Like most aspects of travel, Museums can be a source of joy and anxiety alike. They are an obvious draw—and an obvious addition to a to-do list—when visiting a new city. Institutions like the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid are, to many travelers, a requirement. And while seeing so much priceless art can feel like a truly priceless experience, it’s also a serious undertaking: The percieved obligation to get the most out of a few hours in a house of great works of art can feel like a lost cause.
The key to visiting a big museum without fully exhuasting yourself or walking out feeling like you didn’t do it right is to take away all the pressure. So much travel advice boils down to “just go, be in the moment, and enjoy yourself,” which can be both maddening and a relief. We spoke to a few artists and art historians to get some actual advice for visiting the museums they know and love the best.
The Louvre — Paris
Advice from Ellen McBreen, owner, Paris Muse
“Try not to be overly ambitious,” McBreen advises. “A lot of people—especially Americans—approach travel the way they approach their professional life: they want to be as productive as possible, and they don’t want to waste time.” The joy of seeing the Louvre, she explains, is the discovery of those works you weren’t planning on seeing. That won’t happen if you have every second of your visit planned.
Visit on a Wednesday or Friday night, when the museum is open later and the crowds are more manageable. McBreen recommends doing “a tiny bit of research, but not too much.” Make a list of 10 works you want to see, and when you walk from work to work, let yourself be drawn to those things that naturally attract you. If you’re looking for a recommendation, try the second floor of the Richelou wing—an important part of Muse’s “Hidden Masterpieces” tour—which is home to a number of works from Rembrandt, Reuben, and Vermeer.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art — New York
Advice from Hallie Bateman, artist, frequent Met visitor
The Met is enormous—it feels like the sort of museum you could spend a lifetime in and still not see everything. So it’s important not to put pressure on yourself, says Bateman, who likes to visit the museum without a plan. “Take a whole day,” she recommends—don’t try to fit in the nearby Guggenheim or the Frick just because they’re close. If you get tired, or need a lunch break, go seek a bit of relief in Central Park; there’s a little lake near the museum that’s good for sitting and recharging your brain. And most importantly: “Only stay as long as you’re interested.” Just because museums are "capital—I Important" doesn’t mean they should feel like a chore.
The Museum of Modern Art — New York
Advice from Jason Polan, artist, author of The Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art Book
Polan has spent a lot of time at MoMA. When working on his book project, he’d regularly spend all day there, gradually drawing every work on display. His advice? First of all, stay calm: there’s a lot to see, but you can still do it all in a few hours. And be sure to do some research before you go on temporary exhibits, since they’re often ticketed, but usually very worth it. “I think doing a little investigating is good,” Polan told me, “but not too much, because [it’s nice to] come upon things.”
And don’t be afraid to ask questions: “The guards are really knowledgeable, and they have interesting stories that you don’t often get.” The same goes for the volunteers at the information desks. If you’re looking for advice on what to see, or are seeking out a specific art work, museum staff are an excellent resource. Lastly, check out the galleries in the Cullman Education Building, which is across the garden from the main galleries. This lesser-known area has a gallery downstairs with an exciting rotation of exhibits.
The Tate Modern — London
Advice from Josephine Livingstone, PhD
The Tate alone is a sight to behold—Livingstone recommends the walk from the South Bank to the Tate, along the river which is "so funny and varied,” Livingstone explains, “full of churches and ancient things and new things and a few different bridges. Go up and down the levels and look at the Turbine Hall from different angles.”
Once you’re inside, don’t miss the works of those ultra-famous artists who are, in Livingstone’s words, “especially at home” in the Tate: Rothko, Brancusi, Man Ray, Lucio Fontana, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, and Tracey Emin. And while the museum is more calming than its brethren in other cities thanks to its “lusciously big” spaces, Livingstone recommends taking a break to head outside and look at the river. If you’re thirsty, check out Founders Arms, a solid nearby pub.
The Prado — Madrid
Advice from Sarah McCarty, Regional Manager for France and Spain, Context Travel
First up: Start early to avoid crowds. And, as with most museums, McCarty reminds us that trying to do too much will only end in failure. “Focus on one type of work,” she recommends. Goya is a great example: “There's a rich collection of his work there, and he's an important contributor to Spain's art legacy. Definitely do not miss the Black Paintings, 14 pieces he did very late in his life that demonstrate his rather grim frame of mind.”
Since the Prado began as the royal family’s collection, it goes really deep on a few artists, particularly court painters. “At the Prado you can plan a route that shows the evolution of [Goya’s] work, from the early years when he was painting for The Royal Tapestry Factory, to the mid-life painting portraits of the royal family, to the end.” Understanding one story instead of getting bits and pieces of a hundred different ones will have you feeling like you really accomplished—and learned—something in your visit.
Tokyo National Museum — Tokyo
Advice from Lara Budge, Regional Manager for Asia, Context Travel
This museum can feel like quite the undertaking—mostly because there are six different buildings to visit. Do yourself a favor, then, and don’t try to see them all in one day. Friedman recommends starting with the Honkan, which is the Japanese Gallery. “It works its way chronologically through Japanese art,” she explains, “and is therefore a good starting point.” The best times to visit are spring and fall when the museum’s gardens are at their most beautiful.