you feel your heartbeat quicken at the opening chords of The Clash’s ‘London Calling’, get goosebumps as David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ looms louder, a little wistful at The Kinks’ ‘Days’ or downright teary at The Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, this culture trip is for you.
As you walk the streets of London, the clues might be as blatantly obvious as Abbey Road or one of the English Heritage blue plaques denoting a famous site, or musical memories may simply sneak up on you, courtesy of a sudden sighting (Baker Street, Victoria, or a Waterloo sunset).
Ancient religion of Ethiopia – Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s north is a world apart, the kind of place where ancient legends mingle with the country’s powerful brand of Orthodox Christianity. It is a world of white-robed pilgrims and stories that resonate down through the ages — it was here that the Queen of Sheba ruled and it is here that, Ethiopians believe, the true Ark of the Covenant resides.
Ancient Aksum is the epicentre of Ethiopian Christianity. Built upon the foundations of one of Africa’s most significant ancient civilisations Aksum is a heady mix of swirling incense and ritual chants, of sound and movement as the devout come to pay homage to the Ark. In Debre Damo and the rock churches of Tigray faith is a quieter affair of watchful priests and hard-won pilgrimages to reach barely accessible cave churches. And in Lalibela, the churches are architectural wonders of rare beauty, hewn from the rock as if by powerful kings aided by angels (as locals believe).
Finnish sauna culture – Finland
Despite below freezing temperatures and a sunset as early as 3pm, the Finns are embracing midwinter by hanging out in the sauna: a millennia-old tradition that began when the first settlers dug holes in the ground and filled them with hot stones.
Inside the sauna, it’s a toasty 80°C and silent but for the crackle of burning wood and the hiss of water being ladled on stones. Sweat-drenched and naked, the sauna-goers step outside and plunge joyously into a hole in the ice. The water so mind-numbingly cold it stings the skin and jump-starts the nervous system. After a beer and a vigorous whipping with a bundle of birch branches (to improve circulation and relax and detoxify the body), it’s time do the whole ritual again.
Fondly dubbed the ‘poor man’s pharmacy’, the sauna is at the very heart of Finnish culture. Finns go to the sauna to cleanse mind and body, to socialise and do business – name any important life event and you can bet your bottom dollar a sauna will be involved.
Salman’s Bombay – India
Mumbai’s — or rather Bombay’s — most famous literary son, and certainly its most controversial, Salman Rushdie has lived a life almost as extraordinary as the characters in his magical realist novels. From Midnight’s Children to The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s books have crisscrossed the subcontinent and the globe, but his most famous works are all, at heart, about Mumbai — its poverty and glamour, its prejudices and inequalities, and, ultimately, about its resilience and humanity.
Since then, Bombay has changed its name and exploded into a global megacity, but the places where Rushdie’s characters lived out their hyper-real existences can still be mapped to the streets of India’s fastest growing metropolis. Suspend disbelief and step into a Mumbai both real and imagined.
Bob Marley reggae trail – Jamaica
When it comes to music, Jamaica punches way above its weight: along with other music genres, it gave the world reggae, and reggae legend Bob Marley. Robert Nesta Marley was born in a tiny village in the north of Jamaica, but his creative awakening and growth took place in Kingston’s ghettos, and he is still very much part of Jamaica’s landscape; in some parts of the island he has acquired almost prophet-like status.
You can retrace the course of Marley’s life, musical creativity and death, in and around Kingston, though the rest of Jamaica, with its beautiful beaches and waterfalls, delicious spicy food, jungle-covered mountains and rich historical heritage, is a wonder to explore as well. February (‘Reggae Month’) is the best time to visit, with numerous shows and exhibitions around the city celebrating Marley’s birthday and his legacy.
Artisan Marrakesh – Morocco
Though Fez has traditionally been considered the artisan capital of Morocco, there has been a recent shift in the artistic winds. Marrakesh’s forward-thinking attitude has seen a raft of new-wave artisans and artists roost in the city, and the Marrakesh Biennale, founded by Vanessa Branson in 2004, has been the catalyst for the steadily multiplying galleries and museums.
Pretty much anything goes in Marrakesh nowadays — pop art and street art, Berber-inspired jewellery with a nouveau edge and one-of-a-kind crafts made from recycled junk. With artisans exploring pastures new while simultaneously embracing time-honoured techniques, Marrakesh’s creative star continues to rise.