A museum tour can get pretty dry, but if you choose your sites wisely, it can also be the highlight of your vacation. Great museums compile an inspiring collection of cultural treasures to engage your mind, and maybe even leave you with a new perspective at the end of your holiday. From legendary archaeological finds to the greatest painted masterpieces on earth, check out these fantastic sites for an enlightening glimpse into the foundation of contemporary art and culture.

Le Louvre, Paris, France

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Known far and wide as the quintessential art gallery, the Louvre houses some of the nation’s – and the world’s – most precious artistic treasures in its 20 rooms. In this legendary palace you’ll find the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, among a host of other masterpieces from the Renaissance, plus a good helping from the French School and eastern antiquities. The Louvre is one of the largest museums on earth, and the most visited: tourists flock to its opulent palatial façade all year round, so it may be best to reserve your ticket in advance.

 

Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

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A deep reverence for research sets the Smithsonian apart from other museums: from the National Zoological Park to the nine research centers, the sprawling complex is a feast for the mind and the most comprehensive collection of American history you could hope for. But it’s not all geological digs and stuffy artifacts. In fact, you can catch glimpse of the original Star-Spangled Banner, the Hope Diamond, and the Wright brothers’ Spirit of St. Louis among the 138 million items on display.

 

State Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia

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The legacy of legendary Russian Monarchs, St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum and gallery contains a breathtaking array of world-class masterpieces. The leading building itself could be considered part of the collection: previously known as the Winter Palace, the majestic blue and white manor was the main residence of the czars through the 18th century. Today it houses some of the museum’s three million items, a collection that stretches from the Stone Age to the early 20th century. After gazing at the priceless paintings, head to the Treasure Gallery’s Gold Rooms to see the jaw-dropping collection of gleaming golden artifacts from around Eurasia.

 

The British Museum, London, England

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It takes a lot for a museum to earn the respect of a global audience, and exceptional archaeological exhibits have made the British Museum an international star. Whether or not you happen to be an archaeology buff, the sensationally comprehensive Egyptian gallery – with centuries-old intact mummies, splendid ancient riches and the legendary Rosetta Stone – is sure to grab your attention. The Parthenon sculptures, Easter Island statue, and Sutton Hoo Ship-burial are not to be missed, either.

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York

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The Met is grandiose is all senses of the word: not only is it the largest museum in North America, but it has a dizzying collection of paintings, sculptures, tombs, and rooms from all over the globe. If you’re interested in the great European masters, feast your eyes on the works by Rodin, Degas, Botticelli and Rembrandt; if American art and architecture is more to your taste, head to the aptly names American Wing where you’ll find a room from a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie House. You’ll need to give yourself a lot of time to see it all, considering the massive collection is spread throughout 400 galleries and several floors.

 

The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

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Stepping into the Uffizi Gallery is liking stepping into Renaissance Italy, where you follow ornate, pillared hallways to some of the most extraordinary artworks produced in the 16th and 17th centuries. This former Medici commission is richly ornamented and flooded with light, and connects to the Medici’s palace over the Ponte Vecchio. The highlights of your visit will surely be the famous Italian artworks, like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and da Vinci’s religious paintings. Once you’re thoroughly exhausted from your journey through the Renaissance, you can stop in at one of the dozens of gelato shops to rejuvenate.

 

 Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

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A traveler favorite, Chicago’s largest museum is brimming with American, impressionist and post-impressionist works. From Manet and Renoir to Van Gogh and Gaugin, there is a lot of world-class painting to see. And while you’ll find several European staples here, like Seurat’s pointillism masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the Art Institute also boasts a remarkable collection of American architecture and furniture pieces designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Ray Eames.

 

National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, Mexico

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There aren’t many cultural sites that can match the architecture and surroundings of Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology: the 20 acres of museum rooms are built around a central courtyard that features a huge pond and a cascade of water over a wide concrete umbrella. If the architecture isn’t enticing enough, there are the prestigious exhibits, which include the famous Aztec calendar stone, artifacts from the ancient Olmec civilization, and Mayan treasures. In fact, the museum features sculptures and carvings representing all pre-Colombian civilizations in Mexico and into the southwestern United States.

 

Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France

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The elegant Musee d’Orsay, with its soaring architecture and historic charm, houses the world’s largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces, representing the crème de la crème of French painting. The building is the former Gare d’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station that showcases the pieces in natural light and beautiful infrastructure. There is a great selection of Art Nouveau, and a staggering amount of work from Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Cezanne will guarantee a memorable visit. The museum has a reputation for excellent temporary exhibits, as well.

 

The Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece

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Greece has a tremendous amount of archaeological treasures, and the ancient Acropolis of Athens is one of the most precious finds. The museum is built at the site of the historic citadel, which means when you walk over the glass floor that leads from the lobby you are above the original excavation site, and can see the uncovered sanctuaries and settlements of ancient Athens with your own eyes. The museum also houses a huge stretch of the original Parthenon frieze, and many statues that date back to the 5th century BC.

Not every museum is made for every traveler, but keep an open mind – sometimes the best gallery experience is the one you never expected. Look for local galleries, and if you can spare the time, get off the beaten tourist track. While the Louvre and the Met will always be worth a look, there are a host of smaller galleries that are expertly run, and tourist offices in major cities may be able to point you toward their best local treasures.