One of the best things about New York City is the wealth of museums. From the famed Metropolitan Museum of Art to the one-of-a-kind Intrepid Air & Space Museum, whether you’re into art, history, or science, it’s all nestled within this 23-square-mile expanse of land. If you’re staying in Manhattan, you could easily spend days visiting museums and still not see them all. A subway ride into Brooklyn or Queens yields even more fun and adventure. This insider guide to the best museums in New York City will show you the best of culture, art, and history in New York City!
Keep in mind: Many of the Manhattan museums on this list are a short subway ride or even walking distance from each other. Nonetheless, you’ll find many great museums in the other boroughs of New York. Crossing into Queens and Brooklyn means a longer subway ride or an Uber over the historic Brooklyn Bridge or 59th Street Bridge. You may want to plan to spend a whole day exploring the sights in these boroughs, each with their own distinct neighborhoods.
Note on admission costs*
Many publicly funded museums operate through “suggested donations.” It’s nice if you can donate the full amount, because these museums serve a fabulous purpose and your donation helps the city keep them open for everyone to enjoy. But if money is tight or if you’re museum-hopping for the day, don’t feel bad about donating a dollar or two. (Note: some suggested admissions are only for New York State residents at this point.)
When my husband and I brought our kids to the Museum of Natural History last year, we weren’t going to pay $82 for our family of four, because we didn’t intend to stay the whole day. I donated $5 per person, because where else can I get an hour or more of air-conditioned entertainment for that price? The cashier was fine with our donation; no dirty looks or pressure to give more. Keep in mind, special exhibits are often charged at a fixed rate that includes general admission. You cannot view a special exhibit and also pay what you wish.
Check out each museum’s websites to find package deals, plus savings for buying advance tickets online. Sometimes it pays to buy in advance to skip the wait at the ticket counter.
It’s also important to note that many New York museums have free admission evenings once a month, so check the calendar to see if there’s a free admission evening. (This is generally on Friday nights.)
Is a museum membership worth it?
If you’re spending a while in New York, a membership to your favorite museums might make sense. For instance, a Family Membership at the American Museum of Natural History gives you unlimited general admission, plus entry into many of the special exhibits, including the Hayden Planetarium, which is my absolute favorite.
For my family of four, a Family Membership would pay for itself in less than two visits per year. If I purchased entry to all exhibits for all of us, I’d pay $106. The Family Membership is just $150. If you have four children, it would pay for itself in just one visit.
My favorite museums in New York City
Now that we’ve got the logistics out of the way, let’s take a look at my favorite museums in New York City. This list encompasses some of the best museums in Queens and Manhattan but, of course, it’s just my opinion, with some input from Karen, too! We’d love to hear about your favorites in the comments.
American Museum of Natural History
This is, hands-down, my favorite museum and a must-see if you’re in New York. My 10-year-old daughter took a field trip here and I chaperoned. From hunting down Dum-Dum, the Maoi cast from Easter Island, to braving the crowds to see the giant T-Rex skeleton, I love everything about AMNH.
Before your visit, you may want to watch Night at the Museum, the classic Ben Stiller comedy. Then follow the AMNH Night at the Museum self-guided tour searching for the famous exhibits in the movie. Dum Dum is hard to find and when you get there, you’ll want to wait in the line for a photo opp.
The Hayden Planetarium is light years ahead of Long Island’s Vanderbilt Planetarium – even the chairs are more comfortable. Admission is not included in your museum entry fee, but it’s worth the upcharge.
Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
You can’t even call yourself a New Yorker until you’ve ducked through the submarine Growler at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. And if you’re visiting, this adventure carrier is a must-do. Back in the nineties, my husband snuck off to visit the underbelly of the ship. Now, the museum offers special guided tours for ages 16 and up that take you through these below-deck, “behind the scenes” spaces.
The Intrepid is a museum within an actual aircraft carrier, decommissioned in 1974 and docked in the Hudson ever since. You’ll want to spend time in the Space Shuttle Pavilion to glimpse NASA’s first orbiter and experience the virtual reality and augmented reality exhibits. History buffs will want to spend a whole day exploring the ship’s many exhibits.
Museum of Modern Art
Sadly, the famed MoMA is closed until October 21, but I just can’t keep this New York landmark off the list. When the museum re-opens for its 90th anniversary, it will include more experiential exhibits and a greater diversity in artists represented. Mixing today’s best art with contemporary classics and combining media and materials in new and exciting ways, MoMA will be more relevant than ever before.
Artists and art lovers, alike, will want to convene in The Paula and James Crown Platform on the second floor to share ideas, discuss art, and make their own creations.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Many people get MOMA and The Met confused or think they are the same museum. But the Metropolitan Museum of Art features artwork and exhibits from a more diverse range of time periods, spanning 5,000 years or art from ancient Greece and Rome, to modern-day. The Met is truly one of the great museums of New York.
The Met’s focus on history and education gives the museum a solemn air, but fun exhibits like “Play It Loud: The Instruments of Rock and Roll,” give the Met something for everyone. Don’t miss the Temple of Dendur and sitting on the steps.
Metropolitan Museum of Art Cloisters
The Cloisters in Washington Heights, governed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, blends art and architecture in unique ways that fit perfectly into the character of this historic neighborhood. Located right in Fort Tryon Park, The Cloisters’ sculptures and architecture are centered around four cloisters (hence the museum’s name). In the warmer weather, enjoy a light snack outdoors in the Trie Café. You can spend a whole day wandering the park and the museum. (This is free with your Met ticket; just take the bus uptown!)
Museum of the Moving Image
Moving on to the other side of bridges you’ll find the Museum of Moving Images in Astoria, Queens. The museum features an ongoing Jim Henson exhibit, including a life-sized Skeksis from the movie The Dark Crystal. On a recent visit, the kids had a blast building their own Muppet, while my best friend and I reveled in the ‘70s and ‘80s nostalgia. We caught a screening of The Muppet Show playing in Tut’s Fever Movie Palace. And we were glad we had a few dollars to exchange for tokens to play coin-op games like Donkey Kong and Mortal Kombat.
MoMI also holds Free Friday Night. Every admission also gets you admission to a same-day film screening, as long as the event’s ticket value is less than or equal to the admission fee. So you get a movie and a museum tour for $15, which isn’t bad.
The Tenement Museum
The Tenement Museum is so much more than a museum. It’s an exploration of life in New York from 1863 to modern times. The restored tenement buildings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side were home to more than 15,000 people through 2000, when the buildings were closed and then restored to exhibit recreations of life for immigrant families in New York.
If you want to grasp New York City’s culture and history – and you’re the type of person who just loves peering into people’s homes – you’ll love wandering the Tenement Museum. If you’re an international visitor, you’ll gain a new appreciation for how America was built.
The Paley Center for Media
If you’re looking for something fun and free to do in the city, check out the Paley Center for Media. Originally known as The Museum of Television and Radio, the Paley Center celebrates radio, television, and new media with an archive of more than 150,000 television shows and commercials from the past year 85 years. Admission to the museum gives you 1.5 hours of screening time. Plus, you can catch free screenings of your favorite shows and movies in the Paley screening room.
The Paley Center does not have regular exhibits of historic items or art. It offers a curated collection of television programming – and is a great place to cool off in midtown Manhattan on a hot summer day.
The American Folk Art Museum
Another great affordable museum in New York City is the American Folk Art Museum. As much as people say Manhattan is an expensive place to live – which is absolutely true when you look at real estate prices – there are so many free activities you can enjoy yourself even if you’re broke.
My advice to travelers on a budget? Find an affordable hotel room under $200 a night and look for free museums, stroll the parks, eat some pizza, and just experience the energy of New York. It’s so worth it.
The American Folk Art Museum rotates exhibits frequently and its currently showcasing a quilting exhibit. The museum’s adorable gift shop reflects the current exhibit. I love the gift shop as much as the museum, itself, which is small but worth a stop.
Museum of Art and Design
Modern, fun, and whimsical, the Museum of Art and Design offers four floors of history and innovation in art, from photography to fashion and textiles. The GenX and Baby Boomer demographic will especially appreciate the current Punk Graphics exhibit, Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, complete with a listening station to hear your favorite vinyl records. (Well, until they start skipping – which is just all too fitting as you immerse yourself in the nostalgia of the ‘70s and ‘80s.).
From now until January 2020, visitors can enjoy Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann. Don’t forget to stop on the top floor for a drink or meal; the eclectic décor of the restaurant is an exhibit of its own.
On the other side of that coin is the Whitney Museum, which costs a non-negotiable $25 for entry. But it’s worth every penny. The museum showcases an eclectic collection of modern art, paintings, and photographs that each tell unique stories.
A visit to the rooftop lounge, which offers a breathtaking view of the skyline from the Meatpacking District, will make you feel like one of Manhattan’s elite. The restaurant isn’t cheap, but the coffee is strong and the pastries are fresh. The meals and sandwiches being served looked delicious. Visit the Whitney with someone you adore or go alone and spoil yourself for the day.
It’s also seconds from the High Line so if you’re interested in continuing your exploration of New York, hop on the High Line – a footbridge that extends from the Whitney all the way down to the Javits Center – for people watching, shopping, food truck fare, and a uniquely New York experience.
New York Hall of Science (NYSCI)
Much of NYSCI is targeted at kids, including the Science Playground and Design Lab. But the exhibits will captivate the kid in all of us. Steer a mini replica Mars Rover, experience interactive science demonstrations, and enter the immersive Connected Worlds installation to see how our delicate ecosystem hangs in the balance.
The museum gets almost unbearably crowded during peak times. We visited once during a LEGO special event and there were lines for everything. My daughter and I waited nearly an hour to control a virtual reality robot. To make the most of your visit, plan your trip for a weekday before 11 AM or after 2 PM if you can.
Walking distance from the New York Hall of Science and situated in Flushing Meadows – Corona Park near the site of the 1964 World’s Fair, the Queens Museum combines art, science, and local history in a small but intriguing venue showcasing the diversity of Queens. Admission here is an affordable option for families!
Give yourself at least an hour to explore the museum’s two stories. You’ll especially want to linger over The Panorama of the City of New York, created for the 1964 World’s Fair.
World’s Fair nostalgia permeates the museum, which sits a short walk from the giant globe (we had a picnic lunch in front of it) and the park’s Observation Towers that were part of the New York State Pavilion during the fair. I actually had to Google the name of the three large towers. In my family, we’ve always just called them “the flying saucers,” inspired by their shape and reinforced by their role in the original Men In Black movie.
Walking into the Noguchi Museum, a triangular space set on a corner of a busy street in Long Island City, feels a bit like Alice walking through the looking glass. As shoppers across the street scurry through Costco, you can stroll the stone gardens in the building’s courtyard and embrace serenity.
That’s the best way I can describe it and, hands down, why the Noguchi Museum is one of my favorite places in Queens. With unique modern art exhibits that celebrate the life and art of Isamu Noguchi, famed 20th-century sculptor, the Noguchi Museum is a unique pearl in the center of mass-market urban life.
New York Transit Museum
Editor’s Note: If you’re a train lover, you will love the New York Transit Museum. This small museum in Brooklyn features old subway cars, transit trivia, and information about the New York subway system. Although I’m not a full-on transit geek, I still found this museum unexpectedly interesting when I came here as a child–and later as an adult. Here, you’ll learn about the real story of the first subway in New York. The museum has limited day-time hours and I’d strongly recommend tagging along for some of their events (e.g. seeing the Old City Hall Subway Station).
Historic Richmond town
As a history geek, you cannot miss Historic Richmond Town! This past trip was my first visit to this fully preserved town in Staten Island that showcases the history of New York. Although you can view other well-preserved Dutch-era houses and buildings from other periods of history, your ticket to Historic Richmond town includes a tour by enthusiastic volunteers who will allow you into many of the properties, including an old grocery store and a home that has been in many films. (I never realized that Staten Island was so interesting!)
It’s fairly easy to get here after taking the Staten Island Ferry over, so consider staying in Staten Island a bit afterward. We spent several hours here and it’s worth stepping into the ice cream shop for handmade ice cream. (The shop itself was built specifically for the set of Boardwalk Empire.)
Ellis Island Museum
As the granddaughter of an immigrant who passed through Ellis Island, Ellis Island holds a special place to me. For any Americans curious about the multi-cultural roots of the United States, the Ellis Island Museum has much to teach. Within the museum, which is free to visit with a ticket to visit the Statue of Liberty, you can put yourself in the shoes of an arriving immigrant, search for family names within their database (for free), and learn about the heartbreaking (and inspiring) stories of Ellis Island. It’s truly a moving museum.
John Bowne House
An unexpected find from my recent trip was the John Bowne House. This historic house, hidden in the middle of Flushing, is said to be the origin of freedom of religion. The owner John Bowne was an English Quaker who fought for his right to practice his religion within New Amsterdam. Today, you can visit the house for a few dollars on the weekends!
What is your favorite New York museum?
You could easily visit New York and explore nothing but the museums for weeks on end and still not see them all. It wasn’t easy pinpointing our favorite museums, but we hope our list will give you a starting point for appreciating all the art and history in New York City.
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