The Best Museums in New York City

Museum-goers are spoiled for choice in the Big Apple. For many, the MoMA and the American Museum of Natural History are givens. But let us introduce you to some local favorites, including art collections in historic mansions and venues that celebrate the immigrant experience and roots of this great American city.

225 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016, USA
The JP Morgan Library’s grand, old-world elegance immediately transports you to turn-of-the-century New York. And at that time, there was almost no one more powerful than financier JP Morgan. He launched U.S. Steel and even served as the unofficial central bank of the U.S. for a time. Though some considered him a national hero, his tight control of banks, corporations and railroads led others to label him one of the original “robber barons.” Morgan was an avid collector of art and books with holdings so vast they were housed at multiple locations in New York and England. Eventually, he decided to consolidate his holdings in a huge library next to his mansion in NYC. Designed by renowned architect Charles McKim and completed in 1906, the Italian Renaissance palazzo-style library holds a staggering collection of illuminated books, historical manuscripts, and old master drawings. The library is rightfully considered McKim’s masterpiece—a majestic, soaring space which is both intimate and warm. It features 30-foot ceilings, three tiers of bronze and walnut bookcases, stained glass, a huge marble fireplace and grand tapestries. Also visit Mr. Morgan’s study, with its red silk damask walls and antique wooden ceiling brought over from Florence. The library is off the typical tourist’s radar. Imagine yourself as Morgan in your private quarters, reveling in the power and wealth at your command.
103 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002, USA
These days, wandering the Lower East Side (the area between the Bowery and the East River, with Houston Street marking its northern border and Canal Street its southern one), it can feel impossible to recall that this neighborhood was once among the city’s most overcrowded, teeming with immigrants. Its streets were filled with Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks, and other Europeans newly arrived in the United States, including a significant Jewish population. Today, boutiques and bars cater to gentrifiers, much of the population is Puerto Rican or Dominican, and the few traces of that earlier era are hard to find—the facades of Yiddish theaters and synagogues that have long since closed. The Tenement Museum on Orchard Street is dedicated to assuring that period of the city’s past is not lost forever. On each floor of the restored tenement building, the lives of some of its former occupants are brought to life, from the German saloon owners on the first floor to the Jewish immigrants who occupied the top one. Docents in character and costume help to make the stories of those immigrants personal. The museum also organizes walking tours of the Lower East Side and offers talks on the district’s history.
1071 5th Ave, New York, NY 10128, USA
The Guggenheim Museum is a work of art in itself. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the building’s iconic curved facade stands out on the orderly row of edifices lining its stretch of Fifth Avenue. Completed near the end of Wright’s career (it opened in 1959), it is often considered the architect’s masterpiece. Inside, galleries are connected by a long spiral ramp that ascends toward a skylight atop the rotunda. Only a small amount of the space is dedicated to the Guggenheim’s permanent collection; usually, most of the museum is given over to a temporary exhibition. Compared to other New York institutions focused on modern and contemporary art, the Guggenheim often tends to be more international in its focus, shining light on art and artists from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, though by no means exclusively.
11 West 53rd Street
The Museum of Modern Art, one of the city’s—and the country’s—premier institutions for modern and contemporary art, first opened its doors in 1939. Its permanent collection of almost 200,000 works includes masterpieces by many of the 20th century’s leading artists: Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso, Warhol...the list truly could go on and on. In the permanent collection, van Gogh’s Starry Night and three panels of Monet’s series of paintings of water lilies are among the most famous works. The museum’s first director, Alfred Barr, was praised for taking the innovative step of expanding the role of the art museum to include genres beyond painting and sculpture, and to this day the institution dedicates exhibitions (and resources) to design, architecture, photography, and other creative fields. The museum also has a space in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, called MoMA PS 1, which focuses principally on younger, emerging artists and hosts Warm Up, a summer live music series.
1 E 70th St, New York, NY 10021, USA
The phrase “jewel box” may be overused when referring to exquisite galleries and museums, but there’s no better way to describe the Frick Collection, at 70th Street and Fifth Avenue. The early-20th-century neoclassical mansion facing Central Park, designed by Carrère and Hastings (who were also responsible for the main branch of the New York Public Library), was the residence of industrialist Henry Clay Frick before being converted to a museum after his death. Most of the works on display were acquired by Frick and his wife during their lifetimes, and are predominantly paintings by European old masters—Boucher, Holbein, Fragonard, Reynolds, Van Dyck, and others. The museum is arranged, however, much as it would have been during the Fricks’ day, with antique furniture sitting in the rooms where the paintings are hung.
1000 5th Ave, New York, NY 10028, USA
The Metropolitan Museum of Art—or, commonly, the Met—is one of the world’s great museums, alongside the Louvre, the British Museum, and a handful of others. It would be easy to devote an entire week’s visit to the museum alone, and realistically you probably won’t get far beyond a few exhibitions and galleries at one shot. The Costume Institute’s temporary shows are always popular, while others will (like the museum itself) focus on a range of regions and periods—at any one time there may be temporary exhibitions on an Italian Renaissance painter, miniatures from Mughal India, and Polynesian carvings. The Temple of Dendur, a roughly 43' x 21' x 16' temple that dates to around 15 B.C.E. and was given by the government of Egypt to the United States in 1967, is one of the museum’s most photographed (and Instagrammed) works. The 34 period rooms, including a 12th-century cloister, English parlor and a Shaker “retiring” room, are among the museum’s other highlights. On summer evenings, site-specific installations make the rooftop terrace is a favorite place for drinks. The general admission of $25 for adults, $12 for students, and $17 for seniors is a suggested one for New York residents, as well as students from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Whatever you pay also includes same-day entry to The Met Cloisters.
99 Gansevoort St, New York, NY 10014, USA
For most of its history, the Whitney Museum, originally founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1931, was located on New York’s Upper East Side, in the building that now houses the Met Breuer. In 2015, it reopened in a new, larger space designed by Renzo Piano in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. The institution’s permanent collection is especially strong in works by leading artists from the first half of the 20th century, and as you might expect from its official name, American artists are particularly well represented—Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, and many others. Visiting exhibitions tend to focus on living artists who are still producing new pieces; the museum’s Whitney Biennial (now taking place in odd-numbered years) is arguably the preeminent showcase in the United States for young contemporary artists. In addition to the galleries, the building has a number of outdoor terraces dotted with sculptures and offering views of Lower Manhattan and the Hudson River.
9-01 33rd Rd, Queens, NY 11106, USA
The Noguchi Museum is one of New York’s most surprising museums, a serene, contemplative space in a once-industrial section of Queens. It’s a fitting tribute to one of 20th-century art’s most unusual figures. Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904, though he would spend most of his childhood in Japan. For much of his life he was regularly on the move, to Indiana, New York, and Europe; later, he maintained studios in both Japan and the United States. The result of his itinerant life was an aesthetic that reflected an array of influences, from Constantin Brancusi (who was a mentor of sorts) to Japanese craftsmen. His sculptures are characterized by their understated simplicity, air of mystery, and the elegant beauty of their materials. Noguchi established the museum in 1985, three years before he died, in a 1920s industrial building. The museum’s sculpture garden includes a number of his works, while other displays include sketches, photographs, and artifacts that shed light on the artist’s life.
2 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128, USA
While this New York institution has been around in one form or another since the end of the 19th century, it has a long and complicated history. It originally began as part of Cooper Union, a college in downtown Manhattan, but was later transferred to the Smithsonian. In 1970 it moved into its current home, a mansion originally constructed by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. After being closed for three years beginning in 2011 for renovations, the museum reopened in 2014. Its name makes its focus clear: design, in a variety of forms—textiles, household and industrial products, jewelry, architecture, and more. Temporary exhibitions may spotlight individual creators, trends in design (like, for example, the vogue for all things Japanese in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), or particular objects. Since its reopening, the museum has put an emphasis on interactivity, with additions like computer-screen tables and a room where you can design your own digital wallpapers that are projected onto the walls. Admission is free for Smithsonian members, so bring your card if you are one.
200 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024, USA
Located on the Upper West Side, at 79th Street and Central Park West, the American Museum of Natural History is one of the world’s largest museums. It has 45 different halls, occupies more than 2 million square feet, and has some 33 million different specimens—only a fraction are on display at any time. It includes an abundance of dioramas and reconstructed skeletons, and “cultural halls” that extend natural history into anthropology. The museum makes a valiant effort to constantly keep its exhibits relevant by adopting new interactive technologies and displays as it battles the preconceptions of many that natural-history museums are old-fashioned institutions. In 2000, it also added the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which has proven popular with young aspiring astronauts and astronomers. If you are headed to New York with kids and they haven’t already watched Night at the Museum, you may want to rent it before your trip (even if most of the interior scenes were actually shot on a set in Vancouver).
36-01 35th Ave, Astoria, NY 11106, USA
Between 1920 and 1933, some of the most successful films of the early 20th century were shot at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, including The Sheik, starring Rudolph Valentino; several Marx Brothers movies; and the first Sherlock Holmes film with sound, The Return of Sherlock Holmes. The concentration of the movie industry in Hollywood, however, led to the decline of the facility. It would later be used mostly for the production of U.S. Army training films. A portion of the old complex has been home to the Museum of the Moving Image since 1988 (from 2008 to 2011 it was closed for a renovation and expansion). The museum keeps alive the legacy of the Astoria Studios with exhibits that reveal the secrets behind the magic of the movies, from the science that makes motion pictures and television possible to the latest developments in makeup, special effects, and computer-generated imagery. More than 400 films are shown in the museum’s theater and its smaller screening room each year, including Hollywood classics, foreign films, and new releases.
200 Eastern Pkwy, Brooklyn, NY 11238, USA
When plans for the Brooklyn Museum’s building on Eastern Parkway were conceived in 1890, the borough was still its own city; it wasn’t until 1898 that the five boroughs would be united into the New York City we know today. Brooklyn’s leading figures were determined that the city should have its own great public institutions, and the late 19th century saw the planning of not only the museum but also the Brooklyn Botanic Garden—as well as the expansion of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. By the time the museum (designed by McKim, Mead, and White) opened, however, the city had changed, and much of Brooklyn’s cultural life would long sit in the shadow of Manhattan. Still, the Brooklyn Museum remains to this day a grand institution with some important collections, most notably of Egyptian art and American decorative art, not to mention an unusual niche: the Sackler Center for Feminist Art, whose most important work is Judy Chicago‘s Dinner Party (1979). The museum sits next to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Prospect Park, two other landmarks of the borough that you’ll want to explore if the weather cooperates when you head out to Grand Army Plaza.
99 Margaret Corbin Dr, New York, NY 10040, USA
The Cloisters, a museum devoted to medieval art and architecture, is a delightful respite from the hustle and bustle of NYC. This tranquil treasure is definitely worth a half day (or more) trip on your next visit. A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters opened in 1938 and is located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan. Perched on a towering cliff, the museum offers commanding views over the Hudson River to New Jersey and the George Washington Bridge. The buildings include elements from medieval sites from Europe (primarily France) and renowned artwork includes the Unicorn Tapestries and the Annunciation Triptych, but the heart of the museum is the cloistered garden. This lush space consists of an interior courtyard surrounded by covered walkways. The flowering garden within invites contemplation and appreciation of a different time. The Cloisters includes a broad terrace with expansive views across the Hudson. The view is so prized that in 1901, J.P. Morgan purchased 12 miles of the New Jersey coastline to protect it from excessive quarrying and in 1933 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated 700 additional acres of NJ to preserve The Cloisters’ view. Be sure to include time in your visit to explore beautiful Fort Tryon Park.
22-25 Jackson Avenue
This contemporary-art center dates back to 1971 and has been at its current location, a renovated Romanesque-revival public school in Long Island City, since 1976. In 2000, it merged with the Museum of Modern Art. The Queens facility offered room for MoMA to show larger site-specific works that were difficult to mount in the limited space of the museum’s original location on 53rd Street in Manhattan. Each year, PS1’s Young Architects competition solicits proposals for installations for the museum’s courtyard, with the winning design being built to serve as the backdrop for the Warm Up series of concerts which take place every Saturday during the summer. Other popular annual events include the Art Book Fair in October. While MoMA’s exhibits often focus on acclaimed figures of the 20th century, PS1 concentrates almost solely on young, emerging artists and those pushing the boundaries of art in unexpected directions.
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