This blog post was updated on August 28, 2023.
Visiting a new city can be overwhelming. So much to see, so many things to do. To get yourself started, it’s nice to rely on some old standbys to get a head start on what to see first. For some it’s bookstores, to get lost in the stacks of the local culture. For others it’s concerts or theater, to see what excitement from live entertainment a new city has to offer.
For others, it’s museums. When they get a chance to visit a major city, they immediately look up what art museums and fine arts institutions call the city home. In fact, there are some museums that are so special, so bursting with cultural riches, that these museums are reason enough to visit that city.
What follows is a selective list of some of the finest arts and culture museums in the world. Now, many of these cities you might have gone to anyway: London, New York City, Amsterdam. We hardly need to call these cities to your attention. But maybe the next time you visit, you’ll put aside some time to see why some museums are sufficient in and of themselves to put a certain city on your itinerary.
The Art Institute of Chicago
On the shore of Lake Michigan stands one of the towering jewels of an already beautiful city, the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the finest art museums in the world. The collection features an eclectic mix of old masters, ancient artifacts, and iconic paintings from the modern era. Among the Art Institute’s many instantly recognizable holdings are Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte. Don’t miss Marc Chagall’s transcendent stained glass America Windows, a truly religious experience, although the subject matter is decidedly secular. And kids will likely be fascinated by the museum’s famed Thorne Miniature Rooms, painstaking minute reconstructions of rooms in a wide range of historical and architectural styles.
The Palace Museum, Beijing
Beijing’s Palace Museum, situated the the famous Forbidden City, is an actual former palace inhabited by emperors from the Ming to the Qing dynasties. It was constructed early in the 15th century, and served as the emperor’s palace for the next 400 years. After the last emperor was removed from the palace in 1925, the vast complex of over 900 buildings was established as a museum celebrating the best of Chinese art and design. In addition to its impressive architecture, the museum also features painting, calligraphy, ceramics, and various other impressive objects from China’s imperial past.
The Frick Collection, New York City
Across the world, there are numerous museums that were once the grand residences of members of the moneyed classes. These include the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, the Wallace Collection in London, and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. But perhaps the grandest of them all is the Frick Collection on New York City. The Frick mansion, built by industrialist Henry Clay Frick from 1912 to 1914, sits at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 70th Street in Manhattan.
The mansion is closed for renovations until 2024. Previously, visitors were only allowed to explore the capacious first floor of the manse, but after the renovations they will also be able to check out the Frick living quarters on the second floor. During renovations, the Frick collection will be on view at the former home of the Whitney Museum at Madison Avenue and 75th Street. The collection features glorious masterworks by Rembrandt, J. M. W. Turner, Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Hans Holbein, and three (count them, three) paintings by Johannes Vermeer. The mansion also features a French room recreated to accommodate four enormous paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The collection is, of course, worth seeing at its temporary location, but the real Frick experience will only be available once renovations are complete.
The Prado, Madrid
More formally known as the Museo Nacional del Prado, this treasure trove of Spanish and international art is part of Madrid’s “Golden Triangle” of museums, which also includes the Museo Nacional Central de Arte Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, both of which are a short walk from the Prado. The Prado’s impressive collection includes such iconic paintings as The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch; The Third of May 1808 and The Colossus, both by Francisco Goya; and perhaps the museum’s most famous painting, Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, considered by many scholars and critics to be the best painting ever created. One of Madrid’s most famous holdings — Pablo Picasso’s monumental Guernica — is no longer housed at the Prado, but rather in a purpose-built gallery in the Reina Sofia, about a ten-minute walk away.
Victoria and Albert, London
Although London boasts many fine art museums, from the National Gallery to the Tate Modern, often lost in their shadow is the Victoria and Albert Museum, London’s premier museum of applied arts, decorative arts, and design. The museum features an impressively wide array of beautiful objects, including furniture, fashion, jewelry, religious objects, and a wildly eccentric glass chandelier from contemporary glass artist Dale Chihuly. Be sure not to miss the “cast court,” featuring reproductions of some of the most famous sculptures in the world, including Michelangelo’s David. The more you find out about the V&A, as it is affectionately known by Londoners, the more you’ll be tempted to start looking for cheap flights to London to take in this British trove of treasures.
Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo
Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) is one of the finest and largest collections of Islamic art in the world, as well as one of the oldest. The museum features 25 galleries through which it rotates more than 100 thousand pieces of Islamic art. As with any world-class museum, the MIA can only exhibit about 4,500 pieces at any time, a small fraction of its total holdings. The collection features rare manuscripts of the Quran, as well as a trove of Islamic woodwork, metalwork, glass, ceramics, and textiles. The museum also conducts its own scientific research, including excavations of Fustat, the first capital of Egypt under Islamic rule, the historical center of modern day Cairo.
The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The Netherlands has given rise to so many influential classical painters that we have a term for them: The Dutch Masters. This august group includes Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Franz Hals, Peter Brueghel the Elder, Jan Steen, Hieronymous Bosch, and Hendrick Avercamp. And all of these artists are represented at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, an almost overwhelming collection of masterworks from these masters of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century or thereabouts.
Of particular note in the Rijksmuseum’s collection are no fewer than four works by Johannes Vermeer — including The Milkmaid — quite an impressive number, since only 36 works by Vermeer are known to have survived. Perhaps the museum’s most famous painting is Rembrandt’s Night Watch, more formally known as “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq.” The painting was infamously cut down to size in the 18th century to fit into Amsterdam’s town hall, but the the missing portions were recently restored using various modern technologies, including artificial intelligence.
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Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Most museums contain masterpieces. Other museums are masterpieces. The Guggenheim Museum in New York City was, of course, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the most famous architect of his day. So, it only makes sense that when the Guggenheim Foundation added another museum to its portfolio, in the Spanish city of Bilbao, the foundation turned to the most famous living architect, Frank Gehry, to design it. The building itself is a monumental mélange of metallic curves, typical of Gehry’s mature style.
And there’s more to see outside than just the impressive building. The grounds surrounding the museum feature public artworks by Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor, and Yves Klein, as well as Jeff Koons’ prodigious Puppy outside of the museum’s entrance. Once visitors get inside, they’re treated to a stunning array of masterworks from Mark Rothko, Richard Serra, Willem de Kooning, and Andy Warhol, as well as a full complement of Spanish artists, including Eduardo Chillida and Pablo Palazuelo.
The Getty, Los Angeles
Built in 1997 to house the collection of businessman and art collector J. Paul Getty, the Getty Center, located high on a hill in Brentwood, California, features magnificent modern architecture, lush gardens, and panoramic views of Greater Los Angeles. The collection’s most famous painting is Irises by Vincent van Gogh, which the Getty Foundation paid $54 million for in 1987, then a record for a painting sold at auction. The Getty also has several stunning works by Rembrandt, including a mirthful self-portrait. Impressionist works include La Promenade by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and one of Claude Monet’s many studies of the Rouen Cathedral. There are also masterworks by Cézanne, Manet, Millet, Turner, Gericault, Fragonard, Poussin, Reubens, and Jan Breughel the Elder, not to mention recent acquisitions of works by Gustave Caillebotte and Artemisia Gentileschi.
Another major feather in the Getty’s cap is an extremely rare example of a Greek bronze statue, The Statue of a Victorious Youth, also known as the “Getty Bronze.” Ancient bronzes are exceedingly rare today because metal at the time was so valuable that statues were typically melted down far alternate use. So, if you’re looking for cheap flights to Los Angeles, definitely make some time to check out the Getty.
Do you have a favorite art museum? Let us know in the comments below!