The world's finest art galleries and museums are not just about art, they are about the way art is collected and put together.
The art of the matter
The world's finest art galleries and museums are not just about art, they are about the way art is collected and put together. Art is expensive and the amassing of world-class collections chart eras of power and influence that wax and wane. This insight into a particular place is often invaluable. Besides, amid the queues of tourists and the hustle and bustle of crowds, there is always the chance of a transcendental moment that great art encourages and provokes. To echo the poet Frank O'Hara: great art doesn't make me want to own it, it makes me want to be it. The possibility of such moments is tantalisingly on offer at all these galleries and museums.
The Prado is based on the Spanish royal collection and as a result it is chock-full of the remarkable products of centuries of royal patronage. Velázquez and Goya - two of the masters of Spanish painting - were court painters who made dozens of portraits of the Spanish royal family in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively. The Prado reeks of this rarified and cloistered world. It is rare to see so many paintings by Velázquez together and the Prado holds not only the most but some of his best, including Las Meninas (1656), whose use of mirrors and screens teases the viewer about the painting's true subject. Goya's work grew darker as he grew older and here you can chart his journey to the brink of madness. Not as dogged by queues as the world's other great galleries and museums, visiting the Prado can be an overpowering and atmospheric experience. Use Google Earth to get a taste of the museum before you go: the program has a three-dimensional model of the gallery along with very high resolution images of masterpieces from the collection. Museo Nacional del Prado, Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23, Madrid 28014, Spain (www.museodelprado.es/en; 00 34 91 330 2800). Admission to the museum collection costs $11 (Dh40) per person.
The queue snaking through the piazza, which can last up to six hours and is peppered with digital signs showing how long you can expect to wait, is more akin to Disneyland than one of the world's oldest art galleries. Avoiding this interminable wait, a wretched limbo worthy of the city's most famous poet Dante, is one of the keys to enjoying the Uffizi. Go early, book tickets in advance online or go an hour before closing for the best chance at a clear run. Lack of information, poor lighting and a rebuilding programme which leads to rooms being closed apparently at random are annoying, but ultimately they cannot hinder the enjoyment of such a glut of iconic works displayed so close to their point of creation. Paintings such as Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna, Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Piero della Francesca's Duke and Duchess of Urbino make the Uffizi the paragon of galleries. Uffizi Gallery, Piazzale degli Uffizi, 50122, Florence, Italy (www.polomuseale.firenze.it/english/musei/uffizi; 00 39 055 238 8651). Tickets costs $9 (Dh33) per person.
It takes nine minutes and 43 seconds to run through through the Louvre. Two directors - Jean-Luc Godard in Bande à part (1964) and Bernardo Bertolucci in The Dreamers (2003) - include a mad dash through the museum's splendid surroundings in their films. These famous scenes belie the museum's vast scale and confusing layout - three main buildings with four floors - which makes planning essential. The range and quality of art is unrivalled and includes masterpieces such as the Venus de Milo, The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault and, of course, the Mona Lisa. The scrum that can ensue around this remarkably popular painting makes Leonardo's lesser-known works, such as Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, a more pleasurable experience. The museum's main entrance is often very busy. The Porte des Lions entrance is quieter or you can buy tickets in advance, but be sure not to miss one of the delights of the Louvre: its architecture and decorative arts, which range from the modern glass pyramid to the lavish apartments of Napoleon III. Musée du Louvre, 75058 Paris Cedex 01, France (www.louvre.fr; 00 3 3 1 40 20 51 77). Tickets for the permanent collections cost $13 (Dh47). After 6pm on Wednesdays and Fridays, tickets cost $8 (Dh30).
Set on the banks of the Neva River, the eclectic and, at times, eccentric Hermitage boasts approximately three million exhibits. Numismatics - coins, currency and medals - account for one third of that figure. Consequently the museum's massive collection still feels quite intimate compared to behemoths such as the Louvre. The Hermitage itself has a rich and turbulent history. In 1764 Catherine II bought a collection of Flemish and Dutch paintings from a German merchant and housed them in a private gallery adjoining the Winter Palace. The gallery was opened to the public in 1852. During the October Revolution of 1917, the Winter Palace and Hermitage were seized and declared state museums. This background, combined with a spectacular setting and a varied collection ranging from Matisse's Dance to artefacts and treasures from the nomads of Central Asia, makes the Hermitage atmospheric, unique and satisfying. The State Hermitage, 2 Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Dvortsovaya Square), 190000, St Petersburg, Russia (www.hermitagemuseum.org, 00 7 812 710 90 79). Admission to the Main Museum Complex costs $14 (Dh51) per person. Some rooms in the museum are closed for renovation. See the website for the latest information.
The museum's main building is closed for major renovations until at least 2012, but you can still see the highlights of this fabulous collection in a special exhibition in the Philips Wing. Even in this pared-down form, these 400-odd works remain one of the best displays of 17th-century Dutch art in the world. Rembrandt and Vermeer are a particular draw. Thanks in part to films such as Girl with the Pearl Earring, these two painters have become ridiculously popular. Their paintings prompt huge queues from devoted viewers. In the confined spaces of this exhibition and with Amsterdam's oft-inclement weather, the atmosphere around some works can become quite muggy and claustrophobic as crowds of people jostle for a view. Rembrant's The Night Watch is the star attraction, but his Self Portrait at an Early Age and Self Portrait as the Apostle St Paul are worth loitering around, waiting for a quiet moment. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Postbus 74888, 1070 DN Amsterdam, The Netherlands (www.rijksmuseum.nl; 00 31 20 674 7000). Tickets cost $17 (Dh62) per person.
Perched on the fringes of Central Park, the Met is an open and airy museum that rarely feels crowded despite a large number of visitors. The collection's vast scope is brimming with oddities, quirks and idiosyncrasy alongside world-class masterpieces. Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and Paul Klee are among the undisputed heavyweights whose work is on show, but it is in the decorative arts that the collection really shines. The Frank Lloyd Wright Room, a reconstruction of the living room of a house designed by the architect in 1914, is a delight, as are the huge Tiffany stained-glass windows. These works help to convey the exuberance, abundance and confidence of 20th-century industrial American society. The Met has a wide range of cafes and restaurants, including a roof garden with an excellent view over the park that is open from May to late autumn. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, 10028-0198, US (www.metmuseum.org; 00 1 212 535 7710). Tickets cost $20 (Dh73.50) per person.
The National Gallery is a venerable institution and free entry makes it easy to dip in and out of. It is perfect if you have a spare hour or two in the city. It is well organised and has excellent information, including free audio guides in six languages. The glass roof in some rooms of the main building helps to keep many of the spaces well lit and airy. These factors alone make it a pleasure to visit. Include the cornucopia of art from the 13th century to the 20th century and the gallery becomes a national wonder. Highlights from the collection of more than 2,300 works include The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh and Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat. As this list attests, a trip to the National Gallery is an enlightening journey through some of the finest works in Western art. The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN, UK (www.nationalgallery.org.uk, 00 44 20 7747 2885). Admission is free.
The works of art missing from Greece - the Elgin Marbles being the most famous - often make the news, but there is no doubt that Athens is home to the finest collection of Greek art in the world. Badly damaged by an earthquake in 1999, the National Archaeological Museum reopened in July 2004. Along with the Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009, it houses an unparalleled collection of Greek bronze statues. Most Greek statues are marble and stone copies made by the Romans before they melted the originals down to create weapons, shields and armour. As a result, Greek bronzes are quite rare. But the discovery of various shipwrecks in the Mediterranean along with finds from archaeological digs have amassed a remarkable hoard in Greece's capital city. Highlights include the Mask of Agamemnon, a gold funeral mask, and the Antikythera mechanism, a set of scientific dials often referred to as an ancient "computer". National Archaeological Museum, 44 Patission Street, Athens, Greece (http://bit.ly/10N3ns; 00 30 210 821 7724). Tickets cost $9 (Dh33) per person.
Founded in 16th century by the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican Museums have become a massive tourist attraction. They had more than 4.3 million visitors in 2007. Afternoons are less packed than mornings, but the ticket office closes at 4pm and the museums close at 6pm. The Sistine Chapel - Michelangelo's masterpiece - is the culmination of an epic and labyrinthine journey through 53 rooms. Many people scurry along this trek confused and befuddled, but there is much to see on the way including Caravaggio's Entombment, Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Saint Jerome and a majestic spiral staircase. Paintings by Titian, Giotto, Fra Angelico and Raphael are all worth seeking out, while the Etruscan Museum is fabulous and uncrowded. At the end of this route, you can stand in the Sistine Chapel and gape in awe at the scale of Michelangelo's vision and the bravura of his accomplishment. Just remember to take a hand mirror with you to avoid neck ache from looking up. Viale Vaticano, 00165 Rome, Italy (http://mv.vatican.va; 00 39 06 69884676). Tickets cost $20 (Dh74) . Free on the last Sunday of each month.
Founded in 1858 by Auguste Mariette at Bulaq, the Egyptian Museum moved first to Giza after a fire in 1878 and then to its current location in Cairo in 1902. The huge quantity of antiquities - more than 120,000 objects spanning more than 3,000 years - is intimidating. Scant labelling, inadequate information and a chronological arrangement make the museum seem particularly daunting. It would be a shame to miss out, though. Highlights include the Narmer Palette, a slab of stone carved with some of the world's earliest hieroglyphics from around 3000BC, and the wooden Ka statue of Hor Auibre from around 1700BC. A guidebook, on sale at the shop, will help you to make the most of the myriad objects that spill out of the museum's rooms. The gold and lapis-lazuli burial mask of Tutankhamen is an attraction that few visitors fail to see. Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Midan Tahrir 11557, Cairo, Egypt (www.egyptianmuseum.gov.eg; 00 20 575 4319). Entrance costs $11 (Dh40). Credit cards are not accepted. Entrance to the Mummy Room costs extra.