Top 15 Cities in Europe for Art Lovers, For a Cultural City Break
Are you an art lover looking for the perfect cultural European city break or weekend getaway? If so, here's my guide to the 15 best cities in Europe for art lovers. These artsy cities are home to Europe's best museums.
For each of these European cities, I tell you where to find the best art. I give you an overview of the most important museums to visit in each city, to provide some destination inspiration and help you prioritize your museum-going.
I'm a museum hound of the first order. I've written hundreds of articles on museums and art in Europe. I've linked some of them to the relevant city itinerary to help you along.
15 Art Cities Worth Traveling For: Best Art Cities in Europe
Here are my picks for the best cities for art lovers in Europe:
1. Amsterdam Netherlands: Van Gogh Paradise
Van Gogh fanatics should place Amsterdam at the top of their must visit list. But Amsterdam isn't just Van Gogh. The "Venice of the North," Amsterdam is a special destination for art lovers of all kinds.
Amsterdam boasts both age old museums and world class contemporary art galleries. Here's the museums you can't miss in Amsterdam:
Founded over 200 years ago, the revered Rijksmuseum is the crown jewel of Amsterdam's Museum Plaza. The august museum houses over 1 million artworks. Its vast collection boats masterpieces by the Dutch heavyweights -- Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Gogh.
The museum also displays work from lesser known artists whose oeuvre significantly influenced Dutch and European culture. The must see masterpieces include Rembrandt's Night Watch (taking up an entire wall) and Jewish Bride, Vermeer's The Milkmaid, Franz Hal's The Merry Drinker, and Van Gogh's Self Portrait.
Van Gogh Museum
The Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh is one of the word's most beloved artists. Though Van Gogh only lived in Amsterdam briefly, the city is home to the world's largest collection of his works. Van Gogh's titular museum has 200 paintings and over 1,000 letters and drawings.
The Van Gogh Museum is a magnet for scholars and aficionados. Each room follows the periods of Van Gogh’s career in chronological order.
You'll see some of his most famous paintings -- Sunflowers, The Yellow House, Almond Blossoms, and his self portraits. You also get a sense of Van Gogh's life through his letters to his brother Theo.
READ: Van Gogh Murder Mystery
Right next door to the Van Gogh Museum, you’ll find the brightly lighted Stedelijk. It's the city’s home for modern and contemporary art. Opened in 2012, the new building replaced the museum's striped old Neo-Renissance building.
It's shaped like a tub, an eccentric architectural choice. The bathtub floats above the glassed-in ground floor.
You can see the birth of Dadaism in works by Kurt Schwitters and Paul Citroen. The permanent collection includes works by Picasso, Mondrian, Monet, Cezanne, Matisse, Chagall, and Renoir.
Rembrandt House Museum
Rembrandt’s home of 20 years -- the place he made and lost a fortune -- has now been restored to its former glory.
Everything you need to learn about Rembrandt has been recreated here -- his studio, his living quarters, and his art.
You can step back in time into Rembrandt’s world. The museum displays hundreds of etchings and drawings by Rembrandt. The museum also has works from his contemporaries and pupils.
2. Athens Greece: Ruin Lusters Haven
I'm not a huge fan of the rather dirty city of Athens itself. But Athens is a must visit for lovers of antiquity. This is where you can immerse yourself in the ruins of Ancient Greece.
Here are the museums you can't miss in Athens:
No visit to Athens is complete without a pilgrimage to the lofty Acropolis. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the site houses the spectacular Parthenon temple as well as other beautiful monuments.
The Parthenon is a marble temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, built between 447 B.C. and 432 B.C. It was the center of religious life. At the time, Athens was at its zenith during the age of Pericles.
The Parthenon was decorated with the finest art of its day, carved by master sculptor Phidias. The pediments had magnificent friezes (decorative horizontal bands), which depicted an Athenian religious process.
The carvings, called the Elgin marbles, have long been plundered and/or removed. Some are in the Acropolis Museum, some in the British Museum in London.
In 2009, Athens opened the gorgeous new Acropolis Museum. Designed by French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, it's a $200 million state of the art museum.
The Acropolis Museum recreated the intricate Parthenon friezes for display, including what’s shown in London. Through the museum's wraparound windows, you can even spy the Parthenon ruins.
Greece's archaeological museum is world class, housing priceless artifacts from the Mediterranean's ancient civilizations. Highlights include the golden mask once known as the Death Mask of Agamemnon (more than 3,500 years), the bronze Zeus statue, and the ancient Horse and Jockey statue.
3. Barcelona Spain: Modernist Architecture & Modern Art
Barcelona is a magical city. You visit for its dazzling jumble of surrealistic architecture and amazing art. There are no end of wonders from the Spanish giants: Gaudi, Picasso, Dali, and Miro.
Here's the museums you can't miss in Barcelona:
Modernism and Art Nouveau Architecture
No other architectural style defines and symbolizes Barcelona as much as Modernism. Modernism was Catalonia's hallucinatory take on the international movement of Art Nouveau.
The king of the modernists was Antoni Gaudi, the creator of Barcelona's most famous UNESCO-listed buildings -- Sagrada Familia, Casa Battlo, La Pedrera, Palau Guell, Colonia Guell, and Park Guell.
The beautiful Picasso Museum is lodged in five adjoining medieval stone mansions in Barcelona's El Born neighborhood. The palaces date from the 13th to 14th centuries, and are characteristic of the Catalan civic Gothic style.
Founded in 1963, the museum was launched with a donation of 574 works by Picasso's secretary, Jaime Sabartes. In 1970, Picasso himself donated 800 more pieces.
At the museum, you can enjoy the best collection of Picasso's work in Spain. There are over 3,000 pieces, mostly from Picasso's formative years in Barcelona.
Joan Miro Foundation
The Joan Miro Foundation on Montjuic is Barcelona's most emblematic gallery. The striking museum is housed in a spectacular building on Montjuic. It's a gleaming white light-filled design from the 1970s, created by Miro's friend, architect Josep Luis Sert.
The foundation is one of Europe's most fabulous single artist museums, without any stuffy pretense. Inside, you'll find the world's largest collection of the Surrealist artist Joan Miro's lively paintings and sculptures.
National Museum of Catalan Art
The grand domed Neo-Baroque Palau Montjuic houses the National Museum of Catalan Art. The MNAC features the best Romanesque mural paintings in the world, including art work gathered from churches, chapels, and monuments.
The museum's collection ranges all the way from Gothic art to modern art. You'll find works by El Greco, Velazquez, Gaudi, Ramon Casas, Julio Gonzalez, and Dali.
You may enjoy these Barcelona art and travel guides:
4. Basel Switzerland: Modern Art
Cosmopolitan Basel is a pretty city on the Rhine River.
Basel hosts one of the most well known art fairs in Europe, Art Basel, annually in June. 60,000+ visitors descend on Basel to see 300 galleries showing off the works of thousands of artist.
The fair gives an overview of what's happening in the modern art around the world. It's not exactly avant garde, with works pre-dating the 1970s. But it's definitely worth an art trip to Europe.
Basel best permanent collection is in the Kuntsmuseum Basel. It has a stunning permanent collection from the 15th century to present. The highlight are the Holbeins, if you like old masters, and modern works by Magritte, Dali, Miro, and Mondrian.
The Foundation Beyeler
Fondation Beyeler is artsy inside and outside. The foundation’s permanent collection has pieces by modern masters such as Claude Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso. They're exhibited alongside contemporary works and tribal art pieces from Africa and Oceania.
The beautiful building was designed by Italian starchitect Renzo Piano. Situated in Berowerpark, the museum grounds are scattered with sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly and Alexander Calder.
5. Berlin Germany: Museum Island
Berlin's Museum Island is a veritable museum treasure trove, dubbed Berlin's Acropolis.
On Museum Island, you'll find five beautifully restored museums -- the Pergamon Museum, the Bode Museum, the Neues Museum (new museum), the Alte National Gallery (old picture gallery), and the Altes Museum (old museum).
The Altes Museum displays ancient Greek and Roman artifacts amid a massive rotunda full of statuary. The Neues Museum houses prehistoric pieces and Egyptian art, including the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti.
The Bode Museum was built in a Neo-Baroque style. It houses sculptures from the Italian Renaissance and Mannerist periods, including works by Canova and Donatello.
The star attraction of Museum Island is the Pergamon Museum. A highlight is the stunning Pergamon Altar, which the Nazis used as inspiration for their Zeppelin field in Nuremberg.
You can also admire the Market Gate from Miletus, the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, and a wooden dome from Spain's Alhambra.
East Street Gallery, Berlin Wall
The East Street Gallery of the Berlin Wall is the longest and best preserved section of the wall. It's a free outdoor art gallery with 105 murals, created in 1990 after the borders started to open.
The graffiti style works, painted in 1990, were created as a monument to the fall of the divide. The most renowned mural is Dmitri Vrubel’s Fraternal Kiss. The mural shows Leonard Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing, based on a real photograph.
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6. Bilbao Spain
Underrated Bilbao is a bit of a hidden gem in Basque Spain. Bilbao is chock full of historic landmarks, modern starchitecture, and world class museums.
In 1997, Bilbao took a risk on the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum. It created a glistening landmark that sparked tourism and helped revitalize the city.
Inaugurated in 1997, Frank Gehry's shimmering museum has been called both a palace and a ship. The exterior courtyards are scattered with world renowned outdoor sculptures: Jeff Koon's flowering Puppy, Louise Bourgeois' Maman spider, Anish Kapoor's Tall Tree and the Eye, and Fujiko Nakaya's The Fog Sculpture.
On the inside, the Guggenheim's architecture continues to amaze. There's a glass-enclosed 50 meter atrium, crowned with a skylight in the shape of a metal flower.
You'll find works by Richard Serra, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombley, Yves Klein, Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol, Eduardo Chillada, and Anselm Kiefer.
Museum of Fine Arts
The museum boasts over 10,000 art works, arranged chronologically from the 12th century to the present. It has works by Spanish luminaries such as Picasso, Goya, El Greco, Zurbaran, Murillo, and Chillada.
You may enjoy these other Bilbao and northern Spain travel guides and resources:
7. Florence Italy: Cradle of the Renaissance
If you love Renaissance painting, put Florence on your Europe art bucket list. Florence is the "Cradle of the Renaissance." The High Renaissance blossomed and thrived in Florence, long before heading to Rome.
There are scads of amazing museums in Florence. But these are the four must see museums in Florence:
The Uffizi Gallery has the world's best collection of Italian medieval and Renaissance art. The museum is a crowd pleaser, the third most visited site in Italy. It deserves its accolades and should be on your itinerary for Florence.
The Uffizi houses seminal works from the 13th to 18th centuries, with a concentration on Renaissance art. Here's where you'll find one of the world's most iconic paintings, Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus.
The Uffizi is a nonstop steady stream of masterpieces. There are important statues and beautiful decorated ceilings. You'll find works by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.
The magnificent Pitti Palace is an incredibly unique combination of splendor, in situ art collections, and beautiful gardens. It's one of the most popular must see attractions in Florence. The palace was the regal home of the Medici family.
The in situ collection is part of the palace's over-the-top decoration. Paintings in rich frames cover the walls beneath gilded and frescoed ceilings. The collection includes Spanish, Flemish, Medieval, Italian Renaissance, and Baroque works.
The palace houses several museums. The Palatine Gallery is the best, boasting some of the world’s most famous paintings. It has works by Raphael, Rubens, Titian, Pietro da Cortona, and Caravaggio.
Michelangelo's David is icon of the Italian Renaissance, perhaps the world's most famous sculpture. The 17 foot statue is the embodiment of male beauty, a Calvin Klein-like model of physical perfection.
Michelangelo's David is shown in the moment before battle. David is in a classical contrapposto stance -- a twisting position where the weight is shifted mostly to one leg. David was the symbol of the Republic of Florence, embodying strength and courage.
Here's my guide to Michelangelo's David.
The National Museum of the Bargello in Florence has a world class collection of Renaissance sculptures.
The Bargello boasts early Michelangelo works, some of Donatello's most famous sculptures, and works by other famous Renaissance artists like Cellini and Giambologna. Basically, the Bargello is to Renaissance sculpture what the Uffizi Gallery is to Renaissance painting.
You may enjoy these travel guides and resources for must see art in Florence:
8. London England: Amazing Free Collections
London is literally overflowing with fantastic museums. They showcase world class art, ranging from the prehistoric to modern periods.
You could spend a lifetime visiting these must see attractions in London. They're rich, diverse, and endlessly fascinating. Even better, many of London's best museums are free, absolutely free.
Here's the museums you can't miss in London:
Opened in 2000, the Tate Modern is home to room after room of world famous international modern and contemporary art. There are paintings, installations, sculptures, films, and photography.
Among other modern art masterpieces, you can clap your eyes on Andy Warhol's Marilyn Diptych, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, Amadeo Modigliani's Peasant Boy, Pablo Picasso's Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, Giorgio de Chirico's the Uncertainty of the Poet, Henri Matisse's The Snail, and Salvador Dali's Lobster Telephone.
Don't miss the room with Mark Rothko's luminous Seagram Murals, with their deep hues of black, blue, purple, and red. They were inspired by the Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence.
In London's artsy Bloomsbury area, you'll find one of the world's foremost museums. Opened in 1753, the British Museum is a universal museum, holding a massive collection of the world's most important historic artifacts.
Most famously, the British Museum holds title to the Elgin Marbles, effectively acquired by conquest. As I mentioned above, these beautiful friezes were once wrapped around the Parthenon.
Other must see highlights are the Egyptian mummies, the renowned Rosetta Stone, the Assyrian lion hunt reliefs, the Lindow Man, the Lewis Chessmen, and the Sutton Hoo Ship Buria.
The National Gallery is incredibly diverse, featuring 2,000 European paintings from the 13th to the 19th centuries. You'll find familiar names like Rembrandt, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Turner, Monet, and Van Gogh.