New York boasts the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world, so it’s easy to understand why tourists and even local museums lovers might not realize that there’s a lot more destinations to visit than just The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim or MoMA. Those are of course, amazing places, but if you’re looking for something more off-beat, you should know the NYC hosts a whole ecology of smaller, niche museums with idiosyncratic offerings related to mathematics, magic and even elevators. Where can you find them? Why right here in our authoritative list of New York’s quirkiest museums.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to museums in NYC
New York's quirkiest museums
New York’s premier repository for ephemera and curios, the City Reliquary is a storefront located in Williamsburg that includes a gift shop modeled after a vintage dime store, a rotating exhibition hall (currently hosting a “History of New York’s Most Significant Pizzerias As Told Through Their Boxes,” as well as a show devoted to “everything chicken”) and a permanent collection of only-in-New York odds and ends. 370 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn, NY (cityreliquary.org, 718-782-4842)
There’s no shortage of tall, impressive skyscrapers in Gotham: the Flatiron Building, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building, Rockefeller Center and One World Observatory are just a few of the massive structures recognizable the world over. At this Battery Park museum exhibit, explore the design, technology, real investments and construction techniques that make these towering beauties possible in our vertical metropolis. 39 Battery Pl (skyscraper.org 212-968-1961)
If the masters refuse to show you their tricks, head to this research library and dig through their collection of more than 11,000 books on magic, ventriloquism and slight of hand. Whether you’re an aspiring sorcerer or just curious about card tricks, the knowledgable research aides will be able to help you find your grimoire. 11 W 30th St, New York, NY (conjuringarts.org, 212-594-1033)
On Surf Avenue, the main drag of New York’s most famous beach, you’ll find this colorful museum dedicated to America’s playground: Coney Island. Here, the Brooklyn neighborhood’s past is celebrated with fun house mirrors, vintage bumper cars, a collection of coolers and thermoses from the ’50s and ’60s and examples of particularly unique postcards. Check out a 3-D printed scaled model of the original Luna Park (1903–1944) and other special exhibits. 1208 Surf Ave (coneyisland.com, 718-372-5159)
Mathematics are made fun at this NoMad venue, which features cool interactive installations that allow you to explore the prinicples behind geometry, algorithms, optics and physics. There’s even a corrugated track that lets kids ride a square-wheeled tryke as smoothly as a conventional one. 11 E 26th St (momath.org, 212-542-0566)
The Hebrew Home at Riverdale has assembled a marvelous trove of Jewish antiquities from before the Holocaust, along with a modern art collection with pieces by Alex Katz, Ben Shahn and Andy Warhol. Currently on view: the nightmare-reminiscent work of Slovakian Surrealist Vincent Hložnik. 5901 Palisade Ave, Bronx, NY (riverspringhealth.org, 718-581-1787)
Without elevators, there would be no New York as we know it, which is part of the point of this collection run by “respected industry professional” Patrick Carrajat, who is also author of The History of The American Elevator Industry: 1850–1910. Located in Long Island City, the museums offers plaques, elevator controls and floor indicators, among others items detailing the ups and downs of elevator lore. 21-03 44th Ave #206, Long Island City, NY (elevatorhistory.org, 917-748-2328)
Housed in a 1904 Beaux-Arts firehouse on Spring Street, the New York City Fire Museum is a dream come true for anyone who ever fantasized about being a fireman as a kid. From the bucket brigades of old New Amsterdam to the latest equipment and fire-fighting techniques, the museum charts the history of New York’s bravest and their never-ending battle against the city’s conflagrations. 278 Spring St, New York, NY (nycfiremuseum.org, 212-691-1303)
A National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark, this relatively modest brick house in Queens was home to the jazz legend from 1943 until his death in 1971. It houses Louis Armstrong’s personal collection of 1,600 recordings, Armstrong memorabilia donated by his legion of fans, and the furnishing left in the house after the death of Armstrong’s wife Lucille in 1983—who, as the home’s official interior decorator, was partial to opulent wallpaper and robin-egg-blue kitchen cabinets. 34-56 107th St, Corona, NY (louisarmstronghouse.org, 718-478-8274)
This perfectly preserved late Federal-Greek Revival house, complete with its original furniture, takes visitors back to elegant world of New York’s 19th-century upper-middle class. Though it’s a museum now, the house was occupied for nearly a century between 1835 and 1933 by the family of hardware purveyor Seabury Tredwell and his descendants. 29 E 4th St, New York, NY (merchantshouse.org, 212-777-1089)
For those who consider a visit to a New York restaurant a major cultural experience, full of discovery and wonder, America’s first-ever museum dedicated to eating, dining, cooking and food culture is for you. MoFAD exhibits rotate seasonally, plus there are special talks and tastings that take place at MoFAD after hours. 62 Bayard St (mofad.org, 212-542-0566)
A Boerum Hill institution since 1986, Micro Museum has held steadfast at its Smith Street address even as the neighborhood has been radically transformed by the influx of hipsters and Wall Street types. The brainchild of interdisciplinary artists Kathleen and William Laziza, the museum celebrates “American ingenuity, invention and artful innovation” with a wacky assortment of interactive video displays, computer games, audio tricks, special effects and musical props. 123 Smith St, Brooklyn, NY (micromuseum.com, 718-797-3116)
Located aboard a refurbished 1914 Lehigh Valley Railroad barge, The Waterfront Museum is dedicated to preserving New York’s maritime history, with classes, performances, photos and vintage objects that harken back to the city’s nautical heyday as the most important port in the country. 290 Conover Street (waterfrontmuseum.org, waterfrontmuseum.org)
A self-described “modern natural history museum devoted to the curation and exhibition of contemporary artifacts that illustrate the complexities of the modern world” Tribeca’s Mmuseumm’s exhibition program has included such oddball presentations as “Toothpaste Tubes from Around the World,” “Hand Modified Russian Watches” and “Personal Possessions found in the Pacific” (which strangely includes a Georgia driver’s license). Less of museum than a tongue-in-cheek send-up of one, Mmuseumm offers a little something for the connoisseur of the weird in us all. 4 Cortlandt Alley, New York, NY (mmuseumm.com)
If you’ve never seen a $10,000 bill (featuring a portrait of Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury from 1861 to 1864), let alone had one in your wallet, check out this institution dedicated to the history of Wall Street and America’s financial markets. The bill is there along with ticker tape from the morning of the 1929 stock-market crash and a couch made of $30,000 worth of nickels. Situated in the old headquarters of the Bank of New York, the museum is a reminder that New York without Wall Street is a bit like a peanut butter sandwich without the bread. 48 Wall St, New York, NY (moaf.org, 212-908-4110)
Technically a shop more than a museum, Obscura Antiques and Oddities is nonetheless a place to drop in just to see its bizarre gathering of antiques, stuffed animals and freaky novelties, which include jarred piranhas and an assortment of preserved butterflies and beetles displayed in boxes. The shop was once featured on a Discovery Channel program called Oddities, which starred owners Mike Zohn and Evan Michelson. 207 Avenue A, New York, NY (obscuraantiques.com, 212-505-9251)
Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch has transformed his enormous Brooklyn brownstone into a preserved catalog of all the animals on Noah’s Ark and in the rest of the Old Testament. Besides the jauntily-arranged taxidermy, the museum features fantastic artifacts like 2,300-year-old Greek dreidels and 6th-century throwing daggers. If you’ve got the chutzpah, you’re welcome to touch the treasures. 1603 41st St, Brooklyn, NY (torahanimalworld.com, 877-752-6286)
The former speakeasy at 80 St. Marks Place now hosts a museum of New York’s crime legends. See an arsenal of weapons going back to the days of Bugsy Malone and hear wild tales of the city’s boldest wheelers and dealers. 78 St Marks Pl, New York, NY (museumoftheamericangangster.org, 212-228-5735)
A collection of vintage train cars spanning the 20th century is the main attraction in this ultimate shrine for train buffs, or anyone else interested in the transit system that is the lifeblood of New York City. Housed since 1976 in a former IND subway in Downtown Brooklyn, the museum displays historic artifacts dating from the opening of the subway in 1904 and it’s expansion through all five boroughs to today. Boerum Pl & Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn, NY (web.mta.info/mta/museum, 718-694-1600)
When heading out to the Bronx’s New England-esque fishing village to eat fried shrimp and freshly shucked clams, stop into this 19th Century public schoolhouse for a brief tour. Transformed into a museum dedicated to the history of City Island, each former classroom houses artifacts like boat building materials, newspaper clippings and family portraits to help you better understand a small facet of New York City history.
Clear Comfort, 19th-century photographer Alice Austen's family home, is also one of New York's oldest buildings, dating back to 1690. It now houses a large collection of her work, as well as frequent exhibitions of contemporary shutterbugs.
Established on the site of the US Light House Service General Depot on Staten Island, National Lighthouse Museum grew out the lighthouse preservation movement that began in the 1980s with the idea of saving the country's maritime heritage. The museum permanent exhibits include displays of model lighthouses (more than 180 in all), lanterns and other installations devoted to recounting the history of lighthouses (from ancient times to the present) and the daily routine of lighthouse keepers.
Though not as easily accessible by public transit as most NYC museums, this Queens County treasure is well worth the bus trek or car ride. As the city’s longest continually farmed site in the city (it’s been in operation since 1697), the 47 acres feels like an entirely different world compared to Manhattan. Feed and pet the barnyard animals, including sheep, ponies and goats, hop aboard a hayride and come back during the fall harvest season when you can go pumpkin picking and attempt to find your way through the Amazing Maize Maze (yes, that’s a corn maze). Don’t forget to stop by the store on your way out for fresh fruits and veggies grown on the premises!
Located in Fantasma Magic ("the City’s premier magic store"), the Houdini Museum of New York is dedicated to the legendary career of escape artist Harry Houdini (1874–1926), who astounded early-20th audiences with stunts such as freeing himself from chains—even while upside down in a tank of water. The museums exhibits memorabilia, films and props associated with his daring feats, including posters, handcuffs and other forms of constraints, as well as an animatronic Houdini figure who wriggles out of a straitjacket while dangling from the ceiling.
Want to find free days at NYC museums?
Museum-going in New York can be an expensive proposition, but luckily, most institutions—including the Guggenheim, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art—offer free museum days and hours where admission is pay-what-you-wish (which can pretty much amount to the same thing). The trick is knowing when to take advantage of these bargains. To find out, look no further than our complete guide to the best free museums and discount hours in New York. After all, the city has the greatest concentration of museums in the world, so what are you waiting for?