Perhaps one of the strangest museums you’ll ever visit but certainly a hidden gem found in an otherwise genteel and academic Oxford, the Pitt Rivers Museum is like a peek behind the curtain at the chaotic underbelly of Victorian England. Though today we may look back at the Victorians and their self-important and slightly condescending world views with disdain, it was a time when people were simply curious about the world, when they wanted to be awed and amazed, a Europe full of people fascinated to learn everything – and the stranger the better. The Victorian era was a time of intense curiosity, knowledge and discovery of the outside world. Bizarre but wondrous technological inventions, exotic flora and fauna, items and traditions from far-flung cultures – it was all new and fascinating. This is the era of the Crystal Palace of London, the Palm Houses of Kew Gardens, Belfast and more, the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the time of the World Fairs and world expositions, of steam engines and curiosity museums. Amidst all this was born the Pitt Rivers Museum. Founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers, a former soldier, anthropologist, ethnologist, and archaeologist, the Pitt Rivers Museum is today part of the renowned University of Oxford. With a collection arranged by use instead of by age or location found, the Pitt Rivers Museum is home to over 500,000 objects (though Augustus’s original collection started off with 22,000), with the largest being a 11-metre-high Haida totem pole. The museum was set up this way in order to show the Victorian (and now modern) viewer of humanity’s upwards progression in design, technology and skill, as well as the fascinating evolution of culture and tradition of exotic communities, starting with the most simple societies all the way up to the complex. The museum is a place full of wonders and a perfect viewpoint not only of the cultures on display, but also of the culture that set it up.
Pro tip: Find the Pitt Rivers Museum to the east of Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where you’ll locate the only accessed point. Afterwards, head down the narrow cobbled alley to Turf Tavern, a 13th century tavern, fabled to be the most difficult pub in Oxford and long popular as a place for students to exchange ideas.
Tucked into a shady backroad a stone’s throw from St Patrick’s Cathedral in downtown Dublin is the exquisite Marsh’s Library. This isn’t just any library. In fact, Marsh’s Library looks exactly the same as it did when infamous horror author Bram Stoker (writer of Dracula) was a scholar there, checking out books about history and Transylvania! Founded in the early 1700s by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, Marsh’s Library has been a renowned place of study since opening day. A gentle odour of ageing leather and ancient oak meets you as you walk through the neoclassical doorway and up the stairs of this beautiful, hidden library. Magnificent oak-panelled shelves rise up, larger leather-bound tomes on the bottom, smaller volumes up top. At the back of the library, there are still reading cages liming the walls – and 18th century solution to avoid books going missing (because of course you weren’t permitted to check a book off the premises in those days!). Today, only scholars can look through the books (though in a modern reading room, not the cages!), but there’s always an exhibition in Marsh’s Library, changed every few months. At the time of writing this, the exhibition is on Bram Stoker and the books he consulted while studying at Trinity University, though past exhibitions have been on stolen books, rare books or other scholars and writers who’ve consulted or featured in the thousands of books on the shelves of this library.
Pro tip: Check their website to see what exhibition is on at the time of your visit. While in Dublin, enjoy a stroll in Stephen’s Green or Merrion Park, visit any of the free national museums or have a walk through the infamous Temple Bar district.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain conjures up images of a strange and futuristic community, a space-age society perhaps found in the cartoonish Meet the Jetsons or the comedic Fifth Element. Certainly among of Europe’s strangest architectural icons, the Guggenheim was designed by futuristic Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry who was encouraged to “design something daring,” and adorned with artwork such as Puppy (a giant dog made of flowers), and large metallic balloon animals created by American artist Jeff Koons. Erected in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum houses a collection of modern and contemporary art as part of both permanent and revolving exhibitions across various medias. Bilbao may seem like an odd place for such a museum. Built in the seedy, dilapidated docks district of Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum was commissioned by the Basque government as a way to bring tourism into this little-visited region, rejuvenating not only the now-abandoned docks but also the under-appreciated Basque country. Today, it routinely makes lists of most important and admired contemporary buildings not just in Spain or Europe, but worldwide.
In the centre of the wildly beautiful city of Krakow is the eclectic structure known as Wawel Castle. Commissioned by King Casimir III in the 13th century, Wawel Castle is a strange mix of nearly all the popular architectural styles of the 13th – 18th centuries – including medieval, gothic, Renaissance (particularly Italian), Baroque, Romanesque and more (neo-classical seems the only important style of the time missing from the list). The Wawel we see today is much altered from the original structure – parts were destroyed by fire, leading to other parts added on or rebuilt entirely. When it was occupied by the Prussian Army, it was changed to meet new needs and new standards – Wawel’s was modernised and its interior re-styled. Defensive structures were changed, and some buildings were removed. Long the residence of Polish kings during Poland‘s Golden Years and beyond, Wawel overlooks one of Poland’s most spectacular cities. In fact, Krakow is one of the few urban centres not razed during the devastating WWII (due to Hitler using it as a base camp). Today, as one of the largest castles in Poland, Wawel Castle is a member of UNESCO world heritage sites (alongside Krakow’s historic downtown). Inside, find museums and exhibition on art, architecture, history, ceramics, weaponry, gold, and even articles from the Orient. To visit is also the cathedral, the ‘lost’ basements where the foundations show what once was there, and cave leading to the banks of the river nicknamed “the Dragon’s Den,” home to the legendary Dragon of Wawel lived.
Pro tip: Wawel can be quite busy – try to visit in the off-peak season (or at least earlier in the day) if you can. Admission costs vary, see more here. Free admission is on Mondays from 9:30am – 1pm in April – October, and Sundays 10am – 4pm in November – March. Don’t miss the nearby fire-breathing dragon, a monument to the Wawel Dragon legend (it breathes fire in 5 minute intervals and can be activated by SMS).
City of Arts & Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias), Valencia, Spain
Some of Europe’s strangest architecture can be found in Spain – from Bilbao’s famous Guggenheim Museum to Gaudi’s everything (Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Parc Guell and of course Sagrada Familia Cathedral). As one of the 12 Treasures of Spain and Valencia’s most visited site, the bizarre architecture of Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences deserves to be on the same list. Covering roughly two kilometres of the former riverbed of the River Turia, this bizarre complex is a homage to modern arts and architecture, yes, but also to science, culture and technology. An opera house, a science museum, an IMAX cinema, a vastly diverse park with walking paths along an open-air arts gallery, an aquarium and a concert venue make up this colourfully bizarre futurist complex. Contrasting strangely with Valencia’s old town, both halves of the city are worth the visit!
Somehow, little old ladies in France can elegantly pull off wearing a bright orange suit – which is actually a pretty fantastic feat! Even outside of this lady, Lyon’s fine arts museum is full of elegance. Once a convent, this magnificent 17th century building now houses one of the most impressive and important art collections in Europe. Ranging from ancient Egypt antiquities to the Modern art period, Lyon’s fine arts museum has a little of everything. And I’m proud to say that the city that houses this beautiful museum will soon be my city! I can’t wait to move to Lyon. As of this fall, Lyon will be my new home!