10 Magnificent European Museums
By Jill Harness
We previously looked at beautiful libraries from across the globe, but if you’re looking to expand your travels to educational locales with beautiful architecture, you may also consider traveling to these lovely museums, starting with those in Europe.
It’s important to note that not only is this not an exhaustive list, but these museums were not selected based on their contents. There are plenty of mediocre-looking museums with fantastic collections, just as there are stunning museums with mediocre collections.
1. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry, is one of the most world-renowned contemporary museum buildings in the world. In fact, Architect Philip Johnson boldly described it as "the greatest building of our time."
The 256,000 square foot museum is still pretty new—it opened in 1997—but it's already well-respected thanks to its impressive permanent collection—featuring works by Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Richard Serra, and more—and attracts fantastic traveling exhibits courtesy of its namesake, the famous Guggenheim Foundation. In fact, when it was opened, the museum had more space than the New York and Venice Guggenheim museums combined.
2. Louvre, France
It should come as no surprise that the most popular museum in the world is also one of the most beautiful. The Louvre also happens to be one of the world’s largest, stretching over 650,000 square feet. The grounds themselves have held an important place in French history since the late 12th century, when Philip II built a fortress on the site. After that time, the building continued to evolve into a grand palace that held the royal family (until Sun King Louis XIV decided to move his home to the Palace of Versailles in 1682). After that time, the building served as a place to display the royal collection, including a massive collection of Greek and Roman sculpture, along with the museum’s most famous item, the Mona Lisa.
During the French Revolution, the National Assembly declared the building should be used as a museum. When Louis XVI was imprisoned in 1792, the royal collection in the Louvre was deemed public property and the museum officially opened the next year. The collection has continued to increase throughout the years, and these days, the Louvre houses almost 380,000 objects dating from prehistory to modern times. The classic building's iconic modern element—the controversial glass pyramid, designed by American architect Ieoh Ming Pei—was finished in 1989 and serves as the entrance to the museum.
3. The Musee d’Orsay, France
While the Musee d’Orsay only opened in 1986, the impressive building that hosts the museum was completed back in 1900, when it was a train station. After being decommissioned, it was eventually scheduled to be demolished, but the country’s Minister for Cultural Affairs vetoed a plan to build a new hotel in its spot. By 1978, the building was declared a historical monument, and plans were developed to turn the space into a museum that would bridge the gap between the older artwork shown at the Louvre and the newer works displayed at the National Museum of Modern Art.
These days, the museum features a variety of French artwork dating from the mid-1800s to pre-WWI. It's the third most popular museum in France and the tenth most popular in the world—not bad for a train station that was nearly demolished.
4. The Museum of Natural History and The Museum of Art History of Vienna, Austria
These twin buildings were constructed across a large square from one another, both opening to the public in 1889. The museums were commissioned by the Emperor in order to offer a suitable shelter for the impressive art collection of the royal Habsburg family. The rectangular buildings are each topped with a nearly 200-foot tall dome. Inside, the museums are adorned with marble, gold leaf, paintings and stucco ornamentations.
While both museums are impressive, and the artwork at the Museum of Art History is world class, the Museum of Natural History remains one of the most important of such museums and houses around 30 million artifacts—part of a collection that began over 250 years ago. The museum has so many specimens that it even has a staff of 60 full-time scientists.
5. British Museum, England
The creation of the British Museum can largely be attributed to one man: physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, who gathered an impressive collection of around 71,000 antiquities, artifacts, and artworks during his lifetime. Not wanting to see his collection broken up after his death, he left it to King George II. In 1753, King George and Parliament created the British Museum with the collection from Sloane and two library collections, including one assembled by Sir Robert Cotton that dated back to Elizabethan times, and the Royal Library.
The museum originally opened in Montagu House, a previous manor of a wealthy family, in 1759, but by the 1800s, the building had become dilapidated and the museum needed more space. The Montagu House was demolished and a new Greek Revival structure, designed by Sir Robert Smirke, was built in its place. The new building was officially opened to the public in 1857, but additions, such as the famous Round Reading Room, continued to be added over the next century. When the book collections were moved to the British Library in 1998, the vacant space in the court was redeveloped into the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, which is now the largest covered square in Europe.
While the museum no longer holds books or natural history items, the collection continues to grow, now numbering around 13 million works documenting the story of human culture from prehistoric times to today, although only 1 percent of the collection is on display at any given time. These days, it is the most visited museum in England and the third most visited museum in the world.
6. The Vatican Museum, Vatican City
The Roman Catholic Church has collected quite an array of art and antiquities throughout the centuries, so it should be no surprise that they have a pretty impressive museum collection. The museum is now over 500 years old; it officially opened to the public when Pope Julius II put a sculpture of Laocoon and his Sons on display in 1506.
Since then, the Vatican has had building after building added to house their impressive collection. The two most famous works in the collection are the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo and the Stanze della Segnatura by Raphael. Aside from the world-famous artwork, the museum also houses many important Etruscan and Egyptian artifacts uncovered in archeological excavations sponsored by the Vatican.
7. The State Hermitage Museum, Russia
Catherine the Great founded this massive Saint Petersburg museum in 1764, with the opening of the Small Hermitage building. Since then, five other main structures have been added, along with parts of two other massive buildings. The Winter Palace is the most famous of the additional structures; it was once the main residence of Russian czars.
The collection of the museum includes over three million items and makes up the largest collection of paintings in the world, ranging from Raphael and Rembrandt to Matisse and Picasso. Today, the museum is the most popular in Russia and the thirteenth most visited art museum in the world.
8. State Historical Museum, Russia
Chances are you’ve seen pictures of the State Historical Museum—it stands just outside of the world famous Red Square in Moscow. The stunning neo-Russian building was completed in 1881 to document the history of Russia dating from prehistoric tribes to modern times. When the building was first completed, it was adorned in the Russian Revival style by artists such as Viktor Vasnetsove, Henrik Semiradsky, and Ivan Aivazvosky, but during the Soviet period of rule, the murals were determined to be too gaudy and were plastered over. Fortunately, the amazing paintings were artfully restored after the fall of the USSR.
The museum is home to over four million artifacts, most notably a longboat excavated from the Volga River, gold artifacts of the Scythians and scrolls of Novgorod.
9. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands
This Netherlands landmark was originally founded in The Hague in 1800, but soon moved to Amsterdam in 1808. The current building featuring both gothic and renaissance elements was designed by Pierre Cuypers and opened to the public in 1885. Both the inside and outside were adorned with pieces by B. van Hove J.F. Vermeylen, G. Sturm and W.F. Dixon, all of which featured references to Dutch art history.
While many museums have had to change locations and expand over and over throughout the years, the main building of the Rijksmuseum still looks practically the same as it did in this image from 1895. Of course, other structures have been added to hold the collection of over one million objects, and the main building has had to go through a lot of renovations over the last decade, only recently reopening after a ten year restoration phase. At any given time, the museum has around 8000 items from their total collection on display, including world-famous works by Dutch masters such as Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer and Jan Steen.
10. Museum Island, Germany
To be fair, this island is actually home to five different museums—and it's so important to Berlin that it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.
The five museums located on the island are the Altes Museum (completed in 1830), the Neues Museum (destroyed in WWII and re-opened in 2009), the Alte Nationalgalerie (opened in 1876), The Bode Museum (completed in 1904), and The Pergamon Museum (constructed in 1930). The Altes Museum features Greek and Roman art as well as traveling exhibitions; the Neues Museum displays archaeological objects and ancient Egyptian and Etruscan sculptures, including the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti. The Alte Nationalgalerie features artwork from the 19th century, and the Bode Museum displays paintings from the Late Byzantine period to the 1800s. Lastly, the Pergamon includes reconstructions of historically significant buildings, including the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
As I said, this list is by no means exhaustive, so feel free to add your favorite lovely museums in Europe. Plus, since we’re planning to cover beautiful museums from around the globe, go ahead and nominate lovely museums outside of Europe as well. Maybe you’ll see them on an upcoming list in the near future.