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The Wondercade Winter Travel Guide! Fine Art, Museums and More

The Wondercade Winter Travel Guide! Fine Art, Museums and More

It's a state(s)-of-the-art(s) travel guide! Dope art exhibits, all around the U.S.

Neil Patrick Harris is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Wondercade. In his spare time he also acts — fairly well, too, as his Tony and Emmy Awards can attest.

December 7, 2023 3:20 pm

As a wise man once said: “Winter is coming.” Indeed, Jon Snow, it’s already here: the holiday season is in full swing, a nip’s in the air (and representing well through your T-shirt when it’s brisk) and animals are hunkering down for hibernation (maybe you are, too, since it now gets dark at, like, 2 in the afternoon; isn’t bed-making pointless?). So while nature may be beckoning us to sink into a seasonal sedentary state, I argue that this is precisely the time of year to pack your bags and instead go on a trip. To rage against the dying of the sunlight. To look at that last sentence, realize it’s neither complete nor accurate, but to enjoy its general imagery and decide not to edit but to just keep typing. To sally forth.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This time of year, many of us do take trips: visiting families for the holidays, cashing in on Grandma’s Fort Lauderdale timeshare, canvassing the North Pole in an Arctic snow cruiser while searching for Santa’s workshop as a squad of research drones flies overhead (…no, I haven’t thought about doing that last one before. Why do you ask? Also, what do you call a group of drones? A gaggle? A coven? A more sustainable-yet-just-as-impressive alternative to fireworks?). As lovely as those trips are, they tend to be family events centered around food and sitting around catching up and trying to capture Santa. Again, amazing. But sometimes you want to get up, and get out and DO SOMETHING. That’s why in our Winter Travel Guide, we’re focusing on one of my favorite activities: immersing yourself in art!

If a vacation is a physical transportation into a new world, art is a mental transportation into a new world, with images that inspire, designs that delight, messages that mystify. And so, we’ve identified 6 cities across the U.S. that are hosting some of this winter’s biggest, coolest, most interesting art exhibitions — from painting to fashion to sculpture to film — and provided lodging, dining and additional cultural recommendations to enjoy in those destinations. Feed your inner travel bug, your mind, your soul and yes, your stomach. Hope you get to travel and museum all. Art you excited?? – NPH

Work of art featuring modern day woman sitting with detailed flora all around
Kehinde Wiley: one of my absolute favorite artists; a total genius
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Houston: “Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence,” The Museum of Fine Arts

America’s fourth-biggest city is home to one of the best arts scenes in the country, and right now, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts is spotlighting one of my absolute favorite artists, and one of the most celebrated of the modern era: Brooklyn’s own Kehinde Wiley. He’s painted one of Obama’s official portraits, and has reimagined Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon, showcasing (maybe even surpassing) all the technical brilliance as the French master Neoclassical painter. I’m lucky enough to care for some of his pieces myself, so I know of what I type. From now until May 27th, you can see his recent works that explore the experiences and injustices faced by Black and Brown people, in media ranging from painting to sculpture. It’s an interplay between classical Western European art and the experience of being a Black man in America: paintings and sculptures of Black men in vulnerable poses, the same way warriors and other historical figures were portrayed centuries ago. It depicts the danger Black people face, but it also gives way to great beauty and tranquility.

Modern hotel pool surrounded by lounge chairs and fire fit
Some hotel pools have a swim-up bar. This one has a swim-up firepit. Hot.
The Post Oak Hotel

Stay: Sleep a stone’s throw from that Wiley exhibit by posting up in Houston’s Hotel ZaZa in the awesome Museum District (perk: pets are allowed; perkier perk: it’s a three-minute walk to the museum). If you feel like a luxe splurge, the Post Oak Hotel is a 5-star stay in a 38-story tower in the glitzy Galleria neighborhood that sports a primo steakhouse and a 20,000-square-foot spa. Oh, and a Rolls-Royce showroom.

Eat: With the potential exception of Orange County and San Jose in California, Houston has the best Vietnamese food in the U.S. (It’s a bold claim, but am I confident in it? Pho sho.) Blind Goat is run by chef Christine Ha who won season three of Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef, and its menu is full of Vietnamese treats like sticky wings, Saigon street corn and bone marrow pho. Or have a supremely premium (supremium?) Indian dining experience at Musaafer, where every inch of the dining room is covered in stunning art (most of it golden) and ornate rugs. Don’t miss the coriander shrimp, tandoori hen and lychee ceviche.

Do: Enjoy Space City’s mild winters by strolling through the 1,500-acre Memorial Park — double the size of New York’s Central Park (still love ya, CP). Grab a PBR and play pinball at Neil’s Bahr (I don’t own it, sadly, but bravo to the physics-and-pun-loving owners for the name). And, as we’ve reported before, there’s an immersive Harry Houdini séance that my expert escape room friends have called the single best escape room in the U.S.

Sculpture on a black background
You know you’re talented when the rough draft for one of your masterpiece sculptures is a masterpiece itself
The Art Institute of Chicago

Chicago: “Canova: Sketching in Clay,” Art Institute of Chicago

This sculpture exhibit runs in Chicago through March 18th (though winter runs here through May, amirite?): Antonio Canova, one of the greatest marble sculptors of all time, is renowned for his 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces, like The Three Graces and Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss…but this show at the absolutely brilliant Art Institute (it makes for a great day trip — just ask Ferris, Cameron or Sloane) spotlights some 60 of his clay “sketches,” rough drafts sculptors whip up before setting things in stone (literally). This show is the first of its kind, and will leave you with a greater appreciation for the beautiful process of painstaking statue-making. Bonus: The museum — sorry, Institute — also has a brilliant show of Picasso works on paper running as well, through April 8th.

Brunch dish showing someone cutting into the yolk of an egg on top
One of Chicago’s best restaurants. One of its most egg-celent, even.

Stay: The historic Palmer House was built in 1871, and has welcomed the likes of Sinatra, Cher, Ella Fitzgerald and scores more legends into its spectacular, soaring, gilded space. Or try Freehand Chicago, the Windy City’s outpost of the affordable (and super chic) boutique hotel chain. This one is in a 1927 Art Deco building that’s spitting distance from the Magnificent Mile, and has a killer lobby bar, Broken Shaker.

Eat: Stephanie Izard, the first woman to win Top Chef, runs the famous Girl & the Goat, situated in the Loop’s Restaurant Row. Its Chicago location (the original) offers the best in high-end New American, like goat liver mousse, chickpea fritters and sticky toffee pumpkin spice cake. Ummm…yummmm! Or hit up Mr. Beef — the inspo spot for the (first) restaurant in The Bear — for a Chicago-style, chopped-tomato-topped hot dog.

Do: Most Chicagoans escape that harsh Lake Michigan winter windchill via one verb: drink! Go divey at Delilah’s (they’ve got over 800 whiskeys from 15 countries, as well as Punk Rock Mondays) or Alice’s Lounge (also featured in The Bear, a late-night karaoke fave in the Avondale neighborhood). Feeling fancier? Can’t go wrong with the famous Violet Hour (whose general manager gave Wondercade a recipe for its soul-warming mulled cider). Then take in some jazz at the Green Mill Jazz Lounge, easily identified with its old-timey neon sign, as well as its former connections to Al Capone and the Chicago mob.

Designer stands next to a tuxedo dress in his museum exhibit
Christian slays and so do his pieces, like this gown he designed for Billy Porter’s 2019 Oscars appearance

Memphis: “Christian Siriano: People Are People,” Brooks Museum of Art

Fashion is art too, of course, so I’m always happy when museums pay their respects. Only fair that in this travel-to-see-art issue that I do the same, and include some vivacious vestments on our sumptuous national tour. My friend, fashion designer and Project Runway winner Christian Siriano, has become one of the most important designers working today…and he’s got a new show in Memphis that opens at the tail end of winter, in March, and runs through August. On display will be dresses and garments worn by the many A-listers he’s designed for — like Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama, Ariana Grande, Billy Porter, Celine Dion. Just a random sampling of a few little-known up-and-comers you may or may not have heard of.

180 degree window view from a resort dining room
So. Much. Wood. (You knew I’d go there.)
Big Cypress Lodge

Stay: A 103-room “wilderness hotel” modeled after a rustic lodge, sporting indoor cypress trees, home to the country’s tallest free-standing elevator, all inside a giant, futuristic glass pyramid-slash-stadium adjacent to the world’s biggest fishing store smack on the Mississippi River?! Umm, YES! That’s the immersive mélange of Big Cypress Lodge. Or stay in the more traditional Arrive boutique hotel: it’s got shuffleboard, an all-day bakery and a poker room. Delightful.

Eat: Huey’s Midtown is no-frills and has been serving Memphians since the ‘70s — grab a $10 Angus beef burger for fuel to hit the museum. The dimly-lit and moody Itta Bena, meanwhile, is tucked on the third floor of B.B. King’s Blues Club…you’ll get a great view of Beale Street while sipping cocktails and nibbling elevated cuisine of the Mississippi Delta: gouda grits, Bayou crab dip, pimento cheese…yes, please.

Do: The National Civil Rights Museum is an absolute must. Located at the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, it features immersive experiences, historical artifacts and powerful exhibits that walk visitors through the history of the U.S. civil rights movement, from slavery to the Jim Crow era to today. Block out at least two hours.

A close-up zoom of a Botticelli gold and beige drawing
Being able to see these rare, centuries-old sketches from one of the greatest minds of the early Renaissance = very, VERY cool
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

San Francisco: “Botticelli Drawings,” De Young/Legion of Honor

You probably know the paintings of Sandro Botticelli — his Birth of Venus is synonymous with Renaissance art (and has also spawned countless and more countless spoofs of the love goddess posing on the half-shell). But you’ve likely never seen his drawings, which are on display in a landmark, first-of-its-kind exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum until mid-February. Thirty-nine institutions from around the world have lent over 60 of the Italian master’s drawings from the 1400s and 1500s, some of which served as prep drawings for paintings found in the most baller museums on Earth, like the Louvre, Uffizi and D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. An absolutely unmissable opportunity for any lover of the classics.

A large indoor dome with a rainforest inside
Welcome to the jungle: a four-story rainforest dome filled with Amazonian fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds
California Academy of Sciences

Stay: S.F. (never call it “San Fran,” by the way, and God help you if a local hears you call it “Frisco”) offers countless cool spots to stay, such as the Fairmont, a luxury, 5-star hotel with spectacular Beaux Arts architecture that was built in 1907. Or opt for the cozy, 12-room boutique Hotel Castro nestled in America’s most storied LGBTQ+ neighborhood.

Eat: After the Botticelli show, keep the Italian theme going for dinner: there’s the high-end, Michelin-starred SPQR, which fuses Italian with NorCal cuisine (some chanterelle mushroom risotto here, an octopus with preserved lemon there), or score a bowl of the Bay Area’s famous cioppino (a seafood stew) at the old-school nautical spot Sotto Mare (where you might get handed a free glass of red while you wait for your table). A late-night burrito at El Farolito in the Mission District is requisite, too.

Do: Go on a budget dim-sum crawl in the biggest Chinatown outside of China. Then become besties with an Amazonian boa at the domed Osher Rainforest at the California Academy of Sciences, home to over 1,600 tropical plants and animals. If you’ve got a bit more time and a hankering to see the biggest wood in the world (outside of Montreal strip clubs, amirite?), rent a car and take a short drive up to Muir Woods to gape at the glory of its remarkable redwood trees (be sure to reserve a parking spot and park entry in advance).

Washington, D.C.: “Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas,” Smithsonian American Art Museum

Alma Thomas, born in 1891 and the first graduate of Howard University’s art department, became one of America’s most beloved artists…despite the challenges of being a Black artist in the 20th century. Thomas is known for her colorful, abstract paintings that she produced after retiring as a schoolteacher, a job she held for 35 years in Washington, D.C. And now, this exhibition in the city she called home for so many years runs until June 2nd. She looks to nature (sunsets, flowers, space) for her dazzling, pattern-heavy paintings that’ll delight your senses.

People skating on an ice rink between two buildings at night
The political climate in D.C. may be ice cold, but that only makes this ice rink more fun

Stay: Hit up The Darcy for affordable boutique digs smack in the middle of downtown’s Embassy Row, just 6-ish blocks north of the White House. Or, for over-the-top, 5-star baller status, say “hey” to the 95-year-old Hay-Adams: a roof terrace + gourmet grub + panoramic dining views of the White House = a feast fit for a Founding Father. Or mother.

Eat: Chang Chang (recently named by Esquire as one of the best new American restaurants for 2023) is run by the husband-and-wife team of Peter and Lisa Chang, serving flash-fried walnut prawns, chewy noodles and soupy dim sum in a modern and minimalist space that’s absolutely gorg. Plus, D.C. is famous for its Ethiopian food, so hit up Habesha on 9th Street. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you can get the kulet fir fir, a spicy vegetarian stew, or tender marinated lamb awaze tibs.

Do: Can’t go wrong with ice skating in Washington Harbour. It is winter, after all! For another cheap adventure, the gothic National Cathedral is a can’t-miss, with its stained-glass windows depicting scenes of U.S. history (and hidden Darth Vader gargoyle outside). And if you’re there between January 26th and February 4th, check out tick, tick…BOOM! at the Kennedy Center — directed by the one and only Neil Patrick Harris (more about that in a future issue…!).

John Waters holding his chin and posing in front of a pink background at an Academy Museum of Motion Pictures event
John Waters’ entire career has existed outside the Hollywood system; it’s great to see him get the recognition he deserves at the Academy’s museum

Los Angeles: “John Waters: Pope of Trash,” Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

First of all, “Pope of Trash” is an awesome combination of words — and more on that in a bit. Second: John Waters is an effin’ legend. Third: This show is the first comprehensive museum exhibition of the longtime filmmaker who’s the king of camp; the prince of Pink Flamingos (and pencil mustaches). Until August 4th, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (the biggest museum in the U.S. devoted to filmmaking, brought to you by the organization that puts on the Oscars) will celebrate Waters’ boundary-pushing films, walking visitors through and contextualizing his entire career: costumes, props, film clips and more that take you inside the mind of the Pope of Trash — a moniker bestowed upon Waters by William S. Burroughs (a badge of honor IMHO).

Two food trucks in a parking lot with palm trees in background
Say “truck yeah” to L.A.’s limitless supply of delicious food trucks

Stay: Want some luxury lodgings in La La Land? Make a rezzo at the iconic Shutters on the Beach: it’s a gem of a hotel literally right on the beach and less than a 10-minute walk to the Santa Monica Pier, should you want to part with the cabanas and chaise lounges. Or try the more affordable and equally iconic DTLA (that’s Downtown L.A. for the uninitiated) spot, The Biltmore: a stunning hotel that’s hosted JFK and The Beatles, and turned 100 this year.

Eat: Splash out at the double-Michelin-starred, James Beard Award-winning Providence. Its tasting menus of wild-caught seafood — swordfish with black winter truffle, or scallops from Hokkaido, Japan — make for an ultra-luxurious meal that may or may not change your life. (Spoiler alert, it will.) Or head to Trejo’s Tacos (near the Academy Museum for easy access) for super cheap Mexican that’s also a revelation. And don’t forget all the food trucks, and all the doughnut shops — both are key to an L.A. food scene that’s stronger than ever.

Do: Definitely hit up The Last Bookstore — it may not be the last of anything, but it is 22,000 square feet of books in a (supposedly haunted) century-old bank. Then at night, walk through an immersive experience of lasers and light installations in an 87-acre botanical garden at Astra Lumina.

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