New York City is the financial center of the United States. It’s the mecca for theater. It’s one of the best restaurant cities on the planet. It’s the cultural capital of the United States. And it is home to a large collection of the world’s greatest museums.
You could spend a year of weekends visiting museums in this city of nearly nine million people and you may only then feel like you’ve covered much of the museum scene.
Whatever the case, the below guide is here to get you started. Art museums, history museums, and small quirky museums that defy categorization. Here are the 16 best museums in NYC.
Art Museums in New York City
The Brooklyn Museum
The Brooklyn Museum has long lived in the shadow of its Manhattan sibling, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the Brooklyn Museum deserves its own spotlight.
The third-largest museum in the city has an encyclopedic collection of art, holding a half a million objects—with works by Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe, Winslow Homer, and Norman Rockwell. There’s also a large collection of pieces from the South Pacific, Africa, and ancient Egypt.
Couple your visit to the Brooklyn Museum with a stroll through Prospect Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead—who was also responsible for Central Park.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Located on Museum Mile on the Upper East Side, the Guggenheim is perhaps more famous for the structure that houses the art than the art itself. After all, it’s not every day that you get one of history’s greatest architects to design a building for you. But that’s what Frank Lloyd Wright did and this circular building is a masterpiece.
Inside there are works by Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso, Van Gogh, Manet, and Gauguin. But the real fun is just ambling around this landmark 1959 building.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The granddaddy of all art museums in North America, the Met (as it’s affectionately called) is the largest museum in the Western Hemisphere. The humongous Neo-Classical building on the eastern edge of Central Park has been displaying masterpieces since 1872.
The collection is immense and it’s best to approach the museum with a plan in mind. Seeing the entire collection in one day would be exhausting. There are a legion of European masters, as well as a massive and impressive collection of art and artifacts from ancient Egypt and Islamic art.
Insider’s Tip: The gift shops at the Met and MoMa make our list of where to pick up the best souvenirs in New York!
Museum of Modern Art
Located on West 53rd Street, the Museum of Modern Art—or MoMA, as everyone calls it—underwent renovations in 2004 and 2014, the latter by famed French architect Jean Nouvel. And the museum has been better than ever, putting on changing exhibitions and showing off its immense collection of 20th and 21st-century art.
Highlights of the collection include iconic works by Pollock, Warhol, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, Chagall, Dalí, Monet, Ernst, and Magritte. On the first Friday evening of every month, New York City residents get free admission.
Translated as “New Gallery” in German, the name of this Upper East Side institution reveals what kind of collection it houses: Austrian and German art, but more specifically, the focus here is on art of the Secessionist period in Vienna, around the turn of the 20th century.
There are great works by masters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele—paintings you’d think you would usually have to travel to Vienna to see. The in-house restaurant, Cafe Sabarsky, is a gem, replicating the Secessionist-era coffee houses of Vienna—all the way down to the print newspapers on sticks hanging on the wall.
The New Museum of Contemporary Art
In 2007, the New Museum set up shop on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. And it was a fitting place. After all, there once was a time when the formerly ramshackle area was the home of many now-famous artists, such as Maya Lin, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, Mark Rothko, William S. Burroughs, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Philip Glass, and Jim Jarmusch.
The building looks like a stack of seven off-kilter boxes. Inside, the museum houses the work of under-represented, avant-garde artists. The museum has a relatively small collection of about 1,000 pieces, but the real draw of art aficionados here are the many changing exhibitions that take place at the New Museum.
The Rubin Museum of Art
This Chelsea museum began life in the 1970s as a private collection and since 2004 it has been in this five-floor building, displaying Buddhist works hailing from the Himalayan region—chiefly from northern India, Nepal, and overwhelmingly Tibet.
Admission is free on Friday evenings after 6 p.m. when the museum stays open until 10 p.m.
The Whitney Museum of American Art
In 2015, the Whitney moved from its ho-hum digs on the Upper East Side to this shiny new structure in the Meatpacking District designed by famed Italian architect Renzo Piano. The museum is smack in the center of some great New York diversions like the High Line and Little Island.
As the name suggests, the collection here is on American art. There is a small permanent collection, but the emphasis here is on the changing exhibitions which are frequently worthy of repeat visits.
Historical Museums in New York City
American Museum of Natural History
This gargantuan museum on the west side of Central Park is possibly the greatest natural history museum on the planet. Founded in 1869, the museum is famous for its animal dioramas, the Hayden Planetarium (under the leadership of Neil DeGrasse Tyson), and the huge blue whale skeleton in the lobby. It’s hard to believe, but there are 34 million specimens crammed in here.
Museum of the City of New York
Located on the Upper East Side on Fifth Avenue among some of the city’s iconic institutions, this museum is dedicated to the history and culture of New York City. The permanent and changing exhibitions take visitors on a whirlwind tour through the Big Apple’s 400 years of history, showing the city’s great diversity and culture in the process.
New York Historical Society
Just a block south of the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Historical Society was founded in 1804, making it the city’s first museum. The institution houses numerous exhibits that reveal and reflect New York’s history, including art, artifacts, and documents. And the Italian-ish in-house eatery, Storico, is pretty good, too.
This Lower East Side spot is the epitome of a living history museum. The Tenement Museum takes up a short block on Orchard Street and guides dressed in historical garb take visitors through perfectly preserved (and recreated) tenement buildings and apartments to show how recently arrived immigrants lived 100 to 150 years ago.
Other Museums in New York City
This quirky museum in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is dedicated to the minutiae of New York history—the kind of objects that wouldn’t normally come to mind for a museum but are fascinating nonetheless. A burned out lightbulb from the Statue of Liberty, a hunk of stone that fell from the Flatiron Building, a portrait of Jackie Robinson, and various other artifacts are on display in this fun, diminutive museum.
Don’t try to figure out the name of this museum. Instead, spend your time trying to find it.
Mmuseumm is located in an alleyway on the border of Chinatown and Tribeca, housed in an erstwhile elevator shaft. This jewelbox of a museum displays some oddly touching artifacts, including objects people of color were holding when they were shot by the police and some fascinating objects such as the currency of the former ISIS.
Morbid Anatomy Library
What started out as a full-fledged museum of the macabre and bizarre in Gowanus, Brooklyn is now a fascinating cabinet of curiosities (and gift shop) in Brooklyn’s Industry City. You don’t have to love gawking at skulls, animal skeletons, and rogue taxidermy, but it might help.
Universal Hip Hop Museum
It’s hard to believe there hasn’t been a museum dedicated to the genre of hip hop in New York until this institution first flicked on its lights in 2021. And even more fitting that it’s in the South Bronx where rap and hip hop originated.
The museum exhibits various curios, objects, artifacts, and posters that tell the story of hip hop, going back to the 1970s and all the way to the present day.
Top Museums in New York FAQs
What is the main museum in New York?
That depends on your interest. For art and if you only have time to hit one museum, head to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For science/biology, the American Museum of Natural History is splendid.
What is the best neighborhood for museums?
That would have to be in the Upper East Side. Specifically, Fifth Avenue between 65th and 106th Streets. On this stretch, you’ll encounter the Frick Collection, the American Irish Historical Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Neue Galerie, the Guggenheim Museum, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and El Museo del Barrio. They don’t call it Museum Mile for nothing.
Are there any other museums I should know about?
Too many to list here. But here are a few more to add to the list: Poster House, Museum of Sex, Fraunces Tavern, Society of Illustrators, MoMA PS1, Asia Society, International Center of Photography, Leslie Lohman Museum of Art, and the Met Cloisters.
David Farley is a West Village-based food and travel writer whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC, and Food & Wine, among other publications. He’s the author of three books, including “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town,” which was made into a documentary by the National Geographic Channel. You can find Farley’s online homes here and here.