Lonely Planet Writer

Can art save the world (or at least your town)?

Museums and galleries are major drawcards for many travellers and most big cities have some pretty impressive collections to check out. They’re a no-brainer, they’re easy to find, they’re often an integral part of your trip.

But ask yourself – would you ever have gone to Bilbao if the Guggenheim hadn't been there? How far would you go out of your way to take a chance on a place like this? An impressive gallery can transform the fortunes of a town (according to Forbes.com a visitor survey in 2002 revealed that '82% came to the city of Bilbao exclusively to see the museum or had extended their stay in the city to visit it' ) and twist the armature of your itinerary into a more interesting shape.

The Asturian city of Avilés hopes its spectacular Oscar Niemeyer Arts Centre will deliver the 'Guggenheim effect', bringing tourists to this coastal town in northern Spain. Featuring an open square, concert venues, galleries, a film centre, restaurants and a cocktail lounge among other things, this could be well worth a visit – and who knows what you might discover en route? Instead of just aiming for Madrid or Barcelona, a place like this arts centre can be the ideal impetus for a north-bound roadtrip to a seaside town. Alternatives open up when a cultural carrot is dangled off the beaten track.

Russian-bound lovers of culture would naturally hightail it to the knockout museums of Moscow and St Petersburg. But if you want to take it a little left-field, you could aim for the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art. Decide to detour to this gallery and not only will you get your fill of edgy contemporary and graphic art, you’ll also discover a riverside city with a continental climate, on the borders of Asia and Europe. Would you have gone there without the art motivation? Maybe not. But if you didn’t, imagine the unique Russian experiences you’d have missed out on.

People heading to Australia may gravitate to the well-known east coast cities of Sydney and Melbourne, but consider a trip way down south. The pretty Tasmanian city of Hobart is attracting many weekenders with the advent of the spectacular MONA (Museum of Old and New Art). Hobart is a fresh-aired and attractive city anyway, and Tasmania's luscious landscape has always attracted the outdoorsy types, but now the art lovers are booking flights down there for a dose of challenging art in architecturally wondrous surrounds. If it piques your interest, why not detour off the road more travelled? Going off-route can show you the flipside of a place and add another dimension to your view of it.

Or maybe you don't detour for art but for another reason. Maybe you prefer plants and flowers instead. Say you're headed to Atlanta, chances are you'd visit the enormous, luscious Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Or you could find out about something a bit more unique, like Finster's Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Georgia, and head to these overgrown, folk-art-filled acres instead. It might not be as easy to get there but isn't that half the fun?

Have you ever spun the compass and found yourself discovering another, unexpected, side of a country because of a gallery, museum - or any major attraction for that matter - that caught your eye? How far out of the way have you schlepped to make your pilgrimage? Was it worth it? Tell us your stories!