Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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© Elan Fleisher

As unique as its founder, the eccentric socialite and patron of the arts who was the inspiration for Isabel Archer in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, the Gardner museum is a lavish reconstruction of a 15th-century Venetian palace, complete with a luxurious interior courtyard with a seasonally changing floral display. Initially conceived by Gardner and her husband Jack to house the growing collection of art and objects amassed during their extensive travels, the museum only came into being after Jack's death.

It opened in 1903, with the widowed Gardner residing on the fourth floor until she died in 1924. She wanted the arrangement of the architecture and artworks to engage the imagination, so every piece in the 2,500-piece collection, spanning European, Asian and Islamic art from classical times to the turn of the 20th century, is meticulously placed according to her personal instructions. The result is an idiosyncratic mix of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, rare books and furniture. Among the many highlights are John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo, Titian's Europa and works by Botticelli, Rembrandt and Raphael.

In 1990, 13 pieces, including Rembrandts, a Vermeer and Degas drawings, were stolen in America's largest art heist, and the empty spaces—which can't be filled under the terms of Gardner's will—are a poignant sight. Many of the works aren't labeled, but you can buy or borrow a guide to the collections and the security staff are charming and helpful. There are also detailed floor plans on the website.

Venue name: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Address: 25 Evans Way

Cross street: at The Fenway
Opening hours: 11am-5pm Tue-Sun
Transport: Green E line to Museum of Fine Arts
Price: $12; $5–$10 reductions; free under-18s