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Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Things to Do, Boston
Photograph: Siena Scarff Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The best Boston museums to check out right now

Explore everything from the natural world to cutting-edge art at the best museums in Boston

By Eric Grossman and Time Out Boston Staff
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Many of the most lauded museums in Boston have rich histories going back generations, but the city also boasts museums with modern design and cutting-edge art. Stroll the Museum of Fine Arts to view the classics or check out the ICA for more contemporary art. Don't forget about science and history - from the Harvard Museums to the Museum of Science, you can have fun while learning about our world. Looking for more art? Check out our list of where to see art in Boston. For more fun things to do, our lists of the best free things to do in Boston and best things to do with kids in Boston have you covered.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Boston

Best museums in Boston

Museum of Fine Arts
Photograph: Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts

1. Museum of Fine Arts

Museums Art and design Fenway/Kenmore

Founded in 1870, the MFA moved from Copley Square to its current home, a neoclassical granite building on Huntington Avenue—the so-called “Avenue of the Arts”—in 1909. The globe-spanning collection encompasses more than 500,000 objects across myriad disciplines and genres. An array of performances and special events attract culture hounds of all ages. Penny pinchers can visit on Wednesdays after 4pm, when admission is by voluntary contribution.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Museums and galleries, Boston
Photograph: Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum/Nic Lehoux

2. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Museums Art and design Mission Hill

The Gardner museum is a lavish reconstruction of a 15th century Venetian palace, complete with a luxurious interior courtyard and seasonally changing floral display. First opened in 1903, the museum is notable for its varied collection, which includes European, Asian and Islamic art from classical times to the turn of the 20th century. The museum entrance is located a short walk from the MFA, making it easy to check out two of the city's two most beloved museums in a single visit.

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Institute of Contemporary Art
Photograph: Courtesy ICA

3. Institute of Contemporary Art

Museums Art and design Seaport District

The ICA's spacious Seaport home is the cultural cornerstone of the waterfront. With its 65,000-square-foot floor space, the dramatic, glass-walled building houses galleries, a theater and a café. The museum prides itself on being a platform for offbeat, sometimes challenging, works. For a lighter experience, catch a concert or DJ set on the breezy, scenic back deck. Continue your contemporary art exploration by taking a Water Taxi to the East Boston Shipyard extension, the ICA Watershed.

Harvard Art Museums
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Bill Comstock

4. Harvard Art Museums

Museums Art and design Harvard Sq

Given Harvard’s history and status, it stands to reason it has one of the country’s best university art collections. The collection includes more than 250,000 pieces, from Neolithic sculpture to 21st-century conceptual installations, all housed under one Renzo Piano–designed glass roof: The Fogg Museum, known for its European and American collections; the Busch-Reisinger Museum, with its focus on works from German-speaking countries; and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, housing one of the most important Asian art collections in the U.S.

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Museum of Science, Museums and galleries, Boston
Photograph: Daderot

5. Museum of Science

Museums Science and technology West End

This exceptionally child-friendly museum is committed to providing an interactive and educational experience, making science accessible through a wealth of hands-on activities and engaging exhibits. Highlights include IMAX movies in the five-story Mugar Omni Theater, and multimedia shows at the Charles Hayden Planetarium. There's also an enormous gift shop, a variety of snack options (including pizzas from celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck), and spectacular views of the Charles River from the vast windows at the back of the museum.

Harvard Museum of Natural History, Museums, Things to Do, Boston
© Gino Roncaglia

6. Harvard Museum of Natural History

Museums Natural history Harvard Sq

This historic museum boasts a vast and slightly creepy collection of stuffed, bottled and dried creatures from around the globe, from llamas to coelacanths and butterflies. Fossil-mad children can gawk at dinosaur skeletons and admire the 42-foot kronosaurus, a prehistoric marine reptile, while rock fans will head straight for the meteorites and gemstones. The entry charge includes admission to the interconnected Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology.

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Peabody Museum, Things to Do, Boston
Photograph: Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum

7. Peabody Essex Museum

Museums Art and design

Less than 20 miles north of Boston in Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum is home to one of the largest art collections in New England (around 1.8 million works in total). The backbone of the museums stock is maritime art, but there is also African, American, Asian, Native American and Oceanic art from which to choose. For a break in the appreciation, relax in the atriums bright café.

Children's Museum, Things to Do, Boston
Photograph: Elan Fleisher

8. Boston Children’s Museum

Museums Childhood Seaport District

Founded in 1913, the Children’s Museum remains a beloved local institution among generations of area youngsters. This Fort Point Channel landmark has seen its surrounding neighborhood explode in recent years, but once inside kids find themselves immersed in a series of spacious open areas. The centerpiece of the museum is the New Balance Foundation Climb, a twisty, turning three-story climbing structure made of serpentine wires and curved plywood sails. Bring earplugs on Fridays between 5-9pm, when admission drops to $1.

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John F Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum
Photograph: Courtesy J.F.K. Presidential Library & Museum

9. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum

Museums History Dorchester

A looming concrete-and-glass monolith designed by I.M. Pei, this shrine to the life and work of the 35th U.S. President overlooks the harbor from the top of the Columbia Point peninsula. On the ground floor, the stunning atrium commands panoramic views of the sea and the city. Downstairs, the museum contains an extensive display of memorabilia, as well as a series of temporary shows. 

USS Constitution Museum, Things to Do, Boston
Photograph: Courtesy USS Constitution Museum

10. USS Constitution Museum

Museums Military and maritime Charlestown

Located in a converted pumphouse in the Charlestown Navy Yard, the USS Constitution Museum has exhibitions that relate both to “Old Ironsides” itself—including the people who designed, built, and sailed the ship—and to general U.S. naval history. Interactive displays offer a simulated hands-on seafaring experience, giving visitors an idea of the thrill of handling the ship’s massive sails.

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Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum

11. Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum

Museums History Seaport District

This floating museum thrills history buffs with live reenactments and multimedia exhibits explaining the famous event that changed the course of American history. The one-hour tour features historical interpreters, interactive exhibits, and full-scale, restored 18th century sailing vessels where you can score a photo op while dumping “tea.” Visitors can even taste history by sampling the five teas thrown overboard during the Boston Tea Party.

MIT Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Angelo R.

12. MIT Museum

Museums Science and technology Central Sq

A few blocks from the heart of the MIT campus, this fascinating museum serves as a historical record of the institute as well as a showcase for its amazing inventions. On-site exhibitions and galleries display MIT history (including infamous student pranks), science and technology, architecture and design, and one of the world's largest collections of holographic art. Visitors can also take in demos, workshops, performances, conversations, debates and more.

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ICA Watershed
Photograph: Courtesy ICA/Florian Holzherr

13. ICA Watershed

Museums Art and design East Boston

The ICA’s seasonal (May-October) annex has transformed an abandoned space on the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina into a venue for large-scale, immersive art. Each summer sees new installations and public programming. There’s also a gallery covering the history of the shipyard and East Boston. Watershed admission is free, but if you visit the main ICA first, a cool trip across the Harbor on a Water Shuttle is included with admission.

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