These Are the World’s Most Visually Stunning Museums

Architects of cultural institutions seldom shy away from the challenge of creating structures that are as interesting and alluring as the wonders they hold.

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is a museum of world culture
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

At a 2014 press conference covered by El Mundo, Frank Gehry proclaimed that “98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit.” He promptly apologized, citing travel fatigue, but his statement points to just how divisive architecture can be. Case in point: a surprising number of entries on click-baity lists of the world’s ugliest (or most-hated) buildings also appear on lists of the world’s most beautiful buildings. C’est kif-kif?

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Much like the works within them, museums—viewed as objects—invite opinion, though perhaps because it’s usually aesthetes forming them, those opinions tend to lean toward positivity. Lists of the most beautiful museums abound, while lists of the ugliest museums are rare. You’re more likely to encounter lists of the worst or weirdest museums, categorized thusly for their contents rather than their exteriors.

Curating a list of the most beautiful (or striking or visually interesting) museums is, frankly, tough. A true roundup would be a book-length work as there are something like 55,000 museums around the globe and architects of museums seldom shy away from the challenge of creating structures that are as interesting and alluring as the wonders they hold.

Given that, consider our list of the world’s most stunning museums not an exhaustive register but rather a starting point.

El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe

Valencia, Spain

Valencia - El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe (HDR)
El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe. Flickr Vision

The science and technology museum El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe in Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences complex was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (of World Trade Center Oculus fame—or infamy) and opened in 2000. The institution’s futuristic and skeletal design of soaring glass and steel is often described as whalebone-like, for better or for worse, but the vast, column-free floors provide an inviting environment for exploring a broad range of disciplines, including physics, biology, chemistry and space sciences in 40,000 square meters of exhibition space filled with natural light. Calatrava’s work integrates form and function, with the building itself serving as an introduction to the principles of engineering.

Zaishui Art Museum

Shandong, China

A long building with many vertical windows seems to rise out of a lake
The Zaishui Art Museum. Courtesy Junya.ishigami+associates

Japanese architect Junya Ishigami told Designboom that he wanted to create a museum that was itself a “new landscape, embedding it into the Chinese environment to create the experience of walking through the lake—similarly to walking on the beach, where people can feel the essence of water.” He accomplished that goal with the Zaishui Art Museum, which not only sits ribbon-like on the water of an artificial lake near Rizhao City but also invites the water in. The museum, which hosts an evolving program of exhibitions, spans approximately 20,000 square meters—and in some sections, glazed panels lift to allow the lake to enter the exhibition spaces, creating pathways that change with the seasons.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington, D.C.

Exploring Our Nation's Capital: Washington D.C.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Getty Images

Designed by an architectural team made up of Sir David Adjaye, the Freelon Group, Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroupJJR, D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has a distinctive three-tiered shape inspired by the Yoruban Caryatid, a traditional West African column. The building’s bronze-colored metal lattice was chosen to pay homage to the craftsmanship of African American ironworkers who contributed so significantly to American development. In September of 2016, the institution, which is part of the Smithsonian and houses a collection that spans the arc of African American history, opened to great fanfare, and today it houses a collection of more than 36,000 significant items, including a shawl gifted by Queen Victoria to Harriet Tubman, the dress Rosa Parks was sewing before her arrest, artifacts from the slave ship São José Paquete Africa and Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves.

The Soulages Museum

Rodez, France

A blocky rust-covered building that houses a museum
The Soulages Museum. Calips

Dedicated to the French “painter of light,” this museum in the town of Pierre Soulages’ birth is housed in a series of striking Cor-Ten steel boxes of varying sizes designed by the Spanish firm RCR Arquitectes. Designed to weather over time, the uneven profile of Soulages Museum is starkly artificial yet blends into the landscape of the town’s main park, the Foireil Garden. The institution houses a permanent collection of Soulages’ works donated to France by the late artist and his wife and also mounts exhibitions of works by other contemporary artists in galleries that, like the museum’s exterior, vary in width, height and depth.

Kunsthaus Graz

Graz, Austria

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Kunsthaus Graz. AFP via Getty Images

Austria’s Kunsthaus Graz can’t help but stand out. Often referred to as the “Friendly Alien,” the contemporary art museum designed by British architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier has a distinctive blue exterior made from acrylic BIX Façade panels, creating a skin-like look that’s only made more animal by its blobby bulbous shape and rows of ‘horns.’ After dark, the exterior of Kunsthaus Graz becomes a giant screen for light and media displays. Inside, the museum hosts always-changing exhibitions of contemporary art from the 1960s onward with a special focus on artwork that pushes boundaries, explores social themes and challenges perceptions.

The State Hermitage Museum – Winter Palace

St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg City Scenes - FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017
The Hermitage Museum. Photo by Stuart Franklin - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Russia’s prestigious State Hermitage Museum is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, but the most famous of its buildings is arguably the Winter Palace designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Once the residence of Russia’s emperors and opened to the public in 1852, the structure exemplifies Russian Baroque architecture and reflects its rich heritage and cultural significance. It holds a selection of the institution’s vast collection of more than three million items (plus around seventy cats) and is renowned for its comprehensive collection of Western European art, including masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Rembrandt. Beyond paintings, the museum boasts an extensive assortment of Egyptian and classical antiquities, decorative arts, porcelain, jewelry and more.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Bentonville, Arkansas

A museum with a pond in the center
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Charvex

Safdie Architects, led by Moshe Safdie, designed the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to seamlessly blend in with its natural surroundings. Set in a ravine and flanked by forested hills, the museum consists of eight wood and glass pavilions that circle and cross two spring-fed ponds intended to enhance the museum-goer’s experience by fostering a connection between architecture, nature and art. The Crystal Bridges collection includes works from the Colonial era to the contemporary period and pieces by American greats like Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol.

Guggenheim Bilbao

Bilbao, Spain

North of Spain
Guggenheim Bilbao. Photo by: Sergi Reboredo/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Designed by Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Bilbao on the Nervión River has a flowing, semi-organic facade clad in titanium that has been heralded as a pioneering example of Deconstructivism. A series of interconnected structures creates a dynamic, sculptural form that is itself a work of art and is widely considered a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture. Opened in 1997, Guggenheim Bilbao has become a key player in the global art scene and a major hub for modern and contemporary art, with an extensive collection of paintings, installations and sculptures spanning the late 20th Century to the present. It attracts more than a million visitors annually and has played a crucial role in the city’s transformation from an industrial town to an international tourist destination.

The Zayed National Museum

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

A building made of wing-like towers
A rendering of The Zayed National Museum. Foster + Partners

The Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi, designed by the renowned architectural firm Foster + Partners led by Sir Norman Foster and currently under construction, was inspired by the form and flight of falcons, paying homage to Sheikh Zayed’s love of falconry. Set to become a centerpiece of the Saadiyat Island cultural district, the institution’s collection will be housed in a series of impressive curving glass and metal towers that rise from the landscape like delicately feathered wings, creating a distinctive profile that’s not only aesthetically impressive but also functional—each wing is a thermal tower that helps naturally ventilate the museum. The institution, scheduled to open in 2025, will offer a comprehensive exploration of the United Arab Emirates’ history, cultural identity and rapid transformation through the lens of Sheikh Zayed’s life and leadership.

The Louvre

Paris, France

General Views - Paris
The Louvre. Getty Images

No list of the world’s most beautiful museums would be complete without a mention of the Louvre—the royal palace transformed into a public museum at the end of the 18th Century. What makes this busy museum so striking, however, is the now iconic glass and metal pyramid, added in 1989 by architect I. M. Pei. Seen from the outside, it serves as a modern contrast to the traditional French Renaissance architecture. From within, it illuminates the underground lobby with natural light. The Louvre’s collection encompasses more than 380,000 objects, including some of the most famous works of art in the world.

Erawan Museum

Samut Prakan, Thailand

A pink building topped by a giant statue of a three-headed elephant
The Erawan Museum. Ddalbiez

Designed and constructed by millionaire businessman and cultural patron Lek Viriyaphant, the strikingly pink Erawan Museum, located just outside Bangkok, was completed in 2003 to preserve and showcase Thai heritage and culture. The extraordinary structure serves as the base of a massive, three-headed elephant sculpture made of bronze, while its three-story interior, representing the Thai cosmos, showcases a blend of Hindu and Buddhist art and architecture. The first level, representing the underworld, displays pottery and ancient artifacts. The second level, or human earth, features a stunning collection of religious icons, antiques and cultural artifacts. The top level, representing the heavens, has exquisite stained glass that casts colorful lights onto representations of the universe and various deities.

The Museo Soumaya

Mexico City, Mexico

The Soumaya Museum.
The Soumaya Museum. Moment Editorial/Getty Images

The Museo Soumaya’s futuristic, asymmetrical silver-plated facade was inspired by Rodin’s sculptures and crafted from 16,000 hexagonal aluminum tiles to resemble a swirling vortex. The institution was founded in 1994 by the businessman Carlos Slim and the museum’s newer building, Plaza Carso, was designed by the Mexican architect Fernando Romero. It houses a vast collection of art spanning three millennia, with pre-Hispanic, colonial, modern and contemporary Mexican art, as well as an extensive collection of European artworks from the 15th to the 20th centuries displayed over six floors of exhibition space connected by a spiraling ramp. Next door is another private museum: Eugenio López Alonso’s Museo Jumex, a 43,000-square-foot David Chipperfield-designed structure that houses 2,000 contemporary artworks.

The Bundeswehr Military History Museum

Dresden, Germany

General view of the Museum of Military H
The Museum of Military History. ROBERT MICHAEL/AFP via Getty Images

Set in a former armory, the Bundeswehr Military History Museum (one of the leading museums of military history in Europe) underwent a significant renovation and expansion designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, completed in 2011. Libeskind redesign incorporated a modernist wedge-shaped structure of glass, steel and concrete that cuts through the original 19th-century neoclassical building. The juxtaposition of old and new symbolizes the disruption of violence in history—the angular addition points toward the site of the Dresden bombings of 1945.

The Broad

Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles Exteriors And Landmarks - 2020
The Broad. Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler, The Broad purposefully highlights something most museums tuck away: pieces from the institution’s collection not currently on view. Known as “the veil and the vault,” the design has two floors of exhibition space surrounded by a white honeycomb exterior as well as viewing windows that give visitors the opportunity to better understand the institution’s total holdings. There are thousands of works in the Broad Collection, which is one of the most comprehensive holdings of postwar and contemporary art anywhere in the world. Today (March 27), The Broad announced a $100 million expansion that will add 70 percent more gallery space via a soaring 55,000-square-foot addition, also designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, that should be completed in 2028.

The Museum of Islamic Art

Doha, Qatar

Views Of Qatar
The Museum of Islamic Art. Photo by Nadine Rupp/Getty Images

The Museum of Islamic Art, which opened on a purpose-built island off the Doha Corniche in 2008, was designed by Louvre pyramid architect and art collector I.M. Pei, who traveled extensively throughout the Islamic world to draw inspiration for the museum’s design. The institution’s gleaming limestone facade and stacked geometric shape were heavily influenced by ancient Islamic architecture, notably the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. Inside, five floors of galleries house one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Islamic art, ranging from calligraphic manuscripts and textiles to metalwork and ceramics, spanning 1,300 years and three continents.

Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)

Toronto, Canada

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is a museum of world culture
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Royal Ontario Museum’s distinctive design is an example of architectural fusion. Originally founded in 1914, the institution added the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal in 2007—designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, the modernist extension of glass and aluminum serves as a bold contrast to the museum’s original Romanesque facade. While the addition was provocative, ROM remains a bastion of tradition, with a collection of more than six million artifacts spanning the entirety of Earth’s history and nearly every human culture. It continues to serve as a center for research in biodiversity, paleontology and archaeology, actively contributing to scientific knowledge, and an education hub that reaches people of all ages.

Hampi Art Labs

Karnataka, India

Hampi Art Labs. Exterior shot of Hampi Art Labs, 2024

Designed by Sameep Padora, the founder and principal of sP+A architectural practice, Hampi Art Labs is a stunning contemporary art space on a sprawling eighteen acres of land that appears “born from its surroundings.” One of 2024’s most anticipated museum openings, it is the project of the heirs of the late billionaire O.P. Jindal, including businesswoman, philanthropist and art collector Sangita Jindal. Hampi Art Labs holds both exhibition spaces and artist studios and has launched a curatorial residency program (the inaugural residents are Bhasha Chakrabarti, Sharbendu De, Madhavi Gore, Promiti Hossain and Anirudh Singh Shaktawat). The museum’s first show, “Right Foot First,” has works from the Jindal Collection by artists like Andy Warhol, Annie Morris, Ai Weiwei, Manish Nai, Atul Dodiya and Shilpa Gupta.

The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP)

Seattle, Washington

Borussia Dortmund US Tour 2019
The Museum of Pop Culture. Photo by Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images

Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture is another Frank Gehry gem. Constructed primarily from shiny sheets of metal, the building’s fluid curving exterior can project a multitude of colors, representing the energy and diversity of pop culture. The institution was the vision of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who launched it in 2000 as the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (EMP|SFM). It later became the EMP Museum before its rebranding as MoPOP in 2016. Today, it specializes in explorations of music, movies, science fiction and more, with permanent exhibits dedicated to the history of rock ‘n’ roll, science fiction literature and cinema, video games and horror films. The museum also displays memorabilia from iconic figures and franchises, with rotating exhibitions dedicated to specific creators.

State Historical Museum

Moscow, Russia

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The State Historical Museum. Photo by Lukas Schulze - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

On the northern edge of the iconic Red Square, the neo-Russian State Historical Museum is an architectural gem. The ornate red-brick exterior with its striking white stone embellishments was designed by architects Vladimir Osipovich Sherwood and Alexey Viktorovich Shchusev and is suggestive of the cultural and historical complexity of Russia. The pair incorporated elements inspired by medieval Russian architecture—pointed arches and decorative towers—making it an immediately recognizable landmark. The museum houses a collection of more than five million objects illuminating the life and culture of the Russian Federation’s peoples over several epochs, with everything from rare manuscripts and archaeological artifacts to folk art and imperial regalia.

Odunpazari Modern Museum (OMM)

Eskişehir, Turkey

A museum designed with rows of wooden slats photographed at night
Odunpazari Modern Museum. Honacan

Designed by the renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the Odunpazari Modern Art Museum’s architecture melds traditional Turkish cultural elements and modern design principles. The structure’s grid of interlocked timber beams references the district’s historic name, which means “wood market” in Turkish. The interior is inviting, with levels that correspond to the artwork within: larger lower floors house sizable installations while smaller upper floors display more intimately sized pieces from the museum’s collection, which includes paintings, sculptures and more.

These Are the World’s Most Visually Stunning Museums