Vacations are plotted and planned each summer with painstaking deliberation, ensuring that we make the very utmost out of our precious few moments of leisure time–do we opt to shop? sun? dine? drink? dance? Trips can be tailored to any indulged interest or unfulfilled desire; we can while away our days and nights golfing, swimming with dolphins, hiking ruins, slurping margaritas, sambaing on the shore or slaloming down the slopes. And if we want to use our holidays to explore art, our choices are boundless.

With a big budget and extended break, the festivals of Europe beckon those who want to see it all in one place at one time and don’t mind sharing scant floor space with several thousand other art lovers. This year brings two majors, an up-and-comer, and a handful of lower-profile but equally meritorious possibilities. The Venice Biennele’s 50th International Art Exhibition, Dreams and Conflicts–The Viewer’s Dictatorship is directed by Francesco Bonami and branches through the entire city, giving ample opportunity to tromp over all those lovely bridges before the whole thing sinks. ArtBasel’s offerings include works from over 1,000 artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, with painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, performance, video and digital, photos, and prints. The second year of the Bienal de Valencia boasts shows curated by Will Alsop, Mike Figgis and Sebastiao Salgado, plus theater by Peter Brook; Solares (Or On Optimism), which occupies 37 vacant lots throughout the city center; and an installation presented in train stations, bus depots and the airport. Besides the visual art, the Dubrovnik Summer Festival also features performance directed by the busy busy Peter Brook, and Los Caballeros, a mariachi band they claim is one of the world’s best, populated by Croatian nationals. The Helsinki Festival returns the gala Night of Arts, with galleries open until the witching hour and live music everywhere you turn, indoors and out. And the superadventurous who have the spontaneity to zoom off in just weeks will bite at IMPAKT, an innovative collection of audiovisual art with performances and installations themed around “Fashion, Music, Politics,” from the likes of De Geuzen, Fischerspooner, Peter Bogers, Nathalie Bruys.

Traversing the Atlantic not an option? Closer to home is the renowned Spoleto Festival–more concentrated on performance–with opera, ballet, flamenco, puppetry and theater, but still bestowing a nod upon the visual with The Borough Project, an exhibition by the students of the Clemson Architecture Center. Prefer running around in the desert with seething, sweaty masses of drug-addled lost souls in home-made foppery? Well, damn, who wouldn’t? Visit Burning Man, a temporary art community–if one uses the term with sprightly looseness–with no commercial vending–essentially camping, but with lots of acid and a reliance on the barter system–no money! Free trade! You can’t use cash for water, band-aids, or condoms. But they do have a cafe which peddles espresso in exchange for U.S. issue legal tender.

If you’re up for artistic pursuits on your out-of-town jaunt but the frenzy of festival doesn’t appeal, there’s a vast array of exhibitions to enhance a junket anywhere within the United States. If it’s too rainy for the beach, get the next best thing with Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing, which joins fine art and kitsch at the San Jose Museum of Art. Aspen might not be your first thought as the perfect hotspot for the dog days of July, but even with the mountains covered with grass instead of snow it’s a worthy stopover to see John Currin: Works on Paper, a collection of figurative drawings of long-necked women that demonstrates the origins of his amazing paintings. If in Honolulu, avoid sunburn by spending an afternoon at the Contemporary Museum, hosting On Wanting To Grow Horns: The Little Theater of Tom Knechtel, pieces nurtured by the artist’s passion for fantastical theater (kabuki, circus, puppetry) merged with his own voyage to witness the magnificence of kathakali performance in South India.

Perhaps this is all out of reach. Maybe you’re an artist yourself, or even worse, a freelance arts writer, and can only reasonably dream of going as far as your significant other’s car can take you. We’re just four short hours south, (three if you drive like hell) from the cultural meccas of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Md. In the former, the Smithsonian Institution has about 12 million museums, including maybe the most fabulous zoo ever–all for free! Highlights include Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora and Ethiopian Icons: Faith and Science at the National Museum of African Art, Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics at the Freer & Sackler Galleries, and, should you have this weekend open, hustle to catch the last days of the awe-inspiring Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting at the Hirshhorn–hurry, it closes on May 18.

In the latter, The American Visionary Art Museum is dedicated to the work of self-taught artists, at present with the show High On Life: Transcending Addiction, with sections on “Temptation,” “Descent,” “Dispensation,” “Just Say Know,” “Constant Craving,” “Plants of the Gods,” and “The Third Eye.” The Walters Museum features The Faberge Menagerie, a zoo of tiny netsuke inspired creatures, and a visit to the Baltimore Tattoo Museum could result in the most enduring souvenir you’ve ever taken home.

There’s plenty to see without ever crossing a state line. In Asheville, the Asheville Art Museum invites with Ambassadors of Progress: American Women Photographers in Paris, 1900 and 1901, honing in on the soft focus of pictorialism. In Charlotte, the Mint Museum of Art tempts with Edward Hopper: The Paris Years, over 40 paintings and works on paper. SECCA, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, presents The HOME House Project, with designs created by artists and architects with guidelines from Habitat for Humanity and affordability and eco-friendliness as top priorities.

If even a quick road mission out of the Triangle is unfeasible, you’ve no cause for despair. Art is limitless within the region, with ongoing exhibitions, installations, workshops, lectures, walks, talks, classes, social hours and whatever else you could want. Whether you’d rather join a weekend group touring a museum or spend a stolen lunch hour in the weekday afternoon privacy of a gallery, you’ll find it. Check the listings of this very same rag for a week-to-week rundown. If a vacation is meant to relax, enlighten, or transport, a plane ticket and hotel reservation isn’t necessary–sometimes five minutes with the right painting can do it. EndBlock

Far and Away

Venice Biennale: June 15-Nov. 2
Venice, Italy

Bienal de Valencia: June 6-Sept. 30
Valencia, Spain

Art Basel: June 18-23
Basel, Switzerland

Dubrovnik Summer Festival: July & August
Dubrovnik, Croatia

Helsinki Festival: Aug. 22-Sept. 7
Helsinki, Finland

IMPAKT: June 3-9
Utrecht, The Netherlands

Burning Man: Aug. 25-Sept. 1
Black Rock Desert, Nev.
(415) TO-FLAME

Aspen Art Museum
Aspen, Colo.
(970) 925-8050

San Jose Museum of Art
San Jose, Calif.
(408) 271-6840

The Contemporary Museum
Honolulu, Hawaii
(808) 526-0232

Nearby attractions


American Visionary Museum
(415) 244-1900

Baltimore Tattoo Museum
(410) 522-5800

Walters Museum
(410) 547-9000

Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian Institution
(202) 357-2700

North Carolina
Asheville Art Museum
(828) 253-3227

Mint Museum of Art (Charlotte)
(704) 337-2000

South Carolina
Spoleto Festival (Charleston):
May 23-June 8
(843) 579-3100