As an art student, the opportunity to study renowned works of art up-close and in person serves as an important supplement your classroom learning and studio experience. While you may be fortunate enough to have a fine selection of art near your home university, many students will need to travel to see works of the masters in person or to see more specific and concentrated pieces that directly relate to a given medium or art specialty.
Studying abroad presents the unique opportunity to take learning outside of the classroom and study both technique and history in a foreign setting. For art students hoping to hone in on their craft, seeing contemporary and classical works in person can help students develop and hone in on technique. Art history students serve as part historian and part cultural critic, examining the underlying relationship that exists between different cultures and this influence on local art. By examining the layers that social, geographic, and political forces have influenced on a piece of art, the values and institutions of that culture are revealed.
Whether you are studying art or art history, there’s no doubt that studying abroad will be invaluable to furthering education. However, when it comes to the topic of art, not all study abroad destinations are created equal. Here are the top cities to study abroad.
#1. Paris, France
When it comes to studying art and art history abroad, perhaps there’s no more obvious choice than Paris, city of love and light.
Home to well over 100 museums of varying sizes and specialties, Paris will never get old for the art historian. Studying abroad here will provide students with the time needed to wander through the many renowned exhibits, a feat that isn’t possible on shorter travel experiences.
Indeed, there’s no shortage of notable works worthy of study in Paris. The Louvre, the most visited museum in the world, is home to 35,000 objects, including the Mona Lisa of the Renaissance era. At Musee de l’Orangerie, Claude Monet’s water lilies stretch across the walls, representing the finest of the impressionist era. Though the masters never get old, Paris’ contemporary art scene can be found in the burgeoning Belleville district and its various galleries.
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#2. Florence, Italy
For those truly seeking to understand the history of art in a global context, there’s no better choice of destination for study abroad than Florence, birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. During this period of history, art thrived and many new techniques and styles emerge. To walk through the museums of Florence is to take a step back in time, as many iconic works from this era are well preserved.
Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Raphael… these famous names and more hail from Florence and have many works on display within the city limits. The Uffizi gallery holds many famous and less well-known works, including paintings, sketches, and sculptures. Meanwhile, Michaelangelo’s magnificent statue of David is on display at the Galleria dell’Accademia. Florence is also infamous for its Frescoes, found in many churches, so be prepared to look up.
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#3. Prague, Czech Republic
While much of the world’s best-known classical art lies in Western Europe, for some of the most moving and poignant contemporary art, head East, specifically the Czech Republic. As a country with a recent turbulent past of communism and revolution, modern, postmodern, and other contemporary art are quite popular styles in this young and vibrant country.
Use Prague as a gateway to study these art styles in conjunction with the history of the Soviet Union’s many influences in the region. Prague’s National Museum places history and art in context with side-by-side exhibits. Museum Kampa houses a collection of works by a couple once exiled during the reign of communism as well as the largest collection of modern abstract paintings by Frantisek Kupka.
To leave your own mark on the culture of Prague, grab some paint and check out the Lennon Wall: a Beatles inspired graffiti hub that originated as a protest against the oppressive Communist government and continues to be a symbol of peace and love.
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#4. Beijing, China
Chinese art is a rich and varied genre that spans centuries and mediums, ranging from painting and calligraphy to pottery and sculptures. In addition to paintings, textiles, porcelain, and ceramics are quite popular, as are images of landscapes, flowers, and birds.
The capital of China, Beijing is also known as the cultural heart of the city and is home to many historical gems such as the Forbidden City and Summer Palace which now house a wealth of ancient art treasures. Studying art in China also means exposure to an entirely different way of understanding contemporary art. The 798 Art Zone (also called the Dashanzi Art District) is the place to go in order to get a feel for Beijing’s current art scene. There you can find old warehouses converted into contemporary art galleries, unique cafes, bookstores, and art festivals.
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#5. Edinburgh, Scotland
If Scotland is known for one thing it's the breathtaking green scenery of the highlands, leaving in its wake legends and lore that have long produced and inspired works of art from both locals and globetrotters. Scotland is so scenic it even inspired an entire Pixar film -- Brave.
The history of Scotland, filled with Vikings and Celts, is as rich as the scenery, making for art history that's well worth exploring. Edinburgh is a compact, hilly city with sweeping views and cozy corridors perfect for many rainy a day. Serving as a focal point of the city, Edinburgh Castle makes a pretty picture and is filled with historical relics while the Scottish National Gallery is the largest art gallery around while the Red Foot Gallery, North Edinburgh Arts Centre and the Scottish Gallery are off-the-beaten-path favorites.
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#6. Athens, Greece
Push through your art boundaries with help from the gods. The Ancient Greeks gave birth to Western Classical art creating some of the first sculptures, statues and pottery the world had ever seen. For both artists and art historians, the unparalleled access to historical settings, works, and stories that Greece offers, make studying abroad here an experience for the ages.
Athens, the bustling capital city, is a land of contrasts that make for a visual feast worthy of photographs, sketching, and painting. The Acropolis, an ancient temple dedicated to Athena, is sure to inspire a sense of artistic wonder. More modern settings such as the Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Centre and Breeder Gallery are filled with innovation while political movements during this unique period in history have also led to unique and interesting protest graffiti in the streets.
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#7. Melbourne, Australia
Melbourne may not be the political capital of Australia, but it certainly leads the pack when it comes to art. With more than 100 galleries in the city, there’s something for every art lover, from large national museums to independent artist-run cooperatives.
Australia has an art scene that is as long storied and varied as its own history. Aboriginal Australian art, in particular, is known for rock painting and engraving, desert landscapes, earthy tones, and the use of natural tools, canvases, and paints. Notable museums in Melbourne include the Melbourne Museum and the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne also has extensive street art, as well as a whole graffiti subculture.
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#8. Cape Town, South Africa
The art of South Africa is known for vibrant colors and political ties, often dealing with the subject matters of race, inequality, animal conservation, and other aspects prevalent in daily life. For artists who wish to understand the role this history of strife played on the art scene, look no further than Cape Town. Indeed, South Africa is a unique art study abroad destination due to this culmination of local culture and colonialism often reflected in pieces.
In addition to more recent South African and foreign art, museum exhibits provide a glimpse of the historic Bushman rock paintings, which serve as windows into the cultures and lives of the earliest dwellers in Southern Africa. The South African National Art Gallery has a diverse collection of both African and various Europeans pieces for you to explore. Many claim the country is the modern art hub for the entire continent; the newly opened Museum of Contemporary African Art glistens along Cape Town’s waterfront. Not to mention, the city’s natural wonders, from mountains to beaches, are sure to inspire artists as well.
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#9. Wellington, New Zealand
As far as world history goes, New Zealand is a relatively young country, and thus much of the art scene, apart from the Maori culture, is modern. Much of the nation’s art focuses around visual and plastic arts, with landscapes playing a central role.
Located on the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island, Wellington is known as the country’s cultural capital. New Zealand’s national museum provides an overview of history and art alike, spanning from the Maori to modern day. Lively Cuba street, often hailed as the country’s quirkiest cultural district, is home to a number of local galleries that provide insight into modern interpretations of the artistic world. Outside of the museums, there is much nature to inspire as well, with glorious mountains, coastal walks, and the world’s most famous fjords just a ferry ride away.
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With art across the world, there's really no shortage of great options to hone in on your craft or delve into a deeper understanding of histories with study abroad. Pick the place that speaks most to your heart, and get ready for an incredible adventure that will be sure to have a profound impact on your artistic style. Whether you study abroad in art, art history, or choose a program that combines both, you'll come back with a greater appreciation for the variety and impact of art on the world and its cultures.
This article was originally published in May 2013, and was updated in September 2018.