“This world is but a canvas to our imagination” – Henry David Thoreau
Done and redone The Louvre and Prado Museums? Make way for Europe’s overlooked art galleries and collections. Everyone like quirks and hidden gems so we take you for a train ride off Paris, Milan, Berlin and Madrid’s beaten track. Walk in bunkers, railway stations, warehouses and mansions packed with classic and contemporary paintings, photos, memorabilia, nutty installations and good arty vibes.
1. Musée des Arts et Métiers
When you get off the train at Gare du Nord, a 20-minute walk south will lead you to the Museum of Arts and Trades, close to Centre Pompidou. 2400 inventions – some of which you can operate – tell stories of industrial, scientific and technical progress. They include the firsts steam-powered automobile, mechanical calculator and mobile phones! A steampunk paradise in a 13th-century abbey.
2. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Palais de Tokyo
Centre Pompidou may get all the glory but, when it comes to modern and contemporary collections, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris has no reason to be envious. Located opposite the Eiffel Tower, in an impressive Art-Deco building surrounded by museums, it encloses some key masterpieces by the likes of Matisse and the Delaunays. It also hosts interesting temporary exhibitions about 20th-century art movements. In the western wing of the same building, the Palais de Tokyo shows pioneering new artists from all over the world. This edgy space also contains a bookstore, restaurant, cafe and trendy nightclub.
Entrances: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris: free for permanent collections
Palais de Tokyo: €12
3. Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature
If you’re into curios, you’re in good company in Paris. Sure, there’s always the iconic old taxidermies, and oddities on display at Deyrolle in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. But a crowd-free venture through an 18th-century mansion in the hip Marais is a more tempting walk on the wild side: the Museum of Hunting and Nature has odd tools and objects as well as “tribute” cabinets for each animal, even the unicorn! In this luxurious madhouse, you will also find temporary and permanent exhibits by contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons and Arno Kramer.
30 minutes walk south-east of Milano Porta Garibaldi railway station, proudly stands La Triennale’s industrial building. Opened for the 1933 Triennale, it boasts a frequently renewed offer, ranging from design, photography, music, theatre, architecture and craftsmanship. This cultural laboratory is great for emerging talents but also for retrospectives of major artists like Keith Haring and Roy Lichtenstein. The shop is full of potential cool gifts you will want to keep for yourself, and the rooftop calls for an aperitivo al fresco overlooking Milan’s historical centre and largest park. In the area, also visit the Castello Sforzesco which houses smaller specialist museums.
5. Pirelli HangarBicocca
This former locomotive factory became a contemporary art space in 2004 and threw light on Bicocca, a vibrant industrial district, in the north of Milan. Thought-provoking temporary shows of young artists are featured in the 15,000 m2 raw spaces of Pirelli HangarBicocca, Europe’s largest exhibition premises. More established names are also present, notably Anselm Kiefer. His permanent installation – The Seven Heavenly Palaces – consists of 50-60 ft towers of reinforced concrete.
6. Massimo de Carlo Galleries
Internationally reckoned as an important voice of contemporary art, Massimo De Carlo launched his first gallery in 1987 in Ventura – Milan’s “art district”, north-east of the city centre. Other eponymous galleries have opened since, in Milan historical centre, London and Hong Kong. All venues carry over the spirit of the 1st one: a place promoting international young artists on the Italian scene, and bringing Italian creations to a more global audience. Representing artists like Maurizio Cattelan, and Yan Pei-Ming, Massimo de Carlo Galleries are great spots to discover tomorrow’s talents.
7. Hamburger Bahnhof
Just 5 minutes from Berlin Hbf (central railway station), you can explore another station where art took over from trains: the Hamburger Bahnhof. Berlin’s museum for contemporary art is housed in a stunning 19th-century building, illuminated by Dan Flavin. It showcases works from the 60’s to the present day, including famous pieces by Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein among its permanent collections. Exhibitions on the likes of Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke also take place there, as well as tasty eats at the excellent museum’s restaurant.
8. Sammlung Boros at the Bunker
In the hip area of Mitte, art projects have blossomed and reclaimed WW2 sites. The graffiti-covered commune in a former Nazi prisoners camp – Kunsthaus Tacheles – is now empty, but the Bunker is still filled with contemporary art. Owned by collector Christian Boros, who resides in the upper section, this historical site has sheltered exhibits by Olafur Eliasson, Tracey Emin and Damian Hirst. To make the experience even more special, visits are only available on weekends, by appointment.
With its crisscrossing staircases and immaculate white walls and floors, this striking glass warehouse could only be a contemporary art space. Situated in creative Kreuzberg, minutes from Checkpoint Charlie, it focuses on homegrown Impressionists, Expressionists and Dadas like Max Liebermann and Otto Dix. The Berlinischegalerie also covers architecture, multimedia installations and photography by international artists like Nan Goldin.
Entrance: €8 or €4 every first Monday of the month
10. La Tabacalera (LTBC)
Madrid’s equivalent of Kunsthaus Tacheles, La Tabacalera, is a state-sponsored cultural and social art space. This former tobacco factory is ruled by participatory democracy, which means artist are free to paint, sing, dance or perform in the space. It also means that there’s always something going on and you can rock up at any point to get your street art fix or catch a gig. Naturally, it’s located in Lavapiés, one of Madrid’s most central and multicultural barrios.
11. La Casa Encendida
Also in Lavapiés, la Casa Encendida is a multi-disciplinary art centre offering avant-garde exhibitions, environmental workshops and children’s crafts activities. Its awe-inspiring Neo-Moorish style building boasts 64,583 square feet of facilities, and a luscious roof garden which turns into an open-air cinema in the summer.
12. Museo Cerralbo
The Museo Cerralbo in central Madrid might as well be called the Bling Museum! This ritzy mansion showcases the opulence in which 19th-century wealthy madrileños used to live. It was owned and decorated by the Marqués de Cerralbo who most certainly had a taste for travel and all things shiny. Luxurious tapestries and carpets, crystals, sculptures, porcelains, and other luxurious elements adorn the dining hall, ballroom and Oriental room…
Entrance: €3 euros or free on Thursdays 17:00-20:00 and Saturdays from 14:00
Don’t forget that rail travel is an art as well! Master it by booking three months before your departure date to get the best fares.