Growing up, I was very spoiled by the quality of museums in the DC area. And many of them are free to visit (shoutout to the Smithsonian). I could learn about history, art, space, animals, you name it, all within a few walkable blocks. When I started traveling around and museums weren’t up to snuff and they charged me to visit, I was supremely disappointed. I’ve popped my head into many a museum over the years, in various places. In reflection, some of my favorites are free and some are not, and only one is in DC. Here’s my list of five favorite museums:
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
If you find yourself in Paris, ignore the instinct to wait in line to get a grainy picture of a thousand hands in front of the Mona Lisa. Unless you have all the time in the world, the Louvre is not nearly as interesting as we were led to believe in elementary school French classes. Paris is an architecturally beautiful city and one of its gems is the Musée d’Orsay. Housed in a former railway station, the Musée d’Orsay houses some of the most stunning Impressionist art. I could spend hours wandering through the pieces and people watching. Plus if you go upstairs, you get a pretty good view.
Children’s Museum, Indianapolis
Got kids? Despite being a little older than the target demographic and lacking in a child of my own, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis was visited many times during my Indiana inhabitance. The fourth oldest and the world’s largest children’s museum is home to interactive and educational fun, ranging from dinosaurs to space to a carousel, all indoors. The space also hosts rotating exhibits (I even went with my grandma to see the terra-cotta soldiers there).
Courtauld Gallery, London
Another place I visited with my grandma was the Courtauld Gallery at the Courtauld Institute of Art. When my mother and I visited London many years ago, we purchased the London Pass which ended up not saving us very much on anything, but led us to a smaller gallery just a few blocks from Trafalgar Square. Located in Somerset House, the gallery has a wonderful collection of paintings that includes Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, as well as ceramics from the Renaissance and Degas sculptures. It’s usually much calmer than the National Gallery down the street so you can avoid the chaos that is tourist London.
Renwick Gallery, Washington, DC
Another gallery to avoid the crowds is my one DC gallery on this list. Part of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery is a smaller space that allows each piece to take over individual rooms, shaping the experience with the integration of the piece into the physical space. The gallery is located literal steps from the White House and, because it is part of the Smithsonian family, entry is free.
The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen was a surprise find on a family trip to the city. The collection was built around the personal collection of the son of the founder of certain well-known beer. Though the primary focal point of the museum is sculptures, the highlight of my visit was the beauty of the collection in a stunning building. White sculptures stood out amongst crisp colorful walls; an atrium filled with plants sat at the center of the museum; the ceilings are just as stunning as the floors. And there’s a beautiful rooftop space that gives you a lovely view of Tivoli Gardens.
** I do feel I should defend my list slightly. It’s heavy on the art galleries and lacking slightly on the quirky museums every city seems to have. Don’t get me wrong – the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Natural History are two favorites. The Air and Space Museum in Dulles is also really good, and I will never turn down a little museum that is oddly specific. But the ones on my list make me (want to) return again and again. They’re places I’ve spent hours and hours, only to leave and wish for more hours in the day.