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The world is filled with great museums, many that are a destination in itself. Exploring a museum on vacation is not only fun, it can also give you an impressive glimpse into the city or country’s past as well as how it came to be the way it is today. These top museums should be on every traveler’s bucket list to visit at least once.
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A must-see in Washington, D.C., The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum complex, made up of 19 separate museums and galleries as well as the National Zoo, housing over 137 million objects, like the Hope Diamond, the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer, the original Star-Spangled Banner and the ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.” Nearly all the museums and exhibits are free, while Air & Space Museum, American History Museum and the Natural History Museum are favorites – arrive early to beat the crowds, and avoid weekends and holidays if you can.
The National Palace Museum was originally housed in Beijing’s Forbidden City but was relocated to Taiwan after wars threatened the security of its artifacts. A top attraction in Taipei, it spans nearly 200 acres and houses the largest collection of ancient Chinese artifacts and artworks in the world, including pieces from the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties like ancient bronze castings, calligraphy, porcelain, jade, rare books and scroll paintings. Many were collected from actual palaces having been possessions of the former imperial family. The building itself was designed to resemble a traditional palace, covering more than 8,000 years of Chinese history.
The Louvre is practically mind-boggling in size as well as in its wealth of treasures, housing thousands of priceless masterpieces. Collections range from antiquity to the first half of the 19th century and are considered among the most important in the world. You’ll find everything from Classical sculpture to Mesopotamian antiquities and Egyptian relics along with Italian Renaissance paintings and medieval artifacts. Among the not-to-be-missed includes the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Venus de Milo, the Hellenistic sculpture of the goddess of love was discovered on the island of Milo dated 130-100 BC.
The National Museum of Ireland is housed in an architectural landmark building, worth a visit just to see its spectacular Irish marble columns and domed rotunda, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Inside you’ll find thousands of fascinating objects, mostly discovered on Irish grounds. Artifacts span roughly 7,000 years and include the beautiful Ardagh Chalice and Tara Brooch. Most intriguing of all, are the “Bog Bodies,” mummified remains found in a bog in 2003, with bodies so intact that fingerprints could still be seen. International collections can also be viewed, including Roman, Egyptian and Cypriot collections.
Saint Petersburg is home to the State Hermitage Museum, one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, with over three million pieces. It is Russia’s most visited museum, housed in the buildings of the former imperial palace in the center of Saint Petersburg. The foundation dates back to 1764, the year Catherine the Great bought a collection of 200 Old Master paintings from Berlin. She was a keen collector, with her purchases still considered to be among the most distinguished exhibits. While the art collections are impressive, the rooms that house them may be even more so with their elaborate ceiling paintings, chandeliers and carved cornices.
The British Museum is one of the most visited in the world and Britain’s largest. Established in 1753, its collections, which number more than eight million objects originating from all continents, illustrate and document the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present. At this must-see London attraction you’ll find everything from prehistoric bones to chunks of Athens’ Parthenon, whole Assyrian palace rooms to exquisite gold jewels as well as the largest collection of mummies outside of Egypt. The Rosetta Stone, carved in 196 BC as the key to deciphering hieroglyphs, is also housed here.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or The Met as it’s often called, is the largest museum in the Western Hemisphere, with a collection of over two million spanning the entire globe from antiquity to present – all are housed in a massive, gothic-style building, established in 1872 with numerous expansions taking place since then. Its European paintings include works by Rembrandt, Rodin, Vermeer and Botticelli, while the Egyptian Collection features the Temple of Dendur, circa 23-10 BC, and the tomb of Perneb, circa 2440 BC. Visitor favorites include Italian artist Caravaggio’s The Musicians and the seven-ton Sphinx of Hatshepsut.
Titanic Belfast is the largest Titanic visitor experience in the world, located in the Titanic Quarter, right beside the historic site of the ship’s construction. It opened 100 years after Titanic infamously struck an iceberg and sunk to its death, along with the 1,517 crew members and passengers aboard. The museum includes galleries and reconstructions of the ship’s interior with the entire experience telling the story of the ill-fated ship from her conception in Belfast through her construction and launch, to her maiden voyage and tragic demise. A highlight is the 10,000 piece replica of Titanic’s Grand Staircase.
The Museo Nacional de Antropologia located in Mexico City, is a modern temple to the amazing Mesoamerican cultures of the past, holding the largest collection of pre-Columbian artifacts in the world. Among its significant exhibits includes the giant stone heads of the Olmec civilization and the Sacred Cenote from Chichen Itza. Its most famous artifact is the Stone of the Sun, which was never actually used as a calendar, but does contain 20-day signs and the 4 eras of suns that preceded the current 5th sun. The building itself, designed by Pedro Ramirez Vasques, is the centerpiece of the Chapultepec museum district and holds a great deal of symbolism.
Cairo’s Egyptian Museum displays mummies and artifacts of the celebrated Egyptian civilization, with a collection of over 120,000 items, known as one of the world’s best museums and a must-see for anyone visiting this African country. Its first floor contains artifacts from the final two dynasties of Ancient Egypt as well as many from the Valley of the Kings, while the ground floor houses an extensive collection of papyrus and coins used by the ancient Egyptians. Highlights include the Royal Mummy Room with its 27 royal mummies from Pharaonic times and the objects from the Tomb of Tutankhamen.
The Tokyo National Museum is considered the “Louvre of Japan”. The grand buildings house the world’s largest collection of Japanese art, including ancient Japanese art and Asian art along the Silk Road, as well as an extensive collection of Greco-Buddhist art. While the museum is divided into four different buildings, the majority of the collection is housed in the Main Gallery, or Honkan. You’ll find everything from kimono and samurai armor to lacquerware and woodblock prints, with the collection spanning several thousand years. Archaeological artifacts are housed in the Heiseikan, which also hosts several large-scale special exhibitions every year.
Rijksmuseum is the largest and most prestigious museum for art and history in the Netherlands. The museum is home to some of the greatest and most famous works of Dutch Art, including works by Vermeer, like his highly-focused study, The Milkmaid, as well as Rembrandt’s epic portrait, The Night Watch. The enormous collection showcases more than 8,000 paintings and objets d’art in over 100 rooms and galleries. The most significant highlights are the works from the Golden Age of Dutch art from around 1620 to 1680, and the collection of paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Steen and de Hooch.
The Prado contains an extensive bounty of classical masterpieces, thanks to the Spanish royal family who collected and commissioned numerous works over the centuries. It houses some of the best collections of European art dating from the 12th century to the early 19th century, including Spanish artists like Goya, Velazquez and Ribera as well as a huge collection of Italian and Flemish artists. Some of its highlights include the Majas of Goya, Las Meninas by Velazquez and The Three Graces by Rubens. Fernando VII opened the collection to the public in 1819, in the same neoclassic building it’s housed in today.
The Acropolis Museum allows visitors to enter the fascinating world of ancient Athens and admire every priceless artifacts that were found at the archaeological site of The Acropolis of Athens, the landmark of ancient Greece that spans a period from the Mycenaean times up to the Roman and Early Christian Athens. It was built to house every artifact found, lying on the archaeological site of Makrygianni and the ruins of a part of Roman and early Byzantine Athens. The ground floor is made of transparent glass, providing a walk over history with views of the excavation of the Acropolis.
The iconic Vatican Museums, located in Vatican City, contain a rich collection of religious art and sculptures. They’re most famous for the Raphael Rooms, including the Room of the Segnatura, in which Raphael painted The School of Athens, a scene that incorporates the likenesses of Raphael’s artistic contemporaries, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo; the exquisitely decorated Sistine Chapel and the elaborate spiral staircase. Under the patronage of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo painted the chapel ceiling between 1508 and 1512. Today the ceiling, and especially The Last Judgment, are thought to be Michelangelo’s crowning achievements in painting.
The Uffizi Gallery is one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the world, housed in the Palazzo Degli Uffizi, constructed in the 16-century. It’s jam-packed with masterpieces from the Renaissance, classical sculptures, prints and drawings, including Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Highlights also include works from the beginning of the Renaissance by Fra Angelico, Paolo Uccello, and Masaccio as well as a room dedicated to the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and the artists that inspired and admired him, like Verrocchio, Luca Signorelli, Lorenzo di Credi and Perugino.
The National Museum of Denmark is the country’s largest museum of cultural history, with its main domicile a classical 18th century mansion, the Prince’s Palace built for Danish Crown Prince Frederik V and Crown Princess Louise, near the center of Copenhagen. While it’s no longer used by the royal family, the Great Hall remains elegant enough for any prince or princess. Visitors can follow the history of the Danes from early beginnings down to present day, and immerse themselves in the extensive Viking exhibits revealing how these Norse seafarers could navigate their ships across vast oceans during a time when most people believed the world was flat.
There are more of the tortured artist Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and drawings here than anywhere else on earth, including everything from Avenue of Poplars in Autumn and The Potato Eaters as part of his early works which include somber depictions of landscape and peasant subjects, to Sunflowers, and finally, Wheatfield with Crows, completed in the last few weeks of his life, thought to symbolize his sadness and imminent death by his own hand in 1890. You’ll find more than 200 paintings in all, as well as many more drawings and letters, works by others that inspired him and notable artworks by his contemporaries in the Impressionist and post-Impressionist movements.
The largest museum of decorative and applied arts in the world, it was named in honor of the 19th-century royal couple. This palatial South Kensington museum has a vast and diverse permanent collection of more than 6.5 million objects, occupying about 12.5 acres with some 145 galleries. Highlights include the national photography archive, important furniture from medieval times to the present, an exceptionally diverse display of historic musical instruments and an unmatched collection of fashionable dress from the 17th century to today. The V&A collection spans five millennia, from ancient civilizations to the 21st century, showcasing the culture and artistic heritage of Europe, America, North Africa and Asia. Holdings include sculpture, pottery, glass, textiles, glass, ironwork, silver, precious metals, jewelry, furniture, medieval objects, prints, drawings and photographic art, considered to be among the finest and most comprehensive in the world.
The National Art Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum is devoted to the subject of the history of Greek and Western European art. It houses over 15,000 works of painting, sculpture, engraving and other forms of art as a treasury of Greek artistic creation from the post-Byzantine period until today. It also comprises a smaller collection of important Western European artworks, including famous artists like Picasso, Caravaggio and Rembrandt. The majority of its collections are dedicated to 19th-century Greek artists, with typical Greek landscapes that especially inspire if you’re headed out to visit other areas of the country.