Choosing the best of anything is always highly subjective – just look at any list of top 10 movies of the year. But for this list of best museums in the world, I had a few requirements. One is that the museum is always or almost always, free. Another is that a family would want to return here again and again. And, importantly, my family has done just that. Enjoy – and create your own list of free things to do!
Free things to do: Visit One of the Best Museums in the World!
High quality free museums are such a bonus for travelers; you get to see local culture, meet fellow museum goers and spend time inside on a cold, hot or rainy day. But even on a perfect spring day or crisp autumn afternoon, if you are near one of these museums, you should make a point to spend a few hours.
1. British Museum
Some of the best museums in the world are in London. Even better, many of them are free. There’s the Tate Modern. The National Gallery. Even the Victoria and Albert, a decorative arts museum. It can be difficult to pick just one. But the vast British Museum, with its extensive history exhibits and artifacts, tops my list. This is arguably one of the best museums worldwide, period. Seeing the actual Rosetta Stone is a must, as are the Elgin marbles. You can get lost here for days; there are more than 8 million objects and works of art in its collection.
2. Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
You could cheat and say the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of free museums in the nation’s capital (along with one in New York) is the best free museum in the United States. But there are actually almost separate 20 institutions. They range from the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture to the National Zoo, home to a couple of pandas. If you asked my kids which museum is their favorite, they would pick the Air & Space Museum, which has topped my list since I was a child. You can see actual lunar modules and historic aircraft, suits worn by the first astronauts and learn about the history of the space race. Even if aviation is not a passion, this fascinating museum is a must see (and what traveler doesn’t like aviation?)
3. Prado Museum
At the Prado, you can get your fill of religious art. The museum is packed with Spanish and Italian Renaissance paintings; you can examine famous works by Spanish artists like Goya, El Greco, Caravaggio and Velazquez. It’s like an art history class come to life. The museum is so vast that it may be a good idea to visit a couple of times. That’s easy to accomplish for free since there are free times daily. Monday to Saturday between 6 and 8 pm, and Sundays and holidays from 5 to 7 pm, the Prado charges no admission.
4. The Brooklyn Museum
Brooklyn, New York
The Brooklyn Museum, an art museum second only in size in NYC to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has a suggested admission of $16. But the museum is always free to everyone under age 19. The biggest draw, though is the monthly First Saturday party. The entire museum is free to all, and there are concerts, movies and tours, as well as family friendly art activities. First Saturdays get going at 5pm, with the museum open until 11pm. This is one of our favorite free things to do in NYC, but be aware that the word is out and crowds have arrived in Brooklyn. The museum has a wide ranging collection. There are period rooms, great masters and provocative contemporary art. The building reflects that. It’s a magnificent Beaux-Arts building fused to a modern glass entry (sort of Brooklyn’s answer to the Louvre).
5. The National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology
There are four separate museums of The National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology, Natural History, Decorative Arts & History and Country Life. Most fun for a family is the Archaeology museum, where you can see the famous bog people, preserved mummified remains that were found in bogs throughout Ireland. These gruesome remains are a hit with kids, who can discover the grisly way these corpses met their deaths. The museum also has kid friendly exhibits on the Vikings and Irish kings, Celtic artifacts and prehistoric gold.
6. Getty Center
Los Angeles, California
The Getty Center is a huge hilltop complex designed by ‘star-chitect” Richard Meier. Touring requires advance reservations (also free). Kids love the tram ride from the parking lot, and the gardens are great for wandering. There are great photographs, decorative arts and sculpture. There is a Family Room with activity coves and a treasure-hunt wall. Picnicking is allowed at tables outdoors. There are also free outdoor concerts, and you can bring a blanket.
7. Menil Collection
The Menil Collection is a private collection by John and Dominique de Menil. It stresses making art accessible, so the museum is always free. There is also free street parking nearby. The art work includes Surrealist and modern European painting and sculpture, medieval art and artifacts; African, Pacific Islands, and Pacific Northwest Native art; and art of the ancient Americas and the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Kids are welcome to run around outside after checking out the art indoors – there’s even a big swing.