Because Rome is so much more than just its ancient sites.
Rome may be an open-air museum replete with baroque fountains, larger-than-life churches, ancient ruins, and other treasures, but that doesn’t mean you should skip out on the city’s many established museums. Inside you’ll find masterpieces by some of the greatest artists who ever lived, not to mention awe-inspiring architecture and treasures of the ancient world. From the famed Vatican Museums—home to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel—to the city’s contemporary art museums designed by modern-day starchitects, these are the best museums in Rome.
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One of the largest museums in the world, the Vatican palaces and museum comprise some 1,400 rooms, galleries, and chapels. By far the most famous (and most crowded) is the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo and a team of other painters, but the Raphael Rooms come in a close second when it comes to must-see works within the museum. You could literally spend an entire day here and only skim the surface. It’s best to buy tickets in advance or, if you can, book a before or after-hours visit with a tour operator like Imago Artis Travel.
Second in size only to the Vatican Museums, the Capitoline Museums were the world’s first public art museums. The two buildings on Michelangelo’s famous piazza house a collection spanning from Ancient Rome to the Baroque era, with masterpieces including Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller and St. John the Baptist. It’s worth seeking out the Tabularium Gallery for incredible views of the Roman Forum.
The Vatican and Capitoline Museums may be bigger, but it would be hard to find a more beautiful villa filled with a must-see collection of masterpieces by Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael, Rubens, and Titian. Cardinal Scipione Borghese had the gorgeous Renaissance villa built in 1612 to display his collection, though it has undergone many changes since. Don’t miss Canova’s Neoclassical sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte (Napoleon’s sister) as Venus Victrix and Bernini’s baroque sculptures of David, Apollo and Daphne, and the Rape of Persephone. The gardens are worth a visit, too.
Tucked away in the quiet Flaminio neighborhood, the Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (National Museum of 21st Century Arts)—or MAXXI, for short—proves that there’s more to Rome than ancient and baroque art. The building itself is a masterpiece designed by famed architect Zaha Hadid, with cantilevered galleries and staircases that twist in the air. Temporary exhibits range in subject matter and quality, so check to see what’s on before you go.
Housed in the former Peroni brewery, this modern and contemporary art museum focuses on Italian art from the 1960s through the present. The building, with its striking red structure and glass walkways, was designed by French architect Odile Decq and is worth a visit in and of itself. With its programming, the museum strives to bring contemporary art to the public in innovative ways.
Nowhere else is the theme of gods and machines more apparent than at this museum in Ostiense. Rome’s first power plant now houses the runoff from the Capitoline Museums’ collection, and the sculptures of men in togas and women in flowing dresses form a poignant contrast to the hulking machinery. The best part? You’re likely to have the place all to yourself—a refreshing antidote to the city’s most crowded sites.
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea
Located within Villa Borghese, this art museum in a huge white Beaux Arts building hosts one of Italy’s most important collections of 19th- and 20th-century art. You’ll find works by Degas, Monet, Courbet, Cézanne, and Van Gogh, but the emphasis is on understanding Italian Modernism through a historical lens.
Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia
If you don’t know much about the Etruscans, you’re not alone. This pre-Roman civilization appeared in Italy around 2,000 BC, though no one knows exactly where they originated. To learn more about them, plan a visit to this museum in Villa Giulia, which was built for Pope Julius III in the mid-1500s. You’ll see lots of terra-cotta statues, ancient Etruscan jewelry, and a sarcophagus dating back to 530–500 BC.
Palazzo Doria Pamphilj
For a glimpse into aristocratic Rome, it’s hard to beat this museum in the 15th-century palazzo of the Doria Pamphilj family, who still live in part of the palace. You might be tempted to just wander through the Hall of Mirrors—fashioned after the one at Versailles, naturally—but don’t miss the old master paintings, including masterpieces by Caravaggio, Titian, and Velázquez.
This 17th-century palazzo is a feast for the eyes created for the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, who wanted to glorify the powerful Barberini family. The massive “villa suburbana” was designed by Carlo Maderno (with help from his nephew, Francesco Borromini), but when he died, Borromini’s rival Bernini took over. The palazzo contains Rafael’s portrait of his lover (known as La Fornarina) and Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes, among other works of art. Don’t miss the ceiling in the Gran Salone painted by Pietro da Cortona.