Make your break a masterpiece: Exploring fine art

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A picture-perfect trip is yours for the taking thanks to a range of companies devoted to helping you explore the finest art. Kate Simon sketches out the new Grand Tours

What's the attraction?

There's nothing new about travelling in search of cultural enrichment, a tradition that flourished with the Grand Tour. During the 17th century, it was a rite of passage for wealthy young men to do the circuit of Europe's classical and Renaissance sights. Today, cultural exploration has been democratised by mass tourism. We still enjoy much of the same art as those early tourists, but we are also able to explore subsequent movements and go beyond Europe's borders. We still employ guides to describe the art, it's just that these days they lead one of the increasingly popular package tours.

Guided tours

Art institutions are getting in on the cultural-tourism act by partnering with tour operators. The Tate and The Ultimate Travel Company (020-3582 2507; theultimatetravel company.co.uk) now offer a programme of worldwide guided tours under the name Tate Travels (tatetravels.co.uk). On "Barcelona: A Food Fiesta", art, architecture, food and wine provide the theme for a four-day tour of the Catalan capital led by guest lecturer and Spanish food aficionado Rohan Daft; it visits the church of Santa Maria, the Miró Foundation and some of Antonio Gaudí's masterpieces. Departing on 29 November, the trip costs from £1,577 per person, including flights, B&B, some meals, entrance fees and private guiding.

The Royal Academy is working with Cox & Kings (0845 527 8167; coxandkings.co.uk). Its tour "Albania and Macedonia: Cradle of the Balkans", 20-29 September, led by Islamic expert William Taylor, costs from £1,440 per person, including flights, transfers and accommodation.

And an expert from The National Gallery will lead "The Venice of Canaletto" seven-day tour on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (0845 217 0799; orient-express.com), on various dates in October. From £5,475, including transport and accommodation.

DIY art tours

Self-guided tours provide an independent alternative to following the crowd, while ensuring an in-depth experience. Ranch Rider (01509 618811; ranchrider.com) has devised an eight-night self-drive tour of Arizona titled "Art By Automobile", exploring cowboy and Native American Art; from £1,310, including flights, car hire and accommodation. "Arts, Architecture & Culture", by Inside Japan Tours (0117 370 9751; inside japantours.com), travels to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto and includes a visit to the Ohara Museum of Art, Japan's oldest collection of Western art. From £2,990, including flights, transfers and 13 nights' accommodation.

On the trail of the greats

The 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Klimt is celebrated in two new day tours in Vienna offered by Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711; regent-holidays.co.uk), both including entry to the Klimt exhibition in Belvedere Palace. A three-night break in the city costs from £340, including flights and accommodation.

Devise your own Frida Kahlo trail in Mexico City, exploring Coyoacá*, where she was born, and visiting the Museo Frida Kahlo (00 52 55 5554 5999; museofridakahlo.org.mx; MXN$75/£3.60). BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) has four-night Mexico City breaks from £999.

Sketch and the city

Russia's most beautiful city, St Petersburg, is an alluring destination for an escape next month, or in May next year, organised by the cultural specialist, Martin Randall Travel (020-8742 3355; martinrandall.com). The four-day trip costs £3,320 including BA flights from Heathrow, hotel with breakfast, most dinners, and a lecturer – Dr Alexey Makhrov – an outstanding Russian art historian who can unlock some of the greatest collections on earth. (See 48 hours in St Petersburg in The Independent Traveller next Saturday, 18 August.) In South Africa, One&Only Cape Town (00 27 21 431 5888; oneandonlyresorts.com; from 4,070 rand/£352 B&B) offers expert-led trips, with "The Galleries Art Tour", visiting the Irma Stern Museum among others. From 3,250 rand (£254) for a half day.

Picasso's France and Spain

Visit Picasso's home city of Malaga, now the site of the Museo Picasso (00 34 902 44 33 77; museopicassomalaga.org). The Museu Picasso de Barcelona (00 34 93 256 30 00; museupicasso.bcn.cat/en) is another tribute to the artist, who lived in the city. Make a pilgrimage to the Basque town of Guernica, captured in his work of the same name. Finding fame, he moved to the south of France. One of his properties, Château de Vauvenargues, is the site of his grave (00 33 4 42 52 88 32; museegranet-aixenprovence.fr).

Who said that?

"In a secularising world, art has replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion." Alain de Botton, author, broadcaster and philosopher

"Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable." George Bernard Shaw, author and playwright

"I never can pass by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York without thinking of it not as a gallery of living portraits but as a cemetery of tax-deductible wealth." Lewis H Lapham, writer and journalist

Another pic in the wall

There are few better places to experience mural art than in San Francisco. The city is home to some fine work by Diego Rivera, the Mexican artist and one-time husband of Frida Kahlo. His first mural in America, Allegory of California, can be seen for free in the stairwell of the Pacific Stock Exchange at 155 Sansome Street (open 3pm to 5pm daily). And one of his most important works, Pan-American Unity, is on display at the Ocean Avenue Campus of the San Francisco City College, (weekdays 10am-4pm).

More mural art can be seen in Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley in the Mission District, which provided outdoor canvases for the Chicano Art Mural Movement in the 1970s. Further information is available from San Francisco Travel (001 415 391 2000; sanfrancisco.travel).

Insider information

"Head to the main art gallery of a city – and go with a plan. Often overlooked are the tours that art galleries put on. From there you might be inspired to follow up on a particular artist or theme."

Tiddy Rowan, independent art consultant and author of 'Art in the City Guides' to London and Paris (Quadrille, £9.99)

Scene it somewhere before? Giverny in France (00 33 2 3251 2821; fondation-monet.fr/uk) is the garden that inspired Monet's The Japanese Bridge. At Flatford Mill in Essex, take in the scene made famous by Constable's The Hay Wain (01245 437087; visitessex.com). Spot the difference between Margate Beach today and as recorded by Turner (01843 233000; turnercontemporary.org). Vermeer's View of Delft is also somewhat different for today's visitor to the Dutch town (00 31 70 370 57 05; holland.com). Finally, the quay in Arles, France (00 33 4 9018 4120; arlestourisme.com), is the place to capture the view of Starry Night Over the Rhone by Van Gogh.

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