Boston and Cambridge form one of America's great art metropolises. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a stately structure in the early stages of a massive renovation and expansion plan, boasts world-class collections in areas from Japanese Buddhist and Egyptian art to Impressionism. Prescient late-19th-century Bostonians were buying Monets before the paint was dry.
A 5-minute walk from the MFA is one of the country's most eccentric art attractions. Housed in a faux-Venetian palazzo, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a monument to that determined lady's idiosyncrasies: Gardner bought both tchotchkes and masterpieces, including a sublime Rembrandt self-portrait. And she wrote a will dictating that her collection remain exactly as she installed it.
Across the Charles are great universities with art to match. The public sculpture collection is the big draw at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Harvard's three art museums -- the Fogg, the Sackler, and the Busch-Reisinger -- offer what used to be called an "encyclopedic" display, until someone noticed the absence of Africa and South America.
In the heart of the city's Back Bay are the Institute of Contemporary Art, which offers cutting-edge work, and the Boston Public Library, home to enough significant sculpture and murals to qualify as a museum in itself.
If your time in Boston limits you to viewing only particular pieces of art rather than entire collections, however, here's what not to miss:
"Europa" by Titian, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Unquestionably the greatest painting by the 16th-century Venetian master in America, it depicts the moment when Jupiter, in the guise of a bull, has just swept the Princess Europa away from her companions on a beach and into the air. Titian captures all the drama through swirling brushwork, a stunning diagonal composition, and an intense expression on every face. (The painting's original name is "The Rape of Europa," but Boston is too polite a place to call it that.)
Mummy Mask, Museum of Fine Arts. Placed over the head of a wrapped mummy, the plaster face is adorned with gilding and glass that are dazzling. The mask is from the Roman period, first century AD, but carries on a tradition dating from Egypt's Middle Kingdom. The MFA boasts one of the world's half-dozen finest caches of Egyptian antiquities.
"Watson and the Shark" by John Singleton Copley, Museum of Fine Arts. A huge, dramatic scene of disaster at sea, an action-packed tour de force painted by Boston native Copley.
"The Triumph of Religion" by John Singer Sargent, Boston Public Library. Sargent worked for 20 years on this cycle of murals, controversial because it depicts Christianity as the pinnacle of religious evolution and either ignores or insults some other faiths. It speaks to still-relevant political issues, including separation of church and state. Like those issues, it remains unfinished and unresolved.
The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Boston Common. One of the greatest works of the American Renaissance, the sculpture honors the young Union officer and his African-American troops as they set off to fight for the cause of freedom in the Civil War -- and to meet their doom -- a story told in the film "Glory." They're all mid-stride, eyes ahead, wearing an air of determined stoicism, in a scene of consummate honor and bravery. Across the street from the State House, Beacon Street.
"Kneeling Attendant Bodhisattva," Arthur M. Sackler Museum. A Chinese sculpture of unbaked clay with traces of pigment, dating from the 8th-century Tang Dynasty. The kneeling figure is a model of serenity. Posed on a pedestal that looks like a lotus, the sculpture still has intriguing bits of color, including green eyebrows that swoop down to his nose.
"Self-Portrait in a Tuxedo" by Max Beckmann, Busch-Reisinger Museum. The early 20th-century German Expressionist portrays himself as swaggering and cynical, one hand on his hip, the other holding a smoldering cigarette. The painting is one of the signature works at this Harvard museum.
"Transported" by Mela Lyman, Harbor Ferry Terminal Building, Logan Airport. A decade ago, Boston painter Lyman created a frieze to go around the top of the ceiling in this charming little 12-sided building where people wait for the ferry to Rowes Wharf and disembark on the return trip. Lyman's subject is swimmers plunging into the water, their suspended state a metaphor for the travelers'.
"Drawn Water" by Mags Harries and Lajos Heder, Walter J. Sullivan Water Purification Plant. Harries and Heder, Bostonians who work in the public art realm, have created an ensemble that shows where water comes from, where it goes, and what it does at the purification plant at Cambridge's Fresh Pond. The suite goes from a moon gate framing the pond to a lobby floor that's a terrazzo map of the city's water, from rivers to backyard swimming pools.
"Wraith Wrap" by Leslie Wilcox, Forest Hills Cemetery. This 25-foot tall sculpture by Boston artist Wilcox is newly installed at Forest Hills. In addition to being the final resting place of many eminent Bostonians, this is a great sculpture park with works by such notables as Daniel Chester French. Wilcox's piece is a giant coat made of stainless steel screen (like your window screens) and wrapped around a huge, partly rotted maple tree. The coat has five arms, all raised in an appeal to the heavens. The work is part of an exhibit up through October called "ReVisited: Contemporary art in a Grand Victorian Landscape."
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 The Fenway, Boston, 617-566-1401. www.gardnermuseum.org. MBTA: Green Line E Train to MFA stop.
Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, 617-267-9300. www.mfa.org. MBTA: Green Line E Train to MFA stop.
Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston St., Copley Square, Boston, 617-536-5400. www.bpl.org. MBTA: Green Line to Copley.
Arthur M. Sackler Museum, 485 Broadway, Harvard University, Cambridge, 617-495-9400. www.artmuseums.harvard.edu. MBTA: Red Line to Harvard Square.
Busch-Reisinger Museum, 32 Quincy St., Harvard University, Cambridge, 617-495-9400. www.artmuseums.harvard.edu. MBTA: Red Line to Harvard Square.
Harbor Ferry Terminal Building, Boston, 617-428-2800. www.massport.com/logan. MBTA: Blue Line to Airport.
Walter J. Sullivan Water Purification Plant, 250 Fresh Pond Parkway, Cambridge, 617-349-4380. www.cambridgeartscouncil.org. MBTA: Red Line to Alewife.
Forest Hills Cemetery, 95 Forest Hills Ave., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-0128. www.foresthillscemetery.com. MBTA: Orange Line to Forest Hills.