On the heels of Curbed’s round up of the best museums and libraries in the United States, it’s time to cue the wanderlust and turn our eyes abroad.
Although our country boasts some of the finest art in the world—all housed in seriously amazing buildings—there are a number of stunning museums around the globe.
From historic palaces in Russia to modern marvels in Mexico City, the world’s museums are shining examples of how architecture can enhance (or even rival) the art. Buildings like the Guggenheim Bilbao or Paris’s Pompidou Center are tourist destinations in their own right, captivating visitors and providing a unique architectural experience that’s distinct from the art inside.
It’s also a badge of honor for architecture’s biggest names to mastermind a museum, with design competitions attracting starchitects like Santiago Calatrava of Spain or the late British architect Zaha Hadid.
To pay homage to these gorgeous buildings, we’ve rounded up 17 of the most architecturally significant museums outside the United States.
Upset that we missed your favorite building? We get it! It was hard to narrow this list to 17 entries. Let us know in the comments and we’ll add it to the list for next time.
The Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum in Brazil
Built in 1996 and designed by the renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in collaboration with structural engineer Bruno Contarini, the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum is located in the city of Niteroi, just outside Rio de Janeiro.
The saucer-shaped structure perches on a cliffside above Guanabara Bay, and offers visitors panoramic views. The building is an example of Niemeyer’s affinity for curves; the architect wanted the structure to look like it was growing from the ground like a flower from rocks.
A reflection pool surrounds the museum and the public accesses the building via a swirling, red-carpeted ramp.
The Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain
Located in Spain’s Basque Country on the edge of the Nervión River, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was designed by American architect Frank Gehry as a swirling, sculptural icon made with titanium, limestone, and glass.
Gehry’s twisting design has been likened to everything from a bouquet of flowers to a boat, and the museum’s now-famous architecture had an immediate impact. After opening in 1997, the museum boosted Bilbao’s tourism economy and revitalized Bilbao’s industrial port area.
The success has been well documented as “The Bilbao Effect:” when a struggling post-industrial city hires a star architect to design a famous museum and transforms a city in the process.
The Hermitage Museum in Russia
In a sea of modern museums—many of them white or gray—the teal and gold Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg wows visitors and locals alike. Founded in 1754 by Catherine the Great and open to the public since 1852, the museum sits on the banks of the Neva River and boasts 2.7 million works of art.
And don’t let the over-the-top, Baroque-style exterior fool you, the interiors are just as beautiful. In the Malachite Room, a “Russian mosaic” technique is used to create intricate patterns, and the room’s teal columns and gold accents match the building’s elaborate exterior.
The Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar
Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect I.M. Pei, the Museum of Islamic Art sits on a peninsula off the Doha waterfront and is comprised of a 5-story main building with an adjacent education wing connected by a large central courtyard.
Despite opening in 2008, Pei turned to ancient Islamic architecture in his design for the museum, notably the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo. The museum features a high domed atrium within a central tower and an oculus that captures and reflects the patterned light. A 45-meter tall window on the north side provides panoramic views across the bay, and geometric patterns compliment the museum’s extensive collection of Islamic Art.
The Louis Vuitton Foundation in France
Located in the Bois du Boulogne on the west side of Paris, the Louis Vuitton Foundation is a museum and cultural center created to support the contemporary arts. The building—which opened in 2014—cost $143 million to build and was designed by American architect Frank Gehry.
Gehry sought inspiration in cloud-like forms, designing the Louis Vuitton building to defy gravity and “provoke visual ruptures that reinterpret perspectives.” The museum also pays homage to the city’s other huge glass structures, most notably the Grand Palais. In all, the Louis Vuitton Foundation is two stories high and boasts 11 galleries of different sizes.
The Design Museum Holon in Israel
This museum—the country’s first dedicated to design and contemporary culture—opened in 2010 in the city of Holon, Israel. Designed by the Israeli architect Ron Arad, the building uses six winding bands of rust colored COR-TEN steel as its focal point.
The steel pays homage to Holon’s sixteen-year urban regeneration program, and the ribbons both support and flow around a series of internal, box-like gallery spaces. The “bands of steel” design element can be seen both inside and outside the structure and is a technique Arad has used in other designs as well.
The Hanoi Museum in Vietnam
This inverted pyramid building in Vietnam is surrounded by a park and displays artifacts from Hanoi’s 1000-year-old history. The museum opened in 2010 and was designed by GMP to compliment the park’s water basins and the city’s traditional villages.
According to the architect, the square building features a circular atrium that provides access to the three exhibition levels. When visitors look out from the museum, they feel like they are floating over the landscape. The inverted pyramid shape also provides shade to the lower levels and adds to the building’s energy efficiency.
The Museum Soumaya in Mexico
Founded by Carlos Slim—one of the wealthiest men in the world—the Museo Soumaya museum in Mexico City originally opened in 1994 and boasts a vast array of art from Mexico and Europe. It’s also known for having the largest casts of sculptures by Rodin outside of France.
Mexican architect Fernando Romero designed the 47 million euro Plaza Carso at the Museo Soumaya, an avant-garde, “silvery asymmetric structure whose molded forms recall the sculptural works of Rodin.” The 6-story building’s exterior is made of 16,000 hexagonal aluminum plates, often giving observers the impression that it is sparkling.
The building—which was added to the museum complex in 2011—also features a semitransparent roof which allows the upper floor to be illuminated by direct sunlight.
Interested in more modern architecture in Mexico City? Check out our map, over here.
The Jewish Museum Berlin in Germany
This museum complex—which opened in 2001—sits on Berlin’s Lindenstrasse and comprises an old baroque building and a newer addition designed by the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind.
According to the museum website, Libeskind’s “building zigzags with a titanium-zinc facade and features underground axes, angled walls, and bare concrete ‘voids’ without heat or air-conditioning.” The goal was to recount German-Jewish history in all its complexity, allowing for many interpretations and even the feeling of “insecurity or disorientation.” Libeskind himself called the project “Between the Lines.”
Interested in hearing more about Libeskind and his design philosophy? Check out the Curbed Appeal, Curbed’s podcast.
The Ordos Museum in China
The design of the Ordos Museum by MAD Architects—which was completed in 2011—departs from the glass and geometry of many modern buildings in favor of a giant undulating blob. It sits in the Chinese Gobi desert in the town of Ordos, a new city that began construction in 2004 and has been called a modern ghost town, a stillborn city, and a failed utopia because of its lack of residents.
The museum is made with polished metal tiles that can resist the region’s frequent sandstorms and harsh winters, while inside the art galleries are housed in smaller blobs that are connected by bridges. A plethora of skylights provide natural light inside the blob, and one interesting addition is a naturally lit interior garden that is shared by museum office employees and researchers.
The Pompidou Center in France
Over the past 40 years, the Centre Pompidou in Paris has been called many things, from an architectural King Kong to an overgrown construction project with never-ending scaffolding. But the city’s most iconic modern building has slowly become a beloved treasure, now praised for its multi-colored, inside-out design.
The museum is the work of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, along with Arup engineers and Gianfranco Franchini, who designed the structure to be a column-less, flexible interior space for exhibitions. The Pompidou is so firmly situated in the canon of French culture that the government just approved a $106 million facelift. It’s also one of the city’s most popular tourist spots.
Interested in learning more? We’ve got 8 fast facts on this monument to modernity, over here.
The Bundeswehr Museum of Military History in Germany
Consisting of two separate parts—an arsenal that was built in the 1870s and a new extension designed and completed in 2011 by American architect Daniel Libeskind—the Bundeswehr Museum of Military History is a perfect example of how cultural institutions are blending the modern and the historic.
Shaped like a wedge, the five-story Libeskind addition uses steel and glass to cut through the heart of the old structure. A 98-foot high rooftop viewing platform provides a view of Dresden’s skyline to the west, while pointing in the opposite direction toward the source of the fire-bombs that devastated the city in 1945.
The German government had shut down the museum in 1989, unsure how it fit into the program of a newly unified German state. After he was tasked with the design to reopen the museum, Libeskind acknowledged,
It was not my intention to preserve the museum’s facade and just add an invisible extension in the back. I wanted to create a bold interruption, a fundamental dislocation, to penetrate the historic arsenal and create a new experience. The architecture will engage the public in the deepest issue of how organized violence and how military history and the fate of the city are intertwined.
The City of Arts and Sciences in Spain
This massive cultural and architectural complex—developed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava—in Valencia, Spain has become an important tourist destination since the first of its buildings opened in 1998. The “Hemesferic” building—which looks like a giant eye—houses an IMAX cinema and planetarium, while the Museu de les Ciencies Principe Felipe (pictured above) is an interactive museum of science that resembles the skeleton of a whale.
The complex also features an open-air oceanographic park designed by Félix Candela, an opera house, a concert hall, and an outdoor sculpture garden. In total, the City of Arts and Sciences is the largest collection of Calatrava’s works, but despite their beauty the complex has been beleaguered by criticism.
The final cost swelled to more than 1 billion euros—four times the initial estimates—and since the performance hall opened in 2005, authorities have complained of leaky roofs and the need for repairs.
Museum aan de Stroom in Belgium
Known as the MAS, Antwerp’s largest museum offers views of the city and more than 500,000 pieces of art that trace stories about the city, the Scheldt River, and the port.
The building’s design reflects Antwerp’s important relationship with water, using multiple levels of ripping glass. The building is also a huge, contemporary storehouse inspired by the 19th-century depots that were typical of the neighborhood.
The Maxxi National Musem in Italy
Designed by the late famed architect Zaha Hadid, Rome’s Maxxi National Museum is dedicated to modern art and architecture. First announced in 2000, the project took over 10 years to complete, but it was worth the wait; in 2010 the Maxxi won the Stirling Prize for architecture awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Hadid designed the building—which sits on the site of a former barracks—as a ode to the many layers of history on which Rome is built. The Guardian describes the museum as “a composition of bending oblong tubes, overlapping, intersecting and piling over each other.” From the outside, the hefty concrete and gigantic cantilevers show its weight, but inside the museum is a winding array of light-filled galleries, curving walls, and unexpected loops.
For many, the museum is one of the best works of the most famous woman architect in history.
The Art Gallery of Alberta in Canada
This public art gallery in downtown Edmonton, Alberta has a collection of over 6,000 works of contemporary art, but its most striking feature is the unusual building. Randall Stout Architects designed the structure with a massive ribbon of stainless steel that wraps around and through the interior.
Called “The Borealis,” the swooping lines represent the northern lights, a frequent occurrence in the Edmonton night sky. The borealis is the defining factor of the facade, but it also snakes through the gallery’s interior and even forms the roof’s canopy.
The Neue Nationalgalerie in Germany
With a focus on early twentieth-century art, the New National Gallery in southwestern Berlin was designed by Mies van der Rohe and built in 1968. The building has been described as a “temple of glass” and consists of an imposing steel and glass box set in the Kulturforum—a collection of cultural buildings near Potsdamer Platz.
Mies designed the classically-inspired building to be free of supporting columns inside, creating an open and airy pavilion on street level. The museum’s galleries are below ground, and the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron recently won a bid to extend the building. Under the new plans, the old museum will add more 20th century art and will be connected to a new building via an underground tunnel.