Quirky Museums Around the World: Odd and Unusual

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unumsual museums include the Witches' Museum, Norway

We often stumble upon quirky museums when we travel. Some are small, out-of-the-way curiosities that intrigue us with exhibits focused on one topic. A few astound us with their size and collections. And some offbeat  museums tickle our interests solely because, why not? And let’s face it, what seems odd, quirky, unusual, or just plain weird to some people will delight and entertain others. Indeed, a topic that appears bizarre at first glance makes sense once you delve inside.

Or not.

In any case, these quirky museums deepen our knowledge about an area, its heritage, inhabitants, and culture. We asked our contributors to share their favorite odd and quirky museums from travels abroad. And we know these are but a few of the many treasures awaiting discovery around the globe.

James Bond in Austria

007 Elements, Sölden

007 elements exhibit

Step into the world of James Bond at the mountaintop 007 Elements installation in Austria  (credit: Hilary Nangle)

Delve into the world of Bond, James Bond, at 007 Elements. This cinematic installation focuses on Spectre, the Bond movie filmed in Sölden. Getting to the museum, built into the Tirol’s Gaislachkogl Mountain’s 10,000-foot summit, is an adventure, with the easiest access either by gondola or on skis or snowboard.

In the movie, this is the site of the Hoffler Klinik, where Bond meets Madeleine Swann and where the snow chase begins.

High-tech, interactive exhibits in nine rooms on two floors immerse visitors in all aspects of creating a bond film. That includes stunts and special effects and cutting-edge technology. You’ll love the Wow! views and be entertained, even if you’re not a Bond fan. Pair it with lunch in the adjacent glass-walled Ice-Q restaurant.

— Hilary Nangle

Books as an art form in Ireland

Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

Chester Beatty Library, a quirky museum focusing on the art of the book.

The Art of the Book is the focus of Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library (credit: hilary Nangle)

Feast your eyes on The Art of the Book exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library, located on the grounds of Dublin Castle. American mining magnet, collector, and philanthropist Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875–1968), belatedly knighted for his wartime service, retired to Ireland in 1950. Here he created this library to showcase his rare books, scrolls and manuscripts from Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.

Here’s what makes this collection special: Instead of choosing works for their literary value, Beatty selected each for its artistic merit. Each is a work of art in itself. Among the treasures in his collection are Egyptian Books of the Dead, richly illustrated Islamic manuscripts, Chinese jade books, Japanese picture scrolls, European printed books, and Old Master prints. Subdued lighting enhances the experience.

Plan your visit to coincide with lunch at the library’s Silk Road Café. The menu, featuring Middle Eastern, North African, and Mediterranean cuisine, pairs perfectly with the exhibition.

Quirky museums  in Italy

Trullo Sovrano Museum, Alberobello

Trulli Sovrano is one of Italy's quirky museums

A conical Trulli house in Alberobello (credit: Anita Breland & Tom Fakler)

The little Pugliese city of Alberobello is “trulli” a journey back in time! Its many conical houses, or trulli, resemble a scene from a fairy tale, but the limestone structures typified the vernacular architecture of the region for centuries. UNESCO inscribed the Trulli of Alberobello as a World Heritage Site in 1996.

The 17th-century Trullo Sovrano was a rarity, the only trullo home built with two livable floors. The house is a composite building, made grander than other trulli in Alberobello by joining several conical structures. A stairway built into one of the main walls provides access to the upper floor. The house has served as a chapel, an apothecary, and a movie set, and now a museum. Visit the Trullo Sovrano Museum to glimpse everyday trullo life for a well-to-do-family in a bygone era.

— Anita Breland & Tom Fakler

San Colombano, Tagliavini Collection, Bologna

Quirky museums: Antique musical instruments of the Tagliavini Collection in San Colombano

Antique musical instruments of the Tagliavini Collection in San Colombano (credit: Anita Breland & Tom Fakler)

Music lovers, heads up! Bologna, Italy’s San Colombano complex of sacred buildings, awaits your visit. The former church dates in part from the 7th century. And its original wall paintings and other artifacts provide a stunning backdrop to the unique Tagliavini collection of antique musical instruments.

The clavichords, harpsichords, organs, spinets, pianos and other instruments are all kept in working order and are featured in concerts—even silent movie nights!—in the dramatic setting of the fully restored church. San Colombano is part of Genus Bononiae.Museums in the City, a cultural, artistic and museum itinerary comprising six evocative destinations in the historical center of Bologna.

— Anita Breland & Tom Fakler

Tomato Museum (Museo del Pomodoro), Parma

The Tomato Museum

You’ll find the Tomato Museum in Parma, Italy (credit: Tomato Museum)

The Tomato Museum is located in Parma in the region of Emilia Romagna, called the “Food Valley” for its outstanding food products and culinary traditions. This “fruity” museum aptly sits next to the Museum of Pasta, two of many food-focused quirky museums in this area.

Although tomatoes are now associated with many Italian dishes—pizza, lasagna, and pasta sauces, to name a few—the tomato wasn’t native to Italy. Spanish conquerors brought them here from South America in the 16th century. But it was nearly 100 years later that this “red gold” was popularized by the powerful Este family who distributed the seeds to peasant farmers.

Visitors to the Tomato Museum can learn everything about the lowly tomato, from its production and processing to its preservation. Historical images, vintage machinery, photography, sculptures, and paintings fill seven exhibition halls. And visitors learn about the industry pioneers who raised the profile of the tomato and turned it into an economic powerhouse for the country. Also noteworthy is the museum’s medieval building and courtyard that housed a tomato processing and canning center in the 60s.

— Irene S. Levine

A quirky museum focused on astronomy & astrology in India

Jantar Mantar, Jaipur

The sundial at Jantar Mantar Jaipur is the largest in the world, measuring time to an accuracy of twenty seconds.

The sundial at Jantar Mantar Jaipur is the largest in the world, measuring time to an accuracy of twenty seconds (credit: Anita Breland & Tom Fakler)

The 18th-century Maharaja of Jaipur, Sawai Jai Singh II, devoted himself to astronomy and astrology, the linchpins of Islamic and Hindu science. The maharaja constructed five Jantar Mantars, or astronomical observatories, for the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah.

The aim was to correct the astronomical discrepancies in existing Islamic and Hindu calendars. The great Jantar Mantar in Jaipur was the last of these. Astronomers used the large observation instruments called yantras to determine the position of planetary bodies and measure time. The Jantar Mantar in Jaipur is considered by some scholars to be a direct descendent of Ulugbek’s Observatory in present-day Uzbekistan, built almost three centuries earlier.

The Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, Rajasthan became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010. Visit this must-see monument in tandem with the nearby City Palace with its stunning courtyard, museum, art galleries and garden.

— Anita Breland & Tom Fakler

Quirky museums in Norway

Nobel Peace Center, Oslo

Nobel Peace Center in Norway

Just a few hours after the announcement that the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to the OPCW, the organization had entered the Nobel Field of the Nobel Peace Center, alongside all the other Peace Prize laureates. (credit: VISITOSLO/Johannes Granseth/Nobel Peace Center)

Alfred Nobel wanted to give peace a chance. During his life, the Swedish chemist, engineer, and industrialist amassed a fortune thanks to his creation of an explosive device to detonate liquid nitroglycerin and to the manufacturing of explosives. But that wasn’t all he invented. Over his lifetime, he registered more than 350 patents.

He also wrote books, poems, and plays, although few were published.  When he died in 1896, his empire comprised more than 90 munitions factories around the world. And yet, Nobel was a pacifist at heart with keens interest in culture and peace.

The Peace Bench outside the Nobel Peace Center in downtown Oslo. (VisitOSLO / Didrick Stenersen)

The Peace Bench outside the Nobel Peace Center in downtown Oslo. (VisitOSLO / Didrick Stenersen)

His will created a fund with “the interest on which shall be annually awarded as prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The prize monies were divided into five equal parts with awards in physics, chemistry or invention, physiology or medicine, literature, and “one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.”

The independent, nonpartisan Nobel Peace Center in downtown Oslo shares not only Nobel’s vision, but also those of Nobel Peace Prize recipients.

— Hilary Nangle

The Witches’ Memorial, Vardo

Witch's Memorial, Norway

One of Norway’s unusual if not quirky museums is Steilneset, more commonly known as  the Witches’ Memorial. (credit: Roger Ellingsen)

Formally known as the Steilneset Memorial, the Witches’ Memorial honors the 91 people burned here as witches between 1598 and 1692. The contemporary seaside memorial, a collaboration between Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, comprises two separate but adjacent buildings. They top a promontory in the raw and treeless Arctic landscape edging the Barents Sea. The somber yet stunning design emulates sail cloth and codfish drying tracks. It draws visitors into a 410-feet long, black corridor illuminated by 91 small windows, randomly spaced and dimly lit by a single suspended, filament light bulb. Plaques on the walls briefly describe each victim.

Like in the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts, Norwegian accusers could report on anyone, turning neighbor against neighbor. Accusations ranged from casting spells on people and animals, to causing disease or death. Dancing, drinking, and card games could also result in execution. And if the alleged witch floated, that was enough to prove her guilt and seal her fate.

Burnign chair sulpture at the Witches' Memorial, Vardo Norway

“The Damned, the Possessed, and The Beloved” sculpture at the Witches’ Memorial, Norway  (credit: Jarle Wæhler, Statens vegvesen)

Perhaps the most chilling part of this memorial is “The Damned, the Possessed, and the Beloved,” Bourgeois’ sculpture encased in a dark glass cube. Inside a concrete circle, a steel chair burns eternally, the flames reflected eerily by seven oval mirrors that represent accusers gathered to watch.

— Hilary Nangle

Quirky museums in Portugal

The Bread and Wine Museum, Favaios

Experience the aromas of wine at The Bread and Wine Museum in Favaios, Portugal

Experience the aromas of wine at The Bread and Wine Museum in Favaios, Portugal (credit: Anita Breland & Tom Fakler)

Favaios, Portugal, perches high above the vineyards of the Douro River. The hamlet has produced Moscatel wine since the 18th century and its famed four-cornered bread for even longer. Almost everyone here has helped produce one of these signature products. The Bread and Wine Museum, housed in a partially completed Baroque manor house, tells their story.

The museum is informative for Portuguese speakers but light on English and exhibition objects. An entry ticket includes a glass of Moscatel, softly aromatic and sweet. To make the most of your visit, though, you need to taste the bread, so be sure to stop in at a local bakery first. Experience both by adding asking to add Favaios to a personalized Douro tour.

— Anita Breland & Tom Fakler

Ilhavo Maritime Museum

Climb aboard a codfish schooner in the Ilhavo Maritime Museum

Climb aboard a codfish schooner in the Ilhavo Maritime Museum (credit: Anita Breland & Tom Fakler)

The Portuguese were the first to fish codfish in Newfoundland in the 15th century. And bacalhau, or salted codfish, features on menus everywhere. Until recently, Portuguese fishermen spent months each year on treacherous North Atlantic seas pursuing cod, far from their families and homes. Today, just a hop and a skip down the coast from Aveiro, Portugal, the Ilhavo Maritime Museum’s permanent and temporary exhibitions promote the preservation of Portugal’s maritime traditions.

Inside this prize-winning modern building, a two-masted cod-fishing schooner sets the stage for telling the story of fishing on the high seas in Newfoundland and Greenland. Displays feature ancient and contemporary nautical instruments, and the museum’s aquarium shows several species of codfish. In addition, works by Portuguese artists highlight the maritime activities of the region. After your visit, enjoy a fresh pastry in the museum’s café.

— Anita Breland & Tom Fakler

Museu-Enoteca 17.56, Vila Nova de Gaia

At one time, wines of the Real Companhia Velha had exclusive rights for port wine service in Porto restaurants.

At one time, wines of the Real Companhia Velha had exclusive rights for port wine service in Porto restaurants (credit: Anita Breland & Tom Fakler)

Portugal’s King Dom José I created the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro in September 1756. The company is now known as Real Companhia Velha. Since 2018, its Museu-Enoteca 17.56 has presented culture and gastronomy together in a unique space in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the Douro from Porto.

The “museum of the oldest appellation in the world” tells the story of Real Companhia Velha, showcasing its influential role in the commercial and cultural life of Porto and the Douro Valley. Historical documents, objects, and interactive displays show the making and transporting of port wine over the centuries. Upstairs, the beautifully styled 17.56 Enoteca serves hearty Portuguese specialties, sushi, and tapas, accompanied by Portuguese and international wines. After visiting the museum, don’t miss an opportunity to sample the gastronomy of the Enoteca.

— Anita Breland & Tom Fakler

Fun, offbeat, & quirky museums in Switzerland

Hoosesagg Museum, Basel

The Hoosesagg Museum, decorated for Christmas, is one of Switzerland's most unusual museums

The quirky Hoosesagg Museum, decorated for Christmas (credit: Anita Breland & Tom Fakler)

The Hoosesagg Museum is tiny, just a single window in the door of a house on a stairstep street in Basel’s Altstadt, or Old Town. This “pocket” museum began in 1995 to give the prying eyes of passersby something to focus on and enjoy.

The first collections exhibited were small objects — no larger than a palm — that would fit into one’s pocket or, in Basel dialect, Hoosesagg. The owners now invite others to display their small collections in the one-square meter display space. Can’t get to Basel for a personal look? Visit the Hoosesagg Museeum website to look back at the many collections that have been on show here.

— Anita Breland & Tom Fakler

Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

Inside a quirky museum: the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne imight be one of the quirkiest of Switzerland's unusual museums

When it comes to unusual museums, the  Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, fits the bill. (credit: Anita Breland & Tom Fakler)

Art without rules, created by artists from the fringes of society, can be uniquely gripping, as a visit to a unique and rather quirky museum in Lausanne, Switzerland reveals. The Collection de l’Art Brut features the artwork of loners, lost souls and the criminally insane. Housed in the 18th-century Chateau de Beaulieu, the museum began with the personal collection of French painter Jean Dubuffet, donated to the City of Lausanne in 1971.

Temporary exhibitions and workshops for adults and children interpret these tragic artists’ imaginative approaches and belief systems. Displays include illustrations of divinities and saints, sculpted works, sophisticated abstracts and illustrated manuscripts. Each is accompanied by the artist’s biography. Museum tickets, valid for three days, provide entry to the three municipal museums (Historical Museum, Roman Museum, Collection de l’Art Brut).

— Anita Breland & Tom Fakler

Chaplin’s World, Vevey

A quirky museum: Chaplin's World, one of Switzerland's unusual museums, covers the life of Charlie Chaplin

Is it Einstein or Charlie Chaplin? Find out at Chaplin’s World (credit: Hilary Nangle)

Child actor. Vaudeville comedian. Tramp. Producer. Director. Musician. Composer. Humanitarian. Foreigner. Liberal. Author. Four marriages. Eleven children. In a life that began in London poverty, progressed to California, and ended in Vevey, Charlie Chaplin experienced all this and so much more.

Immensely popular in the 1920s and 1930s, Chaplin’s fan base declined in the 1940s, when he married his fourth and much younger wife Oona, faced scandal, and was accused of being a Communist sympathizer. His passport was revoked on a working trip to London with his family. He eventually resettled in a handsome manoir amidst park-like grounds in Vevey, Switzerland. This property, now Chaplin’s World, brings this brilliant creative mind to life by immersing visitors in his world. Enjoy interactive exhibits and intriguing displays in the house and the purpose-built studio building.

— Hilary Nangle

Customs Museum, Gandria

The customs museum is one of Switzerland's focused and unusual museums

The Customs Museum fronts on Lake Lugano near the Italian border. (credit: Hilary Nangle)

Alpine mountains plummet to Lake Lugano, which laps Switzerland’s and Italy’s shorelines. That made this lake in the southwest corner of the country a favorite among smugglers. Historically, many in this once poor area traded in contraband to supplement their meager incomes. They smuggled food-related and other goods, including tobacco, alcohol, sugar, and salt. Now, illicit trade might include drugs, people, animals, and money.

The three-story mustard-yellow Customs Museum is wedged between a mountain and the water’s edge. Sited in a former border guard post in the Cantine de Gandria, this museum focuses on the work and the lives of Switzerland’s Customs officers and border guards. Begin in the past and work your way to the present, viewing permanent and special exhibitions covering smuggling, counterfeiting, and illegal trade. Pair a visit with lunch at one of two grotto restaurants within easy walking distance.

The easiest — and really, only — way to get to Switzerland’s Customs Museum, also known as the Zoll Museum and the Smuggling Museum, is by passenger ferry from Lugano.

— Hilary Nangle

Sammlung Friedhof Hörnli, Riehen

A horse-drawn carriages on display in the Sammlung Friedhof Hörnli, an unusual museum focused on death

A horse-drawn carriages on display in the Sammlung Friedhof Hörnli (credit: Anita Breland & Tom Fakler)

Death comes to everyone, and a few museums in Europe are dedicated exclusively to the topic of death and funeral culture. Switzerland’s largest cemetery, in Riehen, just outside Basel, hosts one of them.

The Sammlung Hörnli , established in 1994, exhibits an impressive collection of horse-drawn carriages, grave markers and funeral mementos. Displays include a unique collection of surgical implants of those cremated here. Urns from around the world and a selection of coffins, such as those made to accommodate plague victims in prior centuries, complete the collection. The shop sells models of hearses used in the early days of automobiles.

“Sleeping Muse,” a bronze piece by noted Basel sculptor Bettina Eichin, was installed at the museum in 2017. The museum opens to visitors for several hours on two Sundays each month. A few years ago, this quirky museum was featured in Basel’s annual Museumsnacht.

— Anita Breland & Tom Fakler

An offbeat literary museum in Turkey

The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul

A Turkish advertising poster with some of the mementos on display in The Museum of Innocence,unusual museums

A Turkish advertising poster with some of the mementos on display in The Museum of Innocence, a quirky museum in Istanbul. (credit: Anita Breland & Tom Fakler)

Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk designed and established Istanbul’s The Museum of Innocence as a chapter-by-chapter journey through his eponymous novel. His book, a masterpiece, chronicles the lost love of protagonist Kemal, a wealthy businessman, in the 1970s.

And this quirky museum, its evocative counterpart, features the flotsam of society’s manners and mores. Displays ranging from cigarette butts to saltshakers, photographs and myriad other objects revisit the Istanbul of Pamuk’s youth and objectify the yearning and loss experienced by Kemal.

The exhibits ferry visitors into a lost world, an Istanbul both traditional and modern. Audio guides help those who have not read the book make the journey. The museum’s manifesto proposes a future of museums as re-creating the world of single human beings, modestly and in their homes, neighborhoods, and streets. This fictional life co-mingled with Pamuk’s own memories is a marvelous place to begin.

— Anita Breland & Tom Fakler

A forbidden art museum in Uzbekistan

The Savitsky Collection, Nukus

A quirky museum: The Savitsky Collection, reason enough for a trip to Uzbekistan

The Savitsky Collection, an unusual museum that’s reason enough for a trip to Uzbekistan (credit: Anita Breland & Tom Fakler)

After the Second World War, Igor Savitsky, a Kyiv, Russia-born artist and collector, traveled to Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region. He came as an archeological expedition artist and stayed on as a teacher and founder of the Savitsky Collection aka The Nukus Museum. Savitsky collected many things, but especially the works of artists linked to Central Asia and thousands of works by artists forgotten or forbidden by the USSR of Stalin and his successors.

Today, the museum in remote Nukus houses the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde works and significant artifacts, textiles, and jewelry from Central Asia. Savitsky’s enormous achievement — sometimes called Le Louvre des steppes — is a must-see destination for art lovers visiting a land best known for the marvels of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

— Anita Breland & Tom Fakler

Lead photo: Witches’ Museum, Vardo, Norway (credit: ©Hege Lysholm / Statens vegvesen)

Pinterest pin: Witches’ Museum, Vardo, Norway (credit: Hege Lysholm / Statens vegvesen)


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