Enjoy the 10 very best Roman museums

The city break that’s always a good idea, Rome calls us back time and time again with its bounty of ancient history, architecture and world culture, all graciously crammed within its fortified city walls. To get a hit of all three at once, visit any of the significant museums and galleries lining Rome’s central piazzas for an educational and often breath-taking look at artefacts from the Etruscan era to the Roman empire, jazzed up with the paintings and sculptures of Italian art movements through the ages. Discover the 10 very best Roman museums, venturing further into the Eternal City with our comprehensive Rome travel guide.

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1. Galleria Borghese

Amid the open green setting of Villa Borghese, find the most prized works of Italy’s Renaissance and Baroque art movement within the mansion of Galleria Borghese. Here you’ll find works spanning the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, all handpicked by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (Pope Paul V’s nephew), covering the likes of Raphael, Caravaggio and Botticelli, to create one of the world’s most renowned collections. Besides the iconic paintings, the gallery’s elegant interiors and ceiling frescoes are bound to impress, with the added bonus of Bernini and Canova’s sculptures centred in each hall.

Borghese Gallery | Photo: Massimo Sanna

Galleria Borghese | Photo: Waldo Miguez

2. Capitoline Museums

Once the geographical and political centre of the Roman Empire, Capitoline Hill today remains a must-visit as the home of the Capitoline Museums. Showcasing pinnacle works from across ancient Rome and into the Renaissance, find these hilltop museums in two parts flanking either side of the Piazza del Campidoglio, a site designed by Michelangelo himself. Perhaps the most coveted works at this museum of Roman civilisation include the collection of bronze and marble sculptures bequeathed to the public by Pope Sixtus IV in the 1400s, making it the oldest museum collection in the world. Of these statues and beyond, find the Capitoline Wolf, the Colossus of Constantine and the Dying Gaul as well as the first human life sculpture ever made dating back to 1277. Easily spend hours tracking the thousands of statues, sculptures, mosaics and busts on display across two buildings, climaxing at the Capitoline Venus, a famed marble creation designed around 100-150AD.

Capitoline Museums | Photo: Edward Lich

3. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, National Museum of Rome

Making up one-quarter of the Museo Nazionale Romano, the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme deserves a safe spot on your itinerary, thanks to its impressive collection of ancient and classical art unearthed from the Eternal City of old. Considered the focal point of the National Museum of Rome, allow yourself at least two hours to move through the Neo-Renaissance palace with its world-renowned collection of glittering artefacts, sculptures and statues – such as the 2nd century Boxer at Rest – across four floors adorned with stuccos, mosaics and frescoes. Even the garden alone is an artistic feat, decorated as it is with frescoes from the Villa of Livia, the residence of Emperor Augustus’ wife.

4. Baths of Diocletian (Terme Diocleziano)

After visiting Palazzo Massimo, take advantage of the combined admissions fee to get a first-hand look at the Baths of Diocletian (otherwise known as Terme Diocleziano). Built and named for Emperor Diocletian in 300AD, these ancient public baths coated in marble are a key remnant of the Roman Empire just doors down from Termini train station. Move through the vast complex which once could hold over 3,000 bathers, appreciating the collection of sculptures, tombs and sarcophagi now housed inside. Cut off from the water mains in 537 when the Goths attempted to conquer Rome, the baths ran into disrepair until 1561 when Pope Pius IV ordered Michelangelo to design the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli on the same spot, in honour of the Christian slaves who died working on the baths’ construction.

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Hosting as many as 20,000 treasures across 1,400 rooms, galleries and chapels – including Michelangelo’s most admired creation, the world-famous Sistine Chapel  – the Vatican Museums are a standalone attraction worth saving the whole day for

Vatican Museums | Photo: Corey Buckley

5. Vatican Museums

Needing little introduction, the Vatican Museums come front and centre in the minds of all those who visit Rome. Hosting as many as 20,000 treasures across 1,400 rooms, galleries and chapels – including Michelangelo’s most admired creation, the world-famous Sistine Chapel  – the Vatican Museums are a standalone attraction worth saving the whole day for. Take a tour of the highlights, including the Raphael Rooms, Egyptian Collection and Gallery of Maps, or simply wander from room to room, losing yourself in the charms of each. Gathered from the collections of past Popes since the early 16th century, the Vatican Museums are rich in wonders, ranging from Egyptian mummies and Etruscan bronzes to ancient busts and painted masterpieces, under the decorated halls of the Palazzo Apostolico Vaticano (the Pope’s residence) and the 15th-century Palazzetto di Belvedere connected by two long hall galleries and adjoined by three courtyards.

Photo: Cristina Gottardi

6. Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna

Abbreviated as GNAM meaning ‘yum’ in Italian, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna is nothing short of a tasty treat for the eyes. Hosting Italy’s largest collection of 19th and 20th-century artwork, GNAM will have you tearing up at its rich exhibitions of paintings, drawings and sculptures, spanning every movement from the realist to the abstract, including the favourites of Neoclassicism, Impressionism, Futurism and Surrealism. Expect to see many works from the likes of Balla, Burri, Canova, Chirico and Modigliani, with a side helping of international artists such as Klimt, Pollock, Monet and Van Gogh, all housed across 75 rooms within the Palace of Fine Arts. After a few hours working through 200 years of recent art history, stop at the Caffe Delle Belle Arte for an espresso boost. For an equally renowned alternative to GNAM, try the glossy Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (or MACRO) designed by Odile Decq on the site of a disused brewery.

7. National Etruscan Museum

Though our previous mentions offer a little sample of Etruscan history, the National Etruscan Museum cannot be beaten for its comprehensive pre-Roman collection of pottery, ornaments, jewellery, bronzes and sculptures dating back to around 500BC. Of the works housed within the Villa Giulia, the most valuable are the Sarcofago degli Sposi from 520 BC and several terracotta figures depicting the Apollo of Vei and Hercules and Apollo in a tussle over a deer from 510BC. Besides its star features, the Renaissance architecture of the museum itself is worth a look, built under Pope Julius III in the mid-1500s and surrounded by serene gardens perfect for some quiet reflection on Roman succession!

Rome | Photo: Gabriella Clare Marino

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The most elegant building of its period, designed by Maderno of St. Peter’s Basilica fame, Palazzo Barberini stands today as a state-owned museum featuring over 1,400 works from between the 13th and 18th century

8. Galleria Doria Pamphilj

One of Rome’s best known private galleries housed within a mansion on Via del Corso, the Galleria Doria Pamphilj is a smaller Rome history museum along the main thoroughfare. The museum’s ordered art collection started with Pope Innocent X Pamphilj (of whom there is a unflattering portrait within the gallery itself) and went on to span 400 paintings from the 15th to the 18th century, all displayed chronologically. Alongside notable works from Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian and glittering frescoes in the Gallery of Mirrors, visitors can also find a small ornate chapel and several private rooms exhibiting the original décor of the Pamphilj family in all its gilded gentry.

9. Palazzo Barberini, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica

The baroque palatial architecture of Palazzo Barberini makes for an impressive entrance to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, a site homing the city’s best collection of ancient art on the estate of one-time Pope, Maffeo Barberini. The most elegant building of its period, designed by Maderno of St. Peter’s Basilica fame, Palazzo Barberini stands today as a state-owned museum featuring over 1,400 works from between the 13th and 18th century. Of these works, many were the creation of Titian, El Greco, Caravaggio and Raphael, including La Fornarina, a famed portrait by the latter. While you’re here, spend time in the oval salone, a hall stretching the height of the building and roofed by a Baroque fresco by Cortona depicting the Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power.

Palazzo Barberini | Photo: Francesco Bianco

Photo: Josh Stewart

10. MAXXI - National Museum of 21st Century Art

The more interactive and playful alternative to GNAM is MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Art, based in the Flaminio quarter, where everything is dedicated to contemporary creativity. More of a cultural campus than a gallery, MAXXI, designed by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, is comprised of two parts, MAXXI Arte and MAXXI Architettura, both offering a full schedule of educational workshops, conferences and projects alongside its main exhibitions of top 21st century artists. Alongside the static collection, the museum has put on a number of temporary exhibits include collaborations with the MoMA in New York and a digital showcase, all complemented by the upbeat vibe centred around the café and bookshop.

MAXXI - National Museum of 21st Century Art | Photo: Erin Doering

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