When in Paris, tourists stroll through the Louvre to gaze at Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. In Rome, Michelangelo’s white marble “Pieta” draws visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica. In Berlin it is, somewhat unexpectedly, a 3,000-year-old bust of Egyptian queen Nefertiti that entices travelers.

Great cities often have iconic objects whose fame lures casual visitors and connoisseurs alike. The painting known elsewhere as the “Minneapolis Rembrandt” is one such object at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), and there are other paintings, sculptures, collections and even places whose renown defines Minnesota far beyond the state’s boundaries.

“They do give the excuse for pilgrimage,” said Kaywin Feldman, the MIA’s director. “The idea that you have to go to Minneapolis to see one of Rembrandt’s greatest paintings in America is part of it. And that painting helps to define the museum in the minds of our audience, too.”

Not surprisingly, museums with long collecting histories tend to have the most must-see objects. The MIA, Walker Art Center and the Minnesota Historical Society, each a century or more old, are loaded with destination attractions. But there are contenders in less obvious places, too.

The Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona has been working closely with its chief benefactors, Mary Burrichter and her husband, Robert “Bob” Kierlin, to develop a world-class collection. The couple’s purchase last year of a $4.5 million watercolor by British artist J.M.W. Turner — plus pictures by Gauguin, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh and other marquee names — got art mavens checking their GPSes to see where, exactly, Winona might be.

“Our location on the surface looks like a detriment, but it’s actually quite a blessing,” said Andy Maus, the Marine’s executive director.

People from 20 countries and 50 states have visited, not bad for an eight-year-old museum in a rustic river town of 28,000.

“People expect a certain amount of quality, but we exceed expectations pretty regularly, and that plays to our benefit,” Maus said.

Masterpieces in demand

Defining a masterpiece is always difficult, but the MIA has long applied the “gotta have it” rule that was more eloquently articulated by longtime board member Bruce Dayton: “He’d ask, ‘If the Met was organizing an exhibit about this artist, would they have to borrow this work?’ ” Feldman said.

By that criterion, the MIA has dozens of objects — chiefly paintings but also drawings, sculpture and furniture — that museums around the world continually request. They include the Rembrandt, of course, but also paintings by Nicholas Poussin, Francisco de Goya, Eugène Delacroix, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, A. L. Giordet, Jean-Léon Gerome, Gustave Caillebotte, Pierre Bonnard, Egon Schiele and Max Beckmann, plus a gilded 1768 Piranesi table.

“Our Bonnard, ‘Dining Room in the Country,’ is requested by every Bonnard exhibition that’s ever organized and was the first piece you saw when you walked into the Bonnard retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 2006,” MIA painting curator Patrick Noon said. “The same thing happened with Girodet’s 1799 ‘Portrait of Mlle. Lange as Danae.’ The Louvre considered it such a pivotal work that they weren’t going to do their Girodet retrospective if they couldn’t have that picture. In Paris, they actually had a special room set aside just for it.”

Maps — 21,000 of them — are a world-class highlight of the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. Among the rarest are three “portolan charts,” hand-drawn 15th-century navigational maps of the Mediterranean coastline and the European coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Only about 100 portolan charts have survived from before Columbus’s famous trans-Atlantic voyage, and those at the Bell are “truly works of art,” said Marguerite Ragnow, the library’s curator.

“They’re hand done, so they’re totally unique and you’re looking at the only one in existence,” she said.

Walker Art Center also has key paintings (think Franz Marc’s “Large Blue Horses” and Andy Warhol’s “Sixteen Jackies”) that are always in demand. Among connoisseurs, the Walker is even better known for owning virtually all the prints of Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, Sigmar Polke and Tyler Graphics; a complete collection of Fluxus Multiples, and the archives of dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham.

“People come all the time” to study these collections that offer a “much more detailed, intimate look at an artist’s process,” curator Eric Crosby said.

Including the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, the Minnesota Historical Society manages 26 historic sites including forts, homes, a battlefield, a fur trading post and, most spectacularly, Split Rock Light House. Visitors flock to them, often without realizing that they’re state-owned cultural assets.

“We’ve done surveys, and people do tend to think that Split Rock is run by the National Park Service or the DNR,” chuckled Dan Spock, History Center director. “But Minnesota has a really well-developed network of beautiful places that are national in their significance, including Split Rock, our iconic lighthouse.”