Travel & Leisure
updated 11/15/2011 10:20:40 AM ET 2011-11-15T15:20:40

There’s a woman so captivating that millions travel just to set eyes on her. Even if da Vinci’s Mona Lisa isn’t your type, you can’t argue with the numbers: last year 8.5 million people streamed through the Louvre, which houses her, making it the world’s most-visited museum.

Artistic masterpieces and scientific artifacts clearly interest travelers at least as much as attractions like the Eiffel Tower (visited by 6.7 million). We dug deeper to find out which 20 museums worldwide are considered must-sees worth the price of admission.

The Louvre Museum, ranked No. 1, benefits from broad name recognition and an enviable art collection, but it also has the good fortune of being located in France, which—along with the U.S.—drew the most international tourists in 2010, according to the World Tourism Organization. More than half of the 20 most-visited museums are located in Paris, D.C., or New York City.

Yet there are also some surprises. The only Asian museum to make our most-visited list—the National Museum of Korea—welcomed roughly 3 million people last year, about twice as many as did Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. Since South Korea isn’t a top destination for international travelers, this museum’s ranking reveals the power of domestic tourism, especially in a developed country with a sizable affluent population.

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Wherever their home base, budget-conscious travelers flock to museums as an inexpensive or even free way to spend an afternoon. Museums, too, have struggled with the recession, and some increasingly rely on their permanent collections as fodder for special exhibitions.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, reduced its exhibition budget by 39 percent yet still attracted 326,000 more visitors than in 2009 by leveraging its extensive in-house collection, which spawned a massively popular Picasso show. However, not all museums can replicate that success; Chicago’s Art Institute and Field Museum both saw attendance rates drop by hundreds of thousands from 2009 to 2010.

Read on for the 20 most-visited museums around the globe.

The Methodology: To tally up the world’s most-visited museums, we gathered the most recent data supplied by the museums themselves or from government agencies, industry reports, and reputable media outlets. Whenever available we used 2010 data. Institutes that don’t sell tickets gave us estimates as best they could. While we left out palaces and sacred spaces that house art, we did include the Vatican Museums because admission is separate from St. Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican Museums attract a broad audience, not just religious pilgrims, and have had a significant cultural influence. “The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art” remains the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s third most popular show in its 141-year history, drawing more than 896,000 visitors during its three-month run in 1983.

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