10 Breathtaking South American Museums

Image credit: 
Luis Alveart

We’ve seen some absolutely stunning museums in Europe and North America; now it’s time to head south to see what kinds of gorgeous gems are located down in South America.

1. Tequendama Falls Museum of Biodiversity and Culture, Colombia

Photo courtesy of Luis Alveart

Originally a private residence, then partially converted into a hotel and finally turned into a museum, the Tequendama Falls Museum is easily worth a visit just to enjoy the breathtaking view. The 1923 French-architecture-inspired building was constructed on a cliff face that overlooks the Tequendama Falls. It was supposed to be reconstructed into an eighteen story hotel after the 1950s, but construction never began and the hotel was eventually abandoned in the '90s due to contamination of the river below. The building developed a reputation for being haunted well before it was converted into a museum. For those who aren’t afraid of ghosts though, it’s certainly one of the top must-see attractions in the area.

2. Imperial Museum, Brazil

Photo courtesy of Steve Oldham

This absolutely stunning neoclassical building was completed in 1862, with the purpose of serving as the Emperor’s summer residence. After the empire fell in 1909, the mansion served as the St. Vincent de Paul College. It was one of the school’s students, Alcindo de Azevedo Sodre, who first envisioned turning the school into a historical museum. By 1940, he had convinced enough people that the structure was converted into the Imperial Museum.

Sodre became the first director of the museum, studying the history of the structure and rigorously working to locate pieces of furniture, art and other home accessories that originally belonged to the imperial family so the museum could illustrate their day-to-day lives. The museum opened in 1943, offering an important collection of documents and artifacts relating to the Brazilian Empire.

The museum now houses over 300,000 items and offers a temporary exhibition hall dedicated to contemporary art. It is currently one of the most visited museums in Brazil.

3. Museu Paulista, Brazil

Photo courtesy of Karlos

If you just can’t get enough history on the Brazilian Empire, then you’ll want to visit the Museu Paulista as well. Operated by the University of Sao Paulo, the museum is located near the spot where Emperor Pedro I proclaimed independence from Portugal.

Photo courtesy of Porto Bay Hotels and Resorts

The structure—designed by Italian architect Tommaso Gaudenzio Bezzi—and its gardens are loosely based on the French Palace of Versailles and the museum features a large collection of furniture, artwork, and documents relating to the Brazilian Empire.

4. Tigre Municipal Museum of Fine Art, Argentina

Photo courtesy of Luis Argerich

In 1890, the beautiful Tigre Hotel was constructed on the banks of the Lujan River, Tigre. Twenty-two years later, the Tigre Club was constructed next door, designed by architects Pablo Pater and Luis Dubois, and adorned with Venetian mirrors, French chandeliers, and frescoes by Spanish artist Julio Vila y Prades. Soon, it became a hot spot for Argentina’s rich and famous. Unfortunately, the owners were forced to close their casino due to new legislation in 1933. The world-wide Great Depression hit Argentina at the same time period and the luxury hotel next door was demolished in 1940. While the Club continued to operate, offering live performances and a classy restaurant, it never again saw the glory days it once had.

Photo courtesy of Tigre Municipio

Luckily, it wasn’t torn down like the Tigre Hotel, and in 1979, the building was declared a National Historic Monument. This helped earn funding for a massive renovation, and in 2006, the building reopened as the Tigre Municipal Museum of Fine Art.

5. Juan Carlos Castagnino Municipal Museum of Art, Argentina

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This lovely building was originally constructed as a summer residence for the Ortiz Basualdo family of Buenos Aires in 1909. Designed by Pablo Pater and Luis Dubois (the same team responsible for the Tigre Club), the building features a classic French half-timber motif.

Meanwhile, the city of Mar del Plata's municipal museum of art was established in the City Hall in 1938. The Ortiz Basualdo family donated their summer home to the museum in 1980, including their fine furniture by Belgian architect and cabinet maker Gustave Serrurier-Bovy, which has been incorporated into the museum exhibits.

These days, the museum’s collection includes nearly 600 paintings, sculptures, lithographs, and photographs, most notably from local painter Juan Carlos Castagnino, for whom the museum was renamed in 1982.

6. National Museum of Fine Arts, Chile

Photo courtesy of Darren and Sandy V and Soye

Known locally as the MNBA (which stands for Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes), Chile’s fine arts museum was established in 1880, making it the oldest such museum in South America. The museum was moved into the Palace of the Fine Arts building where it currently resides in 1910. The Palace was built to commemorate the country’s first centennial of independence from Spain. It was designed by French-Chilean architect Emile Jecquier, who combined Beaux-arts, Neoclassical Second Empire, Baroque, and Art Nouveau touches into the building’s design, taking strong inspiration from the Petit Palais of Paris.

The back side of the same building is also home to the Museum of Contemporary Art, so if you enjoy beautiful museums and great art, you really get a two-for-one when you visit the MNBA.

Like many buildings in the area, the Palace of Fine Arts received substantial damage in the 2010 Chile earthquake, but most of this damage has now been cleared out and repaired.

7. Museum of Italian Art, Peru

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While Peru might not be the first place you think of when it comes to Italian art, this lovely museum is certainly worth a visit if you get the opportunity. The Italian community of Peru donated the museum as a gift to the country in 1921 to celebrate the country’s 100th anniversary of independence from Spain.

The building, designed by Italian architect Gaetano Moretti, is just as much an artwork as many of the pieces inside. The exterior features elements from Bramante’s architecture and decorations inspired by famous artists such as Donatello, Ghiberti, Michelangelo and Botticelli. The façade features emblems from the largest cities in Italy and two Venetian mosaics featuring famous men from Italian history. Inside, there is a massive stained glass inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera.

One unique feature of this museum is its offering of guided visits for the blind. The service allows blind patrons to wear special gloves and touch the bronze and marble statues to appreciate the beauty of the works. This experience is unavailable to the general public, but it allows the museum to help live up to its philosophy of bringing art and culture to all people.

8. Ricardo Brennand Institute, Brazil

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In case you’re wondering, no, Brazil didn’t have any medieval castles or forts just hanging around filled with classical art and armor. This structure is instead a modern castle recreation (officially opened in 2002 to be exact) constructed in a classic Tudor style adorned with some original medieval pieces such as a drawbridge, a number of coats of arms, and a Gothic altarpiece. The massive building fills a gross area of 77,000 square meters and is located on a garden that spans over 44,000 acres and is endowed with artificial lakes and recreations of famous sculptures including The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, David by Michelangelo, and The Lady and the Horse by Fernando Botero.

The institute was borne from Brazilian businessman Ricardo Brennand’s personal collection of weapons, armor, and art that he began assembling in the 1940s. In 1990, he established the museum, which includes an art gallery, a library, an auditorium and a number of administrative/technical rooms. The museum offers free courses on art history and educational programs for teachers as well.

The collection includes objects from around the globe dating from the early Middle Ages to the 20th century, though there is a strong emphasis on Colonial and Dutch-occupied Brazil; in fact, the museum holds the world’s largest collection of items related to the Dutch occupation. It also has one of the largest collections of armor in the world, featuring over 3,000 pieces, including armor for dogs and horses. Meanwhile, the library houses over 62,000 volumes dating from the sixteenth century on, with a particular emphasis on works about Brazil written by travelers from Europe.

9. Estevez Palace, Uruguay

Photo courtesy of ClixYou

The Doric and Colonial styled Estevez Palace was originally owned by don Francisco Estevez and his family, but in 1880, the government acquired the building and established it as the workplace of the president. One hundred years later, President Julio Maria Sanguinetti moved the presidential office elsewhere, allowing the building to be transformed into a museum dedicated to the Uruguayan presidency and those who have served in the office. These days, the presidential office is located right next door, so it is a perfect destination for those interested in learning more about the workings of the Uruguayan government.

10. Quito Astronomical Observatory, Ecuador

Photo courtesy of Casey

Once a cutting edge observatory, this 1873 astronomical science building now serves as a museum educating the public on observatory technology and general astronomy. Founded in 1873 and completed five years later, the observatory is the oldest in all of Latin America and its design was based on the observatory of Bonn, Germany. While the original telescope dates back to 1875, many of the tools date between 1902 and 1914, when the second French Geodesic Mission traveled to Ecuador to confirm the results of the first mission, which set out to measure the roundness of the earth.

The building was restored in 2009 and remains one of the most important collections of nineteenth century astronomical instruments.

Know of any other amazing South American museums that visitors simply can’t miss out on? Let us know about them in the comments!

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December 2, 2013 - 11:00am
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