Give yourself a good couple of hours to delve into the 200-plus galleries of this Greco-Roman temple on a hill by the river. Among its 227,000 works are such masterpieces as Cézanne’s monumental "Bathers"; regionally themed works by Eakins; classics from Van Gogh, Rubens, Duchamp, and Monet; plus, stunning collections of furniture, jewelry, ceramics, and armor. The permanent installations of a medieval cloister and a Japanese teahouse are especially restful and lovely.
The ground floor has some modern works, but more of the action is up on the first and second floors.
Explore works by Philly painter Thomas Eakins, as well as Shaker and Pennsylvania Dutch furnishings in the American Collection. Then cross the grand stair hall, looking up to see the “Ghost” mobile by third-generation Philadelphia sculptor Alexander Calder (his father did the fountain in Logan Circle; his grandfather did all the statues on City Hall, including the icon Billy Penn on top). The section on European Art 1850–1900 is packed with works by artists representative of the Impressionist, Symbolist, Naturalist, and Art Nouveau styles—including Cézanne, Cassatt, Monet, and Van Gogh, plus amazing period objets.
Before you head upstairs, take a quick spin through Modern and Contemporary Art for iconoclastic pieces by Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Constantin Brancusi, and particularly Marcel Duchamp (this is the world's greatest and most complete collection of Duchamps). The second floor shows earlier pieces from Europe: 1500-1850 French and English period rooms, including works by Poussin and Rubens; and 1100-1500: Renaissance works, featuring a 15th-century Venetian bedroom and a French Gothic chapel. The Asian gallery is an interesting mix of a Japanese teahouse, Persian carpets, and a 16th-century Indian temple hall.
The museum runs free tours of specific collections (Arms & Armor; European Art 1500-1850) and on themes (French Impressionists; scandalous art) most days hourly from 11am to 3pm.
Be sure to check out what's on at Special Exhibitions, which are almost always world-class, usually require advance reservations, and charge additional admission, and also to head across the street to the Perelman Building annex, opened in 2007. This thoroughly gorgeous Art Deco office building offers marvelously tactile collections in textile and design with cutting-edge works by Marcel Wanders and Frank Gehry, along with special exhibits in the same realms. It has a distinguished art reference library, and serves as a satellite for museum exhibits, including paintings by Andrew Wyeth, Matisse, and Renoir. Until the planned Frank Gehry–designed tunnel connects this building to the PMA, a shuttle operates between them. (The Perelman building does not enjoy the main museum's extended evening hours on Wed and Fri; it closes at 5pm daily.)
By the way, if you arrive by car and park in the underground garage, you'll actually enter the museum though the back entrance. Before you leave, be sure to walk around to the front for that classic Philly moment: Jog up the art museum steps, then turn around at the top to look down the Parkway at the Philly skyline and hop in place with your fists in the air à la Rocky while the "Gonna Fly Now" soundtrack plays in your head. (Look for the bronze imprint of Sly's Converse All-Stars on the top step.)