12 of the World's Best Masterpieces and Where To See Them
While there’s plenty that we can do from home these days, it truly takes a world tour to see the greatest pieces of art ever made. With this list, plan your route to some of the most iconic museums and marvel at century-spanning paintings, sculptures, and more, across countless art movements. Bring a notebook and get inspired—and afterwards soak up the food, culture, and ambience that these pieces’ host cities have to offer.
“The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch
Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain
This one-of-a-kind 3-part painting, or triptych, by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch was initially intended as an altarpiece and remains one of the most symbolism-rich paintings of the Middle Ages. Art historians debate its meaning, but it’s clear that the three sections depict some kind of progression from the Biblical Eden to the fiery torments of hell, making it the stuff of dreams (and nightmares). Be sure to get up-close to see all of the delightfully weird details, and when you’re done, drown your existential dread about the future of humanity with some sangria and tapas in the Spanish capital.
“The Two Fridas” by Frida Kahlo
Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City, Mexico
Frida Kahlo, most famous for her self-portraits, was also an influential political thinker, avowed Communist, and activist in Mexico. This work depicts two parts of her personality sitting side-by-side, bound by veins that circulate blood between their two hearts. She painted it after her divorce from Diego Rivera, and while that may have influenced the work, other critics see the two Fridas as representing her dual German and mestiza (Spanish and Indigenous) heritages. While in Mexico City, don’t skip Frida’s Casa Azul in Coyoacán, as well as their “other” blue house-studio in nearby San Ángel.
Related: Frida Kahlo Museum Director Hilda Trujillo Soto's Guide to Mexico City
“Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci
Louvre, Paris, France
The Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous painting of all time and continues to attract millions of visitors a year—in fact, 80 percent of the Louvre’s visitors are said to arrive just to see the Italian masterpiece. The reason for this could be da Vinci’s insightful portrayal of human expression: the Mona Lisa’s slight smile is notorious for its careful execution and impenetrable meaning. But don’t stop here on your trip to the Louvre. Make sure to explore the world-class pieces from all around the world, including one of the largest collections of Ancient Egyptian art on the globe before exploring Paris proper.
“Untitled (Skull)” by Jean-Michel Basquiat
The Broad Museum, Los Angeles, USA
Basquiat, a former graffiti artist whose star rose quickly before he tragically died at only 27, has recently become one of the most sought-after painters in the art world: a 1982 painting sold for $85 million in 2022, and prices continue to rise. But Untitled (Skull), on view in Los Angeles, transcends the hype—vibrant colors and shapes that evoke the best graffiti, as well as the subject matter of an X-ray view of a skull, mean that it’s difficult to tear your eyes away. Once you’ve had your fill, head into downtown Los Angeles, where you can explore the neighborhoods of Chinatown and Little Tokyo.
“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso
Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid, Spain
During the reign of Spain’s Francisco Franco, this monumental piece by Picasso was housed outside the country—only to make a triumphant return to the Reina Sofia Museum after the dictator’s death, bringing its harrowing anti-war message along with it. Guernica depicts the bombing of its namesake city during the Spanish Civil War, but the distorted shapes of bodies (both human and animal) make it a piece that speaks beyond a specific time and place to serve as a perpetually-relevant warning about human cruelty.
“The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt
Belvedere Palace, Vienna, Austria
Instantly recognizable to art fans, this work from the first decade of the 20th century is one of the most sensual of all time. Made from real gold leaf, it mixes the portrayal of its embrace with an abstract background, while the evocative clothes worn by the lovers—and the grass they kneel on—seem to come from another world. After seeing the painting, immerse yourself further in Vienna’s Golden Age by dressing up for a concert of Mozart or Johann Strauss in their home country.
“Maman (Spider)” by Louise Bourgeois
Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan
One of the most iconic sculptors of the past 100 years, Louise Bourgeois created monumental works that touch on themes of motherhood, globalization, and the purpose of art itself. Part of a series of spider sculptures, Maman (“mother” in French) includes a sac of 32 marble eggs that are viewable as you walk beneath them. The sculpture is so big that it lords over the entrance of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo like a guard—or a predator awaiting its prey. Though they may disgust some, the spider sculptures have proven so influential that copies exist around the world, from New York to Bilbao, Spain, and Doha, Qatar.
“Wheatfield with Crows” by Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Though Wheatfield with Crows may not be as well known as Starry Night, it’s considered Van Gogh’s masterpiece by many critics. From the lush colors to the flamboyant brushstrokes, it’s a quintessential piece that may have been the last one the artist ever completed. Van Gogh is sometimes known more for his personal history than his art—but in real life, his work comes alive in a dance of colors that cannot be replicated onscreen. While in Amsterdam, visit some of the Dutch landscapes that influenced his early work before his time in France.
“Black on Maroon” by Mark Rothko
Tate Modern, London, England
Though Rothko’s paintings may seem like boring swatches of color at first glance, the artist started a movement by investing in the formal attributes of color and shape. This piece is one of his masterpieces, originally housed in the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. His work there was heavily influenced—despite the obvious stylistic differences—by Michelangelo’s in Florence, as he wanted to influence the entire space and the moods of everyone in it through his art. While at the Tate Modern, be sure to check out other works by Picasso, Rodin, and Paul Klee.
“Sky Above Clouds IV” by Georgia O’Keefe
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, USA
Very few North American artists have depicted nature with as much energy as Georgia O’Keefe. Born in Wisconsin, she lived in New Mexico for most of her life, painting landscapes and flowers that single-handedly created a new mythology of the American West. This work, which hangs above the Impressionist wing of the Art Institute of Chicago and depicts clouds stretching to the horizon, functions on a more dreamlike level, and distills O’Keefe’s obsession with shape and form. After admiring it, check out the collection of Van Gogh and Seurat before walking to Cloud Gate, the public sculpture otherwise known as “The Bean.”
“The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by Hokusai
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA
Made in the early 1830s during the Edo period of Imperial Japan, this woodblock print—by the expert woodblock artist Hokusai—has become an iconic image the world over. In the foreground, two ships face down a massive wave that threatens to swallow them (and their oarsmen); in the background, the spiritual and geological heights of Mt. Fuji seem shrunk to nothing under the tsunami’s bubbling torrent. Once you’ve soaked in the impressive scene, make for New York’s other top art institutions—the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the MoMA.
“The Mask of Tutankhamun” by Artist Unknown
Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt
The funerary mask of King Tut, modeled on the god Osiris, has become perhaps the primary icon of Ancient Egyptian civilization—and remains one of the great all-time artistic masterworks. Up close, the 22-pound (10-kilogram) mask created from gold, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and obsidian shimmers—be sure to get in as close as you can to see the inlaid hieroglyphic inscription from the Book of the Dead. Then, after viewing it, engage with modern Egyptian culture by touring a local bazaar.