Music fans have been making pilgrimages to music capitals of culture for centuries. When you visit a city that loves its music, you can always tell. Whether it’s New Orleans jazz seeping from all corners of the French Quarter, or Dublin buskers lining the city streets, musical cities show it loud and proud.
A city’s local music scene is as much of a cultural experience as its museums. From the Motown Sound in Detroit to classical in Vienna, music is part of the heart and soul of these cities. While there are dozens of cities across the globe known for their musical heritage, here are 10 of the best.
Although known worldwide for its pizza, Chicago was one of the leading American cities in music development in the 20th century. Its world-famous jazz and blues scene originated with black migrants from the South moving north with industrialization. Some of the greatest musicians to this day came out of Chicago, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Nat King Cole.
These days, non-musical laypeople can visit Buddy Guy’s Legends, the famous blues club frequented by some seriously legendary names, or check out the annual Jazz Festival held in Millennium Park.
Not far from Chicago is the home of Motown Records and the R&B capital of the world, Detroit, Michigan. Like Chicago, Detroit’s music scene started kicking off when African Americans made their way north, but it didn’t kick off until the 1960s and ‘70s.
Motown Records opened in 1959, which gave birth to the careers of Diana Ross and The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder, among countless other renowned musicians. You can still visit the original Motown studio in Detroit, now called the Motown Museum.
When the first wave of the British Invasion hit the shores of the U.S. in the 1960s, English artists topped the charts and dominated record sales, and for the first time since the Revolutionary War, American fans plastered the Union Jack flag across every surface.
Though not all of Britain’s most famous bands were from London, most emerged from England’s capital city. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds all recorded and performed in London before making it big in America. And who doesn’t want a picture at the famous crosswalk from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album?
Stemming from blues is rock music, or more commonly known as rock and roll in its early days, and often claiming to be the birthplace of rock is none other than Memphis, Tennessee. And while Memphis is an amazing city for so many other reasons, its music scene definitely tops the list.
Memphis was the heart of country and blues, which eventually blended in the 1950s. Although rock is probably Memphis’ biggest contribution to the music world, it was an important recording hub in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Elvis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, and Otis Redding were some of the biggest names to have recorded music here, and a walk down the historic Beale Street showcases some of Memphis’ musical accomplishments.
Cuba may seem like a strange place to those who haven't been there, but it's a colorful, lively little island. Its music is extremely diverse, having been influenced by European, Latin American, and African music. When large numbers of Spanish immigrants and African slaves came to the New World, their cultures mixed and influenced much of the Caribbean in the early days of Western settlement.
Son Cubano is probably the most famous Cuban music to emerge from the island, but it is also known for mambo, charanga, Cuban jazz, and more. The bustling capital city, Havana, has some of the best authentic Cuban music around, from street performers to café musicians in the Old Town area.
Vienna is perhaps the first music capital of the world. Some of the best composers—Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahm—lived and worked here in the 18th and 19th centuries, and modern Vienna still has many contemporary theatres and opera houses. The waltz style of music is also a Viennese creation.
The Wiener Konzerthaus, the Theater an der Wien, and the Burgtheater are not to miss when on a music trip to Vienna. When you’re not touring these historic theatres, in summer you can hear classical ensemble groups during casual park performances.
One of America’s recently risen music centers is Austin, the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Growing out of the city’s country music scene that evolved in the ‘70s, Austin is now the home of a vivid music scene spanning genres such as folk, indie, techno, and even punk.
Music fans from around the world gather for Austin’s music festivals, namely Austin City Limits and South by Southwest. But don’t worry if it’s not festival season because Austin has hundreds of live music venues where you might just discover your new favorite artist.
Berlin has such a rich and complex history that its music scene is often overlooked by tourists visiting the German capital. Yes, the Brandenburg Gate and Museum Island should absolutely be on any visitor’s itinerary, but if you have a little spare time, why not check out one of Berlin’s world-famous clubs?
Berlin’s music heritage spans centuries and genres—it fostered classical and opera in the 18th century, inspired David Bowie in the 1970s, and is now home to the biggest techno scene in the world. Its clubs are unparalleled and have a range of niche genres so that there’s truly something for everyone.
2 New York City
New York City has been a haven for poets and artists since the early 20th century. Countless musicians have lived and worked in the city, from Bob Dylan to Lady Gaga, Madonna to Lou Reed. The city is a central figure in the American recording business and has hosted countless musicians throughout the years.
Any classical music fan absolutely must take in a performance at Carnegie Hall, the prestigious concert venue. If more modern music is your thing, New York has hundreds of smaller clubs and cafés that host artists spanning punk to hip-hop.
Paris is famous for just about everything, including its music. Like most major European cities, its music history goes back to the classical era, where some of the great French composers like Saint-Saens, Debussy, and Berlioz wrote their most iconic symphonies. The Palais Garnier is one of the most famous opera houses in the world.
Paris has seen a number of genres become popular in its streets: jazz, folk, electronic. Live music in Paris’ clubs is some of Europe’s best, and if you want to hear some authentic Parisian jazz, head over to the historic Caveau de la Huchette.