Finding great art in Europe's smaller museums

BY RICK STEVES Modified: August 29, 2012 at 11:34 am •  Published: August 29, 2012
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For many travelers, a visit to one of the great treasure-chest museums — Paris' Louvre, London's British Museum, Rome's Vatican — is the highlight of a European trip.

But sometimes a march through endless galleries dense with other tourists can be a mood-killer, as you battle the throngs to scratch yet another biggie off your to-do list.

At the start of a trip, I'll seek out every great painting and cathedral I can. After two months, I find myself "seeing" cathedrals with a sweep of my head from the doorway, and I probably wouldn't cross the street for another Rembrandt. I'm not saying that you should skip the Mona Lisa.

But Europe's great museums can be hard work, and I am rarely good for more than two or three hours at a time.

Luckily, not all art masterpieces are kept in the powerhouse museums. Europe is filled with many fine little museums that amply reward those who venture beyond the monumental sights. Smaller places have their own superstar attractions, and because their collections are rarely encyclopedic, you can see everything in one visit and still feel fresh.

Take, for example, Paris's Marmottan and Orangerie museums. Fans of Monet and Impressionism gravitate toward the Orsay Museum, with its impressive collection — and inevitable crowds. But savvy sightseers know they can get their Monet fix — with less competition — elsewhere.

Monet himself designed the setting for his great Water Lily paintings at Paris's Orangerie, where French royalty once grew orange trees for its palaces.

Perched on the edge of Paris and fronted by a lovely park, the Marmottan owns one of the best collections anywhere of works by Monet, including the painting that gave Impressionism its name (Impression: Sunrise).

After a pleasant stroll through the galleries, you'll still have enough energy to enjoy the museum's park and to wander along nearby Rue de Passy, one of Paris's most pleasant and upscale shopping streets.

Europe's cultural wonders often hide out in fascinating buildings that were never meant to be museums. For instance, one of Michelangelo's Pietàs lives in Milan's Sforza Castle, itself a Renaissance palace where Leonardo da Vinci was the in-house genius to the mighty Sforza dukes.

The exquisite and famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are among the medieval treasures in Paris's gem-like Cluny Museum, once the mansion of an important church leader.

London's Wallace Collection features fine 17th-century Dutch Masters and 18th-century French Rococo pieces inside a sumptuously furnished townhouse. From the rough and intimate Dutch lifescapes of Jan Steen to the pink-cheeked Rococo fantasies of François Boucher, a wander through this little-visited mansion makes you nostalgic for the days of the empire (and it's free). I love these cultural "two-fers" — great art surrounded and deepened by authentic bits of history.