18 Unusual Museums Worth Traveling For

These museums each have powerful, distinct, and sometimes niche cultural significance. While not all off the beaten path, each offers a unique window into wider intellectual, artistic, and historical landscapes. Get below the surface.

R. Me. Deus 4, 1900-312 Lisboa, Portugal
Azulejos (glazed tiles) are a ubiquitous decoration throughout Portugal. They cover the facades and interiors of many houses in Lisbon, and are even used as historical markers. The Museu Nacional do Azulejo, located in a 16th-century convent, has a permanent exhibition that illustrates the heritage of these Portuguese tiles from the 16th century to the present, touching on everything from Ottoman geometry to Goan altars. Also on view here is a remarkable azulejo mural, A Grande Vista de Lisboa, which offers an idea of what the city looked like before the earthquake of 1755.
103 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002, USA
These days, wandering the Lower East Side (the area between the Bowery and the East River, with Houston Street marking its northern border and Canal Street its southern one), it can feel impossible to recall that this neighborhood was once among the city’s most overcrowded, teeming with immigrants. Its streets were filled with Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks, and other Europeans newly arrived in the United States, including a significant Jewish population. Today, boutiques and bars cater to gentrifiers, much of the population is Puerto Rican or Dominican, and the few traces of that earlier era are hard to find—the facades of Yiddish theaters and synagogues that have long since closed. The Tenement Museum on Orchard Street is dedicated to assuring that period of the city’s past is not lost forever. On each floor of the restored tenement building, the lives of some of its former occupants are brought to life, from the German saloon owners on the first floor to the Jewish immigrants who occupied the top one. Docents in character and costume help to make the stories of those immigrants personal. The museum also organizes walking tours of the Lower East Side and offers talks on the district’s history.
6-chōme-5-1 Minamiaoyama, Minato City, Tōkyō-to 107-0062, Japan
Just down the street from fashionable Omotesando is the Nezu Museum, with an exquisite Japanese garden. Architect Kengo Kuma’s touches include a warm welcome with a bamboo wall at the entrance and rooms with picturesque views of the garden. The museum’s renowned permanent collection comprises a vast selection of Japanese and Asian pieces, including lacquerware, calligraphy, sculptures, and paintings. The Nezu Café has three walls of windows to enjoy the garden over a light meal, coffee and cake, or matcha and traditional wagashi sweets.
99 Margaret Corbin Dr, New York, NY 10040, USA
The Cloisters, a museum devoted to medieval art and architecture, is a delightful respite from the hustle and bustle of NYC. This tranquil treasure is definitely worth a half day (or more) trip on your next visit. A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters opened in 1938 and is located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan. Perched on a towering cliff, the museum offers commanding views over the Hudson River to New Jersey and the George Washington Bridge. The buildings include elements from medieval sites from Europe (primarily France) and renowned artwork includes the Unicorn Tapestries and the Annunciation Triptych, but the heart of the museum is the cloistered garden. This lush space consists of an interior courtyard surrounded by covered walkways. The flowering garden within invites contemplation and appreciation of a different time. The Cloisters includes a broad terrace with expansive views across the Hudson. The view is so prized that in 1901, J.P. Morgan purchased 12 miles of the New Jersey coastline to protect it from excessive quarrying and in 1933 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated 700 additional acres of NJ to preserve The Cloisters’ view. Be sure to include time in your visit to explore beautiful Fort Tryon Park.
Calle Manuel Rojas Marcos, 3, 41004 Sevilla, Spain
Cristina Hoyos, probably the most famous flamenco dancer of all time (her image from the 1960s is often used to represent the iconic flamenco dancer, with a slicked-back raven-black chignon and a fiercely passionate demeanor), founded this museum full of interactive exhibits. It also features a popular nightly flamenco performance. Even if you can’t make the live performance, video displays tell the story of the history and various styles of this noisy, sensual and compelling art form.
Ricardo de Ferrari 692, Valparaíso, Chile
The poet Pablo Neruda redefined the city with his Ode to Valparaíso, calling it “the patched bow of a small courageous ship.” Today, visitors can tour his home, known as La Sebastiana. The building is now a museum with one of the city’s finest gift shops. —Steven Bodzin Ferrari 692, 56/(0) 32-225-6606. This appeared in the November/December 2011 issue.
Göreme Yolu
If you go to Cappadocia, Turkey, the Göreme Open Air Museum is worth a visit. The museum is a collection of cave churches carved out by Orthodox monks from about 900 AD to 1200 AD. The monks really went all out to try and make the cave churches look and feel like “real” churches. A few of them are carved in the floor plan of a typical church and others have faux architectural features like columns and arched, vaulted ceilings. All of the churches have painted frescoes, some more beautiful and elaborate than others in design. Undoubtedly, the most beautiful of the cave churches is the Dark Church (Karanlık Kilise) which dates back to the 12th century. The church is so named because there is only one small window, opposite the apse, that light can shine in through. Because of the relative darkness, the colors of the frescoes, which depict scenes from the New Testament, are as vibrant today as they were centuries ago. Until the 1950’s, the Dark Church was used as a pigeon coop and apparently, it took 14 years to scrape all the poop off the frescoes. Even though the frescoes have been restored, one sign of damage has been left untouched and that is the gouged out eyes of the figures. It’s believed this was done by the Turks who are superstitious of the “evil eye.” The Open Air Museum is located a short a 15-minute walk (1.5 km) from the village of Göreme and a short taxi ride (6.5 km) from the town of Ürgüp. Practice taking photos in low light before you go!
Av Mexico 5843, La Noria, 16030 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Art patroness and businesswoman Dolores Olmedo Patiño lived at this Xochimilco area estate that became a museum in the 1990s. An impressive ode to Mexican identity, the MDO features a wowza collection of Riveras, and Kahlos, alongside pre-Hispanic and Mexican folk art. The treasures shine amid an extraordinary setting that includes dramatic gardens and lots of critters, particularly peafowl and hairless xolo dogs. Families love weekend visits that often include special arts activities for the wee ones.
Rue Assouel, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
At Ben Youssef Medersa, a 16th-century Koranic boarding school turned museum, visitors can see colorful mosaic zellij tiles and intricate stucco carvings inscribed with Muslim invocations. —Jennye Garibaldi
6011, New Zealand
The Te Papa museum combines New Zealand’s dramatic history with its high-tech present. Don’t miss the traditional greenstone and wood carvings or the 60-foot wall of constantly changing images, videos, and words manipulated by remote-control-wielding visitors. 55 Cable St., 64/(0) 4-381-7000. This appeared in the October 2012 issue.
2021 N Kinney Rd, Tucson, AZ 85743, USA
Mountain Lion. Cougar. Puma. Panther. Any way you call it, it’s majestic but fear-inspiring... At the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, on the western edge of Tucson, you can get face-to-face with one of these massive felines; their well-designed habitat includes a high den with a thick glass window. If your timing is right, a catnap will have just ended, and you’ll be studied closely. “Desert Museum” might seem like a misnomer. Part botanical garden, part zoo, and part, yes, museum, it’s been ranked one of the best in the world. The habitats are well thought-out, and you get a true feel for the flora and fauna of the lush Sonora desert, which straddles the US-Mexico border: from the Sea of Cortez to the mountains, from subtropical coast to saguaros that get the occasional dusting of snow...
54 Pearl Street
Want to eat where a historic event of the American Revolution took place? Try Fraunces Tavern in downtown New York City. After defeating the British, it was here that George Washington gathered his officers for a farewell speech before heading back to his family home, Mount Vernon. Built by a French merchant family in 1719, Samuel Fraunces bought the building in 1762 and opened a tavern. The museum today includes four 19th century buildings, in addition to the original 18th century house. Fraunces Tavern is now a restaurant and museum devoted to pre-Revolution and American Revolution history. It is also an official NYC Landmark. Go to experience a unique piece of history, then enjoy a hearty meal or a single malt in the tavern or one of the newer buildings (above). www.frauncestavern.com 54 Pearl Street
685 Changjiang W Rd, Baoshan Qu, Shanghai Shi, China
The Shanghai Museum of Glass, housed in a former glassmaking factory, features ancient artifacts such as blown-glass hairpins from the Song Dynasty as well as modern glass sculptures by Chinese and international artists, many of them American. Take a glassblowing workshop and make a vase to bring home. 685 Changjiang Xi Lu, 86/(0) 21-6618-1970.
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