The world's greatest cities for music lovers

Chris Leadbeater
·20-min read
performer in new orleans - Getty
performer in new orleans - Getty

For all the perils of the past 10 months, music has been a great constant – the firm friend who has stayed with us, providing solace with inspiring songs and favourite tracks; a consolatory sound-track to tough times that is never inaudible, however hard the wind is howling outside the door. It will be that way when normality returns, for it is almost impossible to travel and not encounter the sounds and rhythms that help define a destination.

Indeed, the planet is dotted with cities that dance to, delight in and listen to their own particular musical style – whether in a beachfront bar, a gleaming club or a noble opera house. Here, we take a look at 25 of them, both as a reminder of the fabulous artists and creative geniuses who have come before – and as an encouragement to take holidays and make journeys in future times. Because if troubled days need a soundtrack, a happier aftermath will certainly demand it.

THE USA

New York

Where to start with the Big Apple’s contribution to music? The soul and gospel that has spilt from Harlem for over a century? The ghostly tones of Charlie Parker’s saxophone, which poured from the same district? The Greenwich Village folk scene into which Bob Dylan slipped in 1961? The punk scene that crystallised around CBGB in the East Village during the late 1970s, just as disco was glitter-balling at Studio 54? Any of it. All of it.

new york at dusk - Getty
new york at dusk - Getty

Key location: The Apollo Theater (apollotheater.org) in Harlem, where Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet has squealed and the voices of Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding have soared.

Essential track: Blondie: Heart of Glass (1979).

How to do it: A week’s break to the four-star James New York, flying from Heathrow on Aug 21, starts at £698 per person via British Airways Holidays (0344 493 0787; ba.com/holidays).

Los Angeles

Forget the broad smiles and easy ­harmonies served up by the Beach Boys. The music created in Los Angeles has long been soaked in attitude, from the hard hip-hop of NWA’s groundbreaking 1988 album Straight Outta Compton to the unabashed ­overtones of urban sleaze that shape plenty of the tracks by Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns N’ Roses, and the later ­segments of The Doors’ catalogue. Think less Surf’s Up, more Wild West (Coast).

Key location: The Rainbow Bar & Grill (rainbowbarandgrill.com), the Sunset Strip hotspot where most of the city’s significant bands have lived, loved, laughed and loitered.

Essential track: NWA: Express Yourself (1989).

How to do it: A seven-night dash to the four-star Grafton On Sunset, flying from Heathrow on July 3, starts at £1,048pp with Virgin Holidays (0344 472 9646; virginholidays.co.uk).

Detroit

Michigan’s biggest city gave us Madonna, Iggy Pop, Jack White and Eminem. But for anyone with soul, Detroit will always be Motown. The record label that rose on West Grand Boulevard in 1959 was as potent a music factory as the planet has seen, making stars of Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and a vast constellation of talent.

 Motown Museum-Hitsville, Detroit - Getty
Motown Museum-Hitsville, Detroit - Getty

Key location: The original offices and recording facilities, including Studio A, where so much magic was committed to tape.

Essential track: Marvin Gaye: I Heard it Through the Grapevine (1968).

How to do it: America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) offers a 16-day Great Lakes Fly-Drive that visits Detroit. From £1,553 per person, including flights.

Memphis

Elvis Presley casts a long shadow over the Tennessee city where he had his mansion (graceland.com). But it is a world-wearier genre that has washed through its centre since the 1910s, when the Memphis blues were born. Beale Street may be a bright bar zone now, but in the likes of B B King’s Blues Club (bbkings.com) it retains its soul.

Key locations: Memphis Music Hall of Fame (memphismusichalloffame.com) covers the city’s story in detail; Sun Studio (sunstudio.com) has produced some of its finest records.

Essential track: B B King: Lucille (1968).

How to do it: Trafalgar (0800 533 5619; trafalgar.com) offers a 10-day Tastes and Sounds of the South group tour, from £2,472pp; flights extra. This includes two nights in Memphis.

Nashville

Tennessee’s capital is a musical cauldron that was due to add to its attractions this month with the National Museum of African-American Music (nmaam.org). But it remains the centre-point of the cowboy-hatted genre – as its colossal Country Music Hall of Fame (countrymusichalloffame.org) shows.

Key location: The Grand Ole Opry (opry.com) has hosted the likes of Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and Keith Urban.

Essential track: Dolly Parton: Jolene (1973).

How to do it: The 10-day Bluegrass and Bourbon Trail road trip offered by Hayes & Jarvis (020 8106 2403; hayesandjarvis.co.uk) ends in Nashville. From £1,999 per person, with flights.

New Orleans

For all the mayhem of Mardi Gras, the Big Easy’s greatest contribution to culture is the skittering beats and quirky time signatures that sprouted in its African-American community at the start of the 20th century. Jazz bloomed in the city to such an extent that its airport is now named after one of its foremost exponents – local boy Louis Armstrong.

New Orleans - Getty
New Orleans - Getty

Key location: Dating to 1961, Preservation Hall (preservationhall.com) is the flame keeper of French Quarter jazz.

Essential track: Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five: Heebie Jeebies (1926).

How to do it: The last three days of the eight-night Southern Gold group tour offered by Luxury Gold (0800 206 1468; luxurygold.com) are in New Orleans. From £3,680 per person, flights extra.

Seattle

Washington was never comfortable with the fame it achieved in 1991 as the epicentre of grunge, and has slipped back into its role as an arty outsider – all noisy bars, coffee shops, galleries, thrift stores – at the north-west corner of the US. Of course, it was this vibe that made it a proving ground for Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam in the first place.

Key location: The Museum of Pop Culture (mopop.org), which salutes the city’s 1990s stars and Jimi Hendrix, its original (and greatest) guitar-slinger.

Essential track: Nirvana: Come as You Are (1992).

How to do it: The 12-night Great Pacific Northwest road trip offered by Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk) spends two days in Seattle. From £2,125 per person, with flights.

Miami

The Florida city is not alone in embracing “EDM”. But in the party ambience of its beaches, and the clubs where visitors flock, it is a loyal ally of the flash “electronic dance music” that has become one of the most dominant genres of the 21st century. Its Ultra Music Festival – usually every March (ultramusicfestival.com) – pulls in 200,000 revellers.

Key location: Liv, the nightclub (livnightclub.com) at the Fontainebleau.

Essential track: David Guetta & Morten: Kill Me Slow (2020).

How to do it: A seven-night getaway to the five-star Fontainebleau, departing from Heathrow on Aug 7, costs from £1,535 per person through Tui (020 3451 2688; tui.co.uk).

CLASSICAL EUROPE

Bonn

This small Rhine-side city’s biggest boast is not that it was the West German capital from 1949 to 1990 (though this informs its superb museums, such as the Haus der Geschichte; hdg.de), but that Ludwig van Beethoven was born on Bonngasse on Dec 17 1770.

Key locations: His birthplace is now preserved as the Beethoven-Haus museum (beethoven.de). Beethovenhalle concert hall is being refurbished, but will resume its role as a temple to his music as soon as it reopens in 2024 (beethovenhalle.de). Essential music: Symphony No 9 (1824).

How to do it: A four-night getaway to the riverfront Hilton Bonn, departing from Stansted on July 21, costs from £220 per person through Expedia (020 3788 0445; expedia.co.uk).

Leipzig

Saxony’s largest city can claim a remarkable relationship with some of classical music’s greatest composers. Bach lived and worked in the German city between 1723 and 1750. Wagner was born on one of its main streets, the Bruhl, in 1813. Mahler was second conductor at the Leipzig Opera (oper-leipzig.de) at the Augustusplatz from 1886 until 1888. Mendelssohn died at his home, on Goldschmidtstrasse, in 1847. The house is now a museum (mendelssohn-stiftung.de).

Key location: The Bach Archive, a huge resource dedicated to the man (bach-leipzig.de).

Essential music: Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 5 (1721).

How to do it: Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com) has an eight-day tour to the Leipzig Mahler Festival planned for May 17 (from £3,980, with flights) and a Wagner in Leipzig opera break scheduled for June 19-27 2022 (from £3,390 with flights).

Vienna

Salzburg is forever on the map as the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (in 1756), but it was in Vienna that he wove much of his magic – performing for royalty at the Schönbrunn Palace (schoenbrunn.at) at the age of six, and holding piano concerts in what is now the National Library (onb.ac.at) in 1786. His music often haunts the Musikverein (musikverein.at), the home of the Vienna Philharmonic, where the works of other Austrian luminaries (Haydn, Strauss, Schubert, Schönberg) are also given regular airings.

Vienna - Getty
Vienna - Getty

Key location: The Mozarthaus (mozarthausvienna.at), where he lived from 1784 to 1787.

Essential music: Mozart’s Requiem (1791).

How to do it: Titan Travel (0808 278 9024; titantravel.co.uk) visits Vienna and Salzburg on its 10-day Danube Melodies cruise, from £1,999 per person.

St Petersburg

Composers are as common as cathedrals in the epic backstory of Russia’s second city. Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Stravinsky were all students at the St Petersburg Conservatory – where Rimsky-Korsakov was a professor from 1871 to 1905.

Key location: The Mariinsky (mariinsky.ru/en), the mecca of ballet and opera where Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty enjoyed its premiere in 1890, and his Nutcracker in 1892.

Essential music: Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7 (1942), which is dedicated to the city.

How to do it: The Baltic Travel Company (020 8233 2875; baltictravelcompany.com) offers a five-day St Petersburg Sightseeing getaway from £860 per person, including flights.

Milan

Never let it be said that Milan is only about fashion and football. The Lombardy capital has an unbreakable bond with opera – Verdi, Ponchielli and Puccini lived and composed their masterpieces within its genteel confines.

The cast of the opera La Tosca at Teatro Alla Scala - Getty
The cast of the opera La Tosca at Teatro Alla Scala - Getty

Key location: La Scala (teatroallascala.org), the much-revered opera house, inaugurated in 1778, which witnessed the premieres of Verdi’s Nabucco (1842), Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), Ponchielli’s La Gioconda (1876) and ­Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904).

Essential music: Puccini’s Turandot (1926) – another Scala debutante.

How to do it: Pettitts Travel (01892 250 909; pettitts.co.uk) offers a four-day Milan Opera Break from £598 per person, including flights and tickets for a performance at La Scala.

THE CARIBBEAN

Kingston

If most tourism in Jamaica understandably focuses on the island’s lovely beaches, it also underscores the capital’s ongoing status as the cradle for the Caribbean’s most distinctive genre. Bob Marley is hardly forgotten, but Kingston has also forged the careers of reggae giants from (sadly recently departed) Toots Hibbert to Chronixx, the latest bright young thing.

Key location: The Bob Marley Museum (bobmarleymuseum.com) remembers the king of reggae in the house where he lived, recorded and survived an assassination attempt in 1976.

Essential track: Bob Marley: Could You Be Loved (1980).

How to do it: Explore (01252 883747; explore.co.uk) offers a 10-day Explore Jamaica group tour that charts the island in depth, including Kingston. From £2,633 per person, with flights.

Havana

There is a certain amount of misconception about salsa, the genre that, though defiantly Cuban in soul – all infectious rhythm and brass flourishes – actually originated with the island diaspora in New York in the 1960s. But that doesn’t mean you won’t hear it in Havana, where it shimmers alongside “son cubano”, the more restrained music of pre-revolutionary Cuba – as was notably revived in the 1990s by Buena Vista Social Club.

havana - Getty
havana - Getty

Key location: Casa de la Musica, on Calle Galiano, where the dancing never stops.

Essential track: Celia Cruz & Johnny Pacheco: Saludo Celestial (1978).

How to do it: G Adventures (020 7313 6953; gadventures.com) offers a 16-day Salsa & Snorkelling group tour – aimed at 20-something travellers – which dives and dances in equal measure (including salsa lessons). From £1,104 per person (flights not included).

CONTEMPORARY EUROPE

Berlin

It would be wrong to say that techno originated in the German capital – Detroit deserves the credit there. But it became the soundtrack of reunification after the Berlin Wall fell – its unpretentious accessibility, pounding beats and euphoria rush bringing East and West together for raves in abandoned buildings, and all-night parties in dingy but packed clubs.

Key location: Tresor, one of the clubs of the era, is still in operation (tresorberlin.com).

Essential track: D-Shake: Techno Trance (Paradise Is Now) (1990).

How to do it: A four-night mini-break at the four-star Melia Berlin, departing from Bristol on June 23, costs from £375 per person with Last Minute (0871 277 1070; lastminute.com).

Stockholm

Abba is not the only act to have emerged in Sweden’s capital, but you might not know it, such is the fondness in which the 1974 Eurovision-winning foursome are held. More than 200 million record sales and two divorces later, Stockholm is happy to eulogise them, too.

The ABBA Museum, Stockholm - Getty
The ABBA Museum, Stockholm - Getty

Key location: Abba The Museum (abbathemuseum.com) takes a sweetly nostalgic look at the group – not just in a broad range of costumes and memorabilia, but in a hologram karaoke set-up that lets you become a “fifth member”, and sing “with” the band on stage.

Essential track: Abba: Waterloo (1974).

How to do it: A three-night stay at the five-star Nobis Hotel costs from £786 per person, including flights and transfers, via Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com).

Lisbon

The Portuguese capital’s cultural tapestry is threaded with soft strands of fado – the often mournful musical style that took form in the city in the early 19th century. Numerous fine practitioners of the genre have appeared in that time, including Amalia Rodrigues, Carlos do Carmo and Antonio Zambujo, but their songs share the same melancholy.

Key locations: Fado’s roots are buried in the Alfama district – where the Clube de Fado (clubedefado.pt) offers dinner as well as music. The Museu do Fado (museudofado.pt) salutes an art form that has been on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2011.

Essential track: Amalia Rodrigues: Maria Lisboa (1962).

How to do it: A four-night stay at the five-star Pousada de Lisboa, flying from Gatwick on June 16, starts at £717 per person via easyJet Holidays (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com/holidays).

San Antonio

A town in size, a giant in reputation, this hedonistic enclave on the west coast of Ibiza has been described as “the clubbing capital of the universe”. It’s a fair description, thanks in particular to the two “superclubs’’ – Es Paradis (esparadis.com) and Eden (edenibiza.com).

Key location: Cafe Del Mar (cafedelmaribiza.es), the waterfront bar that has been a popular haven for sunset cocktails and lunchtime (or thereabouts) recoveries since 1980.

Essential track: Saffron Stone: Love Trap (2019).

How to do it: A seven-night break at the town’s Ibiza Rocks Hotel, flying from Manchester on Aug 7, starts at £1,061 a head, with Jet2 Holidays (0800 408 6260; jet2holidays.com).

SOUTH AMERICA

Rio de Janeiro

Few places are as closely tied to a musical style as Rio is to samba – the seductive mix of drum beats and dance that speaks as much of the West African DNA in Brazil’s gene pool as its most famous city’s love of a party. However, this century has seen the arrival of pagode – a slower, saccharine subgenre of samba that racks up streams in the millions.

Botafogo bay, Rio de Janeiro  - Getty
Botafogo bay, Rio de Janeiro - Getty

Key location: The Sambadrome (sambadrome.com) – the hallowed arena where 90,000 people gather to watch the samba schools shake, every evening during the Rio Carnival.

Essential track: Ferrugem: Voce e Eu (2018).

How to do it: Rio has pushed its 2021 Carnival back to July 11-12 (riocarnaval.org) – which may make a trip plausible. Journey Latin America (020 3733 8024; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers a nine-day Rio Carnival Holiday from £3,120 per person, not including flights.

Buenos Aires

It is, of course, the intuitive movements of the body-pressed participants that make tango, Argentina’s (and Uruguay’s) most passionate dance, such a remarkable spectacle. But the music that has underpinned it since the late 19th century – the melodies often paired with lyrical outpourings of sadness and lost love – helps give the art form its supple grace.

Key location: The Teatro Astor Piazzolla (teatroastorpiazzolla.com), the belle époque joy, named after the Argentine tango composer, where you can watch professionals twirl.

Essential track: Carlos Gardel: El Dia Que Me Quieras (1935).

How to do it: Latin Routes (020 8546 6222; latinroutes.co.uk) offers an eight-day tango holiday in Buenos Aires that includes six private lessons. From £1,948 per person, including flights.

AFRICA

Addis Ababa

Such is the rare elevation of Ethiopia’s main city – 7,726ft up in the Entoto Mountains of eastern Africa, the ­continent’s highest capital – that it has developed its very own type of jazz. Less traditional than its American cousin, pulling in strands of soul and funk, “ethio-jazz” is an intoxicating brew, ­forever stirred by its godfather, Mulatu Astatke.

Key location: The African Jazz Village (facebook.com/TheAfricanJazzVillage), a venue founded by Astatke (at the Ghion Hotel), where nightly gigs bring the genre into focus.

Essential track: Mulatu Astatke: Mascaram Setaba (1972).

How to do it: The nine-day Ethiopian Highlands holiday offered by Steppes Travel (01285 880 980; steppestravel.com) starts and ends in Addis Ababa. It costs from £2,400 per person, excluding flights.

Mindelo

So small that you might overlook it, tucked into the north-west coast of Sao Vicente in Cape Verde, Mindelo is nonetheless the spiritual home of a musical style. Morna is all but a tale of the islands’ history, combining a Latin lilt from the Portuguese era with Creole and African rhythms. Cesaria Evora, its most feted figure, lived her whole life in the city.

Mindelo beach - Getty
Mindelo beach - Getty

Key location: Casa da Morna, a waterfront restaurant-cum-bar, which gives the genre gentle exposition every Friday and Saturday night (facebook.com/casadamornamindelo).

Essential track: Cesaria Evora: Voz d’Amor (2003).

How to do it: Cape Verde Experience (01489 866 969; capeverde.co.uk) offers a four-night Sao Vicente ­Carnival package that can be added on to a beach holiday, from £799 per person.

ASIA

Mumbai

Bollywood would be only half the phenomenon it is without the ever-flamboyant music that soundtracks its biggest movies. Mumbai is the heart of it.

Key locations: The National Museum of Indian Cinema (filmsdivision.org/nmic.html). The vast Film City studio (filmcitymumbai.org), part of the tour sold by viator.com, from £90 per person.

Essential track: Nadeem-Shravan: Dheere Dheere Se (1990).

How to do it: The 11-night Contrasts of Mumbai & Goa holiday offered by Audley Travel (01993 627181; audleytravel.com) enjoys three days in the city. From £2,540pp, with flights.

Seoul

In one sense, there is nothing new about the sonic catnip of (Korean) K-Pop. But, at present, it is the biggest music movement on the planet – impervious both to Covid-19 and the indifference of older generations.

Seoul - Getty
Seoul - Getty

Key location: SM Town in Gangnam, where you can meet K-Pop stars (smentertainment.com).

Essential track: BTS: Dynamite (2020).

How to do it: Transindus (020 8566 3739; transindus.co.uk) offers a 13-night South Korea Explorer trip, which spends five days in Seoul. From £4,830 per person, including flights.

MELODY IN THE UK

When it comes to music and the cities of the UK, all roads invariably lead to Liverpool, where the Fab Four are still celebrated on a daily basis, a full half-century after the band split up. Both The Beatles Story (beatlesstory.com; £16) and the Liverpool Beatles Museum (liverpoolbeatlesmuseum.com; £15) tell a well-worn but much-loved tale, the latter through a large collection of rare memorabilia. The Cavern Club, where the young musicians cut their teeth (cavernclub.com), is still fully in operation as a venue.

Elsewhere in the city, the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney (in Woolton and Allerton respectively) are safeguarded by the National Trust. Combined tours of the two can be arranged (nationaltrust.org.uk/beatles-childhood-homes; £24). There have, of course, been other British acts since the release of Let It Be. Manchester has been responsible for a few of them, from Joy Division, New Order and The Smiths through Britpop boomers such as Oasis to modern-day acts including The 1975 and Everything Everything. In short, the city is the perfect location for the British Music Experience (britishmusicexperience.com; £15), which takes an immersive approach to 70 years of culture, including a Dance The Decades exhibit, which shows off the moves of yesterday.

The capital’s place in music history is perhaps encapsulated by Handel & Hendrix in London (handelhendrix.org; £10) – the Mayfair museum that preserves the neighbouring apartments in which George Frideric and Jimi lived, one door and two centuries apart. Of course, neither man was a Londoner, but it isn’t hard to find local landmarks, whether it be the alley where the cover of The Clash’s (1977) debut was shot, in Camden Market (camdenmarket.com), or 23 Heddon Street in Piccadilly, which adorns the front of David Bowie’s (1972) …Ziggy Stardust… album. A shortish hop away in Marylebone, the Royal Academy of Music Museum (ram.ac.uk/museum) is a trove of antique instruments.

camden town - Getty
camden town - Getty

Cardiff has played a role in the careers of Welsh acts from Tom Jones to Manic Street Preachers, and keeps the music playing at both the National Museum Cardiff (museum.wales/cardiff) and at Spillers Records, the city institution that is regarded as the oldest record shop in the world (dating to 1894; spillersrecords.uk).

Glasgow, meanwhile, has been a factory for iconic bands (Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand, Simple Minds). Most of them have played the Barrowlands (barrowland-ballroom.co.uk), the esteemed gig venue that first unbolted its doors in 1934 (and holds occasional open days). But then, you can find music in just about every corner of the United Kingdom.

If rich harmonies are your thing, the Treorchy Male Voice Choir (treorchymalechoir.com) has been hitting its notes in the Rhondda Valley since 1883, and give regular renditions of what is one of the most distinctive sounds in the world; a tradition that speaks of collieries and close-knit communities.

The same is true of the brass bands that are part of the soul of Yorkshire. And while this year’s Yorkshire Brass Band Championships have been cancelled by Covid-19, the next edition is already slated for March 5-6 2022 (www.regional-contest.org.uk/yorkshire).