Italy has 3,800 museums, many of them world-class. With limited vacation time and so many other things to see, how does a traveler decide which museums to visit in Italy – which ones make the cut to be included in an itinerary?
One option is to just visit Italy’s most popular museums: start by looking at the list of most-visited museums in Italy. It’s a safe bet that those museums contain some great items, otherwise they presumably wouldn’t top the “most visited” lists. Since the museums on those lists are definitely winners, the problem becomes that most travelers to Italy need to narrow down the options within the best of the best. Unless you’re going to be spending months in Italy, it’s simply not possible to see even the top few. Even having lived in Italy for 5 years – and working in the tourism industry – I still haven’t seen all the art in all the top museums.
1. Think about your interests. Are oil paintings and marble sculptures your priority, or would an archaeological site, church museum, science museum, botanic garden or zoo, aquarium, or history of cinema museum be more up your alley?
2. Consider your museum attention span, taking into account: (1) the rest of the day’s itinerary, (2) jet-lag if applicable, and (3) how long you usually enjoy being in museums.
If the Colosseum and Forum are on your morning Rome itinerary, you may only have an hour of “museum energy” left in you that day, so the Vatican museums may not be ideal to schedule for the afternoon. Instead, balance the day with an afternoon of shopping or exploring Rome’s piazzas, fountains, and gelaterias and do the Vatican museums on another day when you’re refreshed.
Similarly, the day you land in Italy after a trans-Atlantic flight is likely not ideal for a museum visit: adjusting to the time change is best done with natural light, fresh air, and physical movement. Similarly, it may be difficult to focus if you’re tired, so it’s probably not ideal to plan a museum visit bright and early on your first morning in Italy, when your body thinks it’s (for example) 1 o’clock in the morning.
In addition, keep in mind how long you personally can concentrate in a museum even on your best day. Last time you went to a big museum, how long did it take before you got tired? Personally after about 2-3 hours inside a museum I can no longer absorb new information. I need to either go have lunch or have a coffee break before continuing, or save the rest of the museum for another day.
3. Decide on an itinerary within the museum. You’ve decided which museum(s) to visit, and you’ve allocated the right amount of time in your itinerary to see them. Don’t feel like you must see and appreciate every work of art inside the Uffizi just because you waited in line for 2 hours. Doing a little research to prioritize what to see inside a specific museum will make your museum visit more enjoyable.
If you’re traveling with kids, I’d say planning this is absolutely necessary. Or, if you’ve just taken Art History 101, researching specific items ahead of time will ensure you don’t miss pieces of art you’ve studied. I’ve definitely missed seeing works of art I really wanted to see because I hit my 3-hour limit and just could not absorb any more information.
If you don’t have time to research and plan your path through the museum, do a guided tour instead, either with a group, a private guide, or by renting an audiotour (pretty widely available, usually in several languages).
Photo of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, in the Uffizi (Florence) from www.virtualuffizi.com.
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