Outstanding food, music, and design are in the DNA of these 10 exceptional cities from Asia to South America.
When UNESCO began designating World Heritage Sites in the late 1970s, it became both guardian and promoter of the globe’s most important historical, cultural, and ecological places. Thirty years later, they created the Creative Cities Network, a new way to identify exceptional urban centers. Some, like Usuki, Japan, and Gabrovo, Bulgaria, are so under the typical travel radar, you may have never even heard of them.
Today, there are close to 250 UNESCO Creative Cities from Asia to Africa to the Americas. Each is recognized in one of seven categories: gastronomy, literature, crafts and folk art, film, music, media arts, and design. From the technique of lost wax bronze casting in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso to the Afro-Caribbean sounds of tropicalia and axé in Salvador, Brazil, here are 10 that are worth a deeper look.
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Although Usuki in southwestern Japan may be best known for the colossal collection of Buddha statues carved into its cliffs, its identity is just as deeply rooted in the kitchen. Since around 1600 CE, the UNESCO city of gastronomy has been renowned for its fermented condiments and spirits, and industry made possible by the super pure water that bubbles up from its earth. Today locally-made miso paste, soy sauce, sake, and shochu—as well as unique-to-the-region dishes like o-han, rice cooked with dried gardenia fruit, and kirasu-mameshi, sashimi coated in soy pulp—are an enduring city-wide claim to fame.
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
In the capital of Burkina Faso, artisans weave baskets, work leather, and batik-dye cloth with skill and patience. But Ouagadougou, a UNESCO city of crafts and folk art, is best known for producing intricate bronze and copper figures using a historic technique called lost wax casting. Originating in the neighborhood of Niongsin, the method first carves people and animals out of wax, covers them in clay, then melts the wax out over high heat and replaces it with liquid bronze or copper. The clay is broken away when it cools to reveal a detailed statue. A resurgence of interest in the art form, along with traditional metalworking and crafts, has turned Niongsin and other areas of the city into havens for creating and displaying the city’s unique crafts.
INSIDER TIPVisit the Village Artisanal on the southern edge of Ouagadougou to see more than 500 craftspeople at work in close to 50 workshops dedicated to everything from musical instruments to jewelry to bronze casting.
Kansas City, Missouri
In 2017, UNESCO recognized humble Kansas City, Missouri, as the origin of swing jazz, the big band sound that dominated American music in the 1930s and early 1940s. It was in the segregated African American district of 18th and Vine that musicians like Count Basie and Charlie Parker gave life to the music genre, one of the first to have a seriously swinging groove that made people want to get up and dance. In its Jazz Corridor, KC recognizes the historical and cultural sites that mark a hundred years of contributions to the evolution of American music.
INSIDER TIPWith hundreds of events each year at venues like the Kauffman Centre for the Performing Art, The Majestic Restaurant and Jazz Club, and The Phoenix, the city of music plays on.
Nestled between the Lebanon Mountains and the Beqaa Plateau, beautiful Zahlé is beloved for its traditional food and drink. The UNESCO city of gastronomy revolves around a historic local wine industry, and the distilled anise spirit, arak, which is served morning to night at cafes around town. On the banks of the Berdawni River sit some of Zahlé’s longest-standing restaurants, which specialize in trout dishes and delicacies like kaak (flat bread stuffed with fillings like cheese, labneh, and honey) and sambousek (meat pies).
INSIDER TIPZahlé is known as the “City of Wine and Poetry” and celebrates both at the Festival of the Vine each September.
The Azerbaijani capital Baku has long been a center of creativity in the southern Caucasus. In recent years though, the city on the Caspian Sea has abandoned Soviet-era brutalism in favor of futuristic architecture, green spaces, and sustainable infrastructure. The folded-and-crested Heydar Aliyev Centre, the bejeweled bracelet-like Crystal Hall, and the rug-rolled Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum are just a few of the showstoppers that have transformed the urban landscape of this UNESCO city of design. But not all of Baku’s designs are monumental. The capital is also a unique style center that’s been home to Azerbaijan Fashion Week since 2015.
Lacking good land for farming, 18th and 19th-century residents of Gabrovo turned to crafts to make a living. Over the years, the city in northern Bulgaria became known as a center of distinctive wood carvings and bright, patterned wool carpets. Other skilled local artisans dedicated their work to traditions like bookbinding, pipe-making, and building gadluka (a local string instrument). Today in the UNESCO city of craft and folk art, their crafts are honed at the open-air ethnographic museum Etar, which holds the largest annual fair in the region.
INSIDER TIPGabrovo’s second claim to fame is its satirical wit and sense of humor. The spring Gabrovo Carnival is dedicated to comedy, with parades, live music, circus performances, marionettes, costumes, and carving workshops.
Classical and contemporary architecture and style conspire in Hanoi, Vietnam, a UNESCO city of design. As the massive urban center grows, it’s embracing a form of creativity that simultaneously honors the city’s past and sustainable future. The recent launch of projects like the artistic Heritage Space, the Phung Hung mural street, and the Vietnam Craft Village is just the start. Annual events like the Vietnam Festival of Creativity and Design are shining a spotlight on the place where ancient artistic traditions and smart tech meet.
Brazil’s third largest city, Salvador, not only gave birth to or left its mark on at least four different musical genres, it invented a way to bring the stage to the people, instead of the other way around. First came samba in the 1920s, followed by bossa nova in the ‘50s. In the late 1960s, tropicalia emerged along with world-renowned artists Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. Then, in the ‘80s, came axé, a style fusing pop and Afro-Caribbean styles like reggae and calypso. Today the UNESCO city of music still dances to its own rhythms, especially when “trios eléctricos,” trucks outfitted with a stage and high-powered sound system, are out on the town.
INSIDER TIPAt the Bahian Carnival, the world’s largest parade, two million people upend the city with a week-long party thrown to the soundtrack of Salvador’s homegrown music.
The exchange of ideas through the written word has been at the core of Manchester, England’s culture since before Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels spent their days studying in the city’s Chetham’s Library back in 1845. Today, an estimated 800 literary events take place in Manchester each year, showcasing not just local writers but those from around the world. The largest, the Manchester Literary Festival, organizes readings and discussions at more than two dozen locations around the UNESCO city of literature each October. The rest of the year, four historic libraries, the earliest established in 1653, are magnificent monuments to their work.
Centuries of political change and immigration have left their mark on the cuisine of Hyderabad, India. Dry coconut, tamarind, and red chiles are just part of what makes food in the UNESCO city of gastronomy different from that to the north. Beloved local specialties include Hyderabadi biryani (basmati rice with meat and spices), Hyderabadi haleem (a stew of lentils, meat, and pounded wheat) and sheemal, a dried lamb and bean dish made with tandoori nan. Dastarkhwan, a five-course meal including soup and waqfa (sorbet), is known simply as Hyderbadi dinner. All in all, there are more than 2,000 formal restaurants and over 100,000 informal eateries, more than enough to fuel the second-largest city in India seven days a week, 365 days a year.
INSIDER TIPAt the festivals of Ramzan (held during the month of Ramadan) and Bathukamma (taking place in September or October), family recipes made in home kitchens are brought into the street to share with revelers.