Italy has been “collecting” its historical and cultural glories for more than two millennia. No surprise, it is now an absolute treasure trove of masterpieces of art and historical artifacts.
The best art museums in Italy are Capitoline Museums, Borghese Gallery, Vatican Museums (Rome), Uffizi Gallery, Accademia Gallery (Florence), and Ambrosiana Art Gallery (Milan).
It is better to stay in a central location, no matter which city you visit.
Visit Rome and Florence first.
The heritage of Italian art is so great! You will only have time for some museums.
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Art museums in Rome
It is a group of art museums considered the world’s oldest national galleries (founded in 1471). Its most famous highlight is the “She-wolf” and the original statue of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and a Stoic philosopher.
You will find the Capitoline Museums at the Piazza del Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill). The museums are open daily (except Mondays) from 9:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. The entrance fee is around $15.
Borghese Gardens and Gallery
If you want to escape the busy city life in Rome, visit the Borghese Gardens and Gallery. The entrance fee is around $15.
The gallery is full of beautiful paintings and sculptures. My personal favorite is Bernini’s Rape of Persephone. This sculpture is full of emotions – the entire body of Persephone is screaming for help as Hades is dragging her into the underworld.
After visiting the gallery, you can unwind and relax in Borghese park.
National Museum of Rome
The National Museum of Rome (Museo Nazionale Romano) occupies three buildings:
The Baths of Diocletian, with a collection of ancient inscriptions and sculptures.
Palazzo Altemps contains 104 ancient sculptures of the Ludovisi family, the Egyptian collection, and the Mattei collection. It is a beautiful museum that is only sometimes at the top of tour guides’ lists.
I like to go inside this museum, which is always practically empty. The first thing you want to see there is Galata Ludavisi (also known as the Galatian Suicide). The next thing to see is the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus, a massive cluster of figures on top of a casket. The entrance fee is around $8-$10.
Palazzo Massimo houses the richest collection of antique frescoes, jewels, and Julius Caesar’s coins.
I recommend you opt for a self-guided Vatican Museums tour. Buying the guided tour is unnecessary as it does not give any special access. Instead, buy the audio guide and move around at your own pace.
See the Tapestries galleries (one of my favorite areas) and the Maps galleries with their intricate ceiling. Ultimately, see Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel (no cameras are allowed there).
National Gallery of Ancient Art
You will find National Gallery of Ancient Art exhibitions in two magnificent palaces – Palazzo Barberini and Palazzo Corsini.
Palazzo Barberini is one of the most luxurious palaces of the Roman aristocracy, built in the 17th century for Pope Urban VIII Barberini. Nowadays, it houses works by Lippi, Titian, Caravaggio, Raphael, Tintoretto, and many other Italian artists. It is also home to the Italian Institute of Numismatics.
Palazzo Corsini, a beautiful 15th-century Renaissance palace, also houses an exhibition of the National Gallery of Ancient Art. The palace was reconstructed in the 18th century by the architect Ferdinando Fuga.
Doria Pamphilj Gallery
The gallery has one of Rome’s most significant private art collections, with paintings by Raphael, Titian, Velázquez, and Caravaggio. You will find the gallery in the palace of the same name, which is also notable for its exteriors and interiors.
Palazzo Spada, a palace of the mid-16th century, was named after one of its owners, Cardinal Bernardino Spada. It houses the Spada Gallery, where you can see works by Domenichino, Guercino, Caracci, Renia, Titian, and others, as well as admire the gorgeous decorations of the ancient palace.
Accademia di San Luca
The Accademia di San Luca was the name of a 16th-century association of artists founded in the Palazzo Carpegna. In the Accademia di San Luca Gallery, you will see a beautiful collection of paintings, drawings, and sculptures of the 17th-18th centuries, created and donated by famous members of the Academy.
Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome (MACRO)
The Municipal Gallery of Modern Art is located in an old brewery in Porta Pia, on the edge of the city’s historic center. The museum got its name from the acronym “Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma” – MACRO.
The Museum of Modern Art is home to over 1200 artworks from 1960 to the present day. You will see works of art by Gastone Novelli, Mimmo Rotella, Ettore Colla, Leoncillo, Tano Festa, and Titina Maselli.
You will also find a library, bookstore, multilevel garden, and cafe (on the roof).
Short tips on staying in Rome
Stay in a central location.
Take a 30-minute Leonardo Express (a non-stop train) from the airport. The tickets are around $12 per person, and the train runs every 15 minutes.
Keep your first day unscheduled to wander around at your leisure.
Spring for the Colosseum Full Experience Arena tickets ($20).
Bring an umbrella if you are visiting Rome in the Winter.
Leave plenty of time to enjoy Italian meals.
Climb to the top of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Best art museums in Florence
One of the most important museums to see in Florence is the Uffizi Gallery. In fact, it is the most visited art gallery in all of Italy. You can find the museum in Signoria Square.
The gallery exhibits works by Titian, Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli, and many other significant artists. The most beautiful masterpiece there is the Birth of Venus by Botticelli.
The museum’s collection is extensive, and you can easily get lost for hours.
The gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:15 a.m. to 6:50 p.m.; Monday is the day off.
Loggia of the Signoria (Loggia dei Lanzi)
It is an open-air street museum of sculptures right next to the Uffizi Gallery. Built in the 14th century as a meeting place for city officials, it now houses three arches overlooking Signoria Square. The central arch is significantly larger than the two side arches, decorated with a relief sculpture of Hercules and Cacus, the fire-belching monster.
The Loggia of the Signoria is also known for Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes sculptures.
The other essential art museum to see in Florence is the Accademia Gallery. The most famous sculpture in the world, Michelangelo’s David, is there. The sculpture impresses with its size, but when you see it up close, tell me if size matters or not. 😉
It is a private elevated passage that connects the Uffizi Gallery with Palazzo Pitti and contains an extensive collection of paintings by European masters.
Like many of Florence’s landmarks, the corridor tells the story of the powerful Medici family, which flourished in the 15th century. Cosimo I, the great Duke of Tuscany, bought Palazzo Pitti in 1549. It was considered the most sumptuous palace in Europe until the completion of Versailles in Paris in the early 18th century.
The Medici family had only one problem. To get from their new home to the Uffizi, where Cosimo worked, and the Palazzo Vecchio, their previous residence, the Medici had to cross the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s main pedestrian bridge over the Arno River.
Cosimo I made a bold decision. He ordered the construction of an elevated passageway on one side of the Ponte Vecchio that would extend from the Palazzo Pitti to the Uffizi, which allowed the Medici family to cross the river and attend the church service without being jostled by commoners or possible assassins.
The Vasari Gallery is now home to one of the richest collections of artists’ self-portraits. Its walls are adorned by more than a thousand paintings from the 16th century to the present day, including Diego Velázquez, Marc Chagall, Peter Rubens, and Rembrandt.
The Palazzo Pitti is the largest palace and one of the largest museum complexes in Florence. You will need a separate ticket to see the Medici treasury, the costume and porcelain museums, and the Boboli Gardens.
Venice art museums
Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace)
For centuries, the Palazzo Ducale served as the seat of the Venetian government and has been the site of meetings of the councils of the Republic and even a haven for the secret police.
You will see many beautiful halls decorated with paintings by Veronese, Tintoretto, and their students.
The palace has many extraordinary rooms – for example, the Hall of Maps – its walls decorated with many beautiful maps. On the upper floors are two grand halls, accessed by the Golden Staircase, adorned with gilded stucco.
The Galleria dell’Accademia is one of the main attractions of Venice. Almost all tourists visiting this Italian city tend to see the most extensive collection of paintings by Venetian painters of the 13th-18th centuries.
It is worth noting that the Gallery of the Academy is fascinating not only for its exhibits – the building itself is also of historical and cultural value.
Art museums in Milan
Ambrosiana Art Gallery
The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is the first Milanese art museum, founded in the early 17th century in the luxurious Archbishop’s palace. There are paintings by Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian, and Leonardo da Vinci. You will also find a separate exhibition; it includes canvases and original handwritten texts by Leonardo da Vinci.
See the inner courtyard with sculptures, Bonaparte’s gloves, which he wore at the battle of Waterloo, and the jewels of Lucrezia Borgia, the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI.
Pinacoteca di Brera
The Brera Art Gallery has many unique paintings. This gallery was founded by Napoleon, with expropriated valuable paintings from the monasteries. Now it houses the works by Rubens, Bellini, Picasso, Caravaggio, and Raphael. In addition, you can watch the process of restoration of ancient paintings in a huge workshop.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
It is one of the oldest shopping arcades in the world, which locals call “the living room of Milan.” It connects the city’s two most beautiful squares – the square in front of Duomo Cathedral and the square in front of La Scala Theater. See beautiful frescoes, elegant sculptures, fanciful moldings, and fascinating mosaic floors.
Museum of Contemporary Art (Fondazione Prada)
Fondazione Prada is an entire contemporary art quarter opened on the site of a former distillery in the south of Milan.
The museum was founded in 1993 by Miuccia, the famous fashion designer Mario Prada’s younger granddaughter. The works are emotional and very stylish.
You may not be a contemporary art lover, but you will likely change your mind after the visit.
Art museums in Bologna
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna is one of the most famous Italian art museums. It contains a significant collection of works by Bolognese artists of the 13th-17th centuries. Here you can see works by Giotto, Vitale da Bologna, Raphael, Ludovico and Annibale Caracci, Guido Reni, Guercino, and others.
After the fall of Napoleon, many works returned to Bologna and extended the collection.
Palazzo d’Accursio (or Palazzo Comunale) in Piazza Maggiore was the town hall until 2008. Today, the palace’s top floor houses the municipal art collection, with paintings ranging from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.
The palace also houses the Morandi Museum, whose works were donated to the city by the artist’s family.
Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMBo)
The museum has a collection of Italian art from World War II to the present day, with permanent and temporary exhibitions, theatrical performances, concerts, and film screenings. You will also find there an excellent bookstore and an eccentric café-restaurant.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many art museums are in Italy?
Italy has over 4,200 museums, galleries, archaeological sites, and similar cultural institutions. Moreover, more than 51,000 employees are working for these establishments.
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