To mark International Museum Day on May 18, we took a look at some of Europe’s very best creative, historic and scientific museums. From places packed with culture, art and history to those that study what makes us human, be inspired by these incredible cultural institutions.
Then and now: Europe’s best history museums
Celebrate Greece’s ancient achievements at the Acropolis Museum in Athens
At the foot of the southern slope of Athens’ sacred hill, the dazzling €130-million Acropolis Museum showcases the Acropolis’ surviving treasures with artifacts from temples that predate the Parthenon. The top-floor Parthenon Gallery houses the temple’s sculptures, including a 160m-long (524ft) marble frieze. Stark-white plaster replicas stand in for the missing pieces – hacked off by Lord Elgin in 1801 – now held in the British Museum in London.
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The Vasamuseet in Stockholm honors some 17th-century miscalculations
Stockholm’s Vasamuseet is the custom-built home of the massive warship Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage on August 10, 1628. Unfortunately, at 69m (226ft) long and 48.8m (160ft) tall and covered in ornate wooden carvings, the ship was top-heavy and sank to the bottom of Saltsjön within minutes of departure, taking most passengers with it. The museum examines not only what life would have been like at the time of the ship’s voyage, but also the incredible salvage mission. Almost everything on display in the museum is original, painstakingly raised from the bottom of the ocean and reassembled in 1961.
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Learn about gruesome 19th-century medicine at London’s Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret
Follow the spiral staircase up to the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret, a unique and atmospheric museum in an old church tower near London’s Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital. The attic here, rediscovered in 1956, was used in the 19th century to store medicinal herbs, and is home to Britain’s oldest surviving operating theater, dating from 1822. Learn about medicine pre-anesthesia and pre-antiseptic, with displays of natural remedies and amputation blades.
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Human creativity: art and culture museums
With its wealth of cultural heritage, it’s impossible to narrow down the best art museums in Europe. Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, has dazzling collections across many different sites. Rome’s must-see Vatican Museums hold a wealth of artistic treasures, as do its many other superb cultural institutions. Then there’s the network of museums in Berlin’s Museumsinsel, Paris’ world-famous Louvre, Barcelona’s Museu Picasso, and Madrid’s many masterpieces in its Golden Triangle of Art, to name just a few. Here are a couple of lesser-known places for you to experience just a taste of Europe’s creativity.
Journey through the artworks of the Baroque period in Dresden’s Historic Green Vault
Buy a timed-entry ticket in advance of your visit to Dresden’s Historisches Grünes Gewölbe, a collection of 3000 precious jewels and valuable decorative items dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. A state-of-the-art airlock controls the climate here and small groups of visitors follow the audio guide through the eight rooms where treasures are on open display against lavishly decorated backdrops and mirrored walls.
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Denmark’s newest museum celebrates the creations of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen
Experience a fairy-tale universe at Denmark’s newest museum, H.C. Andersen Hus, celebrating the creativity of Hans Christian Andersen at his birthplace in Odense. Visitors are invited to create their own adventures as they explore the themes of Andersen’s work through interactive exhibitions, artwork, architecture, light, music, and images in an underground gallery. Younger visitors will love the wonder of Ville Vau, a sensory center for children, with props and costumes for hours of imagination-based play.
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The world around us: the region’s top natural history museums
Explore the vast collection at Vienna’s Natural History Museum
Four billion years of natural history are covered at Vienna’s Naturhistorisches Museum. Among its minerals and unique fossils is the world’s largest collection of meteorites, a full-size Pteranodon, and a hands-on gallery on human evolution. The building itself is an elaborate work of art, with stuccoed, frescoed halls and cupola, a mirror image of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna opposite.
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Get to know the mountains at Italy’s Messner Mountain Museum
The unique Messner Mountain Museum is a network of six museums in the Italian Alps created by Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, all analyzing the relationship between humans and the mountains. The centerpiece is in Firmiano, where you’ll get a sense of shifting altitudes as you move around the mesh walkways and staircases. The Museum in the Clouds in the Dolomites looks at local geology through the artefacts of the first moutaineers and natural scientists who explored the region’s hidden reaches, or head inside the moutain at the Ortles museum, which is devoted to ice and glaciers. The stunning Corones site at the summit of Kronplatz is more about mountaineering than natural history, but its panoramic views of the mountains from the Zaha Hadid-designed building can’t be beat.
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Things that go: science, technology and transportation
Inquisitive kids love the hands-on Nemo Science Museum in Amsterdam
The interactive Nemo Science Museum in Amsterdam is a top science museum for children. Learn about everything from light and sound to the physics of construction with hands-on activities over five floors of exhibits. For older children (age 12 and over) the Humania gallery looks at the biology, sociology, and psychology of humans, with physical challenges and brain teasers to help you see how your body works.
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Get interactive with road, rail, water, air, and space at Switzerland’s transport museum
Verkehrshaus is deservedly Switzerland’s most popular museum, and a favorite with families. Here, you’ll see everything that moves – steam locomotives, vintage cars, and rockets as well as hands-on experiences like flight simulators, bulldozers, go-karts, and peddle boats. There’s also a planetarium, Switzerland’s largest cinema screen and the Swiss Chocolate Adventure.
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See hundreds of years of industrial sanitation in Paris’ sewer network
Dive into Paris’ subterranean network of sewer tunnels at the Musée des Égouts, where you’ll follow in the footsteps of a sewage worker learning all about industrial wastewater disposal, the environment and ecology as raw sewage flows by your feet. After an extensive renovation, the museum reopened in 2021 with a new entrance building, improved displays and a fully accessible site.
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Try to understand the human condition at the Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb in Croatia
The crowd-sourced collection at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb explores the mementos left behind when a relationship ends. Donations from round the world are displayed around all-white rooms, each sharing a funny and moving story about the disintegration of a relationship, whether that’s family relationships or love connections.
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50% of the world’s population has one: learn about female anatomy at London’s Vagina Museum
Iceland has been home to a penis museum since 1997, but there was nothing exclusively celebrating the vagina until London’s Vagina Museum launched as a pop-up exhibition in 2017. Now in its semi-permanent home in Bethnal Green, the museum’s focus is to educate about gynecological anatomy and health and give people the confidence to talk about it too.
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