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The Best Museums in NYC (New York City)

You’re never short of things to see and do in New York. Millions of people flock to the Big Apple every year, bringing all kinds of expectations of the place based on films and television shows.

Everything from Ghostbusters and Home Alone 2 to When Harry Met Sally has shown different aspects of New York, implanting its architecture and attitude in the global consciousness.

There’s much more to the city than anyone movie or television series can show – or than you can imagine. Hidden gems lie across New York just waiting to be discovered, from independent coffee shops and restaurants to tiny theatres. You can spend hours upon hours wandering the streets searching for the next fascinating spot.

However, one area in which New York never fails to impress is its museums. No matter what your personal interests or passions, New York’s variety of venues has something for everyone.

Still, the sheer amount of museums available within New York can leave you feeling daunted. You can’t visit them all in just one trip, and choosing one over the other is incredibly hard.

Below, you will find a pick of the top 10 best museums in New York, incorporating a vast range of themes. Love the natural world? Prefer films? Want to learn more about Chinese culture in one of the United States’ most important cities?

It’s all there for you.

The 10 Best Museums in NYC

1 Whitney Museum of American Art The Whitney Museum of American Art (known colloquially as ‘the Whitney’) is a staple of the New York arts scene. It dates back to 1931, when it was established by one Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (who passed away just 11 years later). She was a keen artist and collector herself, and founded her own museum with hundreds of her own purchases.

The museum’s exhibitions centre on American art from across the 20th and 21st centuries, comprising over 21,000 pieces. This sizeable collection includes a diverse array of forms, such as drawings, prints, sculptures, paintings, videos, films, and more. It’s a veritable feast for the eyes, appealing to varied passions.

The work of more than 3,000 artists is housed in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s collection, most of whom are still living. However, it does have a large selection of pieces from deceased artists too.

Artists featured at the Whitney include Andy Warhol, Lucile Blanch, John Sloan, Frank Stella, Greg Colson, Kenneth Price, Cindy Sherman, Man Ray, and many, many more.

It attracts more than one million visitors per year and its current building’s opening was attended by none other than former First Lady Michelle Obama. You can find the Whitney Museum of American Art at 99 Gansevoort Street in Lower Manhattan. It’s an incredibly well-known New York museum, and you can reach it by subway, bus, or on-foot.

The Whitney Museum of American Art is a must-visit for everyone visiting New York looking to explore the city’s arts and culture.

Learn more about the Whitney Museum of American Art
2 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Most people have heard of the Guggenheim.

This art museum is located on Fifth Avenue, one of New York’s most iconic streets, in the Upper East Side. Its collection of art is incredibly diverse, comprising Modern, contemporary, Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and more.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum takes its name from its founder. He established the venue in 1939 under its original title: the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. It wouldn’t become known as the Guggenheim until after his death in 1952.

The museum is a major part of the city’s vibrant arts scene, and is instantly recognisable by its distinctive architecture. The building was designed by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright: it’s cylindrical in shape, with a broader top than bottom. Its interior is based around a large ramp taking visitors through the museum via a spiral ling route.

The Guggenheim New York museum shares its collection with its sister venues (including the famous Bilbao in Spain). It includes works from the likes of Paul Cezanne, Fernand Leger, Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, Franz Marc, Juan Gris, Georges Braque, and many, many more.

Classic pieces and modern ones alike are exhibited in the Guggenheim, sending visitors on a fascinating trip through art’s evolution across the decades.

The Guggenheim is host to its numerous exhibitions, lectures from leading artists and critics on a regular basis, film screenings, theatrical performances, and educational classes for students and adults. Tours are available on a daily basis too.

Learn more about the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
3 American Museum of Natural History There’s no way you can go on a tour of New York’s museums and not visit the American Museum of Natural History.

This museum is based in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It’s one of the biggest museums on the planet and stands opposite Central Park – giving tourists two fantastic spots to explore one after the other!

The American Museum of Natural History is made up of 28 buildings (all of which are interconnected) containing a planetarium, a library, and more than 40 permanent exhibition halls.

It dates back to 1869, when a bill led to its creation, though work didn’t start on building it until five years later. It has continued to expand over the next century or so, growing to be a vast site offering invaluable educational resources to the city’s residents and visitors.

This is a truly special museum, boasting a massive collection of items – fossils, rocks, cultural artefacts, minerals, plants, meteorites, and much more. However, with over 30 million pieces available, only a tiny amount of them can be put on display at any one time. This means you can expect to see different sights across multiple visits.

More than five million people visit the museum each year. Its collection includes such wonders as a T-Rex skeleton (made up almost completely of genuine fossil bones), a Mammuthus, a Triceratops, and much more.

The museum’s exhibitions and events cover space, dinosaurs, marine life, and the natural world. You can spend hours and hours wandering, basking in the museum’s amazing collection. It really is a must-visit.

Learn more about the American Museum of Natural History
4 The Metropolitan Museum of Art The Metropolitan Museum of Art (AKA ‘the Met’ amongst locals) is the country’s second biggest art museum. It attracts millions of visitors each year, with more than seven million having crossed its threshold in 2016 – which made it the world’s third most-visited art museum. No small feat!

The Met was opened in 1870, to help improve the arts education available to American civilians. Today, after much growth and expansion, it’s regarded as a staple of New York’s cultural heritage.

More than two million pieces feature in its extensive permanent collection. The main building is located on Central Park’s eastern edge (on what’s known as Manhattan’s Museum Mile), though a second building (The Cloisters) is based in Upper Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park.

A further expansion – the Met Breuer – was opened on Madison Avenue, on the Upper East Side in 2016. This builds on the Met’s popular contemporary and modern art collection, which will surely only continue to grow and grow.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s vast stock includes pieces from many different eras. Everything from Ancient Egypt, Byzantine, African, Asian, and European art is represented, treating visitors to an eye-opening selection of multicultural works to explore.

As well as paintings and sculptures, the Met is also home to many different costumes, musical instruments, types of armour, antique weaponry, and more. Thousands upon thousands of objects are present in the collection, taking visitors on a tour through the ages.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts events, talks, activities, and tours for visitors. These all help you get involved and gain a deeper insight into the museum’s collection.

Learn more about the Metropolitan Museum of Art
5 Van Cortlandt House Museum Believe it or not, the Van Cortlandt House Museum is the oldest building in the famous Bronx area of New York City. You can find it in the popular Van Cortlandt Park, in its southwestern region.

The house itself was erected in 1748 by Frederick Van Cortlandt and his family. He passed away before construction on the house was complete, but it remained a family residence for 140 years. It was eventually sold to the City of New York itself, and the site was transformed into parkland for the public.

In 1967, this stunning Georgian-style property was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was made a National Historic Landmark in 1976 too.

The Van Cortlandt House Museum first started operating as a museum in 1897, becoming New York’s first. You can browse the collection of antique family heirlooms, art, and furniture. Tours are available for some expert guidance and information.

Though the Van Cortlandt House Museum may not be quite as big, diverse, or impactful as the likes of the American Museum of Natural History or the Met, it’s still a fantastic place to visit. It offers an insight into life in New York of the past, and hosts numerous activities for local families and schools.

The house museum’s architecture and interiors are impressive too, while you can wander the surrounding park at your leisure afterwards, which has multiple hiking trails to explore.

Learn more about the Van Cortlandt House Museum
6 Museum of Modern Art The Museum of Modern Art (or MoMA) is based on 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan. This has been regarded as one of the world’s biggest, most important, most influential modern art museums, celebrated for its huge collection of modern and contemporary pieces.

The Museum of Modern Art was established in 1929, though in a vastly different form. It was developed by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (of the iconic Rockefeller family) and two friends, who first housed the museum in the Heckscher Building on Fifth Avenue. This opened its doors to members of the public in November of that same year, and started to gain traction fairly quickly.

The venue changed to three more locations across the following decade, and its 53rd Street site has remained a popular tourist hotspot in the city ever since it was set-up.

The Museum of Modern Art’s collection includes drawings, paintings, photographs, sculptures, books, films, electronic media, architectural works, and more.

Such pieces as Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Paul Cezanne’s The Bather, Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsey, Henri Matisse’s The Dance I, Georges Braque’s Man with a Guitar, and van Gogh’s The Olive Trees are included in the collection.

Works by the likes of Franz Kline, Roy Lichtenstein, Georgia O’Keeffe, Auguste Rodin, Jackson Pollock, Frank Stella, and Walker Evans all feature too. There’s a vast selection to explore when you visit the Museum of Modern Art, with gems to satisfy almost every artistic taste.

Learn more about the Museum of Modern Art
7 Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum is a unique venue in New York. This maritime history museum boasts a fascinating collection of vehicles, including the USS Intrepid itself, the USS Growler submarine, a Lockheed A-12 supersonic plane, the Enterprise Space Shuttle, and a Concorde SST (to name just a few).

The museum is located at Pier 86 at 46th Street, on the West Side of Manhattan in the Hell’s Kitchen area. It was established in 1982, the brainchild of two brothers (Zachary and Larry Fisher) and philanthropic journalist Michael Stern. The Fishers (both of whom worked in real estate) and Stern decided to save the USS Intrepid from being scrapped in 1978, and it went on to be listed as a National Historic Landmark eight years later in 1986.

The USS Growler joined the museum in 1988, while the Enterprise Space Shuttle was added to the collection in December 2011.

Other exhibits include US Air Force vehicles like the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon (of Operation Desert Storm), a US Navy Grunman F-14 Tomcat, a Beechcraft T-34 Mentor, Grunman TBM Avenger, a US Marine Corps Bell AH-1J Sea Cobra gunship, and many more.

You can also see a replica of the NASA Aurora 7 Mercury capsule, a Russian Soyuz descent module.

The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum hosts many events throughout the year. Guided tours, simulators, and educational activities are all available for visitors of all ages.

Learn more about the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
8 Museum of Chinese in America The Museum of Chinese in America can be found on Centre Street, in Manhattan’s Chinatown area. This is home to numerous exhibitions chronicling Chinese American history.

The museum was opened in 1980 by John Kuo Wei Tchen, a historian, and activist Charles Lai. It was originally titled the New York Chinatown History Project, though its aim was the same as it still is: to cultivate a stronger grasp of the Chinese American experience in the wider community.

The Museum of Chinese in America’s main exhibition is called With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, which follows over a century’s Chinese American history.

Other exhibitions vary from time to time, covering such diverse themes as food, architecture, art, and more. Its collection features a wide range of materials, housed in its Collections and Research Center.

Over 65,000 pieces are stored in the collection, encompassing memorabilia, photos, artefacts, art, oral histories, and more. This provides visitors with a wealth of information and background, telling fascinating stories.

The Museum of Chinese in America covers different topics than you might find in some of the other venues on this list, and offers an insight into a key part of multicultural New York.

It provides educational resources to local schools and the wider community. It also organises numerous walking tours based around food and local history.

Learn more about the Museum of Chinese in America
9 Brooklyn Museum As you might infer from its name, the Brooklyn Museum is based in New York’s Brooklyn borough.

This is the city’s third-biggest museum, with 560,000 of space and around 1.5 million pieces in its vast collection of art. This staggering number of items makes the Brooklyn Museum a terrific destination for art-lovers from across the globe.

You can find the Brooklyn Museum on Eastern Parkway, in the striking Beaux-Arts building. It opened in 1897, and was designed by architectural company McKim, Mead, and White (though its original concept was to be four times as big as it currently is).

The Brooklyn Museum’s collections span more than 3,000 years and include pieces of art from numerous eras and cultures.

Its paintings, sculptures, statues, and artefacts are separated into different categories, such as: American Art, Arts of the Americas, Arts of the Pacific Islands, Arts of Asia, Contemporary Art, Decorative Arts, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, European Art, and more.

Works by Charles Wilson Peale, Eastman Johnson, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Norman Rockwell, Max Weber, Georgia O’Keeffee, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Andre Derain, and many, many more artists are included in the Brooklyn Museum’s collections.

The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives contain around 300,000 pieces, including books, textiles, prints, and more. It was started in 1823.

There’s also a Memorial Sculpture Garden, home to more than 300 different items.

All in all, the Brooklyn Museum is a fantastic place to visit. Its extensive assortment of art showcases many fine, inspirational works from all over the world.

Learn more about the Brooklyn Museum
10 Museum of the Moving Image The Museum of the Moving Image is based in Astoria, Queens. It opened in 1988.

You can find it on 35th Avenue at 36th Street. Its building was once part of Astoria Studios (known now as the Kaufman Astoria Studios), and the museum was expanded during a nearly three-year project to house more exhibitions almost thirty years later.

The Museum of the Moving Image is committed to growing the public’s appreciation for film, television, and digital media. The focus is on the art, technique, technology, and history of these forms. It’s a must for anyone with an interest in the cinematic or televisual arts.

One of the most exciting things about the Museum of the Moving Image is its collection of video games and games-related hardware. This started with arcade machines like Pong and Computer Space for the pioneering Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade exhibition (the first one ever dedicated to video games at any museum). They have numerous other classic games available to browse.

Other exhibitions celebrate the work of major creators in the film, televisual, and video gaming fields. Certain ones are free to visit, though others may come with a fee.

The Museum of the Moving Image hosts many different screenings and events, varying from instructional presentations to movies and more. This museum is definitely a worthwhile stop on any trip to New York, offering plenty of fascinating things to see and do for visitors of all ages.

Learn more about the Museum of the Moving Image

New York

What Makes a Great Museum?

As you can see in the list of top 10 best New York museums above, the city offers visitors and residents an astounding selection of venues. It’s key to remember that there are many others located throughout the Big Apple, covering different aspects of the arts, history, and more.

Without doubt, the sheer range of cultural locations to explore is part of what makes New York such a rich place to live or visit. You can discover all manner of relics and insights from across the ages, all of which may help to nurture your appreciation of humanity, the natural world, art, space, and everything in-between.

No matter how long or short your trip to the city, you should try to visit at least one of the New York museums on this list. However, what is it that makes a museum great? That’s not a simple question to answer, but we’ll attempt to do just that below.

Not afraid to move with the times

Adapting to change is critical for any museum. This doesn’t mean they have to compromise their values or start adding overwhelming amounts of contemporary pieces into their venue; instead, it simply refers to making the museum in question attractive and accessible for modern-day visitors.

One major part of changing with the times is embracing evolving technology. This may mean introducing touch screens throughout the museum, enabling visitors to enjoy a more interactive experience. These tend to be used for brief presentations or visual resources, giving people an optional opportunity to learn more about a specific part of an exhibition or installation.

This can also include covering recent innovations or cultural changes too, further bridging the gap between the past and the present.

A mix of permanent and temporary exhibitions

Changing exhibitions every few weeks or months gives museums fresh material with which to attract visitors.

Temporary exhibitions are, of course, available only for a limited time. This can bring more people in through the museum’s doors to see them while they last, giving them a stronger incentive to visit rather than waiting until ‘they can find the time’.

All (or at least, most) of the museums explored in the list of 10 best museums of New York offer a combination of permanent and temporary exhibitions. Permanent ones can really help generate solid, ongoing word of mouth marketing for a museum, generating long-term interest. They have the power to become a staple of the venue, a ‘must-see’ fixture people will return to see again and again.

It can be a tricky balancing act, but the best museums get it right.

A varied roster of events

Events are a terrific part of any museum. These can be special demonstrations, performances, film screenings, lectures, family activities, and much more.

Museums providing events throughout the year may increase their foot traffic and get people more involved in the museum itself, boosting its value in the eyes of visitors who might not have taken an interest otherwise.

Keeping the events varied is important to attract newcomers and keep things fresh for regular visitors. Events open to children can nurture an early interest in museums and lead them to be lifelong supporters of one or more venues.

Museums serve an essential purpose, and New York will always have one of the best selections of any city in the world. If you have the chance to visit, make sure you treat yourself and explore one of the many available.