Here are our picks for 10 of the world’s must-see museums. Gaze upon valuable treasures from the Rosetta Stone in London’s British Museum to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris
The Louvre, Paris
The largest and most popular museum in the world, the Musée du Louvre typically boasts more than nine million visitors annually. Originally built as a castle by Philip II between the 12th and 13th Century and altered frequently in the Middle Ages, the Louvre is located in France’s capital Paris. It houses approximately 460,000 objects and over 38,000 artefacts in eight specific curatorial departments. These include Egyptian Antiquities, Near Eastern Antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Islamic Art, Sculpture, Decorative Arts, Paintings, Prints and Drawings. Arguably the most iconic painting in its collection is Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Other highlights in its collection include a vast range of works from masters like Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt or Vermeer, to medieval objects such as the sceptre of Charles V and the crown of Louis XIV, to Hellenistic statues such as Venus de Milo. All in all, the Louvre undoubtedly clinches the title of ‘world’s most famous museum’.
State Hermitage, St. Petersburg
Second only to the Louvre in gallery space, the Baroque blue and white State Hermitage museum was established in 1764 in St. Petersburg. It proudly displays more than 3,000,000 paintings—the world’s largest collection of canvas art under one roof dating as far back as the stone age.
State Hermitage’s attractions include the last Russian emperor Tzar Nicholas II’s private collection—the main talking points being the masterpieces by Da Vinci, Picasso, Rembrandt and company—and the Gold Rooms of the Treasure Gallery.
British Museum, London
Founded in 1759 to honour the Irish physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, who donated his collection of 71,000 curios to Britain, London’s British Museum now has the world’s largest artefact collection—about 8,000,000, including prehistoric bones, the famous Mummy of Katebet, pieces of Athens’ Parthenon, the Rosetta Stone (the key to unravelling the hieroglyphics, etched in 196 B.C.) and even whole Assyrian palace rooms.
In addition to safeguarding the nation’s ethnography and archaeology collection, the British Museum showcases paintings by Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Van Gogh.
Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Rome
Founded in 1506, the Vatican Museums are the oldest on this list. Usually averaging over 6,000,000 footfalls, they are located in Vatican City (the smallest country in the world), encompassed by the historical city of Rome in Italy.
Originally constructed as papal palaces, the Vatican Museums are now a series of monumental galleries that proudly present more than 70,000 artefacts, including the prestigious Sistine Chapel, the Borgia Apartment and the Raphael Rooms.
The Natural History Museum, London
Originally called the British Museum (Natural History), the label was altered to its present-day moniker in 1992. However, separation from the British Museum took place back in 1963.
London’s Natural History Museum is one of the world’s top science research institutes and houses over 80 million specimens that are billions of years old, it typically welcomes over 5 million visitors annually.
Exhibits relate to the age of planet Earth and the evolution of life. Major crowd-pullers are the Darwin Center, the earth galleries, and the different kinds of mammals found on earth throughout history including dinosaur skeletons. In addition, there are many items related to botany, zoology, entomology, palaeontology and mineralogy. The most famous item on display until 2017 was the 32-meter long replica of a diplodocus carnegii skeleton, which was later replaced by a real 4.5-tonne, 25-meter long skeleton of a blue whale.
The National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Designed in the neoclassical style, Athens’ National Archaeological Museum was built in 1889 as a permanent place to house Greece’s archaeological collection.
Entering the museum, visitors are transported back in time to an age of Greek grandeur. The museum features the finest anthology of Greek antiquities with over 20,000 magnificent artefacts dating back to the Neolithic era. Major attractions to entice visitors include a 4th Century BC golden funerary wreath, a 370 BC Ninnion Tablet, a 15th Century BC Theseus Ring, the Mask of Agamemnon, Nestor’s Cup, and nine mummies from the time of the pharaohs—donated by the Egyptian government in 1893.
Museum Island, Berlin
Located in Berlin, along an island on the river Spree, Museum Island is a collective of six museums, added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list in 1999. The ‘famous five’ are: the Altes Museum, the Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Bode Museum and the Pergamon Museum. In 2019, the Humboldt Forum joined the group. Each of these six vast collections deserves at least half a day of exploring from visitors.
The Pergamon Museum comprises Islamic art and valuables collected from the Ancient Near East. Visitors interested in antiquities should head to the Altes Museum. Additionally, the Neues Museum exhibits the prehistoric, Egyptian and classical collections while the Alte Nationalgalerie showcases paintings and artworks. The Bode Museum houses a superb collection of medals, sculptures, coins and Byzantine art. Finally, the Humboldt Forum houses the Museum of Asian Art and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.
National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian, Washington D.C.
Located on the National Mall in Washington D.C., the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian has amassed over 126 million objects including meteorites, minerals, rocks and fossils as well as animal and human skeletons throughout the ages.
The largest exhibit in the Museum is the Sant Ocean Hall displaying 674 marine specimens with a combination of models and the latest technology, which allows visitors a glimpse into ocean life: past, present and future.
Other highlights in the Museum include the O. Orkin Insect Zoo, which entertains visitors with tarantula feedings, the Butterfly Pavilion, and the Samuel C. Johnson IMAX Theater. There’s also the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, where visitors can see life-sized models of early human faces, traced back to 6 million years. Finally, don’t forget to get a glimpse of the Hope Diamond.
National Museum of China, Beijing
As the world’s second most-visited museum behind the Louvre, the National Museum of China counts among the largest museums in the world.
Located in the same building since 1959, the National Museum of China combined two separate museums (the Museum of the Chinese Revolution and the National Museum of Chinese History) in 2003. The museum preserves a collection of 1,050,000 rare and precious artefacts dating back to 1.7 million years ago, covering Chinese history from the Yuanmou Man to the end of the last imperial dynasty in China, the Qing Dynasty.
Notable artefacts displayed in the Museum include an 830 kg Simuwu Ding (a sacrificial vessel, which is currently the world’s heaviest piece of ancient bronze-ware) and a bronze zun (a ritual wine vessel with four sheep heads) belonging to the Shang Dynasty, a rare inscribed bronze water pan of the Western Zhou Dynasty, gold-threaded jade burial suits of the Han Dynasty, a group of glazed sancai of the Tang Dynasty and ceramics belonging to the Song Dynasty.
National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C.
First established in 1946 as the National Air Museum, its main building was unveiled on the National Mall, Washington D.C. in 1976. A part of the Smithsonian Institution heritage, it is now the National Air and Space Museum. Consistently, it is also one of the most-visited museums in the USA.
Highlights of the Museum include the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer near the entrance, the Apollo 11 command module Columbia (the only piece of the spacecraft that could get back to Earth), American aviator Charles Lindbergh’s monoplane Spirit of St. Louis, the Friendship 7 capsule steered by astronaut John Glenn, a lunar rock transported back in 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission (which visitors are allowed to touch), the sound barrier-breaking Bell X-1 (or Bell Model 44), and the model of Starship Enterprise from the famous sci-fi TV series Star Trek. Almost all crafts displayed are originals or their original backups.
The National Air and Space Museum also doubles up as a research centre for geophysics, terrestrial geology and planetary science as well as aviation and spaceflight.