I love street art. I mean, who doesn’t? From small corner pieces to massive murals, street art is no longer seen as the social menace it used to be. Many cities around the world don’t just accept it nowadays, but actively embrace it, even going so far as to designate particular walls or areas where artists (note how they’re seen as artists, not vandals) are welcome to showcase their latest pieces. Some cities have made a name for themselves as street art havens, while others are not known for it all, taking you by surprise when you get there. That certainly happened to me a few times, with an unexpected wealth of beautiful, colourful art hiding in plain sight, adding hugely to my enjoyment of exploring a new town.
So in the hopes of showcasing some of these lesser-known places, I have put together this list of street art-filled cities you need to visit. Yes, some on this list are famous for their art, I know, but I couldn’t help it – I just loved them!
Starting with what is probably the mother of all street art cities, Melbourne is a mecca for graffiti artists. There are several alleys in the city centre that are designated art canvases, and they are amazing to walk down. Hosier Lane is probably the most well-known. With an ever-changing collection of artworks, these streets could be walked down every week and you’d always see something new.
Many of the larger pieces feature aboriginal themes, ranging from beautiful portraits to political messages. Melbourne even hosted the world’s first street art festival back in 2004, showcasing its history and the impact other street art capitals such as New York had on the disaffected youth of the city in the past few decades. In fact, the street art of Melbourne is so famous, it has its own Wikipedia page!
Fremantle, Western Australia
From one side of Australia to the other. I lived in Fremantle (technically a suburb of Perth, but also its own city. It’s a weird system) for three months and always loved walking its streets. Many of the art pieces here were done by the same artist, so there’s a recurring colour scheme that my OCD brain adores. There’s also a lot of art dedicated to Australian wildlife, which I’m always on board with. Like its eastern sister, Fremantle also has a yearly street art festival over the Easter weekend, with an international panel of artists arriving from all over to participate in what is now a celebration of art in all its forms.
Street art is usually the number one reason travelers flock to the island of Penang. That and the street food. The main city of this tiny island is Georgetown, a relic of the British colonial rule of Malaysia. The city’s street art is incredible, with not-so-accurate maps available for the art-hunting tourists, although I preferred my method of simply walking down every side street and alley I came across, because, really, art is everywhere here.
What I really loved about the art in Georgetown was the contrast between the colonial architecture and the Malaysian-style art. It was an acknowledgement of the country’s past, but also a determined expression of their cultural identity. What I also loved was how interactive a lot of the street art was – you could swing, cycle and play along with many of the adorable portraits!
Georgetown’s twin city lies in the south of Malaysia, just a couple of hours from Kuala Lumpur. Both are included in one UNESCO World Heritage Site, both incredible examples of Malaysia’s colonial history. And just like Georgetown, Melaka (or Malacca) is a street art haven. With some of the boldest colours I’ve ever seen, all the houses lining the central river are covered in paintings of all kinds. It’s insanely Instagrammable, that’s for sure. Walking along the river – down one side, up the other – is highly recommended.
Many of the art pieces depict ordinary scenes of ordinary people in the city – mothers doing laundry, children playing – with others paying homage to the various races that now make up Malaysia’s culture, such as the Chinese.
My second stop in Bulgaria after spending a few days in the underrated capital Sofia, Plovdiv took me by surprise. I mainly went for the ancient Roman ruins dotting the city, but it was the street art that stuck with me. I first saw it in some of the city’s underpasses, then when I happened across a back street completely covered in murals, I realised the street art scene here was one to take notice of.
But Plovdiv’s piéce de résistance in terms of street art is the Kapana neighbourhood of the city. This area originated centuries ago as the trading centre of the city, with tanners, tailors, blacksmiths, jewellery makers and everything in between, but over the years it slowly disintegrated into a run-down urban area best to be avoided. A massive effort by the municipality has transformed it into a cultural and artistic centre, filled with galleries and entrepreneurs. Murals and paintings cover the walls. I definitely recommend visiting the area either by yourself or as part of the city’s free walking tours.
It was only when I started to write this post that I realised all my photos of my trip to Warsaw had mysteriously disappeared. Major facepalm moment. Luckily, I had posted a couple of photos of the Polish street art on Instagram and so was able to save them. But they certainly do not do justice to the incredible art found in the Praga district, across the river from the main city centre. What was for years a run-down area of the city, Praga is reinventing itself as a destination in its own right. Most of the street art here is in residential areas and act as a form of protest about many social issues affecting the local residents, such as the lack of safe areas for children to play in. Covering a wide area, this is one place where getting a free guided tour is definitely worth it, especially if you want to learn more about the meaning behind the murals.
In a lot of cities, street art is confined to one area, or one neighbourhood. Not so in Montréal, where the art is literally everywhere. Graffiti has become a central part of the city’s identity. Many of the most well-known murals are found on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, but there are many others to find in the Gay Village neighbourhood, in Downtown, along the river and in Chinatown, where the art reflects the local culture in this melting-pot of a city. You can even see a multi-story mural from the viewpoint at the top of Mont Réal, the hilltop overlooking the city.
But unlike many other places, the street art in Montréal isn’t confined to paintings on walls. Installations of many different forms can be found on the streets here, from a rainbow of baubles stretching overhead for many blocks (the first thing I saw when exiting the metro on arrival, and WHAT an introduction that was), to giant musical pipes taking in the sounds of the surrounding city and converting them to ethereal tones. I have trouble thinking of any other place I’ve visited that had such a range of art on display.
Christchurch, New Zealand
I visited Christchurch back in 2014, three years after the deadly earthquakes that wreaked havoc on the city. I was shocked at how much destruction could still be seen, but also surprised at how well the city was dealing with it. Empty lots where office blocks stood had been taken over by art installations, and window-less facades now exposed by the disappearance of their neighbours became massive canvases for beautiful murals. My three days in the city were cloudy and grey, but the art all around provided a great boost of colour.
Now that we’re almost into 2019, I’m really curious to see what Christchurch is like now. Have those murals been hidden again by new buildings? Are the temporary art installations now permanent, or have they too disappeared? I generally don’t revisit locations, but Christchurch is one place I’d like to see again. It was amazing to see how art helped a city cope with loss and devastation.
My original home town and where I went to university, Dublin always holds a special place in my heart. Despite all my travels, it remains my favourite city in the world. I’m really happy that street art has become so popular here, with both Irish and international artists putting their brushes to the walls. The famous Temple Bar area is probably the most graffitied, though you can randomly come across some lovely pieces as you walk the streets.
I hear more and more about new street art popping up across Dublin, so there’s always something new to look for when I visit home between trips.
Where’s the best street art you’ve ever seen? There are many cities worldwide famous for their street art, like London and New York, but I like discovering smaller, lesser-known places with great street art scenes. Is there any amazing street art in your home town? Tell me in the comments below and maybe one day I’ll pop by!
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.