10 Unique Museums Off the Beaten Path

Do you look for the weird when you travel? Gabriela Garcia uncovered some of the world’s most unusual museums.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the Louvre in Paris and the Museum of Natural History in New York as much as the next person. But there’s a certain exhilaration that comes with hiking up a mountain and discovering a palace full of local antiquities, or traversing a much beloved city and stumbling across an experimental art collection I never knew existed. The world is full of oddities, avant-garde art work, mesmerizing scientific occurrences, and forgotten histories just waiting to be found. If you’re interested in some mental exploration beyond the usual, these ten museums will lead you in the right direction.

1. Wunderkammer, Melbourne, Australia

Wunderkammers, German for wonder chambers, were nature collections that formed the first “museums” long before the sterile, glass-enclosed institutions of today. In this museum-shop hybrid (pictured, above), the scientifically nostalgic are invited to gape at specimens in bell jars, mounted butterflies, animal fossils, and vintage medical instruments that sit on shelves straight out of a 19th century storybook (or the lair of a mad scientist).

2. Iga Ryu Ninja Museum, Mie Prefecture, Japan
Located near one of the top schools of 14th-century ninjutsu, the Iga Ryu Ninja Museum honors this “art of stealth.” As spectators make their way through the ninja residence’s trapdoors, secret passages, and revolving walls, a guide dressed in full ninja garb explains the tools, tricks, and secret ink messages that allowed ninjas to perform such feats as walking on water and stopping a sword with bare hands. Museum-goers are invited to try out some tricks themselves, after watching wild demonstrations that put any video game to shame.

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3. The Manhyia Palace Museum, Kumasi, Ghana
Housed in the former residence of two kings of the Asante nation, the largest and most powerful tribe of Ghana, the collection at the Manhyia Palace Museum (right) includes war drums, royal stools, and other historical artifacts that tell the history of the once powerful empire and honor the legacy of Yaa Asantewaa, a queen mother who led a revolt against the British and died in exile.

4. PS 1, Queens, New York
Art lovers who want to feast their eyes on highbrow world masterpieces find a home on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue “Museum Mile.” But for those who saw, conquered, and are seeking a little more adventure and chaos, like say a police car flipped upside down hanging from the ceiling with the lights functioning as a disco ball, PS 1 is a rousing retreat. This former schoolhouse turned museum is the rebellious sibling of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and is devoted solely to “displaying the most experimental art in the world.”

5. Museo Alcázar de Colón (Museum of the Fortress of Columbus), Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Santo Domingo is home to the New World’s oldest church, university, and cobblestone street. The Alcázar de Colón, situated between the Ozama River and a romantic plaza, is the former palace of Diego Columbus, the son of Christopher Columbus. It was once the main point from which exploration and conquest of Latin America and the Caribbean took place.

Now an UNESCO World Heritage site, its restored rooms and courtyards are lined with colonial art and artifacts that transport the visitor to a time of aristocracy, bravado, and bloodshed.

6. Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, United Kingdom
Sir John Soane is the 18th-century equivalent of a crazy aunt who furnishes her house in floor-to-ceiling knickknacks, except that he was a famous architect and built up a highly valuable collection. Packed in among a peculiar architectural layout of secret passageways, unusual lighting, and mirror mazes is an extensive and eccentric collection of paintings, sculptures, and antiquities that feature such marvels as an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus and a lock of Napoleon’s hair.

7. Mayong Central Museum, Assam, India
Tucked into the verdant plains of north east India, in a village once known as the Land of Black Magic, sits the tiny Mayong Central Museum. Dedicated to the rustic origins of dark magic and tantra, it houses local artifacts like ancient witchcraft manuscripts and huge swords that were possibly used for human sacrifices. Lucky visitors are treated to a magic show, where ancient rituals for casting healing spells show a side of magic far beyond bunny rabbits appearing out of top hats.

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8. Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum (Chocolate Museum), Cologne, Germany
There are many museums around the world dedicated to this much beloved indulgent confection, but the Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum stands out in the breadth of its coverage. Visitors learn of chocolate’s origins in the culture of the Aztecs, Olmecs, and Maya, view a cacao tree in a simulated tropical environment, appreciate vintage wrappers, and observe a production line at Lindt & Sprüngli. At the end of the tour, everyone is treated to a chocolate sample which is devoured, naturally, with expert appreciation.

9. Museo de las Momias (Museum of the Mummies), Guanajuato, Mexico
Don’t expect zombie-looking figures wrapped in white gauze at this Museum of the Mummies. Here, visitors come face-to-face with dried human cadavers whose skin and clothes clings to them like papier mâché, with nails and hair that continued to grow past death. Thanks to unexplained circumstances, probably having to do with soil conditions and climate, these unfortunate souls who were exhumed between 1865 and 1958 became the “accidental mummies” on display at the museum. It’s a morbid but fascinating glimpse into the past. 

10.  Museum on the Seam, Jerusalem, Israel
Bookended by an ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhood on the west and an Arab neighborhood on the east, the aptly named Museum on the Seam occupies the crumbling interior of a former military outpost that stood between Israel and Jordan. Visitors are treated to contemporary sociopolitical art that explores the complexities of coexistence, tolerance, and the violence that results from “us and them” dichotomies. Brutally painful at times and deliberately confrontational, the museum offers art for a world at war, a social dialogue that pushes past the canvas. 

Photos: Above, courtesy of the Wunderkammer; Right, The Manhyia Palace Museum; Bottom, The Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum