Updated: Sep 6, 2020
There can be no more subjective question than, ‘What are the most beautiful museums in the world?’ A quick Google search reveals a multitude of responses, and a tendency to pick out the same famous destinations (think the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Guggenheim in Bilbao).
Any such survey is necessarily bound by personal experience. We have based our own selection on two key criteria:
(1) the beauty of the buildings and their settings, rather than the collections they house;
(2) we have visited them in person (do send us your recommendations if your favourite is not here).
Our listing is arranged in no particular order, and is based first and foremost on atmosphere and ambience.
Do you agree with our choices? Let us know by tweeting @CradlesnLabels. We'd love to hear your views.
The Getty Villa, Malibu (Pacific Palisades), USA
If someone recommended that you visit a recreation of a Roman country house in the Californian foothills, you might be forgiven for imagining they had lost their marbles. In reality, the Getty Villa, inspired by the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, is stunningly beautiful. You can easily imagine that you have been transported back to the ancient world, albeit sitting just a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean. Incredible fact: although opened in 1974, the Villa was never visited by its founder, J. Paul Getty, who died in 1976.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Louvre is the most beautiful museum in Paris. Across the Seine is the Musée d’Orsay, housed in a former railway station. It’s incredible to think that this building was listed for demolition in 1970. The museum was commissioned by Georges Pompidou in 1974 and opened by François Mitterand in 1986. Should you visit, do look up and around you!
The Mary Rose, Portsmouth, England
The Mary Rose was the flagship of King Henry VIII, who watched her sink into the Solent in 1545 while she was attempting to engage the French navy in battle. The ship itself was raised from the seabed in 1982, and is now housed in a state-of-the-art museum in Portsmouth’s former dockyards, close to where it was wrecked. It makes our list by virtue of being a close encounter of the most spectacular kind, a breath-taking mix of the early modern and the new.
The Danish Jewish Museum (Dansk Jørdisk Museum), Copenhagen, Denmark
The Jewish Museum in Copenhagen owes its place on our list to its architect, Daniel Libeskind. Built within the brick structure of the old Royal Boat House (subsequently part of the Royal Library), its design is both sparing and contemporary. The floors are deliberately sloped and the walls deliberately angled, seemingly to make the journey more edgy and less comfortable for the visitors. Thankfully, and uniquely in western Europe, the vast majority of Denmark’s Jews were saved from Nazi persecution in the 1940s, owing their lives in great part to the protection of the population at large.
Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St Ives, England
Just across town from the more famous Tate St Ives (winner of the Art Fund Museum of the Year in 2018, no less) is Trewyn Studio, where Barbara Hepworth lived and worked from 1949 until her tragic death in 1975. The garden was laid out by the artist herself, and many of the bronzes remain exactly where she had positioned them. This is a place of the utmost serenity, where one can walk in Hepworth’s own footsteps and stand within touching distance of where her sculptures were made.
The Uffizi (Le Gallerie degli Uffizi), Florence, Italy
Galleries housed within Florentine palaces tend to have an in-built advantage when it comes to choosing the world’s most beautiful museums. The Uffizi is the stand-out among them, occupying a building designed by Giorgio Vasari in the 1560s and 70s. A good time of year to visit is January, when fewer tourists are on the ground. You may be distracted by the artworks on show (by Botticelli, Leonardo and others), but the museum is stunning, too.
The Jewellery Gallery (The William and Judith Bollinger Gallery) at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, England
If you go on the V&A’s own website you may struggle to find images of its jewellery gallery. This is a real shame, since the three rooms in question are undoubtedly the jewel in this London museum’s crown. The gallery has an ethereal quality, almost making the visitor imagine that they are standing in an aquarium or in outer space. The items on display are pretty good (Queen Victoria’s coronet, Beyoncé’s butterfly ring), but it’s the jewellery gallery itself that gets our vote.
Fondation Bemberg (Hôtel d’Assézat), Toulouse, France
The Hôtel d’Assézat, renowned as the most impressive hôtel particulier (a 16th-century palace) in the whole of Toulouse, has been home to the Fondation Bemberg since 1994. Its red-brick façade is typical of the city. Walking through the gateway and the inner courtyard is a step back in time to Renaissance France. A fabulous setting to display the private art collection of Georges Bemberg, who bought his first Pissarro for $200 while a student at Harvard.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA
If ‘Look up!’ is the mantra of this blogpost, then you can barely do better than entering the lobby of this museum on Fifth Avenue and gazing immediately upwards. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened in 1959, the building of what was once known as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (catchy title) can truly take your breath away. It is now listed by UNESCO as part of a World Heritage site. Strangely, like the other American museum on our list, its founder never visited, since Samuel R. Guggenheim died in 1952, before construction was completed.
Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, England
Last but not least is Kettle’s Yard. This former home-turned-museum sits on the hill rising above the Cambridge Backs. At its heart are four derelict 19th-century cottages, knocked into one in the 1950s by Jim Ede (a collector and former curator at the Tate) and his wife, Helen. The cosiest museum you will ever visit, where guests lounge on the furniture as if they intend to stay for ever. Simply … beautiful.
Julian Harrison for Cradles & Labels