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7 Must-See Museums Around the World

6/28/17 by Matt Wastradowski

For history buffs, art aficionados, and design gurus, they’re the stuff of legend, a central character in countless movies and books, and a reason to travel: the world’s most notable museums. From the Smithsonian to the Met, the Prado to the Louvre, these iconic institutions have been wowing visitors for decades, bringing history vividly to life with their exhibits, collections, and awe-inspiring artifacts.

Here, seven museums that should be on every traveler’s must-visit list. Whether you’re interested in art, history, or culture, you’re sure to find something to pique your interest—and, most likely, a reason to come back.

1. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian Institution spans a vast network of museums and galleries, including the National Museum of Natural History.
The Smithsonian Institution spans a vast network of museums and galleries, including the National Museum of Natural History. Don DeBold

Its name is a bit of a misnomer, since there’s no one singular Smithsonian Institution. Instead, its vast complex includes 11 museums and galleries on the National Mall, six museums in the greater D.C. region, and the National Zoo, all of which hold an astounding 154 million objects, artifacts, works of art, and historical specimens.

Of that total, you’ll find 145 million plants, animals, fossils, and other specimens at the National Museum of Natural History, one of the world’s most popular museums dedicated to the evolution of life on Earth. The museum is the size of 18 football fields, so bring comfortable shoes, and arrive with a plan for what you’d like to see.

Other popular Smithsonian museums include the Air and Space Museum, the African American Museum, which opened in fall of 2016, and the Postal Museum, which showcases one of the world’s largest collection of stamps. Insider tip: Single out a few exhibit highlights you’d like to see, rather than going for a marathon rush to squeeze in as much as you can.

2. Musée du Louvre, Paris

The Louvre in Paris is the most-visited museum in the world.
The Louvre in Paris is the most-visited museum in the world. Bill Clark

Housed in a 12th-century fortress, the Musée du Louvre is now the world’s largest museum and one of its most-visited. In all, the Louvre holds a head-spinning collection spanning thousands of Renaissance paintings, ancient Egyptian antiquities, Greek and Roman displays, and more.

That said, the museum is best known for its timeless stars: most notably, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, the ancient Greek sculpture Venus de Milo, and the Great Sphinx of Tanis, among other world-famous artistic icons. If you’re set on seeing these works of art up close, try arriving as early as possible (when crowds are at their lightest). Otherwise, enjoy wandering aimlessly throughout the Louvre’s labyrinth; there’s a good chance you’ll find a new favorite work along the way.

3. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

The Met’s exhibits span a wide variety of art; this one, the Sarcophagus of Harkhebit, dates to around 590 B.C.
The Met’s exhibits span a wide variety of art; this one, the Sarcophagus of Harkhebit, dates to around 590 B.C. Andrew Moore

There are art museums, and then there’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Simply put, you won’t find another art museum in North America with the same breadth, variety, space, or dedication to quality. "The Met," as it’s popularly known, is housed in a two-million-square-foot building showcasing art from all around the world—and its oldest pieces date back some 5,000 years.

With more than a million pieces on display at any given time, it’s an art aficionado’s paradise. Roughly 36,000 pieces of Egyptian art are on display, in addition to 2,500 paintings from European legends including Rembrandt and Vermeer. In all, art lovers will find paintings, photographs, sculpture, and other works of art from throughout North America, Europe, the Islamic world, and more.

4. Vatican Museums, Rome

Rome’s Vatican Museums span more than 30 rooms of artworks.

    Jonathan Singer
Rome’s Vatican Museums span more than 30 rooms of artworks. Jonathan Singer

If you’re in Vatican City, you’re likely already planning to visit the Sistine Chapel. If so, slow down en route to Michelangelo’s masterpiece, and make time to browse the surrounding Vatican Museums to explore one of the world’s most storied art collections.

The Vatican Museums launched when Pope Julius II collected several sculptures in the early 1500s. Over the centuries, subsequent popes added works by Raphael, Michelangelo, and other artists, creating one of the world’s most carefully curated art collections in the process. Today, the museum hosts more than 30 rooms full of sculptures, masks, paintings, and other iconic works of religious art.

5. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

The Prado hosts an extensive collection of art by some of Europe’s most notable painters from the 12th to 19th centuries.
The Prado hosts an extensive collection of art by some of Europe’s most notable painters from the 12th to 19th centuries. Edmund Gall

On a continent brimming with world-famous art museums, the Museo Nacional del Prado, located in the heart of Madrid, stands out with its stunning collection of centuries’ worth of outstanding works.

The Prado’s extensive collection spans the 12th to 19th centuries, with art from some of Europe’s most notable painters, including Raphael, Bosch, Tintoretto, and Rembrandt.

That said, make sure to see the exhibits dedicated to Velázquez, El Greco, Goya, Cotán, and other Spanish legends. The paintings, many of which were sought by Spanish royalty over several centuries, offer fascinating glimpses into at daily life in the country while reflecting the tastes of its kings and queens.

6. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City

The two-story museum has a focus on Mexican civilizations and culture; be sure to stop at the courtyard’s inverted fountain.
The two-story museum has a focus on Mexican civilizations and culture; be sure to stop at the courtyard’s inverted fountain. katiebordner

The next time you’re in Mexico City, plan for a day—maybe two—at the largest, most-visited museum in the country: Museo Nacional de Antropología. The two-story museum host a stunning array of artifacts and Mexican folk art divided into two broad eras.

The ground floor covers pre-Columbian civilizations in what we know as Mexico today, as well as life in the Southwestern United States (once a Mexican territory). The second floor, meanwhile, looks at life, cultures, and agriculture throughout modern-day Mexico.

It’s tough to narrow down the highlights, but make sure to spend some time in the courtyard, which is anchored by a stunning fountain. The unique design of the fountain, with its inverted column, reflects how the region’s indigenous people and Spanish people came together to form Mexico as we know it today. The museum also is home to the fabled 24-ton Sun Stone, perhaps the most famous of all Aztec sculptures.

7. State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

The State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace hosts pieces in palaces built over five centuries.
The State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace hosts pieces in palaces built over five centuries. kuhnmi

The treasures of the sprawling State Hermitage Museum span five palaces built over five centuries, and its collection of Russian and European art touches nearly every era of human history. Visitors will see art from ancient Egypt and Greece, prehistoric artifacts, Italian Renaissance paintings and sculpture, Dutch Golden Age artwork, Russian art spanning nine centuries, and more. Search long enough, and you’ll find works from legendary artists like da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Picasso.

But the museum isn’t famous just for its art: Keep an eye out for the 50 or so Hermitage cats that patrol the museum and Palace Square. These felines have called the palaces and museum home since the 1700s, and they have become a tourist attraction of their own in recent years.

Originally written by RootsRated for ExOfficio.