The best natural history museums in the world have an aura. Whether it’s the monumental old buildings, gargantuan ceiling-mounted skeletons, or relics of long-buried civilizations, these institutions captivate visitors young and old.
They’re not just places to ogle fossils and dodgy taxidermy, even if we accept that the dinosaurs will always be the star attractions.
The best natural history museums are champions of research and exploration – scientists at London’s Natural History Museum described over 500 new species in 2020 alone. The work that goes on beyond the exhibits helps us to face issues like global warming, species preservation, and the world’s changing ecosystems.
There are over 900 natural history museums covering all corners of the globe. Here are some of the best for you to add to your cultural bucket list.
The best natural history museums in Europe
1. The Natural History Museum | London, UK
Highlight: Hope the blue whale ⭐
The Natural History Museum. It’s by far the most visited museum of natural science in Europe, and has been a leader in scientific study since it was founded in 1881.
Iconic architecture? Check. Revered scientific institution? Check. Enormous reconstructed skeleton? The Natural History Museum is famous for two!
Dippy the diplodocus, a 292-bone plaster-cast replica of a sauropod housed at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, has enjoyed celebrity status in London since it was unveiled in 1905. One of the museum’s signature displays, Dippy left its iconic plinth in the Hogwartian Hintze Hall to tour the United Kingdom in 2018. Its stand-in, an 82-foot blue whale named Hope, makes for a similar neck-craning spectacle.
The sublimely photogenic main hall and its giant inhabitants are just part of the reason The Natural History Museum is considered one of the best natural history museums in the world.
Its world-class collection boasts 80 million specimens, from the tiniest insects to gems as old as the solar system and the remains of extinct megafauna. There’s arguably no better place to trace Earth’s biological timeline.
There are impeccably pickled animals, captured and studied by the likes of Charles Darwin and Captain Cook, in the Spirit Collection. Visitors can pore over skulls of our earliest ancestors in the Human Evolution gallery, or admire chunks of the moon brought back by NASA’s Apollo 17 in the Treasures gallery (it’s not made of cheese, sorry guys).
The museum’s calendar of events and out-of-hours programming includes seminars with esteemed scientists, murder mysteries, and adult sleepovers under the Hintze Hall roof.
There’s so much to see at NHM that we couldn’t possibly list it all. Check out detailed itineraries and highlights of the museum’s collections if you want to learn more.
2. Tring Natural History Museum | Tring, UK
Highlight: Eccentric dressed fleas and antique taxidermy ⭐
Even regular visitors to the Natural History Museum aren’t always aware of its small, quaint, and perfectly splendid sister site in Hertfordshire.
The Natural History Museum in Tring was built around the private collection of Baron Walter Rothschild. While most children’s fascination with lions and tigers and bears fizzles out with age, Rothschild never wavered from his boyhood dream of building his own wild museum.
Rothschild’s lifelong collection, donated to the Natural History Museum upon his death, was a motionless menagerie of insects, birds, mammals, and fish; and included scientific specimens like skins, nests, eggs, skeletons, as well as the obligatory jarred wonders.
Over 4,000 specimens are now on display, just a train ride from Central London. The atmospheric 19th-century building is stuffed full of polar bears, lions, mandrills, poisonous puffer fish, and more. There are even dressed fleas from Mexico, which alone certifies Tring’s as one of the best natural history museums in the world.
Want to see more? Check out some of the best taxidermy at Tring Natural History Museum.
3. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle | Paris, France
Highlight: The exceptional Grande Galerie de l’Évolution ⭐
Strictly speaking, France’s National Natural History Museum is a collection of 13 sites around the country, and includes historic venues like Parc Zoologique de Paris and the Arboretum de Versailles-Chèvreloup.
The biggest of these venues, Paris’ heralded Jardin des Plantes, comprises the bulk of what makes Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle one of the best in the world. The galleries here form what we would all recognize as a conventional natural history museum.
Elephants, hippos, and more stand in a Noah’s Ark-style parade of taxidermy, forming the central aisle of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution. This magical 19th-century hall, with its balconies, walkways, and ceiling made of colored glass, is the jewel in the museum’s crown, containing 7,000 specimens.
There are also around 650 skeletons and fossils in the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée including narwhals, giant crocodiles, dinosaurs, and a rhino which was once the exotic pet of Louis XV.
And for fans of priceless sparkly things, the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie houses a galaxy of glimmering human-sized crystals and mysterious meteorites born in the depths of outer space.
4. National Museum of Ireland – Natural History | Dublin, Ireland
Highlight: Huge Irish elk skeletons ⭐
Despite conjuring images of flesh-eating giraffes and night-stalking pheasants, the locals insist on referring to the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History as the “Dead Zoo”.
The museum has barely changed since opening to the public in 1857, something which sets it apart as one of the best natural history museums in the world. Visiting the stately building on Dublin’s Merrion Square is like stumbling onto the set of a period drama, except the fine portraits are replaced by antlered hunting trophies, and the skeletons are very much out of the closet.
The museum is divided into two permanent exhibitions, bulging with once-living beings encased in antique cabinets. Children gawp at the size and span of the extinct Irish elk in the Irish Fauna gallery, which includes animals native to the Emerald Isle that are well over a century old.
There’s also the opportunity to marvel at stuffed and skeletal remains from all corners of the globe in the Mammals of the World exhibit.
Even the best natural history museums in the world need a makeover from time to time. The National Museum of Ireland – Natural History is in the midst of a long-term and sometimes tricky government-funded renovation project.
5. Museum of Natural History Vienna | Vienna, Austria
Highlight: Decadent architecture and Venus von Willendorf ⭐
Like some of the oldest zoos in the world, many of Europe’s first natural history collections began as a status-inflating pastime for royal folk. That’s certainly true of the Naturhistorisches Museum Vienna, which has its roots in an exotic collection purchased in 1750 by Habsburg emperor Franz Stefan I.
Vienna’s museums are renowned for their Imperial decadence, and its 19th-century natural history museum is no different. It delights half-a-million visitors each year with its frescoed ceilings, grand staircases, and fine sculptures.
Aside from the architectural grandeur, the museum’s assemblage of scientific amazement makes it one of the best natural history museums in Europe.
Famous for its tiny Venus von Willendorf, a 200-year-old Steller’s sea cow, and the world’s largest and oldest collection of meteorites, the Naturhistorisches Museum is also a world-class center for research. It employs over 60 scientists working on a range of in-house, domestic, and international research projects.
The best natural history museums in the USA
6. The American Museum of Natural History | New York, USA
Highlight: The Titanosaur ⭐
Hugged on one side by the indomitable Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History is one of the many cultural icons in New York City. The recognizable Central Park West entrance hall, with its bone-crunching clash between a fierce Barosaurus mother and an intruding Allosaurus, is the perfect spark for visitors’ scientific intrigue.
The American Museum of Natural History is the largest natural history museum in the world. Its collection totals over 30 million items. Only the most impressive fraction is on display inside the striking Romanesque Revival building, which was built for purpose in 1888.
It’s easy to lose your bearings – the museum is a labyrinth of exhibits across five vast levels. There are great slices of ancient giant sequoia (redwood) trees, stone moai from Easter Island, early human remains, classic American fauna, and a Titanosaur cast that’s so long that its head peers around the door to its exhibit. The astounding displays inside the Hayden Planetarium are well worth the special admission ticket.
If your visions of the American Museum of Natural History were crafted by Ben Stiller’s after-dark adventures, there’s even a Night at the Museum self-guided tour, where you can see popular characters from the movie without the fear of being peed on by a capuchin monkey.
7. Field Museum of Natural History | Chicago, USA
Highlight: Sue the T. Rex ⭐
“Science is for everyone. And we can’t wait to share it with you.”
These words form part of the Field Museum’s core messaging, and are embodied not only by their awe-inspiring Chicago exhibits, but through their work as a pillar of the world’s scientific community. Its collection of 40 million items multiplied from that displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and it has been housed at its current location, by the water of Lake Michigan, since 1921.
Visitors are invited to celebrate the ferociously badass matriarchs of the Apsáalooke Native Americans in Apsáalooke Women And Warriors. Speaking of women you don’t want to mess with, there’s also Field Museum celebrity, Sue the T. Rex, in the Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet. She’s one of the largest and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons on Earth.
The Field Museum’s permanent exhibitions and calendar of event programming strive to be innovative, interactive, and inclusive (and fun, of course). The work of the museum’s YouTube-conquering Chief Curiosity Correspondent, Emily Graslie, is testament to the museum’s success.
Adults are able to help scientists conduct their work through community science projects, and kids can open their world to the curiosities, oddities, and educational value of our natural history through a variety of family-friendly activities.
8. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History | Washington D.C., USA
Highlights: The grand rotunda and the Hope Diamond ⭐
It’s not a competition, but you can understand why the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is smug when it comes to its collection. It’s made up of 146 million items.
Not only is the Smithsonian’s the most visited natural history museum in the world, but its immense Neoclassical building also takes pride of place on the National Mall, just a gem stone’s throw from the White House (don’t get any ideas).
The rotunda, with its extravagant archways, pillars, and balconies, is one of the most instantly recognizable museum spaces in the world, and the permanent home of Henry the African Bush Elephant. One of the museum’s highlight artifacts is the Hope Diamond. Few jewels have as long and fascinating a story as this piercing-blue, supposedly cursed 45-carat diamond.
Thankfully any deadly curse seems to apply to those owning the diamond rather than looking at it. Which is good, because over 100 million people have ogled the rock since it became part of the Smithsonian’s collection in 1958.
Elsewhere there’s the Hall of Fossils, a recently renovated space which tells the story of life on Earth through rare remains – some of which you can handle! Just think of the painstaking work that goes into positioning bones so that a T-rex looks to be chowing down on a Triceratops.
Add to that the lush and colorful Butterfly Pavilion, the one-of-a-kind Sant Ocean Hall, and the hands-on insect zoo (100% optional), and you’ve got yourself one of the best natural history museums in the world.
9. Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County | Los Angeles, USA
Highlight: Live excavations at La Brea Tar Pits ⭐
It might not have the fame and prestige of its East Coast peers, but the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is the largest of its kind in the western United States. The Gold Rush exhibit boasts more carats than Aladdin’s cave and Smaug’s hoard combined – it’s one of the largest gold collections in the USA.
Other hidden gems include the skeletons of a pregnant Plesiosaur and her unborn baby, the largest known Ammonite on Earth (it’s really quite big), and a nature garden that’s home to snails that smell like chocolate (please don’t eat them. PETA are watching).
But what really sets the museum apart as one of the best natural history museums on Earth is the La Brea Tar Pits, a 15-minute drive away in Hancock Park. The park sits atop a trove of Ice Age fossils, perfectly preserved by bubbling, oozing asphalt. It’s an active archaeological site, right in the heart of urban LA. Mammoths, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, and hundreds of other finds have all been discovered there since excavation began in 1913.
There are guided tours and fascinating live excavations where visitors can watch scientists as they reveal super-ancient fossils. There are also epic 3D shows immersing visitors in the stories of beasts from 50,000 years ago in the Tar Pits movie theater. La Brea Tar Pits is so cool that Weezer even wrote a song about it. How many museums can say that?
10. The Harvard Museum of Natural History | Cambridge, USA
Highlights: The incredible Blaschka sea creatures and a giant Kronosaurus skeleton ⭐
The Harvard Museum of Natural History may be younger than Justin Bieber, but it’s certainly given more to the world’s cultural heritage. Opened in 1998, HMNH is the public face of three scientific museums within the famous university’s research arsenal.
Combining the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Mineralogical & Geological Museum, Harvard’s natural history museum is smaller than some on this list, but still welcomes a quarter of a million visitors each year.
Housed inside a 19th-century Boston red brick building, the museum is a showcase of the work scientists at the University have done over hundreds of years. Undoubtedly, the most impressive exhibits at Harvard are the intricate glass flowers and sea creatures made by father and son duo Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.
These expert glass artists found a curious niche in the field of biological sciences, crafting beautiful, to-scale glass replicas of sea creatures and invertebrates, which were otherwise a pain for scientists to exhibit in the 19th century.
Museums all over the world hired the Blaschkas to make these impeccable glass models, and Harvard displays part of the world’s largest collection.
Elsewhere there is the usual leggy legion of stuffed animals, David Rockefeller’s colorful collection of beetles, a terrific exhibit of fruit in decay, and a 42-foot-long Kronosaurus skeleton who once paddled hungrily in the waters around Australia.
The best natural history museums in South America
11. La Plata Museum | Buenos Aires, Argentina
Highlights: The historic comparative osteology hall ⭐
A proud symbol of Buenos Aires’ heritage, La Plata Museum’s neoclassical building is every bit as grand and impressive as it European peers. In fact, its architecture was heavily inspired by Berlin’s Altes Museum and the National Gallery in London. The similarities are clear when you compare images of the pillared facades side by side.
After the founding of the museum in 1884, its first collection was based on discoveries by explorer Francisco Moreno during his expeditions to Patagonia and around Argentina. It quickly became one of the most important and prestigious institutions in South America.
A species of iguana named after Moreno is just one of the fascinations found inside. See remains of Argentinosaurus – a giant vegan sauropod that dominated Argentina during the Late Cretaceous period – as well as a collection of Egyptian artifacts, a scale replica of the biggest spider ever known, and plenty more besides.
12. Brazil National Museum | Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Highlight: Luzia, the Americas’ oldest human skeleton ⭐
In 2018, lovers of natural history around the world were shocked to see images of the Brazil National Museum engulfed in flames, its staff and researchers desperately salvaging the country’s cultural treasures from a merciless inferno which quickly overcame the 200-year-old building.
Over half of the museum’s 20 million artifacts were lost in a catastrophe. It was an event which shocked the museum community and had institutions around the world scurrying to check and improve their safety mechanisms. Definitive animal specimens and collections, records of long-forgotten native languages, dinosaur skeletons, and more priceless examples than you could possibly list were destroyed.
Somehow, Luzia, the museum’s famous 12,000-year-old human skeleton, survived unscathed courtesy of an iron cabinet.
Before the disaster, the museum inside Rio de Janeiro’s former imperial palace was a world-renowned institution detailing the natural history of one the world’s most biodiverse countries.
The museum is aiming to partially open in time for Brazil’s 200-year anniversary in 2022, but faces an uphill battle to fund the project, despite kind help from other nations and museums. Find out how you can donate to the cause and get one of the world’s best natural history museums back on its feet.
The best natural history museums in Oceania
13. Melbourne Museum | Melbourne, Australia
Highlights: Triceratops exhibit and the living Forest Gallery ⭐
The Melbourne Museum is one of the largest in the Southern Hemisphere dedicated to natural history. Australia is well known for its abundance of flora and cuddly/deadly fauna, so visitors are in for a treat.
A long-running, much-loved, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious exhibit of Australian taxidermy came to a close in 2021 due to pesky infestations of carpet beetles and cloth moths (oh the irony). Replacing sad otter and pals is an exhibit of one of the world’s most complete Triceratops skeletons, complete with skin impressions and tendons that have survived for 67 million years in sediment.
There’s also the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, focusing on bringing the traditions of Australia’s indegionous cultures to life, as well as Pacific Island treasures, the world’s largest IMAX cinema screen, and even a living, breathing Forest Gallery full of ferns, rare plants and wildlife.
14. Te Papa – Museum of New Zealand | Wellington, New Zealand
Highlight: Te Taiao | Nature exhibit ⭐
Te Papa covers much more than just natural history in its role as New Zealand’s national museum, but its collection of natural heirlooms could easily form a museum all of its own. The bulk of its natural history offering is wrapped up in Te Taiao | Nature, a four-exhibition mini museum. This huge exhibit is an interactive masterpiece, allowing visitors to follow in the footsteps of Maui the explorer, unearthing the history and secrets of New Zealand’s thriving landscapes.
Find out why so many of New Zealand’s animals are so unique (and weird!), from flightless birds to actual non-extinct dinosaurs. Real dinosaurs, people! The multi-sensory space also includes an earthquake simulator, a giant educational birds nest, and a relaxing treehouse lounge.
Don’t miss the Blood Earth Fire exhibit, detailing what New Zealand was like before humans changed its ecosystem forever through forest clearing, wetland draining, and the introduction of non-native species.
The best natural history museums in Asia
15. Beijing Museum of Natural History | Beijing, China
Highlight: The rare Stegodon zdanskyi skull ⭐
China’s first and most popular natural history museum is a hub for scientific history, located in an intimidating stone building on the boundary of Temple of Heaven Park. The two form a top-notch cultural combo, if you ever find yourself in Beijing at a loss for something to do.
China is a modern hotbed for dinosaur fossils. Around half of new dino discoveries are found there, something that enabled scientists to realize a relationship between some dinosaurs and modern birds. Some of the most recent discoveries can only be found in the museum, as well as Chinese icon Mamenchisaurus jingyanensis, a 26-meter long sauropod. You can call her Ma.
Also in the museum is a famous skull of the elephant-like Stegodon, preserved human bodies (not for the squeamish), and some acceptably tacky dinotronics – enough to captivate the little ones while the adults have a good laugh at their tinny-tiny roars.
16. Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum | Singapore
Highlights: A leatherback turtle and Neptune’s cup sponge ⭐
Singapore’s natural history museum has taken many forms, with origins dating back to zoology-obsessed Sir Stamford Raffles (the brain behind London Zoo) and his founding of modern Singapore. In its current home since 2015, the grand facades and ageing halls you expect from the best natural history museums are replaced by innovative architecture and atmospheric lighting.
The museum is a goldmine of specimens relating to Southeast Asian biodiversity. Soak up the history of Neptune’s cup sponge, which was thought to be extinct until rediscovered in Singapore in 2011. These giants of the seabed were so popular with western collectors that they were all but wiped out within 50 years of their discovery in 1820.
Visitors can admire a giant sperm whale skeleton at close quarters in the Mammal Zone, and see every inch of a rearing sauropod across two floors of the Biodiversity Gallery. There’s the only known leatherback turtle ever found in Singapore, jarred specimens native to the region, prawns the size of your arm, and enough spiders to put Ron Weasley into a nightmare-induced coma.
Attached to the National University of Singapore, the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum is also a leading institute in Southeast Asian scientific research.
17. National Museum of Nature and Science | Tokyo, Japan
Highlight: Hachiko the Akita ⭐
The National Museum of Nature and Science lives inside Tokyo’s sprawling Ueno Park, sharing its world-famous urban greenery with the Tokyo National Museum, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Ueno Zoo, important shrines and temples, and a Starbucks.
Easily recognizable by the diving blue whale outside, it’s inside the museum that you can fulfill your lifelong ambition of going nose-to-snout with Hachiko, Japanese celebrity and the most loyal good boy the world has ever known.
Visitors can explore the Japan Gallery to get a feel for the incredible diversity of nature found across its 6,000 islands.
There are exhibits dedicated to Japan’s flourishing coral seas, immersive stories of a time when elephants dominated the landscape, and an elegant hanging plesiosaur, suspended as if frozen mid-swim. Explore the timeline of dinosaurs’ evolution, and marvel at ocean oddities, including the biggest turtle skeleton you’ve ever seen.
These sensational displays are masterfully tied together to explore overarching themes of science and evolution, creating an educational experience befitting one of the world’s best natural history museums.