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30 Must-See Museums

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30 Must-See Museums
Patricia Schultz, author of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, curates our global museum collection covering everything from Renaissance masterpieces to the tools of the spy trade.
1. Musée du quai Branly
1. Musée du quai Branly, Paris
This eye-popping museum on the Left Bank of the Seine is devoted entirely to non-Western arts, and it’s France’s declaration of openness to the world and respect for all cultures. As important as the 3,500 displayed objects (of the museum’s 300,000 works) from Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas is the building itself, designed by the well-known French architect Jean Nouvel. Its atrium is dominated by a 46-foot-high totem pole from British Columbia, while a “living wall” passes as a vertical carpet of 150 species and 15,000 plants.

DULY NOTED: President Jacques Chirac inaugurated the Musée du quai Branly (nicknamed MQB) in June 2006, and it is the first major museum to open in the City of Lights since the Musée d’Orsay in 1986.

37 quai Branly
2. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
2. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Designed and convincingly executed in the style of a 15th-century Venetian palazzo, this 1901 mansion was the private home of the museum’s unconventional founder and namesake (when it opened as a museum, she lived on the top floor). The centerpiece is the dramatic four-story courtyard surrounded by elaborate balconies and archways; it is illuminated by a skylight and filled with seasonal blooms from the museum’s own greenhouse.  

UP NEXT: World-renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, known for his 1986 design of Houston’s Menil Collection, among others, is behind the upcoming expansion of this Boston treasure.

280 The Fenway

3. de Young Museum
3. de Young Museum, San Francisco
Designed by the renowned Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, the newest incarnation of de Young (an earlier structure, San Francisco’s oldest museum, was irreparably damaged by the earthquake of 1989) effortlessly integrates architecture, art and its unusual and once-contested Golden Gate Park setting. The eclectic collection includes vast holdings of art and the arts from the Americas, Oceania and Africa. Highlights: Works by American masters Sargent, Homer and O’Keeffe.

DULY NOTED: The 2005 museum’s striking façade, made of textured and perforated copper, has already started to turn shades of green, brown and black to blend with its surroundings.

INSIDER INFO: The 144-foot tower is a point of contention for some, though no one complains about the observation room views.

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.

4. La Fondation Maeght
4. La Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de Vence, France
A lazy afternoon in this medieval pedestrian-only hill town is worth the 20-mile trip from Nice. Top it off with a visit to the cool galleries of one of the world’s most famous small museums of modern art. The museum is set on a wooded cliff outside of the town center and is designed to blend harmoniously with its surroundings. Colline des Gardettes, fondation-maeght.com

INSIDER INFO: Lunch at the famous La Colombe d’Or, once the haunt of Picasso, Klee and others artists, who paid for meals with their artwork. mobiles by Calder and Arp, which are integrated into the green terraces with surprises hidden around every corner.

DULY NOTED: The foundation also owns a seven-acre vineyard, Le Mas Bernard, whose very respectable wines can be found in town.

INSIDER INFO: Make your day complete with lunch at the famous La Colombe d’Or, once the haunt of Picasso, Klee, and other artists, who paid for meals by leaving behind a breathless array of their work.

Colline des Gardettes
5. National Archaeological Museum
5. National Archaeological Museum, Naples
If you visited nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum and wondered where all the precious sculpture and artifacts wound up, they’re here. Arguably the world’s richest treasure trove of Greco-Roman antiquities, this large 16th-century palazzo was once used as a cavalry barracks. Exquisite mosaic collections ranging from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D. are from Pompeii excavations and ancient Roman villas. They reveal fascinating and intimate vignettes of life in that thriving and sophisticated city before it was extinguished forever by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

ADULTS ONLY: The museum’s Secret Museum features art of a sexual or explicit nature that was common in ancient Roman times. until Christianity condemned them as the epitome of paganism.

Piazza Museo 19

6. The City Museum and 7. The Field Museum
6. The City Museum, St. Louis
Not your garden-variety museum, this is one big eccentric work of whimsy that will awaken the 10-year-old in anyone who crosses its threshold. If you can climb on it, in it, over it or through it (whether it’s the mind of a master artist or the belly of a whale), it’s here. It may look like heaven on earth for kids, but the museum was actually created as much for adults as for children.

HIGHLIGHTS: Tunnels, chutes, mazes, caves, slides and bridges, as well as an aquarium, glass-blowing studio, art city, model trains, magic shows, a minicircus (and circus school), a shoelace factory . . . the list goes on.

INSIDER INFO: If you arrive Friday or Saturday night after 10 p.m., you’ll get a free flashlight (the lights go out at 11 p.m.) First date, anyone?

701 N. 15th St.

The Field Museum, Chicago
The Field Museum of Natural History bears the name of its first major benefactor, Marshall Field, founder of Chicago’s legendary department store. It is part of the 57-acre lakefront Museum Campus that also includes the John G. Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium. The three institutions are regarded as among the finest of their kind in the world and provide heavy competition to the neighboring Art Institute of Chicago, which many a child gladly skips to make a beeline for the Field.

HIGHLIGHTS: Its encyclopedic collection is as wide-ranging as evolution, ancient Egyptian funerary customs and Plains Indian life, but 67-million-year-old Sue—the world’s biggest and best preserved tyrannosaurus rex, named after the paleontologist who found it—seems to get all the attention.

1400 S. Lake Shore Dr.
9. Kariye Museum and 8. The International Spy Museum
8. The International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C.
This is one of the country’s most unusual museums and the only one of its kind in the world. A whiff of paranoia may be in the air, but you’ll walk away both entertained and enlightened about spy school, the history of espionage (the second-oldest profession), how spies are recruited and trained and nearly every other nonclassified tidbit there is to know about the spy world.

HIGHLIGHTS: An intriguing array of artifacts—including miniature cameras, lipstick-tube pistols and a shoe phone—may seem outlandish, but, rest assured, the museum’s director and advisory board include longtime CIA members and a retired KGB general.

800 F St. NW

9. Kariye Museum, Istanbul
Also known as the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, this often-overlooked museum began as a chapel or church built as early as the fifth century. Most of the current structure dates from the 11th to 14th century, after which it flourished as a mosque during the time of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. Surprisingly few of the tour buses that fill Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque visit Kariye—all the better for curious travelers who grab a cab to this old neighborhood and have the place to themselves.

HIGHLIGHTS: A dazzling array of 14th-century Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, whose biblical scenes were covered and whitewashed by the Ottomans and finally restored before the museum opened in 1958. Camii Sok, by the Edirne Gate, Edirnekapi

NEARBY: Atmospheric cafés and historic Ottoman houses form an evocative pocket of Old Stamboul in the shadow of the city’s fifth-century walls.
10. The Hermitage
10. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
The grandiose Winter Palace, built in the 18th century as the residence of every czar and czarina from Catherine the Great until the Russian Revolution in 1917, is among six buildings that house the stunning collection of The State Hermitage. A small fraction of its three million works of art—from Russia and the rest of the world—are on display, an unrivaled bounty enhanced by the immensely beautiful salons, replete with resplendent chandeliers, elaborate parquet floors, heavily molded and painted ceilings and endless gold leaf, lapis lazuli and amber.

HIGHLIGHTS: Of the exceptional collection of Western paintings, the Renaissance pieces are favorites (look for works by da Vinci and Michelangelo) as are entire rooms devoted to dozens of Rembrandts and Rubenses.

INSIDER INFO: Given the size of the collection, have a map and a plan of action before you start exploring.

2 Palace Sq.

11. Guggenheim Bilbao
11. Guggenheim Bilbao, Bilbao
When Frank Gehry designed this dazzling titanium-covered edifice that dominates Spain’s ship-building and steel center in 1997, he immediately secured its place on the global roster of revolutionary architecture (Philip Johnson declared it the “greatest building of our time”). Its location in an industrial city that is the heart of the separation-inclined Basque region helped forge a new image of cultural and economic revival and openness to the world.

HIGHLIGHTS: The permanent collection features some of the most significant artists of the second half of the 20th century—Klein, de Kooning, Motherwell, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Tàpies, Warhol—but it also highlights works by modern and contemporary Basque and Spanish artists.

INSIDER INFO: The restaurant’s sophisticated menu reveals why Basque chefs are often considered Spain’s most creative. The restaurant has a separate entrance, but skipping the art would be a shame.

Avenida Abandoibarra 2
12. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
12. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Vincent van Gogh was the 19th century’s most important Dutch painter, and he remains one of the world’s most popular artists long after his passing. This expanded light-filled space houses the visionary’s vibrant colors and dazzling landscapes, reflections of his artistic genius and anguished life (including paintings created just days before his suicide in France at the age of 37). The Netherlands’ Vincent worship continues, and this is its temple. Also on display are works by dozens of artists who influenced or were influenced by van Gogh.

HIGHLIGHTS: You may not know their names, but you will recognize the images: “The Potato Eaters,” “Irises,” “Sunflowers,” “Wheatfield with Crows,” and a number of self-portraits.

DULY NOTED: The museum was refurbished in 1999 with a dramatic new annex designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa.

Paulus Potterstraat 7 (Museumplein)
13. The Frederick Meijer Gardens
13. The Frederick Meijer Gardens, Grand Rapids, Michigan
The 30-acre sculpture park is home to the largest collection of outdoor art in the Midwest and is the centerpiece of an Eden-esque botanical center four times its size. The 160 pieces include works by such noted artists as Rodin, Bourgeois and Moore. Undulating hills, wooded alcoves and meandering pathways enhance the feeling that civilization is light years away.

HIGHLIGHTS: A striking five-story glass conservatory, a whimsical Children’s Garden and a 1,750-seat lawn setting that is the venue of this summer’s seventh annual concert series beginning in June.

1000 E. Beltline Ave. NE. 

14. The Barnes Foundation and 15. National Museum of Anthropolog
14. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
One of the world’s premier private art collections is tucked in a leafy Main Line suburb of Philadelphia, with a collection that is so broad that it’s nothing short of stunning (more than 4,500 works, including one of the most important collections of French impressionist and postimpressionist paintings anywhere). Albert Barnes was a Philadelphia resident who made his fortune in patent medicine, and his passion for art was unbridled. Reservations are required.

HIGHLIGHTS: 181 works by Renoir, 69 by Cézanne, 59 by Matisse and 46 by Picasso. Plus works by van Gogh, Degas, Corot, Seurat, Monet, Manet, Goya and El Greco—all of them juxtaposed in a quirky manner chosen by Barnes himself.

300 Latches Ln. N.

National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (pictured)
Located in Chapultepec Park in the heart of Mexico City, this premier anthropological and archaeological museum portrays the native cultures of Mesoamerica—most from the preconquest era—in all their brilliance and splendor. Housed on two floors in an award-winning 1964 building, the museum is reminiscent of the timeless grandeur of an Aztec temple.

HIGHLIGHTS: The massive collection contains the 24-ton, 15th-century Aztec “Sun Stone” (one of Mexico’s most recognized symbols and the museum’s pièce de résistance), elaborately feathered Aztec headdresses, exquisite pieces of gold and alabaster and the simple instruments that were used in everyday life.

INSIDER INFO: For priceless context, stop here before heading to the monumental city of Teotihuacán, some 30 miles northeast of Mexico City. Believed to date back to around the first century A.D., its ancient pyramids, palaces and temples may appear lifeless if not seen or understood within the context this museum supplies in spades.

Paseo de la Reforma in Parque Chapultepec

16. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum and 17. National Palace Museum
16. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, Springfield, Illinois (pictured)
Opened in 2005, the museum has the largest repository of Lincoln artifacts anywhere. It’s as much respectful theme park as engaging museum, where you can experience the president and his tumultuous times in a personal and interactive way. alplm.org The 16th president was born 200 years ago in Kentucky, spent his youth in Indiana and lived in Illinois from 1830 until 1861. Nearby: Several other historic sites are just blocks away: the Old State Capitol, Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices and Lincoln’s home.

INSIDER INFO: The most magical moment is Saturday evening, when the museum stays open late for spectacular views.

212 N. Sixth St.

17. National Palace Museum, Taipei
Often mentioned in the same breath as the Louvre, the Prado and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Palace Museum is home to the greatest collection of Chinese art and artifacts amassed over 1,000 years by ancient emperors. If the jade-tile-roofed building looks a lot like Beijing’s Forbidden City, China’s ancient imperial residence, it’s not by chance. When the Nationalists lost China’s civil war to the Communists in 1949, they shipped the best of the imperial collection from the Forbidden City’s treasuries to Taipei—nearly 3,000 crates packed with some of the world’s rarest paintings and porcelain.

DULY NOTED: With displays rotated every three months, it would still take 12 years to see all of the estimated 700,000 objects.

221 Chih-shan Rd., Sec. 2; Shih-lin
18. The Getty Center and 19. The Uffizi Gallery
18. The Getty Center, Los Angeles (pictured)
Its isolated position atop the Santa Monica mountain ridge encourages its comparison to an acropolis of culture. Swathed in Italian travertine marble, Richard Meier’s architectural masterwork houses the ever-expanding art and sculpture collection originated by billionaire and oil magnate J. Paul Getty, all displayed within five pavilions bridged by walkways and surrounding a central courtyard.

HIGHLIGHTS: Masterworks include van Gogh’s “Irises” and five Cézannes (including “Still Life with Apples”), offset by esoteric collections, from Renaissance to impressionism to 18th-century European decorative arts.

1200 Getty Center Dr.

19. The Uffizi Gallery, Florence
A mother lode of Renaissance masterworks is housed in this grand 16th-century palazzo, designed by Giorgio Vasari for Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and originally meant to be used as offices (hence the name Uffizi). Collected by various generations of the Medici family, it represents Italy’s unparalleled artistic heritage and spans six centuries. Of the city’s dozens of museums, this is its gem.

HIGHLIGHTS: You’ll recognize most of them—or at least their luminary creators: Botticelli, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael. Greats from beyond Italy include Rembrandt, Rubens and Goya.

Loggiato degli Uffizi
20. Museum of Modern Art
20. Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Founded in 1929, the Museum of Modern Art was the first museum ever to be devoted exclusively to modern art. MOMA is home to the world’s finest collection of works from the late 19th century to the present: 3,500 paintings and sculptures, 6,000 drawings, 3,000 objects tracing the history of modern design, 4,000 posters, 23,000 films and videos and more than 25,000 photographs. If the numbers don’t astound you, catching just a glimmer of this treasure trove will. Highlights: Monet’s “Water Lilies,” Matisse’s “Dance” (1), Cézanne’s “The Bathers” and Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” plus photos by Man Ray, Walker Evans and Ansel Adams.

INSIDER INFO: MOMA is one of the most expensive museums in NYC, but it’s free on Fridays from 4–8 p.m. Expect lines, but you won’t be disappointed.

DULY NOTED: A recent facelift by Yoshio Taniguchi created more light and bigger rooms and enlarged the much-loved Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden.

11 W. 53rd St.
And 10 More
Minneapolis: Walker Art Center
Known for a striking wing designed by Herzog & de Meuron and top exhibitions of 20th-century art.

High Museum of Art
A renowned collection of art and architecture by Richard Meier and Renzo Piano.

Baltimore: American Visionary Art Museum
The elliptical, three-story, historic industrial building houses six galleries filled with art exploring one theme at a time. 

London: British Museum
Second only to Paris’s Louvre in visitors last year (5.9 million), features a huge collection of world antiquities—and it’s free! 

Tokyo: Edo-Tokyo Museum Featuring a life-sized replica of Nihonbashi Bridge, this museum is modeled after a storehouse in the kurazukuri style.

Cairo: Egyptian Museum of Antiquities
The museum is home to the largest collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities in the world, including 27 mummies!

Rome: Vatican Museums
Home to the Sistine Chapel. Need we say more? 

Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Museum
Impressive collection of ancient (and modern) art in chronological and geographical order.

Buenos Aires: Museum of Latin American Art
Collection of 200 pieces by artists from Latin America, including Kahlo, Rivera and Berni. 

Botero Museum
Honors artist Fernando Botero with a lovely museum and collection.
The ancient Greeks brought us the word museum: a place dedicated to the muses. Today, museums exist in countless interpretations in all corners of the world. The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul whispers of veiled harems and Ottoman opulence; Balmoral and Versailles provide a window onto other worlds and times. There are museums of natural history, military history and antiquities, and open-air museums—such as Stockholm’s Skansen—that recreate a particular moment in history. Museums celebrate a single artist or pay tribute to a single topic. The museum as showcase for modern architecture has rewritten the global skyline and grabbed the world’s attention. But perhaps it is the looming world-class repositories of stunning collections we most associate with the classic idea of a museum: The Prados, Louvres and Mets of the world.

You could spend many lifetimes seeing just a fraction of the museums, great and humble, the world offers. Here is a short list to start you on your way.

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