11 European Museums You Should See In Your Lifetime

Posted by Adam Taplin on November 03, 2009 at 11:59:18 AM EST | Post a Comment

If you've never been to these museums, you're missing out. From ancient books in Ireland to modern architecture in Spain, here are Europe's essential museums.

What did we miss? Let us know your favorite European museums in the comments.


France's Grande Dame (Paris)

France's grandest museum was a royal palace until the French Revolution, when it was transformed into the home for the young Republic's art collection. The Big Three—Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and Venus de Milo—should not be missed.

Current Exhibit: "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese... Venetian Rivalry." An exploration of the artistic rivalry that pushed three painters to influence and inspire one another. Through January 4th, details at the exhibit's mini-site.

Museum Island

Something for Everyone (Berlin)

Germany's capital has over 150 museums, but this spot should be your first stop. It holds five state museums with world-class collections ranging from classical antiquities to 20th century paintings and sculpture.

Current Exhibit: "Paul Pfeiffer 'The Saints.'" Witness Paul Pfeiffer's recreation of the legendary 1966 World Cup final between West Germany and England in a huge (and hugely powerful) installation of sound and video. Through March, details on the Staatliche Museen website.

British Museum

An Archaeologist's Treasure Trove (London)

The self-appointed protector of treasures from around the globe, this vast museum is packed to bursting with antiquities and alluring objects. Among the greatest hits are the Parthenon Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and Egyptian mummies.

Current Exhibit: "Moctezuma." An exploration of ancient Aztec civilization and Moctezuma II, the Mexica's last elected leader. Through January, details on the British Museum's website.

Book of Kells


Home of Ireland's National Treasure (Dublin)

Often called "the most beautiful book in the world," this manuscript dating to the 8th or 9th century is a marvel of intricacy and creativity, executed by monks working with reed pens. You can visit it at Trinity College in Dublin.

Current Exhibit: "Turning Darkness Into Light." This exhibit provides extra historical perspective prior to viewing the book itself, and other important books—including the Book of Armagh, the Book of Durrow, the Book of Mulling and the Book of Dimma—are displayed on a rotating basis. Details on Trinity College's website.

Vatican Museums

Europe's Classic Chapel (Rome)

The lines waiting for entry here can be intimidating, but the reward—a vast collection of masterpieces, highlighted by the Sistine Chapel—makes it well worth the wait.

Current Exhibit: "Astrum 2009." Well. You'll probably make a beeline for the Sistine Chapel, but if not, check out this collection of rare instruments for observing the sky. Details on the Vatican Museum website.

Galleria degli Uffizi

Renaissance Art Hall of Fame (Florence)

The Uffizi—Renaissance art's hall of fame—contains masterpieces by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Caravaggio, and dozens of other luminaries.

Current Exhibit: "Splendour and Reason: Art in Eighteenth-Century Florence." A history of art in Florence after the Medicis left the scene. Details on the Uffizi website.


Home of the Dutch Masters (Amsterdam)

This is the place to go when you're looking for Dutch masters, including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and a slew of others.

Current Exhibit: "The Masterpieces." According to their site, the Rijksmuseum is displaying the "crème de la crème of their permanent collection" while a renovation is under way. Through November Details on the Rijksmuseum website.

Museu Calouste Gulbenkian

Quality Not Quantity (Lisbon)

The collection here—one part devoted to Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, and Asian art, the other to European— isn't large, but the quality is high. Add a stroll through the sculpture garden, and you have a great museum experience.

Current Exhibit: "Art Deco, 1925." A curated selection of the very best works that appeared in an age-defining exhibition, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925. Through January, details on the Calouste Gulbenkian website.

The Nationalmuseet

All About Vikings (Copenhagen)

Immerse yourself in the Viking exhibits here; one shows how the Vikings could navigate their ships across vast oceans at a time when most people believed the world was flat.

Current Exhibit: "Indians of the Rainforest." The museum has an ethnographic wing, and the current special exhibit follows the Hiwi, Hoti, and Panare Indians through their life on southern Venezuela's Orinico River. Details on the Nationalmuseet website.

Guggenheim Museum


Architectural Innovation (Bilbao)

All swooping curves and rippling forms, this architecturally innovative museum was built on the site of the city's former shipyards and inspired by the shape of a ship's hull. The collection is pretty good as well, including such masters as Picasso and Miró.

Current Exhibit: "Frank Lloyd Wright." A retrospective of the world's most famous modern architect. Through February, details on the Guggenheim website.

Museo del Prado

Spanish Masterpieces (Madrid)

Set in a magnificent neoclassical building on one of the capital's most elegant boulevards, the Prado is Spain's answer to the Louvre and a regal home to renowned Spanish masterpieces. Much of the collection dates back to the museum's inauguration in 1819.

Current Exhibit: "Juan Bautista Maíno." Includes 35 works by the artist and a further 31 by the painters who most influenced his artistic development, among them Velázquez and Caravaggio. Through January 17th, details on the Museo del Prado website.

What did we miss? Let us know your favorite European museums in the comments.

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Member Comments (40)  Post a Comment

  • MaryLou7 on Mar 4, 10 at 09:39 AM

    Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England

  • carolofla on Nov 9, 09 at 11:15 PM

    Oooops, got carried away and didn't pay attention to the "...in Europe" title.

  • Joycefnp on Nov 6, 09 at 03:30 PM

    I agree re: adding d'Orsay. Plus The Cluny museum was one of my favorites in Paris. The Unicorn tapestries took my breath away. And we basically had the museum to ourselves.

  • Chicago_Heather on Nov 6, 09 at 03:22 PM

    I have many, many other favorite museums in Europe, but this is a good start.

    My only comment is how are people not noticing the "European" in the article's title and acting shocked that museums in Cairo and the United States are missing?

  • Jean on Nov 6, 09 at 01:26 AM

    Le Memorial in Caen, France... I wish every person would learn about the evil of war, the importance of learning from past mistakes, and the difficulty but necessity of striving for peace. "Peace is not a gift from God to man, but a gift from man to himself." -Elie Wiesel

  • corriedog on Nov 6, 09 at 12:06 AM

    The Archeological Museum in Istanbul is one of the best. Artifacts and ruins are displayed here from Pre History. The Assyrian Lions, Hittite lions, through to Alexander the Great, Roman and Greek statues, all of the best. You think you are walking through an art history book. Wrecks of boats still laden with their loads, facades of temples. Truly fabulous. Go there at the end of your trip through Turkey, it's all there.

  • rbartizek on Nov 5, 09 at 10:12 PM

    The d'Orsay is not to be missed by lovers of Impressonism. More accessible than the Louvre. If you plan to go there, have a game plan in place or you will be tired and unfulfilled after traipsing around in search of your targets.
    And what about the Pompidou? Fans of modern - with a dash of impressionist and some intriguing sculpture - will enjoy it.

  • tongsa on Nov 5, 09 at 08:58 PM

    Difficult choices, no doubt. Agree with all that's said, especially about Musee d'Orsay, Van Gogh M (& the Rijks), the British Museum and the Vatican (the Cathedrals & Sistine, especially the Pieta). Would add the Science Museum in London for the others category - fascinating, especially with kids! I also liked the Dell Accademia in Florence though small, spending time with David!

  • Italophile on Nov 5, 09 at 08:44 PM

    A few people are nominating Cairo and other places that are not in Europe. This is a Europe list people.

  • dwhogan on Nov 5, 09 at 07:33 PM

    How can the Smithsonian not be on this list?

  • jashton on Nov 5, 09 at 07:18 PM

    The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway, blew me away. Almost as soon as you walk in the door, you're face to face with one of the ships. Fantastic experience.

  • Sandylan on Nov 5, 09 at 07:16 PM

    I really liked the great paintings in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg but it is as busy as a train station and you really need a private guide to get you in there in a reasonable time. As regards Ireland I enjoyed the Chester Beatty Library (www.cbl.ie) which was described by Lonely Planet as the best museum in Ireland and one of the best in Europe.

  • carolofla on Nov 5, 09 at 05:32 PM

    I've been to all on your list except Ireland and Copenhagen, plus most of others listed by readers.
    What about MOMA in NY? The New Tate in London? Even the Getty Center in Los Angeles for the campus and the views.

  • CruiseDiva on Nov 5, 09 at 04:28 PM

    Definitely, The Hermitage. And, small but not to be missed, Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

  • Carmen123 on Nov 5, 09 at 04:26 PM

    Can't leave out one of my favorites.The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.Particularly known for its Bruegels and Velazquez.

  • Carmen123 on Nov 5, 09 at 04:15 PM

    In Munich,Germany,both the Alte (old) Pinakothek and the Neune (new) Pinakothek for an encyclopedic walk through art history

  • paultheman on Nov 5, 09 at 03:45 PM

    I like these small museuems which I feel are the equal of their more famous counterparts in their cities. The Alte Pinakothek in Munich,
    The Villa Borgese in Rome, The Musee D'Orsay in
    Paris and the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

  • RomaPete on Nov 5, 09 at 03:35 PM

    Definitely the Musee d'Orsay is a must-see for any art lover and I'd also add a vote for the Villa Borghese.

  • AdamT Fodor's editor on Nov 5, 09 at 03:30 PM

    Thanks for the great suggestions. The Hermitage looks to have some fascinating exhibits coming up, and does belong on this list. So many other good suggestions and thoughtful comments. Sounds to me like there's another good story here, one that would cover the globe.

  • Yagermeister on Nov 5, 09 at 12:54 PM

    I feel the same about the Villa Borghese. I don't think it's one for a lifetime list, but Bernini and the Pauline Bonaparte sculptures are mesmerizing.

  • ksbeem on Nov 5, 09 at 12:19 PM

    Musee D'Orsay.

  • chelseaboy on Nov 5, 09 at 12:04 PM

    Villa Borghese in Roma - Bernini's sculptures make you cry

  • vlf on Nov 5, 09 at 11:47 AM

    I haven't been to Ireland or Lisbon so I can't comment on those. The Viking museum is getting into the apples and oranges problem. In any event, I don't have a clear memory of the one in Copenhagen. In fact the Viking museums I really remember were in Bergen, Norway and York, England. The Guggenheim in Bilboa does not have a collection of a quality to put it in a class with the others. The building totally overshadows the contents. I would include it in a list of European buildings not to miss. If you do include it how can you omit the Aya Sofia in Istanbul. As others have suggested, I would include the Hermitage (a no-brainer) and the Musee D'Orsay (who doesn't love the Musee D'Orsay)

  • DancingBearMD on Nov 5, 09 at 11:09 AM

    While I have no specific suggestions, your list is very heavy on art museums, aren't there more cultural, historic and scientific possibilities?

  • on Nov 5, 09 at 10:58 AM

    The Book of Kells was wonderful to see but it shouldn't take the place of The Hermitage.

  • Lisbon on Nov 5, 09 at 10:58 AM

    Gulbenkian Museum (Museu Calouste Gulbenkian) in Lisbon, Portugal houses a magnificent private collection of Persian art, Egyptian sculptures, and paintings by the Old Masters, as well as two concert halls for music and ballet performances. Should be on the list!

  • DaMom502 on Nov 5, 09 at 10:38 AM

    While I agree with most of your choices here, I would definitely add the Reina Sofia in Madrid -- among other greats "Guernica" by Picasso is there. Also, the Picasso Museum in Paris is amazing! And ditto for the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

  • llj on Nov 5, 09 at 10:18 AM

    The lovely Musee d'Orsay in Paris - how can one visit France and not spend at least an hour immersed in Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Seurat, etc. Even a non-museum goer will find something to love there.

  • nicaraguaexplorer on Nov 5, 09 at 09:55 AM

    The natural history museum in Paris- That first look at the thousand of sceletons of every possible animal takes your breath away. It is what a natural history museum should be.

  • chrisbaron on Nov 5, 09 at 09:47 AM

    The Reina Sofia in Madrid...not only a beautiful building but also the home of Picasso's great painting, "Guernica."

  • tomassocroccante on Nov 5, 09 at 09:47 AM

    I respect the great museums but love the small ones. Musee Picasso in Paris, Rijksmuseum Van Gogh in Amsterdam, the Borghese in Rome are each in themselves worth a trip abroad.

  • MMoradshahi on Nov 5, 09 at 09:39 AM

    The Kunsthaus in Zurich: 2 of Monet's Waterlillies, Rodin's original "Gates of Hell," important Dada and Surrealist works. Small but enjoyable! National Archeological Museum in Athens gets my vote, too.

  • lindyisabel on Nov 5, 09 at 09:16 AM

    Two more i truly enjoyed were the British War Rooms and Westminister Abbey- may not fir under "museums" but fascinating..

  • tenderfoot on Nov 5, 09 at 09:06 AM

    The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum across the street from the Museo del Prado. Arranged chronologically from 13th C. to present. Fab collection. Must see.

  • gottalovepugs on Nov 5, 09 at 09:02 AM

    What about the new Parthenon museum in Athens? Although many of the original sections of the frieze are housed in the British Museum in London (plaster copies are on display here) the display showing how the metopes and frieze would have looked on the parthenon itself as well as the location of the museum with it's glass windows overlooking the monument make it well worth a visit. And I would argue, a place on this list.

  • antaki on Nov 5, 09 at 09:02 AM

    The Hermitage Museum with all the famous paintings

  • dorijo on Nov 5, 09 at 09:00 AM

    The Egyptian Museum in Cairo with King Tuts Jewels and The Hermitage.

  • Bill_T on Nov 5, 09 at 08:59 AM

    Wiesbaden, Germany

  • dfr4848 on Nov 5, 09 at 08:57 AM

    National Archeological Museum in Athens - covering over 3,000 years of Western history and culture. Definitely a must see.

  • am_expat on Nov 5, 09 at 08:51 AM

    A list of Europe's(World's) grand museums missing the State Hermitage? No thank you.

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