Take the time to explore an art museum and you’ll uncover so much more than ‘just’ paintings, sculptures and artefacts: you’ll get into the beating heart of your destination and learn more about the culture and heritage than you can ever have hoped.
1. Palace Museum, Beijing, China
Beijing’s vast Forbidden City complex, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to the most popular art museum on earth: the Palace Museum. Established within the Forbidden City in 1925 the museum today receives over 12 million visitors annually. Many items were removed at the time of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and are now on display within the National Palace Museum in Taipei (mentioned below). The main exhibitions are based around items from the Qing imperial collection. The permanent collection contains over one million items, including sculptures, paintings, seals, ceramics, jade and bronzewear. The exhibits also offer a fascinating insight into daily life during imperial rule with intriguing items on display.
The second most popular art museum within China is the Shanghai Museum which receives 2 million annual visitors.
2. Louvre Museum, Paris, France
The landmark Louvre building is located in Paris’ first arrondissement and is regarded as the largest museum of its type in the world. Located within the 12th century Palais du Louvre, the museum element was established in 1793 with just 537 paintings. The Louvre is today recognisable by the über modern glass pyramid structures that appeared in 1989. Today nearly ten millions (65% of which are tourists) come to see the 35,000 works of art and the 380,000 different objects for themselves. Collections include Egyptian antiquities, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman and Decorative arts. The most popular collection by far is the Painting section, which houses works by Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Eugène Delacroix. The single most popular painting is the enigmatic Mona Lisa portrait.
Other popular museums within Paris include the Centre Pompidou, the Musée D’Orsay and the Grand Palais.
3. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Over six million people discover the delights of the ‘Met’ each year. Located on Manhattan’s Museum Mile, alongside iconic Central Park, the Met has over two million items on permanent display. Opened in 1872, the works of art cover a vast period from classical, ancient Egyptian, European, American and modern art. The real standout pieces include ‘The Musicians’ by Caravaggio in the European paintings section, the ‘Autumn Rhythm’ abstract canvas from Jackson Pollock in the Modern Art Department and the enchanting (and controversial) ‘Bacchante and Infant Faun’ bronze statue in the American Sculpture section.
The other top museums in New York City include the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum.
4. British Museum, London, UK
London is bursting with museums, galleries and historical buildings and the British Museum is the most popular of the lot with over 5.5 million annual visitors. Opened in 1759, the museum could only establish itself thanks to the personal donations from Irish physician Hans Sloane – who also lends his name to Sloane Square. There are over eight million items within the British Museum covering Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Greece and Rome and Prehistory and Europe. Must-see exhibits include the Snettisham Hoard, the Rosetta Stone and the Mosaic mask of Quetzalcoatl.
Another 7 London museums make up the ultimate Top 100 list including the Royal Academy of Arts, the Saatchi Gallery and the Tate Britain.
5. Tate Modern, London, UK
The Tate Modern art gallery forms part of the Tate Group and receives 5.3 million visitors each year, placing it in the Top 5 most popular art museums. Located on Southwark’s’ Bankside within the Bankside Power Station, the art on display includes items from the modern right through to items from the year 1500. There are 4 wings within the building housing 4 different collections; history, nude, landscape and still life. Only opened in 2000, the modern and contemporary works include Surrealism pieces from Dalí, modernist works from Picasso and Pop Art from Warhol.
6. National Gallery, London, UK
Staying in London for the next most popular art museum – the National Gallery, which receives around 5.1 million visitors each year. Established in 1824, the National Gallery is located within Central London’s Trafalgar Square. The 2,300 paintings cover all genres from the mid-13th century, through to 1900. Popular must-see paintings include works from Thomas Gainsborough, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Sandro Botticelli and Diego Velázquez.
7. Vatican Museums, Vatican City
Over five million visitors explore the Vatican Museums each year, which contains, as you’d expect a vast collection accumulated by the Catholic Church. It was originally founded in 1506 by Pope Julius II and includes modern religious art and sculpture. Don’t miss the iconic Sistine Chapel ceiling, browse several paintings by Caravaggio and admire the Raphael Rooms.
8. National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
Located in Taipei’s Shilin district is the National Palace Musuem, which holds some 700,000 items spanning 8,000 years of ancient Chinese history. Pieces range from as far back as the Neolithic period, right up to the Qing Dynasty, which ruled up to 1912. The National Palace Museum was established with items evacuated from the Beijing Palace Museum (see above) and today receives 4.3 million annual visitors. Don’t miss the opulent jade collection, the pristine coin exhibits and the rich tapestry displays.
9. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA
One of the very few art museums on our list that is free to peruse, the National Gallery of Art is located Washington DC’s National Mall. Established in 1937 the museum attracts over 4.2 each year. Don’t miss Giorgione’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’, Raphael’s ‘Cowper Madonna’ and Pablo Picasso’s ‘Family of Saltimbanques’.
There are four other Washington DC museums that feature in the Top 100 list: SAAM/Renwick, National Portrait Gallery, Freer and Sackler and the Hirshhorn Museum.
10. Pompidou Center, Paris, France
The second Parisian art museum on our list is the formidable Centre Georges Pompidou in the city’s 4th arrondissement in the Beaubourg region. The iconic postmodern structure was completed in 1977 and features ambitious steel cladding. At the time, the high-tech architectural style caused much consternation, with visitors divided in opinion as to whether they loved it or hated it. Make your own mind up! Over 3.8 annual visitors come to explore the exhibits which are based over seven levels. Don’t miss Frida and I, Surrealism and the object and Claude Simon photographe.