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World's most beautiful museums

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No big city vacation is complete without a visit to a beautiful museum. Our favorite collections combine great locations--like Central Park, central Paris, or the Pacific Coast--with iconic, inspiring works of art.

There's nothing like a relaxing afternoon spent basking in the glory of world-famous paintings and sculptures--not to mention picking up a brag-worthy keepsake in the museum shop. Here, our favorite collections of art, along with suggestions for must-see masterpieces and gift-shop grabs.

Take a tour of the museums

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Van Gogh, Vermeer, and Pollock in Central Park

The Met's collection of paintings, sculptures, and other visual art has been wowing visitors since 1870, but the museum's beautifully designed galleries and generous views of the changing seasons in Central Park help to foster an environment that's even more than the sum of its already considerable parts. Spend a day, a week, or a month here exploring art from prehistory to the present and you'll never see it all; stroll the exquisite Greek and Roman galleries during (relatively) quiet evening hours; or just plant yourself in front of a massive spattered 20th-century canvas and watch the crowds ebb and flow, some inevitably whispering, "My five-year-old could do that."

Must-see masterpieces: Vincent Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Cypresses, Johannes Vermeer's Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, and Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm. If you're with kids, you'll have trouble pulling them away from the stately knights in the Arms and Armor Collection.

Gift-shop grab: Neoclassical Circle-Link Earrings ($60).

Learn more: metmuseum.org

And while you're in New York, also visit: The Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim.

Louvre, Paris

The most famous smile in the world is just the beginning

A medieval fortress, a sumptuous palace, and finally, since 1793, a museum, the Louvre may be the most historically storied building ever to house an art collection. And what a collection it is, with more oh-I-recognize-that paintings and sculptures than perhaps any other museum. Ideally, you should take a day or two to fully immerse yourself in this collection, but if you're pressed for time (ah, Paris!), take the self-guided, 90-minute Masterpieces tour that touches on the most revered items in the joint.

Must-see masterpieces: Aphrodite (commonly known as Venus de Milo), Leonardo da Vinci's Portrait of Lisa Gherardini (yes, you know it as the Mona Lisa), and Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Gift-shop grab: The book The Louvre: All the Paintings ($75).

Learn more: louvre.fr/en

Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Spanish masters, of course--plus treasures from the Netherlands and Italy

Originally intended to house a natural history collection in the late 18th century, the Museo Nacional del Prado became the home of Spain's royal museum of painting and sculpture in 1819. With an exceptional collection of Dutch and Spanish artists (among many other nationalities and styles), the Prado is the place to see the seminal works of the painters Francisco de Goya and Diego Velazquez, who helped bring major works of Italian masters, such as Titian, to Madrid.

Must-see masterpieces: Diego Velazquez's Les Meninas, Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, and Francisco de Goya's The Third of May: The Executions on Principe Pio.

Gift-shop grab: Menina Necklace, inspired by Velazquez's painting ($49).

Learn more: museodelprado.es/en

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Netherlands' made-over art mecca

For some art lovers, including the author, nothing matches the power and beauty of the Dutch masters. The Rijksmuseum puts them front and center in its newly renovated space--10 years and $500 million in the making--with contemporary lighting and design that has restored the 1885 structure to its 19th-century glory while at the same time gently nudging it into the 21st century.

Must-see masterpieces: Rembrandt van Rijn's The Night Watch, Johannes Vermeer's The Milkmaid, and Jan Steen's The Feast of Saint Nicholas.

Gift-shop grab: "Vermeer" Silk Scarf, inspired by the colors of The Milkmaid ($73).

Learn more: rijksmuseum.nl/en

And while you're in Amsterdam, also visit: The Van Gogh Museum.

Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Masterpieces of southern Europe, way up north

What if Catherine the Great founded a museum that eventually took over the emperor's palace and grew to be the largest collection of paintings in the world? The result would look a lot like the Hermitage, Russia's preeminent museum. Including major works of antiquity, the Italian Renaissance, and the Impressionist and Modern periods, this is a must-stop for visitors to Saint Petersburg, whether you're there as a port of call or for a longer stay.

Must-see masterpieces: Michelangelo's Crouching Boy, two Madonnas attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, and Antonio Canova's The Three Graces.

Gift-shop grab: Faberge-style pendants (from $50).

Learn more: hermitagemuseum.org

Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Michelangelo and Raphael in the heart of the Holy See

Sure, each of the beautiful museums on our list boasts a handful of iconic pieces of art. But the Vatican Museums pull out all the stops with an unforgettable ceiling painted by Michelangelo (bring binoculars, but put away your camera--photography is not allowed in the Sistine Chapel), whole rooms dedicated to Raphael, and an overall unrivaled wow factor. One way to bypass the crowds is to opt for a Friday evening visit, starting May 3rd.

Must-see masterpieces: Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Raphael Rooms, and the Pio Clementino Collection.

Gift-shop grab: The book Medieval Frescoes from the Vatican Museums Collection ($27).

Learn more: mv.vatican.va

British Museum, London

The sun never sets on this collection of antiquities

The British Museum first welcomed visitors in 1759 to a building on the site of the present-day museum. While some visitors may find the globe-spanning holdings here an unpleasant reminder of Britain's dominance of its former colonies, there's no denying that the opportunity to come face-to-face with works of art steeped in myth and legend is utterly jaw-dropping.

Must-see masterpieces: The Rosetta Stone, the marble reliefs from the Parthenon, the mummified remains of Cleopatra.

Gift-shop grab: Egyptian Carnelian and Gold Bracelet ($101)

Learn more: britishmuseum.org

And while you're in London, also visit: The Victoria and Albert Museum.

To see Egyptian art in Egypt, visit: Cairo's Egyptian Museum.

Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

Spend a Sunday in the park with Georges Seurat--or a late night with Edward Hopper

The second largest art collection in the U.S., after the Met, the Art Institute, located in Grant Park, touches on all major time periods and movements but is especially known for its 19th- and 20th-century holdings, including works by French Impressionists and American modernists.

Must-see masterpieces: Georges Seurat's A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, and Vincent Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles.

Gift-shop grab: Rainbow Ribbon Silk Scrunch Scarf ($47).

Learn more: artic.edu

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Old-world wonders overlooking the Pacific Ocean

A relative youngster among the world's most beautiful museums, the Getty was founded in the '70s in a villa in Pacific Palisades. Now with a major building in Los Angeles as its headquarters, the Getty offers a collection to rival any in the world in a decidedly unique location in Tinseltown.

Must-see masterpieces: Fra Bartolommeo's Rest on the Flight to Egypt, Titian's Venus and Adonis, and Vincent Van Gogh's Irises.

Gift-shop grab: Van Gogh and Cezanne Charm Pendant ($25).

Learn more: getty.edu/museum

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Rodin and da Vinci on the mall

The National Gallery of Art opened in 1937 and continues to hold its own even with such famous neighbors as the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Its extensive collection of Italian Renaissance masterpieces and works by Impressionists and early 20th-century painters is worth a stop--and it's free.

Must-see masterpieces: Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de'Benci (the only da Vinci painting in the U.S.), Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Writing a Letter, and Paul Gaugin's Self Portrait.

Gift-shop grab: Color Wheel Umbrella ($35)

Learn more: nga.gov

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