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How Travel Art Can Help Explain a Place
by Lizzie Davey

I imagine that for many of you, a visit to museums and galleries is high on your travel itineraries. It makes sense, really, as art can tell us so much about a place. Often though, people wander aimlessly through museums without really knowing what it is they are looking for.

Travel and art in LisbonBaskets at the Berardo Museum in Lisbon

In addition to pretty pictures, there are many kinds of art on offer - and not just inside the grand buildings of national museums or white cube galleries. All around you on the streets of cities, towns, and villages there is so much to learn through the visual art, so those who prefer the outdoors can still learn a lot about a place through its art.

I really enjoy exploring museums and galleries but I also keep an eye out for other visual aspects while I’m wandering around; I believe art is an important way to learn about a place.

The significance of street art

I know a lot of people who enjoy exploring the streets of a place and getting lost in the artwork that adorns the walls.

Street art isn’t just for livening up the streets - it can help you understand ideas and opinions of residents at a particular time. Street art is ephemeral, so you can assume that the views expressed hit on current trends and issues.

Mural in Evian - another kind of travel artStreet art in Evian, France, a reminder of the town's lakeside history (photo Leyla Giray Alyanak)

For example, what looks like a simple, aesthetically pleasing piece of street art could have political undercurrents and hint at the current state of society. Street art can tell you what’s important to residents, what they believe in, and what they are fighting for.

Look beyond the colour and brushstrokes and search for telltale slogans, and images and icons that have hidden connotations. Not only will you learn a little more about a place, but it’s also fun to interpret each piece in your own way. 

Travel art: mural in Red Hook, NYBright mural in Red Hook, Brooklyn, hints at its past as a major port (photo Leyla Giray Alyanak)

Architecture as history

I bet a lot of you get home from a trip and start going through your photos only to realise you’ve taken hundreds of photos of interesting buildings. I am absolutely guilty of this. It is completely normal to snap pictures of things we find visually pleasing or that are different from what we are used to.

Buildings aren’t just great photography subjects. They can also tell us about what design styles were popular in what era and when in history a place thrived the most (most buildings will probably be of one particular style).

As well as hinting at the history of a place, architecture can offer an insight into the climate – buildings painted white indicate a hot destination, while a series of modern buildings can suggest a potential earthquake or natural disaster from which a city recovered.

Look to contemporary examples of architecture, too, to get an idea of the kinds of styles that are valued at present, and to get an inkling of what the place might be like in the future.

travel artArchitecture, the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake
Travel and architecture - French village of OingtFrench village of Oingt, whose small windows and doors protect it from the winter winds (photos Leyla Giray Alyanak)

Churches - all about belief systems

Churches often go hand-in-hand with museums and are a popular attraction for tourists. Even if you’re not religious, visiting churches will help you determine which religions are dominant about a certain location and to learn more about its religious past.

Knowing when most of the churches were built and a look at their frescoes will help reveal a place's religious origins and influences. 

Church exteriors can guide you towards a specific era while indoors, the windows, frescoes, and paintings will reveal what aspects of religion were important and what ideas most valued.

Artistry of Basilica of BrugesBasilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium

National museums, always a must-see

I know I mentioned national museums at the beginning, but I want to touch on them briefly again because I believe they are extremely important for learning about the history of a place – not just in terms of real-life events, but also in how a place has evolved. You can learn what values have changed, find out what was important in the past and compare it to what is important today, and see how daily life has evolved over the years.

This is evident in everything from traditional clothing that might be on display (why was one item particularly popular in the past? Is it because it went hand-in-hand with a traditional activity?) to the sculpture techniques  (what tools were available then and now?) and the progression of painting styles.

Contemporary art galleries, going local

Where national museums can highlight how things have changed, contemporary art galleries show you what’s important today. Similarly to street art, you can uncover trending political issues and values that are important. Artists are often inspired by their surroundings, too, so local artists’ work will be imbued with the destination, but it will be represented from their viewpoint – a great way to get an insight into how locals view their home.

As you can see, art is so much more than just a pretty picture. It can be an amazing tool for learning about a place, whether it’s an insight into history, climate, religious beliefs, or political standpoints - and it’s great fun at the same time!

Sculptures and statues

Sculptures are commonplace everywhere in the world – whether to commemorate a past leader or simply an ornate display, they are a great way to find out more about a place. Very rarely will you find a sculpture dumped in an insignificant location for no reason. More often that not, there is a story behind why it is there and what it represents.

The vast majority of sculptures will have a label on them or near them with the artist's name, as well as the significance of the piece. This is the starting point and from here you can always research more. I have learnt a lot about places through sculptures because I find that they expose me to history and stories that I might otherwise have not encountered.

Colorful outdoor animal sculptures in PortugalContemporary animal sculptures in Sintra, Portugal

Travel art in action: a Ljubljana case study

To see how we can learn more about a place through its art works, I've taken Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana as an example.

Street art

The street art in Ljubljana is bright and with few macabre scenes showing, perhaps, that it is a happy city with few major issues. A few little phrases dotted around, such as “Capitalism is boring” and “Normal = Bad word” show another side to the vibrant murals. 

Architecture

Ljubljana boasts a wildly varying collection of buildings – from elaborate, colourful facades to sleek, modern offerings. In the old city you’ll find a mixture of Gothic and Baroque architecture, whilst the outskirts boast more modern designs, usually low and cubic with masses of glass. Walking into the old town from the outskirts is similar to taking a walk back in time.

Churches

Ljubljana has a number of churches as well as a central cathedral. This reveals that the predominant religion is Catholicism and the Venetian-style exteriors of the religious buildings point to the Baroque period.

National museums

The National Museum of Slovenia (also the Natural History Museum) has a huge display of rocks and precious gemstones, showing these are an important part of the city’s history. Downstairs, an entire room is dedicated to puppets and puppetry which obviously an important aspect of life in Ljubljana at one point.

Contemporary art galleries

Ljubljana has a number of contemporary art galleries with work by local artists as well as artists from the rest of Europe and beyond. The Graphic Design Museum, for example, highlights the value of product design throughout the city, and the limited selection of works available to see at the Museum of Contemporary Art give a very pointed insight into what themes and issues are important today.

As you can see, Barcelona or Florence are not the only huge art centers where art can teach you something. 

Sculptures and statues

Ljubljana is home to numerous sculptures, from golden artistic wonders to stone fountain designs. Take the dragon statue, for example, which sits on the Dragon Bridge and represents the city’s coat of arms: it signifies strength and courage.

Amazing dragon statuary in Ljubljana - travel artLjubljana's Dragon Bridge, in all its power and majesty (Central Slovenia Tourism)

Art questions to ask yourself when you travel

If you'd like to better understand a place through its art, you could start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is it?
  • Who or what made it?
  • What is it made from and is that significant?
  • Why is it in this particular place?
  • What else is around it and can I make any connections?
  • Do I like it? If yes, what do I like about it? If no, what do I not like about it?
  • Is there a story behind it?
  • What relevance does it have today?
  • Can I learn more about it elsewhere?
  • What does it say about the past of the place? What does it say about the future?

Lizzie Davey is the founder of Wanderarti.com, a site that combines the wonder of travel and the creativity of art. She is a keen art enthusiast who loves to travel, and you will most likely find her wandering (lost) around the streets of a European city, inside an art gallery, or enjoying a nice cup of tea in a café with a view.  You can get more travel art tips and guides on FacebookTwitter, and by signing up for the Wanderarti newsletter.

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