Best of the World: eight unmissable cultural experiences for 2021 and beyond

Whether you’re interested in the arts, culinary culture or history, 2021 brings a host of new museums, festivals and anniversaries to mark.

By National Geographic's global travel editors
Published 17 Nov 2020, 12:50 GMT, Updated 19 Nov 2020, 11:10 GMT
Azulejo tiles at the Capela das Almas, Porto.

Azulejo tiles at the Capela das Almas, Porto.

Photograph by Getty Images

Old-world wine in a bold new setting

The introduction of cheap flight routes has led to Porto soaring in the city break rankings in recent years. Its dramatic, hilly layout lends itself to surprising discoveries: landscaped lookout points are snuck into the gaps between precipitous winding streets and, down on the banks of the Douro River, the Ribeira neighbourhood hints at the city’s rich Age of Discovery heritage. Elsewhere, Palácio da Bolsa is about as glamorous as a Chamber of Commerce building gets. Nearby, the Casa do Infante celebrates the man who made this wealth possible. A titan of Portuguese exploration, Henry the Navigator was supposedly born here, and the displays inside tell of how 15th-century adventures led to Portugal carving out lucrative chunks of Asia, Africa and South America.

And now, there’s a spanking new reason to visit Porto. The riverside Vila Nova de Gaia district has long been where the port wine that’s made further up the Douro River has been stored for export. Several of the wine houses offer tours and tasting, but the new World of Wine brings the whole wine story together.

Set inside former warehouses, it’s a much bigger endeavour than a simple wine museum. In fact, there are no fewer than six separate museums — covering chocolate, fashion, cork, drinking vessels and city history as well as wine — plus nine restaurants, shops and a wine school. The idea is for the new addition to act as a centrepiece to a newly invigorated cultural district, broadening the offering beyond looking at wine barrels in cellars. As additions to the city go, it’s a brave new opening for our times, a 55,000sq metre space that cost £95m and five years to come to fruition. 

From National Geographic Traveller UK

2. Coventry, UK

Community at the core of this year’s UK City of Culture

Metaphorically ‘sending someone to Coventry’ used to be a punishment, but how things have changed. As the UK’s City of Culture for 2021, the city that brought you Lady Godiva, the jet engine and Clive Owen will focus on making the arts more accessible in a radical rethinking of a traditional ‘city of culture’ programme. From the launch on 15 May, right through to May 2022, the calendar is jam-packed with events.

There are major ones such as the Turner Prize (29 September 2021 to 12 January 2022), to be held at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, and the UK Asian Film Festival (June, across the West Midlands). The RSC is co-contributing a socially distanced play, Faith. But there are also some exciting event-specific creations — such as CastAway, an all-female dance and movement show revolving around the single-use plastic crisis, to be staged on the water in Coventry Canal Basin in August, before touring central England’s canals and rivers.

Much of what’s on will revolve around social responsibility. CVX Festival (12-15 August) will bring together local, regional and national role models to work with the city’s young people on social change and unity. Theatre of Wandering (September) will be a pan-Coventry performance looking at life for dementia sufferers, and in November, six emerging local writers will produce a digital TV series, SeaView, based on the lives of a black working-class family. This is unmistakably a line-up for a post-Covid world, with community-strengthening at its core.

From National Geographic Traveller UK

Performers at the Festival of Pacific Arts, in Hagatna, Guam, share a traditional dance.

Photograph by Getty Images

Revisiting Magellan’s legacy in the Pacific

The 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the globe isn’t exactly a cause for celebration on Guam, a U.S. territory and largest of the Mariana Islands. During a three-day stopover in March 1521, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan killed indigenous Chamoru people and erroneously labelled the Islas de los Ladrones (‘islands of thieves’).

A Spanish naval vessel will stop in Guam in March 2021 as part of a commemorative voyage retracing the world-circling route launched by Magellan in 1519 and completed by Spanish navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano in 1522. For the Chamoru today, the arrival of the anniversary expedition is a chance to tell their story, one whose chapters include the Magellan encounter, Guam’s colonial history, and the realities of living at what’s dubbed the U.S. military’s ‘tip of the spear’ in the Pacific.

Guam’s complex story is reflected in the Chamorro language, which blends Spanish, English and Japanese. Young Chamorus are starting to embrace their culture, says Chamoru author and activist Michael Bevacqua.

“Chamoru is an Indigenous memory,” adds Bevacqua, who teaches free language lessons and encourages fellow Chamorus to voice their choice for the future of their island’s political status — whether statehood or independence. “To me, being able to speak Chamoru and pass it on is at the core of our culture and the identity of our people.”

From National Geographic Traveler US

4. Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain

Jazz legends in a cultural capital

In the interior of Spain’s tradition-rich Basque Country, one city claims the cultural crown. Vitoria, also known by its Basque name of Gasteiz, was historically a commercial and cultural crossroads due to its prime position on the shortest route connecting the medieval kingdom of Castile with Northern Europe.

Now, Vitorians continue the tradition of welcoming outside influences by hosting emerging and legendary jazz artists — such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, whose ‘Vitoria Suite’ pays tribute to the city — during the international Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival held each July. A bronze statue honouring Marsalis stands in the gardens of La Florida Park, Vitoria’s green lung and part of a ring of parks giving Vitorians more square feet of green space per inhabitant than any other Spanish city.

Urban nature conservation efforts coupled with a commitment to sustainable transport — a large part of the population travels by bicycle or tram — earned Vitoria-Gasteiz the title of European Green Capital back in 2012.

Planet-protecting Vitorians are equally passionate about preserving tradition, particularly in the historic quarter. The Gothic majesty of the Cathedral of Santa María tops a hill overlooking the centuries-old district. On streets that bear the names of medieval artisans’ guilds, locals throng bars and restaurants, sampling the habit-forming Basque version of tapas, known as pintxo. A plaza at the southern end of the old town is the site of an unusual celebration every August that honours the patron of the plaza — and of the city — la Virgen Blanca (the White Madonna). During the festival, a crowd gathers to watch an effigy of a Basque villager, known as Celedón, whiz down a zip-wire to start the party. On reaching a balcony, Celedón magically ‘becomes’ a real person who encourages the crowd to enjoy the revels.

From Viajes National Geographic Spain 

Tulsa’s new ‘Black Wall Street’ history centre, Greenwood Rising, will open in 2021 in the city’s Historic Greenwood District — site of one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history.

Photograph by Getty Images

A brave new hub for discussions on race

Greenwood Rising, the name of Tulsa’s new ‘Black Wall Street’ history centre, aptly describes the groundswell of support for sustainable socioeconomic transformation in the city’s Historic Greenwood District — site of one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history.

Beginning on May 31, 1921, white terrorists destroyed the prosperous Greenwood District, known as ‘Black Wall Street’, in an 18-hour assault, murdering around 300 Black residents and erasing nearly 35 blocks of Black-owned homes and businesses. To mark the centenary, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission is building Greenwood Rising (set to open in fall 2021) and is hosting speakers, concerts and other events throughout the year.

It’s hoped the history centre will be a catalyst for revitalising Historic Greenwood and for confronting and ending systemic racism in the U.S., says Phil Armstrong, project director of the Centennial Commission. “Greenwood Rising will be a launching pad for continuing the discussion of racial trauma and reconciliation, and the entire historic district will be a place where people can come to learn, acknowledge implicit bias, and personally commit to enacting real change within their own spheres of influence,” Armstrong says.

From National Geographic Traveler US

6. Tonglu, China

A storied Chinese landscape gets its first art festival

Completed in 1350, ‘Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains’ is a touchstone of traditional Chinese shan shui, or landscape painting — a flowing visual journey along the Fuchun River and mountains that, when fully unrolled, extends more than 22 feet long.

Painter Huang Gongwang, one of the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty, lived in seclusion by the Fuchun River, in Tonglu, for three years before completing this hand scroll masterpiece. Ever since, tranquil Tonglu — tucked in the mountains of eastern Zhejiang Province, 168 miles southwest of Shanghai — has been a source of inspiration.

In 2021, Tonglu is once again in the art spotlight. The first Tonglu Art Triennale, originally scheduled for autumn 2020 but postponed due to the pandemic to spring 2021, will display modern art installations in fields and along the river—and, the hope is, boost rural tourism.

Festival curator and director, Fram Kitagawa, explains, “At this season, the fog on the river and the clouds in the mountains are intertwined with each other, which is very similar to the Chinese landscape painting I knew when I was young.”

From National Geographic Traveler China

Traditional Zuni regalia, New Mexico.

Photograph by Getty Images

Native voices of the Southwest

In New Mexico, monuments to oppressors of Native Americans — such as Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas — are toppling, as some activists call to honour Po’pay, organizer of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The uprising ousted the Spanish from Pueblo Indian homelands. Although Spain regained control in 1692, the revolt is credited with ensuring the survival of Pueblo culture.

A statue of Po’pay represents New Mexico at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C. At home, Po’pay’s legacy is evident in the state’s 19 Pueblos, including Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (IPCC) in Albuquerque is the starting point for exploring the Pueblos — via a Virtual Culture Guide and in-person when group tours resume.

Michael Lucero, IPCC’s guest experience manager and a member of San Felipe Pueblo, calls the centre’s resources the ‘lens’ through which visitors can glimpse the richness of Pueblo life. “When you step foot on a Pueblo, you’ll start connecting the dots,” Lucero says.

From National Geographic Traveler US

8. Gyeongju, South Korea

An ancient kingdom that still glitters

Named Korea’s Culture City of East Asia 2021, Gyeongju is more commonly known by its nickname: ‘the museum without walls.’ The city, located at the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula, is home to an astonishing abundance of archaeological sites, thanks to a nearly thousand-year reign as capital of the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla (57 B.C. to A.D. 935).

Protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Gyeongju Historic Areas are a captivating collection of Buddhist art from this golden age. Among the treasures: temple and palace ruins, stone pagodas, rock carvings, a superb eighth-century statue of Buddha, and about 150 Silla nobility burial mounds, some up to 75 feet high.

Gold, silver and gilt-bronze crowns, jewellery, and other glittering artifacts excavated from the tombs are displayed in the Gyeongju National Museum’s ‘Silla the Kingdom of Gold’ exhibit. Virtually tour the exhibition hall for an inside look at the lavish lifestyles of Silla royalty.

From National Geographic Traveler Korea

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