How to visit six museums in four days… and not go insane.

Six museums in four days. Crazy, right? Even if you’re into museums, it sounds like something you might plan to do and then quickly regret. Besides, isn’t there more to exploring a city than looking at old paintings?

Well, I’ve done this twice, in two different cities. What’s remarkable to me isn’t that I set foot in so many museums. It’s that I managed to do it and actually enjoy my time at every one of them. Of course, there are some I liked more than others, but for the most part, my impression of a museum wasn’t affected by my being “museumed out.”

Here are the ones I visited (and my favorites*):

Paris: Musee Rodin*, Louvre, Pompidou, Musee D’Orsay*, Picasso, Montmartre

Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum*, Van Gogh, Jewish historical museum, Rembrandt house*, Hermitage Amsterdam, Frans Hals (in Haarlem). Also, the Anne Frank house (not quite a museum).

Based on these experiences, here are some tips to make the most of trips to museum-heavy cities and be more likely to have enjoyable visits than ones that make you want to gauge your eyes out:

  • Go alone. I traveled solo to both Paris and Amsterdam because I already knew the absurd number of museums I wanted to see. If traveling with others can be challenging, visiting museums with others can be a nightmare. Nothing is worse than being rushed past the very masterpieces you flew thousands of miles to see – except maybe forcing your friend to hang out longer in an exhibit that’s putting her to sleep. To experience museums to the fullest, you’ll probably want to linger longer than most people in some exhibits or museums but completely rush through others. For example, I spent over three hours in the Rijksmuseum (even though just the top masterpieces were on display) and only half an hour in the Hermitage Amsterdam (one of the newest and most expensive museums in the city). At the Pompidou, I sat on a bench for an hour sketching a work by Matisse. Coordinating these whims with someone else is next to impossible.

If you keep a low profile, you might even get a free art talk. The ones geared at 6-year-olds are the best... (Musee D'Orsay)

  • Get a discount. If you purchase a museum card in the Netherlands, you get unlimited access to dozens of museums in the country for a year. Once you have the card, you can breeze in and out of museums whenever you want. You don’t feel like you need to “get your money’s worth” by spending half the day in each one, and it’s practically a crime not to take a quick peek inside if you pass a random museum. Student/youth discounts are great too; I visited the Louvre for free on a Friday evening and didn’t feel bad about skipping around to see the highlights and leaving after an hour or two.
  • Get an audio guide. These can be hit or miss, but I find that they’re usually a good way to get more out of staring at paintings since they provide some context. If you have some time for your visit and the guide is included, it’s a no-brainer. If the guide costs extra but you already have a discount, why not splurge a bit? The one I got at the Rijksmuseum was so memorable I ended up making a full-length video of it when I got home (the audio was available on iTunes).

Communing with the statues... (Rodin Museum)

  • Visit your favorite museum first. You may not know which museum will ultimately be your favorite, but visit the one you are most excited to see first so you know you won’t be burnt out. For me, the first stop in Amsterdam was clearly the Rijksmuseum since I’m into Dutch Golden Age paintings and history. In Paris, it was a slightly less likely candidate – the Rodin museum. Even though the museum is devoted to just one artist, I love all his sculptures, so I wanted to take my time strolling through the house and exploring the extensive gardens.

  • Visit a variety of museums. Going to the Jewish historical museum after the Van Gogh museum doesn’t feel redundant, because they are completely different. Museums don’t only mean fine art – there are plenty of fascinating science, history and ethnographic museums too.
  • 17th century art supplies at the Rembrandt Museum

    Visit smaller and lesser-known museums. One of my favorite museum experiences was visiting the Rembrandt house one morning. I was one of the first visitors in the museum, which is actually the artist’s original house restored to look like it did in the 17th century. For a little while that morning, I felt removed from the city and almost like I’d stepped back in time. Another benefit of small museums, particularly art museums such as the Frans Hals museum in Haarlem, is that they’re more “doable.” An hour or two in one and you’ll feel like you’ve seen all there is to see, while an hour or two in a huge national museum might leave you overwhelmed and exhausted since there’s too much to see.

  • Know what you want to see. Speaking of huge museums, it’s best to go into them with a general idea of which highlights you definitely must see. Some museums, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, provide brochures listing the most popular highlights for visitors who don’t already have a list in mind. In any case, don’t try to “do” these museums in one visit – it’s impossible. At the Musee D’Orsay I was unfortunately limited to one hour, and I rushed through many rooms packed with some great Impressionist art. But I consider the visit a success because in the end I stumbled across the one painting I was looking for the whole time.
  • Skip museums devoted to one artist. That is, if you need to pick and choose, and aren’t a major fan of the artist. I count three of them among my more disappointing museum visits: Picasso (Paris), Van Gogh (Amsterdam), and Magritte (Brussels). It always feels like something is lacking, and I think I know why this is the case. If an artist is famous enough to have an entire museum devoted to him, he is also famous enough that the top museums in the world (the MoMA, Smithsonian, Louvre, etc.) have competed for the privilege to display the artist’s most successful (and famous) works. The museum that bears the artist’s name gets the early sketches and lesser known works – in other words, the leftovers. In the case of Rodin, it was absolutely worth visiting the museum since I love everything of his (also, sculptures are more easily duplicated, so the most famous pieces were all there). But with the others, the art seemed mediocre with no thrill of seeing more than a couple of famous or familiar pieces.
  • Switch things up. Obviously, you don’t want to spend all of your time in museums. When I think back to my Paris and Amsterdam visits, I don’t feel like I was in museums the whole trip at all. Around 2 hours per museum (x 6 museums) = 12 hours spread over 4 days. That leaves 84 hours free for eating, sleeping, strolling around, touring the city by foot or by boat, chilling in parks, meeting people, nightlife – you name it! If you’re like my family, you can even go ahead and cram in a few more museums…

Life outside the museums! (Marais district, Paris)


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