New York City has some of the most prestigious museums in the world—as anyone who's ever visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim or MoMA could attest. But flying under the radar are any number of smaller, niche museums devoted to seemingly random, atypical fare like mathematics, magic and elevators. They are, in their own way, as intriguing as their more famous institutional counterparts; the trick is knowing where to find them. With that in mind, we offer this select guide to the quirkiest museums and attractions in NYC.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to best NYC museums
New York's quirkiest museums
The City Reliquary
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)
Conjuring Arts Research Center
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)
Derfner Judaica Museum
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)
Elevator Historical Society Museum
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)
New York City Fire Museum
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)
Louis Armstrong House
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)
Merchant's House Museum
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)
First look at the Museum of Ice Cream in NYC
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?