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Europe’s Museums

Tips and Strategies for Making Visits Meaningful and Fun

Tate Museum in London
London's Tate Modern Museum is great late Fri,/Sat.
Uffizi Museum in Florence
Skip the Uffizis line by reserving an entry time in advance.

Europe is a treasure chest of great art, with many of the world’s finest—and most exhausting—museums. These tips will help you make the most of your trip.

Study your guidebook

Some museums now require reservations. At the Alhambra (in Granada, Spain), Leonardo’s Last Supper, (Milan), and the Borghese Gallery in Rome if you don’t reserve in advance you’ll miss out. Also, at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, the showcase for Italian Renaissance art, it’s smart to book ahead. While hundreds of tourists are sweating in the 2-hour-long line, you can spend your time in the museum. Reservations are easy, slick, and easy online via the Uffizi website.

Know the Closed Days

Most museums are closed one day during the week (usually Monday or Tuesday). If you’ve got only one day for the Sistine Chapel, avoid Sunday. It’s either closed, or—on the last Sunday of the month—free and terribly crowded, when it feels more like the Sardine Chapel.

Arrive early (or late) at popular sights. If you show up by 8:30 in the morning at Neuschwanstein, Bavaria’s famous fairy-tale castle, you’ll be touring by 9. Come later and you’ll either wait a long time or find that tickets are sold out—or both. You can also reserve your Neuschwanstein tickets online.

Some museums are open late on one or two nights a week. For instance, London’s Tate Modern stays open Friday and Saturday evenings. The crowds disappear and you’re glad you came.

Museum passes (such as the Paris museum pass) and combo-tickets allow you to bypass the long admission lines and walk right in. You can wait up to an hour to get into Rome’s Colosseum—or buy a Rome museum combo-ticket (at another participating site) and just scoot inside.

Note that many museums stop selling tickets and start shutting down rooms 30 to 60 minutes before closing. My favorite time in museums is the cool, lazy last hour. But I’m careful to get to the far end early, see the rooms that are first to shut down, and work my way back toward the entry.

Learn About Art

If the art’s not fun, you don’t know enough about it. I remember touring the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens as an obligation. My mom said it would be a crime to miss it. It was boring. I was convinced that the people who looked like they were enjoying it were actually just faking it—trying to look sophisticated. Two years later, after a class in ancient art history, that same museum was a fascinating trip into the world of Pericles and Socrates, all because of some background knowledge. Some pre-trip study makes the art more fun.

In Europe it’s hard to find art guidebooks in readable English. Consider getting a guidebook while you’re still at home. You can study up and figure out what you want to see before you go.

Be Selective

A common misconception is that a great museum has only great art. A museum like the Louvre in Paris is so big (the building itself was, at one time, the largest in Europe), you can’t possibly cover everything—so don’t try.

With the help of a guide or guidebook, focus on just the museum’s top two hours. Some of Europe’s great museums provide brief pamphlets recommending the best basic visit. With this selective strategy, you’ll appreciate the highlights when you’re fresh. If you have any energy left afterwards, you can explore other areas of specific interest to you.

Try to Get a Tour

Phone ahead. Some museums offer regularly scheduled tours in English. If the tour is in French or German only, politely let the guide know at the beginning that there are several English-speaking people in the group who’d love some information.

Audioguide tours and tablets are getting more and more popular at museums. These portable devices allow you to dial up dry but worthwhile information in English on particular pieces of art.

Eavesdrop

If you are especially interested in one piece of art, spend half an hour studying it and listening to each passing tour guide tell his or her story about David or the Mona Lisa or whatever. They each do their own research and come up with different information to share. Much of it is true. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of tour freeloading. Just don’t stand in the front and ask a lot of questions.

Make Sure You Don’t Miss Your Favorites

On arrival, look through the museum’s guidebook index or the gift shop’s postcards to make sure you won’t miss anything of importance to you. For instance, I love Salvador Dalí’s work. One time I thought I was finished with a museum, but as I browsed through the postcards: Hello, Dalí. A museum guide was happy to show me where the painting was hiding. I saved myself the disappointment of discovering too late that I’d missed it.

More and more museums offer a greatest-hits plan or brochure. Some (such as London’s National Gallery) even have a computer study room where you can input your interests and print out a tailored museum tour and also offer a virtual tour online.

Miscellaneous Tips

Particularly at huge museums, ask if your ticket allows in-and-out privileges. Check the museum map or brochure at the entrance for the location of particular kinds of art, the café, and bathrooms (usually free and clean). Also, note any special early closings of rooms or wings. Get comfortable: check your bag and coat. (If you want to try to keep your bag with you, carry it low like a purse, not on your back.) Cameras are usually allowed if you don’t use a flash or tripod; look for signs or ask.

Even at its best, museum-going is hard work. But with a little prior planning, Europe’s grand museums can become meaningful and even fun.

 
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