I spend a lot of time in museums. They’re exciting and inspiring and always make the top of my to-do list when I visit someplace new. And while you might first think of finding paintings and sculptures inside a museum, that’s of course not always strictly the case. In fact, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that many of my favorites are those that are less traditional. Below are four I believe should make it onto your to-visit list!
1. Museo del Mar—Punta del Este, Uruguay
Known for its nightlife and beaches, Punta del Este is a popular vacation spot for Argentines and Uruguayans. During the high season, from Christmas until mid-January, the streets nearest to the ocean, lined with restaurants, bars, and shops, can get frustratingly crowded. Tucked away about a kilometer inland from the prominent Puente de La Barra, the Museo del Mar is the perfect place to go if you’re looking for a change of pace.
As its name suggests, the Museo del Mar contains thousands of ocean-related artifacts, from shells and formaldehyde-preserved sharks to whale skeletons and an enormous crab collection. While much of the museum is devoted to local marine life, there are also a lot of critters from around the world, as well as an interesting focus on humans’ relationship with the ocean. And although the collection might at first appear to be haphazardly organized, it’s also got a unique, albeit slightly overwhelming, sense of continuity.
Going to the Museo del Mar is a lot of fun. I go at least once nearly every year with my family. My favorite exhibit is the pirate room, which features the exciting stories of nearly a dozen legendary pirates. And before I leave, I always get my photo taken with the giant white shark sculpture right outside.
2. L’Iber, Museo de Soldaditos de Plomo—Valencia, Spain
I stumbled upon this museum completely by accident while wandering around the narrow, quiet streets of Valencia’s Ciutat Vella (“old city” in Catalan) looking for a place to have lunch. An odd sign with what looked to be a small, cartoon gladiator caught my eye. And when I walked over to take a closer look, I discovered it was a toy soldier museum.
I have to admit that I’m not completely sure what made me go inside, especially since I was quite tired and hungry, but I am very glad I did! These figurines are two to four inches tall, usually made out of lead, hand-painted, and usually representational of historic military icons. Today, many of them are valuable collector items.
On its own, a single toy soldier might not draw that much attention. But with dozens of other little figurines alongside it and in the correct setting, they are usually fascinating! L’Iber does an amazing job of thoughtfully setting the soldiers up in detailed displays. As you go from scene to scene, you are travelling to distant lands and times.
L’Iber is actually quite a new museum, although the building itself is very old. Given that it’s so off the beaten path in terms of its content, it was nearly empty when I visited. This made the entire experience even better since I was able to take my time and look at each display carefully. When I left, I felt oddly reinvigorated and definitely had a newfound appreciation for these tiny little representations of human history!
3. Musée de Cluny, Musée National du Moyen Âge—Paris, France
Less than a 10-minute walk from the Notre Dame cathedral, the Musée de Cluny is truly a treasure! Situated in a magnificent stone abbey built in 1485, the museum has an incredible collection of medieval artifacts and art. You’ll be astounded by the beauty and richness of it all, as well as by its history. My favorite gem here is the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series. Originally from Flanders, each of the six tapestries features—you guessed it!—a lady and a unicorn. Five of them denote the senses while the sixth is more ambiguously named “À Mon Seul Désir.” These gigantic works of art are stunning. Every time I see them, I am absolutely enchanted by their details: various delicate flowers, friendly-looking, semi-mythical animals, and the garments worn by the lady and her companions.