The answer: it depends. That said, here are some things to consider if you are visiting Amsterdam, Madrid, Florence or Paris
VISIT THE tourism office in any major city in Europe and you’ll most likely find an offer to purchase a museum pass—a card that gives the holder entry to multiple local museums. Some passes include additional perks—priority entrance, discounts at monuments, free use of public transportation—but the high prices have always left me sceptical: these passes are marketed to tourists as a way to save money, but how many museums do you need to visit before you’ve recouped the cost of the pass? And were all of those museums already on your itinerary? To determine if the passes really are bargains, I examined the offers in four museum-dense European cities popular with travellers: Amsterdam, Madrid, Florence and Paris. So what’s the verdict on these supposed money-savers? It depends on the city—and on the traveller’s interests, allotted time and stamina.
This city’s popular museum district, home to the Van Gogh and Stedelijk museums, was revitalised by the 2013 reopening of the Rijksmuseum after a 10-year restoration (a greatest-hits selection of art had been on display during the renovation). Entrance to most of the area’s museums—which are all within easy walking distance—is included in the I amsterdam City Card, available for 24 hours (47 euros, about $57), 48 hours
(57 euros, about $69) or 72 hours (67 euros, about $81). Those prices aren’t low, although the card includes other perks, including a canal cruise, use of public transportation and discounts on bike rentals and other attractions like the Heineken Experience. Two top museums, the Anne Frank House (admission, 9 euros) and the Rijksmuseum (17.50 euros), do not accept the card, though the latter does offer a 2.50-euro discount to cardholders. But if you plan to buy a transit pass (normally 7.50 euros) and visit at least three included attractions per day, the card will probably save you a few euros.
Art museums are often tourists’ top priority in Madrid, which is home to a trio of outstanding institutions: the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia museums. The Madrid Card, which offers admission to over 50 museums (including those three), is available for 24 hours (47 euros), 48 hours (60 euros), 72 hours (63.65 euros) or 120 hours (73.15 euros). Unlike the Amsterdam pass, the Madrid Card does not cover transportation, though it does include discounts at some touristy shops and restaurants, like the Hard Rock Cafe. Cardholders also get priority entrance at the museums—but even if the card saves you time, it’s unlikely to save you money, at least in the short term. The cost of full-price admission to all three major museums plus the Royal Palace is still less than the cost of the 24-hour card (and I don’t recommend cramming all four into one day). But if you’re in town for a longer period of time and have an extensive list of museums on your itinerary, the discounted 72-hour card might make sense.
Much of the excitement that accompanied the introduction of the Firenze Card in 2011 deflated last year when the price of the pass was raised to 72 euros from 50 euros. The card does cover an impressive variety of venues: the 72-hour pass includes admission and priority access to over 60 museums, villas and gardens in the city and the surrounding countryside. It also includes free transit on buses and trams, although Florence is such a compact city that few will find that useful. Visitors in town for a short time, or those who plan to go to only the Galleria degli Uffizi and the Accademia, won’t save money with the pass and should instead purchase individual tickets online. But if you are planning a longer trip and are interested in seeing a broader array of spots—the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens, the Medici Chapels, the Bargello and Palazzo Strozzi, to name a few—you might come out ahead with the card, even at the inflated price.
I found the Paris Museum Pass to be the best deal, offering free entry with priority access to over 60 museums and monuments, including the Louvre, Ste-Chapelle, Musee d’Orsay, Musee Rodin, Centre Pompidou and Versailles. This pass also allows for an unlimited number of visits, a plus for tourists who want to spread out a tour of the Louvre over two or three days—not a bad idea with this easily overwhelming museum. Available for two consecutive days (42 euros), four days (56 euros) or six days (69 euros), the pass gives visitors about twice as much time as similarly-priced passes in Amsterdam and Madrid. First-time visitors will almost surely come out ahead with the pass, but tourists with fewer museums on the itinerary should do the math before buying.