The 10 Best History Museums That Should Be on Your Bucket List
IT'S FUN TO LIVE IN THE MOMENT ON THE ROAD, BUT THESE STOPS MAKE IT EASY TO STEP INTO THE PAST.
There's no doubt that people often hit the road to help themselves live in the moment, but being able to step back in time can be what makes travel genuinely memorable. The right curated collections can make for an unforgettable educational experience and are an unbeatable way to learn about other cultures, storied local traditions, and milestone events that still affect how we live today. That's why even seasoned travelers make it a point to include these destinations in their itineraries alongside must-see landmarks and not-to-be-missed experiences. Read on to discover the 10 best history museums that should be on your bucket list.
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Topkapı Palace Museum (Istanbul, Turkey)
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Collections of historical artifacts can be impressive no matter where they're housed. But when they happen to be displayed in a well-preserved palace filled with ornate design, it can make the experience of taking it all in an unmissable one.
"Located in the heart of Istanbul on the riverbank at the mouth of the Bosphorus Strait, the Topkapı Palace Museum is housed in a palace that served as the residence of Ottoman sultans for four centuries," says Nate Hake, founder and CEO of Travel Lemming. "The museum is home to a rich collection of ceramics, jewelry, textiles, and other artifacts spanning a wide range of historical periods, from the civilizations of Anatolia to the Byzantine Empire."
"What really makes it stand out from the hundreds of other history museums I've visited around the world is the stunning interior. Each room is somehow more intricate and beautifully decorated than the next. It's hard to describe just how beautiful it is until you see it with your own eyes," Hake says. "I would even dare to say that some of the rooms are more beautiful than the Taj Mahal!"
The Acropolis Museum (Athens, Greece)
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The history of Greece is a topic that students have absorbed around the globe for centuries, and many authentic antiquities from the famed civilization have found their way to all corners of the world. But one museum provides a one-of-a-kind experience—all at the foot of one of the most recognizable historical landmarks in the world.
"The Acropolis Museum in Athens displays art and artifacts found at the ancient hilltop city center," travel expert and history buff Leslie Carbone of Sancerres at Sunset tells Best Life. "Almost all are damaged, but they still emit a raw beauty in their materials and their artistry, and in the knowledge that they've lasted for millennia. The Museum also has a fabulous café-restaurant with delicious Greek food, an outdoor seating area, and spectacular views of the Parthenon."
Hake also agrees that the museum is a truly extraordinary destination. "What really stands out to me is that the location of the building next to the Acropolis creates the unique opportunity for visitors to experience the artifacts in the same setting where they were found," he says. "That and the museum's sleek and modern building results in a fascinating juxtaposition of antiquity and modernity. The building was designed by Bernard Tschumi and Michael Photiades, who won a design competition in 2000. Of the hundreds of history museums I've visited around the world, the Acropolis Museum stands out as one of the most incredible!"
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Anne Frank House (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
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While history can help inspire and explain, there are some testaments to tragic events that serve as the most essential kind of reminder. And few places on Earth can evoke emotions of the sort that one location does simply by experiencing it for yourself.
"Housed in an unassuming Dutch dancing house lies the hiding place of author Anne Frank and her family—German Jews who fled to Amsterdam during World War II and spent several years in hiding," says Mandy Picchiottino, owner of travel planning company Land and See Tours. "Visitors quietly climb the hidden staircase to the secret annex that stands frozen in time where Anne and her sister's measurements still mark the doorway, magazine clippings line the teen girl's bedroom walls, and the floors still creak with every slight movement."
"It was here that Anne penned her famous diary, documenting her time in hiding and shedding light on the human psyche of a teenage girl in a world at war. It's impossible to visit this living museum unchanged and unable to forget the dark shadows of the past," she says.
National World War I Museum & Memorial (Kansas City, Missouri)
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Looking back on some of our worst conflicts can be the only way we avoid repeating them. This is especially true of the great wars that engulfed entire sections of the planet and claimed millions of lives. Experts say that one domestic destination serves as a truly outstanding experience for current generations to pay their respect and educate themselves.
"My pick for the best U.S. history museum is the National World War I Museum & Memorial in Kansas City," says Joe Yogerst, a travel expert and author of the forthcoming book 100 Trails, 5,000 Ideas. "The architecture is incredible, a blend of the hilltop Art Deco monument constructed in the 1920s and the modern interactive museum that's located underground inside the hill. Housing the world's largest collection of WWI artifacts and an amazing battlefield re-creation, the museum spins tales of a war that's largely forgotten or little known to many people."
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The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Wellington, New Zealand)
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While some corners of the world have more widely studied histories, part of the joy of travel can be arriving somewhere and learning about the past in your destination. And for anyone headed to New Zealand, experts say there's one museum that shouldn't be missed.
"Anyone traveling through the North Island of New Zealand should have the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa at the top of their to-do list. The museum's name translates to 'container of treasures,' and nothing could be truer," says Allie Albanese, travel journalist and founder of Parched Around the World.
"Located in the capital city of Wellington along its beautiful waterfront, this six-story museum is considered 'home' to the New Zealand story. Full of contemporary, cutting-edge, interactive exhibitions, it's a history museum unlike any you've ever seen before, and one that will take you on a rich cultural journey through the country's history, both past and present," she tells Best Life. "From nature displays that showcase New Zealand's weird and wonderful wildlife to stunning national art collections to important exhibits that teach you about the Māori people and their eventual decolonization, which is so crucial in understanding the culture of the country, Te Papa has it all."
But Albanese says there's one element that truly elevates the experience. "What really sets it apart from any other history museum in the world is its 'Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War' exhibit, which humanizes the stark realities of war by following eight ordinary New Zealanders through this harrowing event in Kiwi history," she says. "The museum partnered with Wētā Workshop—a world-renowned special effects and design company—to create larger-than-life models of these eight individuals, which together with their real words and narratives help tell the Gallipoli tale. Purposely built at nearly three times the size of actual human beings, these models serve as a physical representation of the monumental impact of this event on the country and is an exhibit that will both leave you speechless, and that will stay with you long after you depart."
Egyptian Antiquities Museum (Cairo, Egypt)
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Some ancient civilizations have become eternal thanks to a global fascination with them. In the case of Egypt, it's practically impossible for history not to sit at the forefront of a traveler's mind when they visit there. But besides the nation's many grand landmarks, there's also one impressive museum that helps encapsulate a past that often feels larger than life.
"One of the most extensive collections of ancient Egyptian antiquities can be found at the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo, Egypt," says Picchiottino. "The impressive collection houses statues, relics, pieces of art, and even well-preserved mummies. One particularly mesmerizing exhibit displays the golden treasures discovered in the excavation of the tomb of King Tut, including his golden mask."
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National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum (Cooperstown, New York)
While some history museums can make it easy to gain an appreciation for past civilizations or ancient ways of life, others can help you appreciate something that is very much still alive. And for anyone looking for a slice of Americana, one museum tops bucket lists as the living shrine to a national pastime.
"The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, New York, is the next-best thing to a night at the ballpark," says Carbone. "It's a place to connect not just with baseball's greatest moments but with America's cultural past. And the surrounding village is classic Norman Rockwell America."
Judisches Museum (Berlin, Germany)
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There are many events in history that are painful to revisit. But the Judisches Museum provides an absolutely essential form of introspection and remembrance for one of the greatest atrocities ever committed—and its repercussions that are undeniably still felt to this day.
"This dynamic museum encourages visitors of all ages to reflect and discuss the role the Holocaust played—and continues to play—on the world stage," says Picchiottino. "With interactive exhibits, lectures, and workshops, this moving museum creates an emotional experience for all who visit."
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Georgian National Museum (Tbilisi, Georgia)
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There's no corner of the planet that doesn't have a history of its own. But in the case of the Georgian National Museum, experts say visitors may be surprised to learn just how far-reaching of an influence the former Soviet republic has had even beyond its own borders.
"Founded in 2004, [the Georgian National Museum] assembled the collections of a dozen museums in one place and illuminates Georgia's pivotal role in the history of the Middle East, Europe, and the Caucasus region," says Yogerst. "The most stunning exhibits are the Archeological Treasury, which displays incredible gold and silver relics from Georgia's prehistoric kingdoms, and the Soviet Occupation Hall, which details the nation's subjugation by the Soviet Union from 1921 to 1991, the systematic murder of dissidents, and a campaign to wipe out Georgian culture."
Israel Museum (Jerusalem, Israel)
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Some elements of history are unique in that they're shared and studied beyond the borders where they took place. Experts point out that the archeological aspects of one particular collection provide an impressive look back that provides an important human perspective beyond even its religious or spiritual context.
"The Israel Museum in Jerusalem offers a fascinating look into Biblical history," says Carbone. "It features a large collection of ancient art and artifacts, including painstakingly preserved fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls. Outside, visitors can look down from a platform at an enormous scale model of ancient Jerusalem, with its central second Temple, complete with gold detail."