The 8 Oldest Museums in Europe

Kunstmuseum Basel Building
© Władysław Sojka , FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Joyce Nash

Published: December 20, 2023

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Europe is home to some of the world’s most-visited countries. Each year, millions of visitors travel to historic and cultural landmarks like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, and the Plaza de Espana in Madrid, Spain. In addition to destinations for shopping, dining, and entertainment, European countries contain a multitude of museums, including some that have been open for centuries. Keep reading to learn about the eight oldest museums in Europe.

8 Oldest Museums in Europe
The eight oldest museums in Europe contain countless artifacts and treasures.

 8. Museo del Prado

Panoramic aerial view of Gran Via, main shopping street in Madrid, capital of Spain, Europe.

The Museo del Prado is located in the heart of Madrid, Spain.

©Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.com

When it opened in 1819, the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain, was housed in a building originally constructed to contain the Natural History Cabinet. However, King Ferdinand VII and his wife, Queen Maria Isabel de Braganza, pushed for the building to instead hold a new Royal Museum of Paintings and Sculptures, which was later renamed the Museo del Prado.

Upon its opening, the museum contained 1,500 works of art collected from Spain’s royal residences. Since then, the museum’s collection has grown to nearly 2,300 works, including masterpieces such as The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch and The Three Graces by Rubens.

7. British Museum

This plate, the function of which is unknown, shows the appearance of an eagle (aquila in Latin). Eagles had special significance for the Romans: it was the sacred bird of the supreme god Jupiter, and representations of eagles also crowned standards of Roman legions. Military standard, adorned with an eagle, was extremely important for a legion: if an enemy seized it, it was a shame in the eyes of the Romans, and the legion - and maybe even all Rome- expected some misfortune. Everything was done to regain the standard. Bronze. 0-300 AD. Now in the British Museum, inv. 1975,0307.7. Picture taken at the Oog in oog met de Romeinen (Eye to Eye with the Romans) Exhibition in the Gallo-Romeins Museum of Tongres.

At the British Museum, visitors can explore artifacts that cover 2 million years of history.

©TimeTravelRome / CC BY 2.0 - Original / License

Upon its opening in 1759, the British Museum became the earliest national museum to feature artifacts and displays representing multiple fields of study. While the museum has always been open to the public, visitors during its earliest years were required to submit applications for tickets. This system was abandoned in the 1830s when the museum became accessible to the public.

The British Museum got its start when it purchased the collection of Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane had curated a personal collection of over 40,000 books, 30,000 coins and medals, and 80,000 artifacts. Since then, the British Museum has amassed nearly 8 million artifacts that represent 2 million years of history.

Today, the museum features 95 rooms with exhibits from around the world. In addition, the museum hosts special rotating exhibits as well as several shops, restaurants, and study rooms.

6. Ashmolean Museum

Radcliffe Camera Panorama

Oxford University opened the Ashmolean Museum in 1683.

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Founded in 1682, the Ashmolean Museum is Britain’s earliest public museum. A father-and-son pair who worked as gardeners for the Earl of Salisbury was responsible for collecting the items that became the museum’s first collection. Under the earl’s employ, the pair traveled broadly, collecting plant, animal, and geological specimens. 

Elias Ashmole purchased the collection from the earl, which included a stuffed dodo and a wall hanging from Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas. Later, Ashmole donated the collection to the University of Oxford, which opened the Ashmolean Museum in 1683 to the public. 

Throughout the years, the museum has expanded to include works of art and archeological artifacts from around the world. The Ashmolean Museum houses a large collection of modern art from China. The museum also boasts the largest trove of Chinese greenware that exists outside of China.

5. Basel Historical Museum

Rhine River

The Basel Historical Museum, which grew from a collection called the Amerbach Cabinet, overlooks the Rhine River.

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In Switzerland, the Basel Historical Museum can trace its roots to the Amerbach Cabinet, a collection of art that was curated by Basilius Amerbach in the mid-to-late 1500s. By the time of Amerbach’s death in 1591, the cabinet contained nearly 50 paintings and a large number of prints and drawings. In addition, his collection included a library and items of historical and ethnographic significance.

The City of Basel acquired the cabinet in 1661, making it the first city to own a municipal art collection. The University of Basel housed the collection and made it available for public viewing in 1671.

Over the years, the museum has expanded to include collections of American contemporary art, Swiss contemporary art, and the Natural History Museum Basel. In 2016, the museum added a building with 9,000 square feet of gallery space for special exhibitions.

4. Uffizi Gallery

Florence, Italy

In Florence, Uffizi Gallery can trace its history back to 1581 when it was first opened as an art gallery.

©iStock.com/RudyBalasko

The building that houses the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, was originally commissioned in 1560 to contain the city’s administrative headquarters. However, in 1581, Francesco I de’ Medice decided to open Uffizi as an art gallery. The Medici family played a prominent role in the history of Florence, and the family’s patronage was crucial to establishing Uffizi as a leading collection of art.

In 1769, the museum was opened to the public, and a century later, Vittorio Emanuele II declared the Uffizi as a national museum. The museum sustained damage during WWII and again from a car bomb in 1993. Despite these setbacks, the museum has endured as an important collection of artwork and historical artifacts.

In 1996, the museum nearly doubled its available display, creating room for stored artifacts to be displayed for public viewing. Further renovations in 2021 added 14 rooms that display nearly 130 works of art highlighting women and artists of color.

3. Vatican Museums

Vatican City

The museums in Vatican City date back to the early 1500s.

©Sergii Figurnyi/Shutterstock.com

Vatican City is the world’s smallest country and is located entirely within the Italian city of Rome. The country encompasses just 0.17 square miles and is home to around 800 people. Despite its small size, Vatican City contains the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and has played an important role in global politics and culture.

The Vatican is home to 26 individual museums that date back to 1503, when Pope Julius II brought his private collection of art and literature to the Octagonal Court. Since then, popes and Vatican leaders have added artifacts, collections, and new buildings to house the growing displays. Today, the Vatican welcomes over 6 million visitors each year to explore works of art in its museums from the past 20 centuries in over 70,000 exhibits.

2. Musei Capitolini

Italy Rome Capitoline hill city square museum buildings and statue illuminated at sunrise

In Rome, the Musei Capitolini includes several museums located on the Piazza del Campidoglio.

©Taras Vyshnya/Shutterstock.com

Located in the heart of Rome atop one of the city’s seven hills, the Musei Capitolini — also known as the Capitoline Museums — was first established in 1471 thanks to a gift of several bronze statues to the people of Rome. Today, the Musei Capitolini is composed of multiple museums in the Palazzo Nuevo and Palazzo dei Conservatori buildings.

The museums feature vast collections of artifacts, including paintings, sculptures, and many objects that showcase Roman history. Among the museum’s most famous displays are sculptures of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor Constantine, and Rome’s fabled wolf with twins Romulus and Remus.

1. Tower of London

Tower of London, England

While it is most well-known for its use as a prison, the Tower of London has served many purposes since it was commissioned in 1078.

©iStock.com/rabbit75_ist

Located in central London near the River Thames, the historic castle that houses His Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress was first established in 1066 when England was conquered by the Normans. Later, in 1078, William the Conquerer commissioned the White Tower, which is the structure commonly referred to as the Tower of London. Throughout its history, the tower has been used as a prison, a royal residence, and an armory. In addition, the tower has housed the Royal Mint and Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. 

Today, the tower contains several permanent exhibits, educational events, and a selection of rotating exhibits. Visitors can view the Crown Jewels, watch the Ceremony of the Keys, and explore the history of the Bloody Tower. The Medieval Palace inside the tower gives visitors the chance to explore the living quarters of two kings. Meanwhile, the Royal Beasts exhibit showcases the different animals that have lived in the tower’s menagerie.

Summary of Europe’s Oldest Museums

RankMuseumLocationDate Founded
1Tower of LondonLondon, England1078
2Musei CapitoliniRome, Italy1471
3Vatican MuseumsVatican City1503
4Uffizi GalleryFlorence, Italy1581
5Basel Historical MuseumBasel, Switzerland1661
6Ashmolean MuseumOxford, England1682
7British MuseumLondon, England1759
8Museo del PradoMadrid, Spain1819


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About the Author

Joyce Nash is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering travel and geography. She has almost a decade of writing experience. Her background ranges from journalism to farm animal rescues and spans the East Coast to the West. She is based in North Carolina, and in her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, and spending time with her husband and two cats.

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