We love a good museum. It’s a chance to connect with the area you are in, to see what matters to the people who live there, to learn about history and to understand something new.
We try to go to a museum of some sort in every place we visit. Sometimes they can be highly political, sometimes they can be completely awful, and sometimes they can be about chocolate. (Honourable mention here to the Museu Xocolata in Barcelona where even your entry ticket is a piece of chocolate). We’ve seen museums that make us feel uneasy – one museum we visited was proud that it held some Indigenous Australian artefacts and even the display commented that ‘Indigenous Australians’ want these items returned, without any suggestion that a return was imminent. We’ve seen religious museums and revolutionary museums and everything in between. And recently, the Museo de la Inquisicion even made me feel physically ill.
But of all the museums in the many countries we’ve visited, Spain has a particularly high incidence of excellent examples. The Spaniards just know how to do them well. They know how to mix information with theatricality. They know how to keep the kids engaged. They know what information to include and what to leave out. So we thought we’d pay homage to our five favourite museums in Spain. For the purposes of this article, I’ve left out art galleries, they are a category all on their own. Maybe a post for another day.
This one is number one because it is the best museum. Full stop. No other museum we have ever seen, in either hemisphere, beats this one. We arrived in the last hour of the day to make use of the free entry, but wished we’d come so much earlier as one hour was really not sufficient to explore this wonderland of being human.
What is so special about it? Taking you on a journey through the evolution of humans, civilisation and evolution theory, this museum really has the x-factor when it comes to presentation. You can walk inside a human brain, step into Charles Darwin’s study and examine full-size models of our evolutionary ancestors. While this could all come off as cheesy if done the wrong way, the Museo de la Evolución Humana does it with flair. Each exhibit was stunning and engaging, both visually and experientially. The kids didn’t know where to go next. They were so excited by every display and what it was going to show us.
This unassuming museum gets a mention in this list because it is a great example of a smaller museum that doesn’t try to do too much. It had a plenitude of information that we hadn’t previously seen elsewhere and it was very well presented.
We particularly like the rooms dedicated to the Camino de Santiago (the kids are infatuated with the Camino and this gave them a better understanding).
Another highlight here is the area that shows the history of the settlement of Leon from the times of Caesar Augustus’ Roman Legion encampment through wars, takeovers and kingdoms to today’s bustling city. After scrutinising the models and visual representations of the changes over time, you could then go to the other end of the room and see modern León through the window.
When I mentioned theatricality earlier, this archeological dig in Cadiz knew how to do it the best. I’ve mentioned the Yacimiento Arqueologico Gadir in another post about the Costa de la Luz, but after visiting a number of other archeological digs, this is still a stand-out. When we first entered I felt like we were stepping into a theme park amusement, like the lab scene in Jurassic Park (the original of course). A well-produced short film sets the scene and context for the archeology we were about to witness.
The dig itself was excellent, showing different areas of the Phoenician settlement that was discovered under the Tia Norica Theatre. The lighting in the dark room was perfect to highlight the most interesting parts of the ruins. There were plenty of interactive screens to give you information, but we were also very impressed at our tour-guide who tailored her guiding to our group. She guided us in Spanish, English and German and then translated her answers into each language so we could all participate.
We’ve seen quite a few archaeological digs and ruins, and this one is fantastic for the provided context of Phoenician life, being able to walk around at your own pace and interaction that was available.
With the current climate in Catalunya, this museum would seem political, but it was already political when we visited before recent tensions flared. It is very pro-Catalunya, as can be expected, as it aims to tell the Catalan side of history, but it is choc-a-block with information about Catalunya and greater Spain. Although the information is sometimes a little too dense, you can pick and choose which bits to read and it can be very informative. The kids loved that many of the exhibits were life-sized. They loved walking into the trenches and many of the hands-on activities.
Unfortunately my family missed what I thought was the best floor. While they all rushed down to the ground floor to see a temporary exhibition on the Templar Knights before the museum closed, I stepped further back into history and found some excellent displays on how people lived in this fertile region over the last few hundred years. Nearly life-sized cross-sections of villages, scale models of houses and farms gave you a real sense of what life had been like in Catalunya hundreds of years ago and I felt it gave me a deeper understanding of who the Catalan people are today.
Okay so this is not technically a museum, it’s a cave, but it still counts in my book. As much as we love to hunt down museums, we also hunt down caves as we just love them, but this one is the best so far. Our guide at the Cueva de la Pileta warned us that this cave was so good that any other cave experience would pale into insignificance. Big call. But yesterday we visited the famous Cuevas del Altamira, and he was right. The cave you can visit at Altamira is a replica to preserve the original, and the guided tour is nothing compared to what you get at the Cueva de la Pileta.
This cave is an absolute treasure. Entering through a tiny door, the cave continues deeper and deeper, even when you think it can’t go any further. It has its fair share of impressive stalactites and stalagmites, rock drawings and hidden pools, but what really makes it impressive is the context. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and passionate and told us stories of discovery and history incredibly well (while also translating into a few languages for our group).
Each equipped with a lamp, we were able to shine the light on specific areas we wanted to see, as there is no electricity inside. Our kids were a little terrified when he asked us to turn off the lamps for a moment so we could experience what it would have been like to live in that cave. It was so dark you couldn’t even make out an outline of anything, we were so far from the entrance. It really made us realise the importance of fire to the people that lived in this cave 30,000 years ago. I can’t recommend this experience highly enough.
As the kids aren’t in school while we travel, museums are an important way for them to relate to history and culture. We’ve discovered that museums have a tricky balance – to be engaging while educating. And it’s not easy. Most museums achieve it quite well, but we believe that these five excel in delivering both.
Travellers’ tip – many Spanish museums are free for the last hour of the day, or on particular days of the week. This can be a good option if you are budget conscious – see our post on how to travel Europe for €25 per person per day.