Experiencing other cultures is one of the most compelling reasons why we travel. A cultural tour can involve sampling exotic foods, exploring archaeological sites, enjoying traditional music and dance, visiting museums and galleries, or simply learning more about how local people live their lives.
With so many fascinating and unique cultures spread across the globe, it’s easy to forget just how much variety we have on our doorstep. You don’t have to fly halfway around the world to have an authentic and immersive travel experience; some of the world’s top cultural destinations are just a few hours from the UK by plane or train. Top short-haul destinations for a cultural break range from classic choices like the Renaissance cities of Italy, to more offbeat options like Albania and Transylvania.
Whether you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint, you’re unable to travel long distances due to health and mobility issues, or you simply hate the hassle of long-haul travel, you still have plenty of options for an exciting and enriching escape closer to home. With that in mind, we’ve put together a selection of some of our favourite short-haul destinations for a cultural tour...
Austria is famous for its breathtaking Alpine landscapes, ski slopes and cosy log cabins, but it’s also a country at the heart of modern European history, with a rich cultural heritage. This history comes to life in the capital, Vienna, with its imposing Habsburg palaces, world-class museums and famous concert halls. A Danube river cruise with the likes of Riviera Travel or APT is a great introduction to Austria’s artistic side, with time spent enjoying recitals and exhibitions in Vienna, plus the opportunity to visit Salzburg, famous as the setting for The Sound of Music and the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Italy is a destination that always has something to offer the culturally minded traveller, whether it’s your first visit or your fifty-first. Insight Vacations’ 9-night Easy Pace Italy tour showcases the three big hitters - Rome, Florence and Venice - with three nights to enjoy each city. Highlights include VIP access to the Vatican Museums, a wine and olive tasting in the Tuscan countryside, and a special celebration dinner in the heart of Venice. If you’ve already done the ‘big three’ there are countless tours focusing on Italy’s other cultural highlights, from Milan’s storied La Scala opera house to Puglia’s unique trulli houses, while top foodie destinations include Bologna and Palermo.
Morocco is just three hours from the UK by plane, separated from Europe by the narrow Straits of Gibraltar, yet it feels like another world. Arab, Berber and French influences combine to create a unique and complex culture, and a tour is the perfect way to explore in comfort. If you’re short on time we recommend Travel Talk Tours’ 9-night Exotic Morocco itinerary, which takes you from the hectic souks of Marrakech and Fes to the rolling dunes of the Sahara Desert for two unforgettable nights camping under the stars. Other cultural highlights include the magnificent Islamic architecture of Rabat the laid-back coastal town of Essaouira and the stunning ‘Blue City’ of Chefchaouen.
For decades Albania was closed off to the outside world, a hermit state toiling under the oppressive rule of the dictator Enver Hoxha. It’s only in recent years that the country has opened up, and a trickle of adventurous travellers are discovering a land of extraordinary natural beauty, ancient mountain traditions and warm hospitality. Adventure specialists Explore! offer an attractively priced 7-night Walking Albania tour taking you to some of the country’s most remote corners, including the traditional villages of the ‘Accursed Mountains’ and beautiful Lake Koman. You’ll also have some time in Albania’s capital, Tirana, with its eclecitic mix of Ottoman, Italian and Communist architecture.
It’s surprising how many Brits will tell you “I’ve still never been to Ireland”. If you’re in the same boat then now is the time to visit our neighbours across the water, and Luxury Gold’s superb Ultimate Ireland tour offers a deep dive into the local culture. You’ll meet author and Dubliner Trevor White for a drink and a chat, enjoy a truffle tasting session at a farmers’ market in Kilkenny, try your hand at Irish dancing in Blarney, and dine at Dublin’s Michelin-starred L’Ecrivain restaurant. The tour also features some of the highlights of Northern Ireland, including Belfast’s excellent Titanic Museum and the spectacular Giant’s Causeway.
Romania is a remarkably varied country; in the space of a few hours you can travel from the buzzing streets of the capital, Bucharest, to sleepy mountain villages where life has barely changed since medieval times. Head off the beaten track with Undiscovered Destinations on their 13-night Romania - The Land That Time Forgot tour and you’ll discover beautiful painted monasteries, quaint Saxon towns and the Transylvanian castle that inspired the legend of Dracula. This tour also features some incredible wildlife experiences, with the chance to spot brown bears in their natural habitat and a waterborne exploration of the Danube Delta, rich in birdlife and home to isolated fishing communities.
Bosnia might seem like an unlikely holiday destination, and it’s true that the scars of conflict have been slow to fade, but this corner of the Balkans has always been a real cultural crossroads, and it was recently featured on the BBC’s offbeat travel show The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan. Exodus have several tours visiting the region, and their 10-night Bosnia and Beyond itinerary is a great introduction, combining time in Bosnia with neighbouring Croatia and Montenegro. Highlights include the East-meets-West vibe of Sarajevo, with its charming old town, and the beautiful stone bridge of Mostar, Bosnia’s most iconic sight. You’ll also visit the traditional village of Lukomir, high in the mountains, and sample Herzegovinian wines at a family-owned vineyard in Trebinje.