By Rick Steves
Europe is a treasure chest of great art. You'll see many of the world's greatest museums. These tips will help you make the most out of your visit.
Study your guidebook. Some museums now require reservations, such as the Alhambra (in Granada, Spain), the church that houses Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper (Milan), Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel (Padua), and the Borghese Gallery (Rome). If you don't reserve in advance, you'll likely miss out.
At Florence's famous galleries — the Accademia (Michelangelo's David) and the Uffizi (the showcase for Italian Renaissance art) — it's smart to book ahead. You can also reserve a time to visit the Vatican Museum in Rome as well as the Eiffel Tower in Paris. While hundreds of tourists are sweating in the long lines, you can just show up at your reserved entry time and breeze right in.
Know the closed days. Most museums are closed one day during the week (usually Monday, sometimes Tuesday; Jewish sights are typically closed Saturday). If you've got only one day for the Sistine Chapel, avoid Sunday. It's either closed, or — on the last Sunday of the month — free and terribly crowded, when it feels more like the Sardine Chapel. It can be worth paying the entrance fee to avoid the rampaging hordes on a museum's free day.
Arrive early (or late) at popular sights. If you show up by 8:00 in the morning at Neuschwanstein, Bavaria's famous fairy-tale castle, you'll get a ticket. Come an hour later and you'll either wait a long time or find that tickets are sold out — or worse, both.
Some museums are open late one or two nights a week. For instance, London's Tate Modern stays open Friday and Saturday evenings — when the crowds disappear and you're glad you came.
Museum passes (such as the Paris Museum Pass) and combo-tickets allow you to bypass the long admission lines and walk right in. More and more, Europe's most popular sights are being paired in combo-tickets with sights few people pay to see. The bad news: You have to pay for both to visit one. The good news: You can avoid the line at the congested sight by buying your ticket at the less-popular sister sight. You can wait up to an hour to get into Rome's Colosseum or Venice's Doge's Palace — or buy a combo-ticket (at another participating yet less-crowded site) and just scoot inside.
Note that many museums stop selling tickets and start shutting down rooms 30 to 60 minutes before closing. My favorite time in museums is the cool, lazy last hour. But I'm careful to get to the far end early, see the rooms that are first to shut down, and work my way back toward the entry.
These tricks aren't secrets. They're in any good, up-to-date guidebook. Just read ahead.
Learn about art. If the art's not fun, you don't know enough about it. I remember touring the National Archaeological Museum in Athens as an obligation. My mom said it would be a crime to miss it. It was boring. I was convinced that the people who looked like they were enjoying it were actually just faking it — trying to look sophisticated. Two years later, after a class in classical art history, that same museum was a fascinating trip into the world of Pericles and Socrates, all because of some background knowledge. Some pre-trip studying makes the art more fun. When you understand the context in which it was made, art becomes the closest thing to a time-machine that Europe offers.
Be selective. A common misconception is that a great museum has only great art. A museum such as the Louvre in Paris is so big (the building itself was at one time the largest in Europe), you can't possibly cover everything — so don't try. Only a fraction of a museum's pieces are really masterpieces.
With the help of a tour guide or guidebook, take two hours and focus on just the museum's top attractions. Some of Europe's great museums provide brief pamphlets recommending the best basic visit. With this selective strategy, you'll appreciate the highlights when you're fresh. If you have any energy left afterward, you can explore other areas of specific interest to you. For me, museum-going is the hardest work I do in Europe, and I'm rarely good for more than two or three hours at a time. If you're determined to cover a large museum thoroughly, try to tackle one section a day for several days.
Take a tour. Some museums offer regularly scheduled tours in English. Before your visit, look online or phone ahead. If the tour is in the native language only, politely let the guide know at the beginning that there are several English-speaking people in the group who'd love some information.
Many museums have audioguide tours (sometimes included in the entry cost, sometimes a few dollars extra). These portable devices allow you to dial up generally worthwhile information in English on particular pieces of art. If you bring along a Y-jack and an extra pair of headphones, two people can save half by sharing the same audioguide. (Unfortunately, this isn't possible with wand-style audioguides.) If you're traveling in Paris, London, Athens, or Italy with a mobile device (such as an iPod, smartphone, etc.), consider taking along my audio tours.
Eavesdrop. If you are especially interested in one piece of art, spend half an hour studying it and listening to each passing tour guide tell his or her story about David or the Mona Lisa or whatever. They each do their own research and come up with different information to share. Much of it is true. There's nothing wrong with this sort of tour freeloading. Just don't stand in the front and ask a lot of questions.
Watch the video. Many sights have videos or films about the attraction (included in the entry price). These are generally well worth your time. I make it standard operating procedure to ask when I arrive at a sight if there is a video in English.
Make sure you don't miss your favorites. On arrival, look through the museum's guidebook index or the gift shop's postcards to make sure you won't miss anything of importance to you. For instance, I love Salvador Dalí's work. One time I thought I was finished with a museum, but as I browsed through the postcards...Hello, Dalí. A museum guide was happy to show me where this Dalí painting was hiding. I saved myself the disappointment of discovering too late that I'd missed it.
More and more museums offer a greatest-hits plan or brochure. Some (such as London's National Gallery) even have a computer study room where you can input your interests and print out a tailored museum tour.
Miscellaneous tips: Particularly at huge museums, ask if your ticket allows in-and-out privileges. Check the museum map or brochure at the entrance for the location of particular kinds of art, the café, and bathrooms (usually free and clean). Note any special tours or events or early closings of rooms or wings. Get comfortable: Check your bag and coat - in some places, bag check is required. (If you want to try to keep your bag with you, carry it low and under your arms like a purse, not on your back.) Cameras are usually allowed if you don't use a flash or tripod; look for signs or ask. If your camera has an automatic flash, know how to turn it off.
Updated for 2011. For lots more tips, check out our best-selling Europe Through the Back Door travel skills guidebook.