THE ULTIMATE MUSEUM HACKS AROUND THE WORLD

So, clearly we’ve traveled a lot. And also, I have a Masters in Museum Studies. 

So I thought I’d combine my powers to bring you

THE ULTIMATE MUSEUM HACKS AROUND THE WORLD

Well, *ultimate* might be a strong word, but I think it’s pretty good.

The problem with museums is that they are big, they are threatening to burst with quantity and diversity, and yet when you’ve seen one French Romantic painting, you’ve seen ‘em all, right? (The answer is no.) But the point is they can get kind of repetitive. 

Ugh, museums, amirite? WRONG. You’ve been doing it wrong, you fool.

And unless you are some kind of crazy genius that knows everything about everything, half of the time you don’t know what it is you’re looking at or why it should be important and/or interesting. Or unless you get a guide, but guides are expensive, and audio guides are sometimes just that much more than you want to spend and most of the time they get pretty boring, which is why – and here’s my first hack!!!! = I often listen to the numbers set out for kids on audioguides, because it’s essentially the same information in half the time. Also, very often the kids’ version draws you in to visually engage with a painting far better (but sometimes you’ll have to ignore those melodramatic voice actors). 

But ya’ll still go to museums because it’s in the guidebooks. (also, they are the repositories of knowledge and memory of human history, and very often in super gorgeous ex-palaces or mansions, or something). 

But most of the time the problem isn’t museums, it’s that you’ve been going to the wrong ones (I know this for a fact). Because for every great big popular grand meta-narrative museum, there is a smaller, quieter, off-the-radar one that manages to tell personal or relatable stories that will make you immediately want to re-tell it to someone else. And for each one of those, there’s a real obscure one, hidden in the quiet or abandoned nooks of the city, holding bizarre secrets, or curious collections. And I know where to find them, and now you will, too.

So i’ve chosen a couple of major cities in the world, and for each I’ve given you one crucial tip for one of the big museums (because I know you’ll still go), but then for each there is a lesser known but not totally obscure museum, and then there is museum that is really off the beaten path – and these are the most rewarding. Trust me, I should know, I am Master of the Museums. Also, I’m super humble. 

But before we get specific, here are two hacks in general to always keep in mind:

MAIN HACK #1

Museums are often closed on Mondays. All around the world.

MAIN HACK #2

STORAGE:

Try not to go to Museums with large bags, or backpacks or certainly not suitcases. First of all, you won’t be allowed in, and then you have to waste time and energy to find and use the lockers (usually downstairs).

OR ,

DO GO TO MUSEUMS with your backpack for free/cheap storage – if you have time to kill but nowhere to store your backpack, because most of the big museums have lockers so you can leave it there, pop in to the museum (or not), walk around the city, come back and get it later! All for free, or a 1EUR deposit. Voíla.

PARIS

Quick Tip for the Big One:

Download the Louvre app and choose a self-guided tour (and remember your earphones). I’d recommend the Masterpieces tour – it’s €1 and about an hour long (including walking time between art works), and you’ll see all the big stuff. The louvre is big and overwhelming without a plan. 

The Museum Less Traveled: 

Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, or as we regular unfancies call it: The Museum of Hunting and Nature. I cannot in words describe how wonderful this museum is. It feels more like a the beautiful love baby of an art installation and a colonial cigar parlour. The history of hunting and nature is thematically divided amongst the luxurious rooms, each styled according to a certain animal and colour scheme. Within each room is a mixture of contemporary and historical art, furniture, installations, and expertly executed and curated taxidermy. It is interesting and creative and easy. It sucks to say, but three qualities often amiss in the big famous museums. 

USEFUL INFO: €8 will get you inside (€6 reduced), at 62 rue des Archives.

Ultimate museum hacks - Paris: The Museum of Hunting and Nature

Way of the Beaten Track: 

The Hunting Museum in Senlis. To stick with the theme, I recently added the Senlis hunting museum to my list of all-time favourite museums. It’s the village version of the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, beautifully and symmetrically curated, colour-coordinated, and lit with natural light flooding the French windows. It’s at once modest and totally extravagant, located in a little French countryside mansion in the castle estate near the forest, and every available bit of ceiling space has been occupied by mounted deer antlers, dated and detailed. 

BONUS: It comes with the most adorable little French town of Senlis, only a 30-minute bus ride from Charles de Gaulle Airport. 

USEFUL INFO: €6 get you in (€3,50 reduced). It’s at Place Notre-Dame; closed Monday and Tuesday, by appointment Wednesday through Friday, 10am to 6pm on the weekends.

Ultimate museum hacks - Paris: The Museum of Hunting in Senlis

LONDON

Quick Tip for the Big One:

Use the back entrance of the British Museum! The front entrance of the museum is usually crawling with all kinds of tour groups or anti-BP activists, and it takes long to get in as all bags have to be searched (refer to main hack #2 above), but the back entrance, on Montague Place, almost never has a line.

I am seriously confused why more people don’t do this.  

Bonus Tip: the Tate café has an incredible view of the Thames – break up your visit with a coffee on the 6th floor. 

The Museum Less Traveled:

The Monument of the Great Fire of London. Or, just The Monument, to those that know about it.

Okay, technically not a museum. Actually, it’s just a single Doric column on the very place where the Great fire of 1616 supposedly originated. But for a small fee you can go inside, climb the 311 steps to the top and get spectacular London views. Despite its central location – right by London Bridge, close to St. Paul’s – it’s missed by most (even Londoners). Plus, you get a certificate of completion on your way out, which is just the most adorable thing ever. 

USEFUL INFO: £4,50 gets you up (multiple reduced rates), at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Hill Street. Open daily 9am to 5.30pm/6pm (winter/summer times).

Ultimate museum hacks - London: The Monument to the Great Fire of London
Views for days est. 1677.

Way off the Beaten Track: 

Dennis Severs’ House – 18 Folgate Street. 

It was a tight choice between The Monument and this house museum, because they are equally off the beaten track, and actually this museum gets a bit of a queue in front because they only let like 10 people in at a time, but I would say this is a more obscure museum, but certainly one of my favourite museums ever (maybe second-favourite). 

It is a house museum set between 1724 and the early 1900s. And the residents – the French Huguenot silk-weavers – are still in residence. You’ll enter each room (in strict silence), just as the family had seemingly departed it, tea half-drunk, candle still it, with sounds emanating from rooms you just left or will enter next. 

It is a gorgeous portrait of working-class life in the Georgian and Elizabethan eras (the house becoming increasingly modern as the stories ascend), filled with an overwhelming bevy of intricate details (you’ll see the calendar flipped open on the day’s date, but centuries ago, and the kitchen is filled with actual food that would have been made at the time). It a feast for the senses, truly. 

The best time to go is during the Christmas season, when it’s decorated with gingerbread cookies and christmas trees and candles. 

USEFUL INFO: £10, or £5 reduced (CASH!). It’s open only Monday during lunchtime (12pm – 2pm), and Sundays (12pm – 4pm). Closed in July. The Christmas tour is more expensive (£17,50), from 5pm – 8pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and bookings have to be made online.

Ultimate museum hacks - London: Dennis Sever's House
Dennis Sever’s House made up all 19th/20th century traditional for the Christmas special

BERLIN 

Quick Tip for the Big One:

The best view of Berlin is from the dome of the Berlin Cathedral, which is included in the entry price. I am always surprised that it is not swarming with people up there, but then again, they are all too busy standing in lines for all the museums on Museum Island down below. 

BONUS TIP: You have to have to have to go at opening time if you want to visit the Pergamon Museum (the one that has the colossal gate of Babylon) and actually enjoy it. It gets flooded with people.

Bonus bonus tip: Try avoid the DDR/GDR Museum on the weekends, as it’s a family destination. 

Ultimate museum hacks - Berlin: The Berlin Cathedral
I made all my friends go up there

The Museum Less Traveled: 

You can visit the ex-HQ of the GDR (East Germany) Intelligence service, which is widely regarded to have been “one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies ever to have existed” (and that is a Wikipedia quote so you know it’s true.). 

Going to the actual building, in which the head offices were all left in tact, from where the German Soviet state conducted its infamous espionage makes for an eerie, and in turn impactful visit. It’s far from central Berlin, which is why it’s never too busy. 

Pro tip: This museum is not air-conditioned in the summer, so I would suggest avoiding it in the dire heat.

USEFUL INFO: €8 or €6 reduced. Open daily with English tours at 3pm Mon – Thu. Highly recommended audio guides at €2.  

Ultimate museum hacks - Berlin: The Stasi Museum
Where the GDR’s secret police spied on anybody and everybody.

Way of the Beaten Track:

The Museum of Things is located in central Berlin, but wholly obscure and tucked away in a courtyard alley in Kreuzberg. Organised as an open storage displaying ‘things’ (aka ‘stuff’ or products) that signal the culture of mass-production and industrialisation in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is essentially an eclectic and theatrical exercise in taxonomy. 

Expect to be persuaded by the magic of everyday ordinary things, a la Wes Anderson. 

Pro tip: it’s better with a guide.

USEFUL INFO: €6 will get you in (or €4 reduced), except on Mondays and Tuesdays when it is closed. 25 Oranienstraße.

Ultimate museum hacks - Berlin: Museum of Things
Guys. It’s a collection of mini furniture (I’m not crying).

ISTANBUL

Quick tip for the big one: 

Do not attempt to see all of the Topkapi in one standing go. Perk up with some hellishly strong Turkish tea at their café, which is one of my favourite places for tea-with-a-view (of the Bosphorus) in Istanbul. 

The Museum Less Traveled: 

The Istanbul Modern, on the bank of the Bosphorus would have been a good choice here, but my favourite less-popular museum is the Pera Museum, at the very top of the hill. Besides its positively sumptuous collection of 19th-century Orientalist art, hung on deep red walls, it also has a semi-permanent exhibition on the history of Turkish tea, the Islamic measurement system and structures, and impressive temporary exhibitions. My favourite has been a Giacometti retrospective and an exhibition about the history of public bathing in the Bosphorus. 

The best part of the museum? It’s small. All of the museum with none of the fatigue. 

USEFUL INFO: 25TL gets you in (10TL concession), except on Mondays when it is closed. At Meşrutiyet Caddesi No:65.

Ultimate museum hacks - Istanbul: Pera Museum

Way of the Beaten Track: 

The Museum of Innocence. 

OMG. 

This is my favourite museum ever. It’s absolute in its uniqueness and its ability to draw nostalgia from thin air. Created by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, alongside a very long novel of the same name, it’s a museum of objects around which a beautifully depressing love story is told in Istanbul’s modernising years of the 1970s and 1980s. You’ll get drawn in by the wall of cigarette butts – 4213 of them, smoked by the main character and sneakily collected by her head-over-heels suitor.

I loved this museum so much, I made it my mission to work there, which I did in 2015. 

Bonus: It’s located in one of the best neighbourhoods of Istanbul. 

NB: YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE READ THE NOVEL TO BE ABLE TO APPRECIATE THE MUSEUM. Don’t listen to those lies. The first time I went I hadn’t read it either. Also, good luck to you when you ever do try and read it.

USEFUL INFO: 25TL, or 15TL reduced. The museum is closed on Mondays, but open late on Thursdays. In Çukurcuma Street (get off at Tophane station).

Ultimate museum hacks - Istanbul: Museum of Innocence
Ultimate museum hacks - Istanbul: Museum of Innocence
Get lost in the magic of things.

WASHINGTON DC

Quick Tip for the Big One: 

Catch the Jazz in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art during the summers. Grab a jug or two of sangria and find a spot on the lawn, get tipsy, and then rent some city bikes at dusk. It’s a good plan, trust me. 

Bonus tip for all big ones: I had one of my favourite self-guided tours ever at the National Gallery of Art. How, you ask?

Well, a museum guard saw me snickering at the dog pooping in a church in a Dutch painting (IMPORTANT MUSEUM HACK: always look our for the pooping dog in Dutch church interior scenes), and asked if I liked weird stuff like that. (He may have used the word ‘uncanny’), he then proceeded to mark out all the strangest paintings in the gallery on my map, and off I went looking at all the most obscure things at the National Gallery. 

So my tip is: ask the guards what their favourite, or what the strangest, artworks are. 

Ultimate museum hacks - look for the damn dogs
Always look for the naughty dog in Dutch paintings

The Museum Less Traveled: 

I don’t think there is a Museum Less Traveled in DC. It is museum central – I worked there and I tried all of them, and they are all equally big and impressive. But I’ll say don’t miss The Museum of African Art, if you’re into that thing. It’s all underground, behind an unassuming front door, next to the Smithsonian castle. And honestly, probably the best collection and exhibitions of African art anywhere in the world. 

It’s big budget stuff for African art, which doesn’t happen very often.

Way off the Beaten Track: Refer to above; no such thing. Unless you leave the state and then it won’t count.

USEFUL INFO: It’s free, like all of the Smithsonian, and about halfway down the Mall at 950 Independence Avenue.

Ultimate museum hacks - DC: National Museum of African Art
Don’t overlook this modest entrance!

CAPE TOWN

Quick Tip for the Big One: 

Well, which is the big one? Cape Town is more about drinking wine and the mountains and oceans and the wild outdoors, but probably if you’re looking to go to a museum two big ones will pop up.

So, if it’s the South African National Gallery of Art…just go! This museum is so straightforward, pretty small and has fantastic modern and contemporary South African art. Also, it’s curated to reflect the South African high school art syllabus – yeah! It’s not for the empty enjoyment of you, tourist, but the enrichment of South African education (fist pump!). 

If it’s the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary African Art), save some souvenir dollars for the gift shop. You could get some cool things to take home that aren’t as kitsch and embarrassing as regular souvenirs tend to be.

Ultimate museum hacks - Cape Town: Zeitz MOCAA
The Zeitz MOCAA – it’s a whole thing.

The Museum Less Traveled: 

The Slave Lodge, but more specifically the exhibition on the first floor (up the stairs, Americans) on the relationship between protest and music in South Africa. This is a fan-f***n-tastic exhibition that I would honestly put on all tourists’ and locals’ must-see lists in Cape Town. Really, my friend Gera and I were blown away by this amazing one-room exhibit. And Gera has her PhD in museum stuff so who are you to argue?

USEFUL INFO: Free on Fridays! Free on commemorative holidays! Only R30 other days (except on Sundays, when it is closed). On the corner of Adderley Street and Wale Street.

Way off the Beaten Track:

The Heart of Cape Town Museum, or the Christiaan Barnard Museum, or however they like to call themselves. This is a weird one that most locals have never heard of and I absolutely love it. 

So there’s this South African guy, he’s a surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, and he does the very first heart transplant and they made a museum right where it happened. It’s in the Groote Schuur Hospital and Madame Tussaud’s made all the wax figures (except they are made from silicon, not wax) so the quality is bomb. 

USEFUL INFO: Admission is at 09.00, 11.00, 13.00, and 15.00 (because it starts with a tour and a video), daily. At Groote Schuur Hospital, Main Road.

Ultimate museum hacks - Cape Town: The Heart of Cape Town Museum
History frozen in time. Who can resist?

ROME: THE CHURCH EDITION 

Disclaimer, churches are the museums in Rome.

Quick Tip for the Big One:

You cannot enjoy anything in Rome with a sense of peace and quiet 3 hours after sunrise. So when you go to the Vatican City to see Saint Peter’s Basilica, drag your butt out of bed at the crack of dawn, and get there when it opens. One hour later and it will be swarming with other tourists just like you, except you persevered. 

Ultimate museum hacks - Rome: The Vatican

Quick Tip for the Big One #2:

It is VITAL that you buy your Colosseum ticket online. Otherwise you will face a queue that seemingly wraps around the world twice. The tickets were actually sold out online a few days before we planned on going, so we didn’t buy our tickets online.

IN THIS CASE:

BUY YOUR TICKETS AT THE ENTRANCE TO THE PALATINE HILL. Wow, I cannot stress this enough. The line here was only a few people long. You will get a timed entry for the colosseum, so if it’s only an hour or two from when you buy it don’t go into the Forum just yet, as you will be rushed and can only go in once with your ticket. Just hang around and wait for your colosseum time, then go to the colosseum queue 15 minutes before (you won’t be allowed in earlier) your entry time (you’ll bypass the really long queue to a shorter queue for people who already have tickets.). 

People must really learn how to use the internet, I cannot fathom that colosseum queue.

Ultimate museum hacks - Rome: Colosseum

The One Less Traveled:

The Jesuit church of Saint Ignazio was my very favourite church in Rome, nay, Europe, because it has the most theatrical spectacular tromp l’oeil dome. I love a good tromp l’oeil (fancy french word for making flat surfaces look 3D, like that sidewalk chalk artist guy from the internet). Basically, a flat circular canvas is painted to create the illusion of a grand dome. Then you can toss 2EUR or something in a coin thing and the ceiling lights up and it looks even more dramatic. I am all for this gimmick. 

The rest of the ceiling is pretty good (read: magnificent), too.

Ultimate museum hacks - Rome: The Jesuit Church of Saint Ignazio
The dome that never was, and other significant eye trickeries

And that more or less rounds up the ultimate museum hacks for major cities around the world. Museums are great, ya’ll – you just gotta be smart about it. Like,

  • check if it’s actually open before you go.
  • find a museum that display stuff that you might like. (For some reason this is not that obvious to people).
  • Have a plan. ‘To see stuff’ is not a plan, by the way.
  • Use the café! ‘Museum legs’ is a real thing.

Anyway, you get it.

And finally, to amend and appropriate something Van Gogh once said: if you hear a voice within you that says ‘you cannot enjoy museums’ then by all means go enjoy some museums and that voice will be silenced.

But Van Gogh quite literally also said: “You should in any case go to the museum more often.” So be more like Van Gogh.

Photographs of Rome, Senlis, and the view from the Berlin cathedral are my own. The rest I have sourced through google. You can do a reverse image search to see where they are from. 

Comments

  1. September 13, 2019 / 8:07 am

    This is a really cool guide! I love offbeat museums and art museums, history ones get a little boring after a while… and museum apps are really underrated. Theres an app for Alhambra in Granada, Spain, that costs about 2 e (compared to 6 e for an audioguide) and has all the info written out.

  2. Lyndi
    September 13, 2019 / 11:49 am

    Annchen, die is so good geskryf! Ek wil sommer NOU musuems gaan besoek!

  3. C Marais
    September 14, 2019 / 7:17 am

    Loooved this and wished there were more!

    Moscow and especially St Petersburg museums should be included here; because it’s a tourist nightmare and all of them are so VERY beautiful and interesting. The only way and best (for us)we found, was a guide. But it would be great if there are some other ways and some hacks to make it easier.

    Please, expand your list to more cities/museums.

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