Unless you are an art historian, a museum visit can sometimes feel overwhelming, when what you’re really seeking is an experience of awe and reverence. That’s where museum tips can help!
When I visited the British Museum in London for the first time, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of important paintings and art objects throughout history. Everything seemed so important to see and appreciate. Plus, there were massive crowds to navigate.
And yet, with a little skill and planning, a museum visit can be delightful. Here are my best museum tips for less exhaustion and more wonder!
- How to Visit a Museum
- Plan Ahead
- Save Money
- Focus during Your Visit
- Beat the Crowds
- Savor the Experience
- Seek Out Less Famous Places
How to Visit a Museum
The best way to avoid the crush of crowds at a well-loved museum is to be thoughtful about your visit. Try these ideas:
1. Go off season.
Dying to see The Louvre in Paris or the Uffizi in Florence? These are some of the busiest museums in the world! Truth be told, they are filled with visitors any time of year, but far fewer than during summer when tourism peaks.
In the months of June, July, and August, Europe is filled with crowds. Europeans enjoy long summer breaks and Americans are eager to see the continent. Do you have more flexibility in your schedule? Consider visiting in shoulder season—April/May or September/October—after kids are back in school. Remember, hotel prices are cheaper and restaurant reservations are easier to get then too!
2. Buy tickets ahead of time.
Be sure to arrive at the museum well-rested and ready for an art adventure. One of the best ways to achieve that is to be sure you don’t wear yourself down by beginning your day in a long line trying to secure an entrance ticket.
In fact, in some museums—I’m looking at you fabulous Alhambra in Grenada, Spain—tickets are only available when reserved months ahead. The last thing you want to do is arrive ready for a visit only to be sent away empty-handed.
We made this mistake when visiting the Alcazar in Seville. The line for tickets snaked around the entire palace as we wilted in the hot Spanish sun for hours. Ugh. So once you’ve planned your trip itinerary, take five minutes to secure your museum tickets too.
3. Reserve a skip-the-line tour.
If you neglected to organize pre-departure, there’s still hope! You can reserve a day tour with a local guide to see most major museums. It’s a double win. Not only do you have a trained expert to guide you to the most important things to see and provide expert commentary, but most groups also meet by arrangement at the front of the line.
My favorite tour company for this purpose is Get Your Guide. Not only are the guides excellent—I’ve toured everywhere from Chinatown in San Francisco to castles in Sintra, Portugal with them—but costs are reasonable, too. Last minute change of plans? You can cancel for a full refund with just 24 hours notice!
4. Preview the museum online.
Many museums today have excellent virtual tours online. One of the best ways to gauge how much time you’d like to spend at the museum is by checking out the museum online ahead of time. Plus, after you’ve read up, you can spend your time onsite really soaking up the paintings and art objects themselves.
This is a great way to avoid oversaturation if you haven’t spent a lot of time perusing museums or don’t have an art background to provide context for what you’re seeing. When you take a half hour to check museum hours, reserve tickets, and preview the collection, before you leave home, you will arrive full of excitement and anticipation.
5. Go during extended hours.
Did you know that the Louvre Museum in Paris is open until 9:45 pm on Wednesdays and Fridays? And closed on Tuesdays? There are far fewer people visiting then.
If the museum is open in the evening, consider organizing your day around an evening visit. Plan a day with a relaxed breakfast or afternoon nap to pace your day and then head out for a memorable museum visit in the evening that doesn’t involve fighting crowds. (Otherwise, plan to stand in line just to get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa.)
6. Buy a city museum pass.
If you’re heading to a major metropolitan area like London, Paris, or Barcelona, contact the tourism office to ask about discounts for visiting multiple museums. Many cities offer combination packages that include a steep discount for seeing multiple museums over a few days or week.
Plus, they typically include free or reduced admissions costs to major monuments and city bus tours. To identify the museum pass that’s right for you, add up the length of time you’ll be in town and which sites you’re hoping to see. Then choose the best value. (You can also find some of these on Get Your Guide.)
Focus during Your Visit
7. Go hands-free.
Many museums require backpacks to be stored in lockers. But even if they don’t, you’ll want to minimize items you have to carry through the museum. The last thing you want to do is skip part of a visit because your shoulders ache or you’re tired of hanging onto your rain jacket and umbrella.
In the same way, treat yourself to a cell phone-free experience by keeping your phone in your pocket. Did you know that most museums ban photos? The flash photography can damage the art plus photo-taking can create visitor bottlenecks in crowded galleries.
Your attention is a precious commodity and you’ll want to reserve it for those masterpieces you’re seeing!
8. Avoid overwhelm.
It can be tough to pace yourself when you have a single day to see so much historic art, but there’s just no way you can do it justice in a single visit. Cut yourself some slack by choosing your time and focus and consuming the museum experience in bite-sized pieces.
What does that mean exactly? Take time to appreciate what you’re seeing with a rest on a bench in a gallery. Calibrate your visit with your travel partner. If your companion is an art history professor, you may want to plan a lengthy visit and sync your sightseeing priorities before you go. On the other hand, if you’ve got two toddlers in two, you’ll want to set expectations accordingly.
Everyone will be disappointed and unhappy if you drag out a visit beyond what’s reasonable for small children. Whether you’re ducking in to see two masterpieces or spending an eight hour day, remind yourself that you’ll be back someday for a next visit!
9. Get the audio guide.
This is my top tip for how to get the most out of any museum visit. If you’re not engaging in a guided tour or tagging along with the museum’s docent tour, at least get the audio guide! A museum visit is so much more meaningful if you know what you’re looking at. It’s such a small price to pay for a much better experience.
Most audio guides in museum showcase a “best of” the collection, offering an incredibly efficient way to see major artworks without exhaustion. You can also download free audio guides of major museums on the Rick Steves website.
10. See the special exhibit.
When you’re checking that museum site before your visit, be sure to see what’s on while you’re there. When special exhibits are on loan from other museums around the world, you may have a rare “two-for-one” opportunity to see something truly special without traveling to another part of the word. Special exhibits may only last for a few months so you’re fortunate indeed if one coincides with your museum visit!
11. Indulge your sense of awe.
Observing beauty—whether in nature or art—can be transcendent. And a meditative state nurtures that opportunity. So put yourself in a relaxed mental state. Be patient and kind as you navigate the museum.
Open yourself to the color, texture, and enigma of art. Your goal isn’t to make it to the end of the labyrinth of galleries in record time…but rather, to leave the museum refreshed!
Beat the Crowds
12. Go against the flow.
In addition to skip-the-line tours and visiting offseason or off hours, another excellent strategy for missing the crowds is to arrive early when the museum opens and head directly to the top floor or furthermost exhibit first. Then, while more sights near the front door are mobbed, you’ll be able to enjoy other sites unencumbered as you meander towards the front of the gallery.
In truly swamped museums, it can make all the difference to arrive 10 minutes before the museum opens. This is what we did when visiting the gorgeous Prague Castle one year. I’ve never seen such crowds, but by arriving early we had a glorious 30 minutes practically alone there.
13. Skip the gift shop.
If you’re pressed for time, save your energy for seeing the actual art! Remember, you’re visiting for the experience, not the souvenir. That said, I often purchase notecards from a museum as a way to extend my trip once I’m home.
Every time I write a thank you note or birthday card, I’m transported back to my magical experience. (I have some lovely cards featuring calligraphy from The Book of Kells at Ireland’s National Gallery in Dublin that I love. Writing a note always reminds me of our visit to Ireland.)
Before you buy, ask yourself: Will I use or appreciate this museum memento one year from now? if the answer is no, forgo it!
Savor the Experience
14. Wear comfortable shoes.
It sounds a little silly, but comfortable shoes are an essential part of an optimal museum experience. Blisters or tired, sore feet will challenge even the most dedicated museum-goer.
Remember, y could be trekking miles in a major museum over a day. If your day shoes are less than ideal, tuck a pair of comfortable sandals or tennis shoes in your backpack for the museum portion of your day.
15. Allow time for reflection.
It’s easy to be swept up in timetables and reservations when traveling. After all, you want to see as much as possible, right? But the more I travel, the less I try to squeeze into my itinerary. I want to choose rejuvenation over exhaustion at every opportunity.
So instead of dashing from one museum to the next, allow time for a leisurley visit to the museum’s cafe for a coffee, a glass of wine, or a cheese plate. It’s a rewarding opportunity to swap thoughts and observations with your travel partner…or simply savor the experience if you’re traveling on your own.
Seek Out Less Famous Places
16. Visit a smaller museum.
Europe is full of art and most of it isn’t in the few major museums you hear about again and again. For a truly spectacular experience, skip that famous museum in high season and spend a few hours admiring beautiful art objects in a tiny, lesser-known museum instead. I’ve had some of my most memorable museum experiences this way.
One year in Italy, we decided to pass on Florence’s famous Uffizi to duck into the Bargello National Museum instead. It was just us and a handful of other tourists perusing incredible Renaissance sculptures and medieval art objects. We had a similar experience while visiting the Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy.
17. Think beyond Museums
In the same vein, you can capture the experience of wonder and awe in almost any cathedral worldwide. I make it a priority to step into most churches I pass by as I wander large European cities. The reward almost always includes a kaleidoscope of brilliant stained glass (like at Chartres). If I’m really fortunate, my visit coincides with organ practice where I can enjoy a free concert.
Consider visiting artist’s homes, too, for a more personal look at daily family life. Monet’s home, next to his famous garden, Giverney, outside of Paris is a lovely journey through time! While touring beautiful villages in Provence, we visited the local workshop of an internationally renowned restorer of chandeliers.
As we wandered the rooms lit up with glinting crystal chandeliers and watched the master himself immersed in a repair—his sole guests for the day—I was reminded that the very best art experiences offer a sense of connection to people and place.
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