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10 Most Popular Museums Right Now
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January 4, 2019
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John Ferri
John is a writer and editor based in Tacoma, Washington. In addition to travel, he covers food, beer, wine, the arts and adventure sports, among other leisure lifestyle topics.
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Today, there's a museum dedicated to everything, from the obscure to the absurd. In terms of sheer visitor numbers, however, there is a reason the institutions on this list are familiar. They are perennial top tens because they house the world’s most prestigious collections of historic art and antiquities for public consumption, with some modern art galleries thrown in to keep up with the recent history of mankind’s prodigious output of fine art. By reconciling and truncating the top-20 lists of most visited museums worldwide for 2018 compiled from multiple sources -- from attraction-industry association reports to Museums.eu -- we’ve narrowed down a cumulative top 10 based on attendance.

Louvre (Paris, France)

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Perhaps due to a single work of art, or the overall Parisian love of art, the Louvre has topped top museum lists for memorable history. That art piece, of course, is the “Mona Lisa” (1503) by Leonardo da Vinci. His masterpiece is joined by other world-famous works like the armless statue of Aphrodite, called the Venus di Milo. Guides from the French national museum network lead three daily English-language tours, a great navigation tool for both first-time visitors and veteran Louvre lookers.

National Museum of Natural History (Washington, D.C., U.S.A.)

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Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., takes on the considerable challenge of documenting the history and ongoing evolution of our natural world in its entirety. With such a broad swath of stuff to check out, guided tours are a great option for some direction and focus. However you find your way, current highlights include the Bone Hall, where visitors can compare and contrast the skeletons of flying fish, sea turtles, giraffes and monkeys, among many other vertebrates; and the Butterfly Pavilion, a botanical paradise of live plants and floating, multi-hued insects, where the co-evolution of plants and pollinators such as butterflies is explored.

National Museum of China (Beijing, China)

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Situated prominently on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the National Museum of China is the repository for the country’s national history archives and great works of art alike. There are blue-green jade carvings and sculptures, finely glazed and adorned ceramics and pottery, intricate early metal working in bronze and iron and meticulously detailed scroll paintings depicting epic scenes with vivid indigo blue. The museum’s collections are broken down into Historical Times and Modern Times, with art and items related to its early ruling dynasties through to today’s communist culture.

National Air and Space Museum (Washington, D.C., U.S.A.)

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Another part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., covers the history of flight and space exploration in depth with a huge selection of planes and anything and everything related to aviation. On full and proud display is the Wright Brothers original Wright Flyer, which was a result of an intensive four-year research and development project by Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1899. The shaky looking bi-plane, the first powered aircraft, finally got modern aviation off the ground in 1903. Mankind hasn’t looked back since.

Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, U.S.A.)

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New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is a comprehensive journey through art history that takes visitors far beyond paintings. Sure, many of its important works are hanging in frames, among them emotional Van Gogh landscapes, including the renowned “Cypresses” (1889); the dramatic “Death of Socrates” (1787)  by Jacques Louis David; and John Singer Sargent's evocative “Portrait of Madame X” (1883-84). Exhibits take many forms throughout the museum, from outsized Asian wall frescos such as the massive, intricate “Buddha of Medicine Bhaishajyaguru (Yaoshi fo, Yuan Dynasty, circa 1319) to cutting-edge fashion by iconic 1960s designer Yves St. Laurent (a special exhibit through August, 2019).

British Museum (London, England)

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With a collection of approximately eight million objects of art, the British Museum in London helps preserve nearly two million years of history. A key piece is the Rosetta Stone, circa B.C. 196, a stone tablet inscribed with three languages -- hieroglyphic, Greek and Demotic -- which upon its discovery allowed modern scholars to finally translate early Egyptian hieroglyphics. The stone was unearthed in 1799 by Napoleon’s army, while troops were building an addition to a fort near the town of Rashid, or Rosetta, in the Nile River Delta.

Tate Modern (London, England)

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One of the most famous, important contemporary art galleries in the world, the Tate Modern in London focuses on just that, with collections highlighting modern art movements such as Surrealism and Cubism. The voluminous space displays all the important avant-garde artists of the 20th century, with works in the permanent collections such as master Surrealist Salvador Dali’s “Lobster Telephone” (1936), “Self Portrait” (1967) by Pop Art icon Andy Warhol, and “Bottles and Fishes” (1910-12) by George Braque, who together with Picasso was the co-founder of Cubism.

Vatican Museums (Vatican City)

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It should come as no surprise -- with the plethora of people on pilgrimage to see the the world’s largest trove of historic religious art -- that Vatican Museums perennially makes the list of top world attractions. Here you’ll lay eyes on items from throughout antiquity, such as Caravaggio’s painting “The Entombment of Christ,” works by Leonardo di Vinci and Michelangelo, and of course the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Square.

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One of the world’s most impressive single collections of historic and modern art resides at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. There, multiple wings house historic, priceless masterpieces by Peter Paul Rubens, El Greco, Titian and Rembrandt, which share gallery space with equally important later works by the likes of van Gogh, Manet, Picasso, Calder and Pollock, among many, many others.

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Located right on the city’s famous Trafalgar Square, London’s National Gallery provides access to a superbly culled collection of world antiquities and fine art. The hulking, imposing building opened in 1838, a reaction in part to the international ridicule faced by Britain when its first national gallery was in the house of a patron. With its gallery being compared unfavorably to museums such as the Louvre, British parliament stepped it up to fund a worthy home for its newly acquired works. The imposing structure -- in the Neoclassical style is fronted by towering columns and arches, topped by a grand dome -- is home to an equally impressive art collection, with some 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900. Among them are works by Botticelli, da Vinci, Raphael and Titian.