Five museums worth planning your entire vacation around

From Istanbul to Athens, from Stockholm to Amsterdam to a quiet Parisian neighborhood, these are places you’ll never forget.

 THE GATES to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE GATES to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For most travelers, planning a trip starts with a country or a city that beckons because of its beauty, romance, dining or shopping. Art and culture? Afterthoughts. So here’s a wild idea: Plan a trip around the museums you’ll see, and you may just end up discovering cities or countries you’d never have thought to visit.

Let’s explore five museums that can be the centerpieces of extraordinary vacations in cities that might otherwise have never come to mind as vacation destinations.

Okay, Paris is on the list, but the museum I’m proposing for Paris is one that most travelers have never heard of, and any excuse to return to Paris is always welcome. But we’ll get to that later.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

We’ll start with Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, a city that many people avoid because of the drumbeat of negative press. Turkey only makes the headlines when the government cracks down on journalists or opposition parties. Day to day, though, Istanbul is safer than most United States cities, certainly New York or Los Angeles.

 THE ACROPOLIS Museum in Athens. (credit: Courtesy of Michael Levin) THE ACROPOLIS Museum in Athens. (credit: Courtesy of Michael Levin)

One of the highlights of a visit to Istanbul is the Topkapi Palace Museum, completed in 1465. Here, one can see a harem, bakery, prayer rooms and an unparalleled collection of Islamic art, jewelry and architecture, as well as the rooms from which sultans ruled the Ottoman Empire for more than 400 years. Topkapi isn’t a single grand structure, like Buckingham Palace, but that’s exactly the point of seeing it. The range of buildings and rooms gives you a sense of how empires were run long before the British conquered the world.

Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece

Next, Athens’s incomparably beautiful Acropolis Museum, which was completed in 2009. The Acropolis Museum lets one get intimate with discoveries from the Greek Bronze Age through the early Christian era. It’s just a short walk from its front door to the Acropolis itself, and you can also peer down into the Odeon of Herodes Atticus open-air theater.

When you visit most museums, you can wander around by yourself, listen to an audio guide or hire a guide. Many tour guides speak limited English and don’t know much about what they’re showing you if it’s not in the standard scripts they have memorized to get their licenses. There’s a much better way to see museums and pretty much everything else on planet Earth – the tour provider ToursByLocals. Their guides often have advanced degrees in art, history, archeology and other relevant topics.

ToursByLocals offers private, customizable and highly intelligent tours in 187 countries. On the website, you click on the city you want to visit and find a range of guides with their backgrounds, rating, and contact information so you can connect with the right guide for your dream trip.

I saw the Topkapi Palace and the Acropolis Museum with guides from ToursbyLocals. My guides were first-rate archeologists and historians who provided extensive knowledge of the history, art and culture of the locations. If you want great guides who love their subjects, ToursByLocals is the way to go.

Vasa Museum, Stockholm, Sweden

NOW WE swing over to Scandinavia, specifically to Stockholm and the Vasa Museum, home to a massive warship that sailed and sank on its first day at sea in 1628. 

While we’re on the subject, why don’t more Israelis and Americans visit Stockholm? Our idea of Europe is often limited to the basic stops on the first European trip most of us ever make, often a combination of London, Paris and Rome. The more adventurous among us layer in Barcelona or Venice. Stockholm usually gets a pass, which is unfortunate because the city is lovely, orderly and full of great food and interesting museums, especially the Vasa Museum.

Here’s the backstory: In 1628, the Swedish Navy ordered up a ship that was bigger, stronger and better armed than anything that had ever sailed the seas. All of Stockholm turned out for its launch, only to watch the badly planned ship capsize and sink before it ever left the harbor. It remained underwater for almost four centuries all but forgotten, when a private citizen studied reports of the wreck, found it and brought the sunken behemoth to the surface. The Swedes built a museum just to house the huge vessel. 

In Stockholm, you can also visit the Nobel Prize Museum, where honorees are announced, but don’t miss the Vasa.

Rembrandt’s House Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Next up is Amsterdam, which offers stunning canals and centuries-old homes, as well as an uninhibited lifestyle. Most visitors, after they sober up, head to the awesome Van Gogh Museum. They also visit the nearby Rijksmuseum, the national museum of the Netherlands. In a castle covering 800 years of Dutch art and history, there is an impressive display of Rembrandts and the Vermeers. 

A short walk away is another gem – Rembrandt’s House Museum. Here, you can actually set foot in the artist’s studio, with its view of canals and Dutch architecture, all but unchanged since the 17th century, as well as the studio upstairs where he taught painting. You can also tour the well-appointed ground floor room, where the entrepreneurial Old Master bought and sold paintings. You’ll imagine yourself teleported back four centuries and buying a Rembrandt from Rembrandt himself.

Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris, France

Finally, we come to Paris and the Musee Marmottan Monet. Tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood, it is home to the world’s largest collection of paintings by Claude Monet. While the rest of the tourists in Paris are crammed into the Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre, you’ll have more than 300 of Monet’s works practically all to yourself. Don’t miss this rendezvous with everyone’s favorite Impressionist.

And there you have it: five museums around which you can construct trips that take you to places you might otherwise never visit. From Istanbul to Athens, from Stockholm to Amsterdam to a quiet Parisian neighborhood, these are places you’ll never forget.

The writer, a New York Times bestselling author, runs www.MichaelLevinWrites.com, a book ghostwriting firm.