From world-class modern art to African-American culture, the best museums in New York City offer something for just about everyone. Whether you want to explore the immigrant experience, marvel over glittering jewels, watch old episodes of I Love Lucy, or wander through a medieval-style cloister, you can do it in one of the following 20 New York museums.
The Best New York Museums for Art
Home to one of the finest collections on the planet, the Metropolitan Museum of Art boasts a wide range of artwork that span 5,000 years. If you only visit one New York art museum, make it this one. The ancient Egyptian art rivals anything outside of Cairo, and the restored Greco-Roman galleries are filled with some of the most important pieces in the world. Your kids will love the Arms and Armor collection, as well as the magnificent 15 B.C. Temple of Dendur—both on the first floor. The American Wing is graced with paintings by James McNeill Whistler, Georgia O’Keeffe, and John Singer Sargent; it’s also where you can see the massive “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze.
The Frick Collection consists of a series of interconnecting galleries, housed in a fabulous setting—the elegant former mansion of industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The furnished rooms opened in 1935 to exhibit works by Constable, Gainsborough, Goya, El Greco, Rembrandt, Turner, and Whistler. Also featured are French porcelains, Italian bronzes, and period furniture.
The Guggenheim is the only remaining New York City structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, though he died before it was completed in 1959. Vaguely funnel-shaped, like a modernist tornado, the museum is best experienced by taking an elevator to the top and then strolling downward, along the spiraling gallery corridors. As you descend, you’ll pass Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, modern, and avant-garde paintings and sculptures. Don’t miss Chagall’s “Green Violinist,” Picasso’s “Woman Ironing” and Kandinsky’s “Composition 8.”
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) offers one of the world’s best collections of 19th- and 20th-century paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, architecture, photography, film, and industrial design. Artists represented include Chagall, Klee, Magritte, Dali, Stieglitz, Wyeth, Pollock, and Mondrian, among others. Famous works include Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon.”
The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1914 by Gertrude Whitney after the Metropolitan Museum of Art declined her 500-piece art collection. This well-respected institution offers frequently changing exhibitions of 20th- and 21st-century paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, film, and video. The museum moved into a new Renzo Piano-designed building in the Meatpacking District in April 2015.
Located in northern Manhattan on a four-acre stretch with stunning views of the Hudson River, it’s definitely worth the trip by bus or subway to see the Met Cloisters, one of the most beautiful New York museums. A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s devoted to the art and architecture of the European Middle Ages. See medieval French cloisters, plus a 12th-century chapter house and a Romanesque chapel. Also on display are some 5,000 works of art, including priceless unicorn tapestries and stained-glass windows.
Another branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the Met Breuer, displaying works from the 20th and 21st centuries on the Upper East Side.
The Neue Galerie is in a 1914 Carrere & Hastings Louis XIII-style mansion that was once the Vanderbilt home. It’s an opulent showcase for German and Austrian art, furniture, and design from 1890 to 1940. Also offered are chamber music concerts and cabaret performances, along with the usual lectures and films.
Some of the best New York museums are outside of Manhattan. The Brooklyn Museum is one of New York City’s largest art museums. Specialties include Egyptian antiquities, American art, and a wing dedicated to feminist art. Don’t miss “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago, a striking long-term installation featuring plate settings for 39 noteworthy women from history.
The Best New York Museums for Science, Culture, and History
The American Museum of Natural History has one of the largest collections of dinosaurs, fossils, and skeletons in the world. A life-size replica of a blue whale, which towers over the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, is not to be missed. Ditto for the 563-carat Star of India sapphire and the 34-ton Ahnighito, the largest meteorite ever retrieved from the earth’s surface; it is 4.5 billion years old. It’s one of the most popular New York museums for kids, thanks to its Hall of Dinosaurs. Definitely include the Rose Center for Earth and Space—located next door—in your visit; it’s home to the Hayden Planetarium, which offers space shows that take you to the outer reaches of the universe.
At the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, housed aboard an aircraft carrier, you can see two dozen planes on its flight deck, as well as the space shuttle Enterprise. Visit the adjacent U.S.S. Growler submarine—the only guided missile submarine open to the public—and visit the cockpit and cabin of a British Airways Concorde.
Of the many museums in Manhattan, this one is perhaps the most unique. Tenement Museum brings the immigrant story to life in restored living quarters of a tenement building on Orchard Street. The rooms belonged to Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic, German Jewish, and Sephardic Jewish families at different time periods. Hear their poignant tales of survival on guided tours that leave from the museum shop. Advance reservations are highly recommended.
The Morgan Library & Museum houses the vast and valuable collection—which rivals great libraries of Europe—that financier Pierpont Morgan began assembling in 1890. The collection includes medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, printed books (including three copies of the Gutenberg Bible), and various bindings, drawings, and prints. You can check out fascinating temporary exhibits and see Pierpont’s beautiful 1906 library.
One of the lesser-known New York museums, the Museum of Jewish Heritage documents the 20th-century Jewish experience before, during, and after the Holocaust. There are thousands of photographs, artifacts, and documentary films.
The Paley Center for Media is best known for its enormous video and audio library. Nearly 150,000 radio and television programs and famous commercials are available for listening and viewing. You can watch “I Love Lucy” episodes or look up more obscure relics of pop culture.
We all know George Washington slept around, and his real-life army bed, along with thousands of other treasures, is on display at the New York Historical Society—the city’s oldest museum in continuous operation. You can also see dozens of Tiffany lamps and one of the largest collections of miniature portraits in the nation.
If setting sail on a 19th-century schooner sounds appealing, the South Street Seaport Museum is the place for you. This world-class maritime museum offers educational galleries and a collection of historic vessels.
Everything inside Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is founded on the private collection of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a black Puerto Rican scholar and bibliophile who died in 1938. Over the years, the books, manuscripts, art objects, and even film and sheet music have grown to more than five million items—all detailing the history and culture of people of African descent.
Historical New York comes to life through period furniture, miniatures, and antique toys at the Museum of the City of New York. It covers New York from the Dutch settlers to the present day and will teach you about the city’s streets and buildings.
The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens holds the country’s largest permanent collection of artifacts related to motion pictures, television, and digital media. It’s an absolute must for film buffs. The museum hosts screenings, classes, and lectures that are always well attended by area film students.
More from SmarterTravel:
—Original reporting by Theodore W. Scull