Creating a must-see menu of Europe's top museums is like recommending Ireland's best pubs: everyone has their own ideas, especially if they've had a drink or two. But while time and geography are key factors in deciding, some destinations jump to the head of the class.
Europe's biggest culture magnet this summer will be Amsterdam. Currently in temporary digs, the revamped Van Gogh Museum – home of the world's largest collection of his works – reopens May 1. It will follow the April 13 relaunch of the spectacular Rijksmuseum. Both are hot on the heels of the newly renovated Stedelijk modern art museum (shown on the section front).
But the Dutch capital isn't the only place worth rubbing your chin in contemplation. I tapped three Europe-covering travel bloggers for recommendations.
Cardiff-based Abigail King (insidethetravellab.com) starts with Paris icon the Louvre. "From the glass pyramid slotted into the classical architecture to the bewitching smirk of the Mona Lisa, it's a dazzling place to visit," she says, before hopping over to the Tower of London. "With a history dating back nearly a thousand years, it crams plenty into a very small space." Her final selection, in southern Poland, leaves a deep impact. "The empty buildings at Auschwitz speak volumes. Exhibits include shoes, clothes, suitcases and hair. It's a difficult but powerful place to visit."
Toronto-based Janice Waugh (solotravelerblog.com) also starts with a wartime link, but in Nuremberg, Germany. "I'd go to the Memorium Nuremberg Trials at the courthouse where the trials were held," she says. Waugh would also swap the Louvre for the Musee d'Orsay's impressionist and post-impressionist art: "It's a wonderful gallery in a spectacular building."
In Spain, she likes the Costa Brava's three Salvador Dali museums. "All within a drive of each other, they take you to a castle in the hills (Gala Dali Castle), a seaside town where Dali lived (House-Museum Salvador Dali), and the city of Figueres where Dali modified a theatre into a gallery (the Dali Theatre-Museum)."
Art also informs Karen Bryan's (europealacarte.co.uk) recommendations. She loves Edinburgh's Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art – especially its outdoor sculptures – as well as the Design Museum in Ghent, Belgium. Her final must-see is Rome's Vatican Museums. "I could have spent hours in the map room looking at the hand-painted 16th-century maps of all the regions of Italy," she says.
Adding my own vote for London's Victoria and Albert Museum, it's worth noting that crowd-avoidance is also a key issue for summertime visitors. Europe's mega-museums can be oppressively jam-packed. Book tickets ahead of time and decide on your must-see exhibits before you arrive – then roll in at opening time or in the last few hours of the day to beat the crush.
While you're nosing around their websites, also check for free tours – many larger institutions provide daily English-language versions. And look out for free-entry days: most Paris museums, for example, are admission-free on the first Sunday of the month.
Also check online events calendars. Many museums have active social rosters including lectures, movie screenings and late-opening nights aimed at adults. London is particularly fond of the latter with dozens hosting free-entry minglers featuring live music and bustling bars.
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