One of the most exasperating things about traveling abroad is the language barrier. You want to connect with the people around you, to swap stories and share in their culture, but when you try to voice even the most basic ideas – either in your language or a shoddy attempt at theirs – you’re met with blank stares and well-meaning smiles.
It isn’t until a song comes on that you really start to understand each other. It could be a jovial beat, a sad croon or a triumphant suite of strings – you and whomever you are trying to communicate with will both intuitively understand it. It’s a bit of an old cliché, but it’s absolutely true: music is the universal language.
Some cities have music so firmly entrenched in their ethos that the street sounds practically make up a backbeat. And those are the cities we’re visiting today. The same way people travel for nature or food or sports, they travel for music, so it only seems right, in keeping with our series of “Bucket List Trips”, that we – ahem – face the music.
In the list that follows, you’ll find a collection of some of the greatest music cities on earth. As usual, any list of this kind comes with a symphony-sized caveat; music, like anything, is subjective, and so our recommendations for music cities are inevitably going to be coloured by personal experience, purview and taste. These biases aren’t reflected so much in what’s here as in what’s omitted. All that said, if you’re a music lover planning a trip, you’re going to love these 15 cities.
Just like “Wall Street” is used as a stand-in for the financial sector, or “The White House” is used to refer to the American government, “Nashville” is often a metonym for the country music scene as a whole. That’s how fundamental Nashville is to country music – and how fundamental country music is to Nashville.
With cultural landmarks like the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as countless Honky Tonk bars and live music venues, Nashville lives and breathes music. It was a coin toss as to whether we would include Nashville or its Tennessean sister, Memphis (the city that put Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Johnny Cash on the map, among others), but ultimately we went with the countrified option.
In the sweaty, sultry streets of New Orleans, you can often hear jazz wafting in from a nearby bar. During Mardi Gras, the city comes alive with music. And sporadically throughout the year (most Sundays, in fact) you can even find impromptu parades of people, called Second Lines, marching, dancing and playing music throughout the city.
Brass band, R&B and rock n’ roll are each powerfully represented in New Orleans, but its main claim to music fame is its jazz. Considered the birthplace of the influential genre, New Orleans birthed early progenitors of the form, including Louis Armstrong and Sidney Joseph Bechet.
Things can get awful swampy in the midst of a summer dance party in New Orleans, so pack some breathable merino wool clothing when you go!
“New York, New York”, “Empire State of Mind”, “Autumn in New York”, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”… There’s no shortage of songs written about the Big Apple. But its contributions to music often go overlooked in the shuffle of its other cultural contributions. That’s not to say New York is hurting for recognition; you just don’t immediately say to yourself, “Oh, that’s a music city” when you think of New York.
And yet, it’s been the proving ground for a lot of important scenes. The punk scene surrounding CBGBs, the folk heroes of Greenwich Village, the Hip Hop genre taking shape in the Bronx – these are all testaments to New York’s eclectic influence. Because of its ongoing artistic innovativeness, and its broad international pull, New York is, and will probably always remain, a world-class music city.
If the moody, rain-soaked streets of Seattle were going to produce any type of music, it was going to be grunge. New York may be the major label music city of the US, but Seattle is the indie darling. Best known as the birthplace of grunge, spitting out acts like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, Seattle is also home to countless indie acts (Modest Mouse, Death Cab and Fleet Foxes, to name a few) as well as the still-popular alternative label Sub Pop.
The mosh pits of old might have thinned out a bit, but Seattle is still a city obsessed with music. If you’re planning on heading to Seattle, pack a quick-drying merino t shirt or two – chances are, rain is in the forecast.
If music is the reason you finally make it to Montreal, so be it. This little slice of Europe imbedded in French Canada is attractive for many reasons, but music is definitely up there. Churning out Anglo indie acts like Arcade Fire, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, April Wine and Chromeo, as well as numerous Francophone and jazz acts, Montreal makes a strong case for being Canada’s premier music city.
Visit in the summer, when the city plays host to the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and you’ll be treated nearly 3,000 visiting artists from around the world. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the festival is the largest of its kind.
“My heart is in Havana… Havana ooh na na”. Those Camila Cabello lyrics were inescapable a couple years back, blasting out of nearly every department store speaker and pop radio playlist. Regardless of your thoughts on the song, it’s a welcome reminder that Havana is a music city to be reckoned with.
Cuban jazz dominates here, with salsa, rumba and mambo coming in close behind. Whatever the musical style, though, it serves an often-singular function: to make you dance. Whereas other music cities craft their style around spectatorship, Havana’s music isn’t meant to be passively enjoyed. You should out of your seat and working up a sweat.
Listed as a UNESCO City of Music, for its tireless dedication to a diverse range of musical expressions, as well as its frankly absurd amount of music festivals, Bogota is a music-lover’s paradise in South America. The Colombian city hosts around 60 music festivals in any given year, including Rock al Parque, a gigantic, free rock festival in the city’s Simon Bolivar Park that draws in acts – and fans – from all over South America.
If you’re a fan of open-air concerts, but are starting to get a little tired of the North American festival circuit, head south to Bogota. Colombia’s capital is a bustling, welcoming place to start your Southern Hemisphere music journey.
Like New York, London is so big that “music” probably isn’t the first thing that pops into your head. But its contributions to classical and popular music are indelible. On one end, you have the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic and the Royal Albert Hall, each presenting gorgeous takes on classical music. On the other, you have the London music scene that brought you punk acts like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, and pop acts like The Spice Girls and One Direction.
London’s music scene isn’t confined to the past though; the city continues to be the epicenter of many of the UK’s music scenes, from drum and bass and grime, to hip-hop and rock. And no music lover’s trip to London is complete without visiting Abbey Road Studios, where seminal acts like The Beatles and Pink Floyd recorded their most famous albums.
London is all about big acts and towering symphony spaces, but sail across the Irish Sea and you’ll find an altogether more intimate music. In Dublin, music is inescapable, with pub acts, buskers and impromptu sing-alongs dotting the city at night.
Sure, Dublin still has its fair share of famous acts (U2, Thin Lizzy, My Bloody Valentine and, more recently, the amazing post-punk act, Fontaines D.C.) but its musical heart still beats in the bars and underground venues. It can seem, sometimes, that every single Dubliner is musically gifted.
Berlin is incredibly cool. That being the case, it’s difficult to separate its musical contributions from its world-famous nightlife. Yes, the German capital has its share of punk, rap, jazz and metal, but when we think of Berlin, for better or for worse, we think of techno.
The DJ circuit has long been strong in Berlin, and that’s evidenced in the many nightclubs of Kreuzberg, Mitte and Nollendorf Platz. As the adage goes, if you want to dance all night, go to New York. If you want to dance all night, then all morning, then the next night, go to Berlin.
It’s not fair, really; we should have mentioned Berlin’s historical contributions to classical music. The only reason we didn’t, really, is because we knew we’d be following it with Vienna. The Austrian capital can also be reasonably referred to as Europe’s Classical Music Capital, laying claim to the Imperial periods of famous composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt and Brahms.
To this day, Vienna remains the preeminent spot for enjoying European Classical music, in renowned venues like the Burgtheater, the Staatsoper and the Wiener Musikverein. Pack your finest suit, and your finest pair of merino wool underwear too, because the music scene in Vienna is more of a… let’s say formal affair.
Music is a way of life for many Congolese people, a way to navigate through hardship and celebrate in times of ease. Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo and an artistic hub in the region, typifies this way of life.
Brazzaville, along with neighbouring Kinshasa – the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, if that’s not too confusing – is the birthplace of Congolese Rumba (AKA Rumba Lingala), a genre widely popular across Africa. Another of UNESCO’s recognized Cities of Music, Brazzaville is a must-see for music lovers looking to break out of the Western songbook.
This Vice article on the music of the post-apartheid generation in Johannesburg sums up what makes the city so exciting. The city’s up-and-coming black artists, no longer beleaguered and silenced by apartheid-era censorship, are speaking their minds and affecting real change. And they’re doing it all overtop some of the most infectious trap and hip-hop beats out there.
Add to that the wide range of traditional African musical acts, jazz acts, pop and EDM acts – you’ve got a wide array of music to enjoy. South Africa’s largest city is still reckoning with the deleterious after-effects of the apartheid, but music is helping push things forward.
A perennial favourite on our Bucket List articles, including our rundown of 18 stunning hikes from around the world, Japan also managed to secure a spot on this list. We were initially going to give the honours to the small city of Hamamatsu, where a number of prized musical instruments are made, but we figured that, since this is a list of travel destinations as well, we would go with the safe choice: Tokyo.
Tokyo is home to a burgeoning punk scene, a massively popular J-pop scene, countless jazz bars, numerous record stores, and an untold number of nightclubs. It also boasts traditional Japanese music, and world-class Western classical music.
It all started back in 1885, when an American Methodist missionary in Korea taught his pupils some American folk songs, but changed the words to Korean. Notably, he changed “Oh My Darling Clementine” to “Simcheongga”, and it was a hit with school kids. This is commonly cited as the origins of what we know now as “K-Pop”.
K-Pop is now an international phenomenon, but its feverishly devoted epicenter remains in Seoul. Catch a K-pop performance in the South Korean capital, or head to one of the city’s many underground clubs and bars, where live jazz, heavy metal and hip-hop routinely make the program.
Know of any music cities that should’ve made this list? Comment below and let us know where you’re traveling. And be sure to check out our ever-expanding collection of breathable, insulating, soft merino wool clothing, to keep you comfortable on even the sweatiest dance floors and coldest festival grounds.