New York is among the world's greatest cultural centers, so it only makes sense that we would have the best museums. There really are museums in NYC to satisfy every kind of intellectual curiosity and aesthetic, from modern art to outer space. Plus, with plenty of free museums and free museum exhibitions, you can get your culture fix without spending a dime. Click on a listing for more information and complete details on current museum exhibitions.
Museums in Manhattan
Beyond the iconic, show-stopping displays–the grizzly bear in the Hall of North American Mammals, the 94-feet long blue whale, the prehistoric Barosaurus skeleton rearing up as if to scare the adjacent Allosaurus skeleton–is an expertly curated, 150 year old-plus museum that fills visitors of all ages with a curiosity about the universe. Whether you’re interested in the world below our feet, or the cultures of faraway lands or the stars light-years beyond our reach, your visit is bound to teach you a few things you never knew. With four floors filled to the brim with artifacts, you could spend a whole day just looking at the taxidermied animals that hail from from North America, Asia, Africa, rain forests and the ocean. Or, conversely, spend a day like an anthropologist, studying just the human species, with halls dedicated to different cultures of American Indians (Eastern Woodland, Plains, North West Pacific), Asian peoples, African Peoples, Pacific Peoples, and, before these rich cultures existed, the evolutionary origins of humans and our near (now extinct) cousins, like neanderthals. Someone with an inner-geologist, or just a love of sparkly rocks, will feel like a kid in the hall of gems and the hall of minerals. And nearly everyone is filled with child-like awe in the presence of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, Wooly Mammoth and the Apatosaurus in the fourth floor’s world-renowned fossil collection. Admission to the museum is a suggested donation, which is great for anyone wh
Considering the MoMA’s reputation for having one of the world’s finest collections of art from the 18th century through today, it’s no surprise that around nearly every corner of the venerated museum is a seminal piece by an artist trumpeted in art history or coveted by contemporary collectors. During the height of tourist season, around Christmas and again in late spring and summer, expect a shoving-match just to catch a momentary glance at Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Special exhibitions, including retrospectives of masters like surrealist René Magritte and large installations like the blockbuster Rain Room, have enough draw that some people will wait for hours just for the one exhibit. Meanwhile, no matter the time of year or temporary display, cash-strapped New Yorkers come in droves at the end of the work-week for free friday nights (4pm-8pm). If you really want to experience the museum and all it has to offer go on a weekday and buy your all-inclusive ticket online ($25). You’ll skip the line and find yourself unencumbered as you stop to contemplate the meaning of time in front of Salvador Dali’s melted-clock painting The Persistance of Memory or checking out the movie times in the attached theater.
This fascinating museum—actually a series of restored tenement apartments at 97 Orchard Street—is accessible only by guided tour. Tickets are sold at the visitors’ center at 108 Orchard Street; tours often sell out, so it’s wise to book ahead. Costumed "residents" give glimpses into the daily lives of immigrant clans that called the building home over the decades. “Getting By” visits the Sicilian Baldizzi family residence in apartment No. 5 in the 1930s, while “Piecing It Together” pays a call on the Russian Rogarshevsky family, mourning the loss of patriarch Abraham, a garment worker who died of tuberculosis in 1918. “The Moores: An Irish Family in America,” revisits a Dublin family who lived in the building in 1869.
For World War II buffs, and folks that like checking out fighter ships and planes, this museum on a real aircraft carrier The Intrepid docked at Pier 86 is a chance for an upclose look at the nuts and bolts of our not-so-distant history. Aboard this vessel, which fought in the Pacific during the ‘40s and withstood head-on attacks by Kamikaze planes and a torpedo strike, visitors will find a wealth of information about how naval officers lived on the massive ship, including hands-on-displays of items used in everyday life and views of the lower living quarters, and an outdoor flight deck with an impressive assortment of fighter jets and helicopters. Non-claustrophobic guests should descend into the Growler, the only American guided missile submarine open to the public, where you’re tiny New York living quarters will seem spacious and airy in comparison. If underwater living freaks you out though, then imagine taking to the skies, and beyond, in the Space Shuttle Pavilion where NASA orbiter, the Enterprise, is parked, which is fitting since during the 1960s the Intrepid was a NASA recovery vessel. A series of photographs, films and artifacts from the Enterprise’s career makes the history of space travel, which predated modern computers by decades, all the more awe-worthy.
RECOMMENDED: 50 best New York attractions Set in a lovely park overlooking the Hudson River, the Cloisters houses the Met’s medieval art and architecture collections. A path winds through the peaceful grounds to a castle that seems to have survived from the Middle Ages. (It was built less than 100 years ago, using material from five medieval French cloisters.) Be sure to check out the famous Unicorn Tapestries, the 12th-century Fuentidueña Chapel and the Annunciation Triptych by Robert Campin.
RECOMMENDED: Museum of Sex (MoSex) Situated in the former Tenderloin district, which bumped-and-grinded with dance halls and brothels in the 1800s, MoSex explores the subject within a cultural context—but that doesn’t mean some content won’t shock the more buttoned-up visitor. On the ground floor, “Action!,” which screens around 220 clips from more than 150 years of sex on film, includes explicit scenes from such (literally) seminal porn flicks as Deep Throat. Upstairs, highlights of the permanent collection range from the tastefully erotic to the outlandish. Cop a feel of one of the silicone Real Doll torsos. An 1890s anti-onanism device could be confused with the S&M gear, which includes a nine-foot steel-framed love pen donated by a local dominatrix. Also of note are the Depression-era Tijuana Bibles—raunchy comic strips showing well-known characters like Donald Duck as you’ve never seen them before—and sex machines created by keen DIYers, such as the “Monkey Rocker,” constructed from a dildo and excercise equipment (it inspired the device in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading). The spacious gift shop is stocked with books and arty sex toys, and aphrodisiac elixers are served in a new café.
It would take multiple visits to fully appreciate this sprawling–as in 13-acres of Central Park sprawling–collection of over 5,000 years of art from every corner of the world. As one of the biggest museums in the world, the gorgeous late 19th century neo-classical institution displays some of the finest examples of art spanning from mummified royalty of ancient times to avant garde fashion couture from last year’s runway. Visitors young and old are mesmerized by the Temple of Dendur, an Egyptian temple from 10 B.C. that was transposed from its Nile-side location to the bright, sun drenched Sackler Wing overlooking a reflective pool. Other highlights include the impressive array of European and Asian armor, Grecian sculptures, medieval art and contemporary photography. After hours of exploring relax by a fountain in the indoor sculpture garden or ponder what it all means in the Astor Chinese Garden Court, nestled off the Asian Art galleries. Advanced online tickets will allow museum-goers to skip the lines, but, word of warning you’ll have to pay the full suggested donation ($25, seniors $17, students $12). Budget-conscious art fans should come early on weekdays, pay what they wish and come often–the special exhibits change every few months and vary from big-name retrospective block busters to displays of little-known gems.
After nearly 50 years in its Marcel-Breur-designed building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street, the Whitney Museum decamped in 2015 to a brand new home in Lower Manhattan's Meatpacking District, conceived by international starchitect Renzo Piano. Planted at the foot of the Highline along Ganesvoort Street, the new Whitney building boasts some 63, 000 square feet of both indoor and outdoor exhibition space. Founded in 1931 by sculptor and art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt, the Whitney is dedicated to presenting the work of American artists. Its collection holds about 15,000 pieces by nearly 2,000 artists, including Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Edward Hopper (the museum holds his entire estate), Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe and Claes Oldenburg. Still, the museum’s reputation rests mainly on its temporary shows, particularly the exhibition everyone loves to hate, the Whitney Biennial. Held in even-numbered years, the Biennial remains the most prestigious (and controversial) assessment of contemporary art in America.
While the Guggenheim’s collection of modern art works is certainly impressive, it is impossible to separate the museum’s contents from its form with architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s brilliant and controversial design. Opened in 1959 on Fifth Ave across from Central Park, just months after Wright’s death, the concrete inverted ziggernaut (a Babylonian step pyramid), stomped on the expectations and tradition of clean square galleries exemplified and cherished by the neighboring Upper East Side museums, like the nearby Metropolitan Museum. Instead Wright combined his use of geometric shapes and nature, to create a gallery space that presented art along a flowing, winding spiral, much like a nautilus shell, with little in the way of walls to separate artists, ideas or time periods. Best experienced as Wright intended by taking the elevator to the top of the museum and following the gentle slope down, the art is revealed at different angles along the descent and across the open circular rotunda in a way that even the most well known Monet landscape might seem like a revelation. This unusual, bold way of approaching art, both as it is displayed and viewed, has inspired spectacular exhibits by highly-conceptual contemporary artists such as a series of films by Matthew Barney and hundred of Maurizio Cattelan's sculptures hanging from the ceiling. Considering the steep price of admission ($25, students and seniors $18, children under 12 free), make sure to take a break from the captivat
If you’re more comfortable holding a camera than picking up a paintbrush, the International Center of Photography is the art school for you. The renowned school offers classes for teens and adults on every aspect of film and digital photography, from shutter speeds to editing your images in Photoshop. There’s even a workshop on iPhone photography.
Museums in Brooklyn
While other museums might take you through the history of NYC via historic documents, photographs and priceless artifacts, City Reliquary chooses a far more eclectic approach to presenting insight on the greatest city in the world. The permanent collection includes all sorts of quirky ephemera like old postcards, a vintage subway turnstile and glasses that once held seltzer water. Special exhibits focus on specific NYC staples, like a display on the Jewish men and women who made a living selling beloved Eastern European street food knish.
RECOMMENDED: Brooklyn Museum Brooklyn’s premier institution is a less-crowded alternative to Manhattan’s bigger-name spaces. Among the museum’s many assets is a 4,000-piece Egyptian collection, which includes a gilded-ebony statue of Amenhotep III and, on the ceiling, a large-scale rendering of an ancient map of the cosmos, as well as a mummy preserved in its original coffin. Masterworks by Cézanne, Monet and Degas, part of an impressive European collection, are displayed in the museum’s Beaux-Arts Court. On the fifth floor, American paintings and sculptures include native son Thomas Cole’s The Pic-Nic and Louis Rémy Mignot’s Niagara. Don’t miss the renowned Pacific Island and African galleries (this was the first American museum to display African objects as art). RECOMMENDED: 50 best New York attractions
RECOMMENDED: 50 best New York attractions Other archives may offer broader perspectives on city history, but we love the Transit Museum because it goes deep into one essential element of New York life: the public transit system. Opened in 1976 in a former IND subway station, the museum displays historic artifacts—including a collection of vintage train cars spanning the 20th century—as well as more timely pieces, such as works from the MTA’s Arts for Transit program. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Sadie, the fluffy gray cat who controls the space’s rodent population; look for her on the lower-level subway platform, where she’s often found snoozing in an old-timey car.
Located in a former military residence on the grounds of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, this small museum chronicles the mighty history of the former shipbuilding center—which, at its peak during World War II, employed close to 70,000 people. Permanent exhibits examine the yard’s origins and significance throughout history; for example, a number of massive vessels, including the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor and the Pearl Harbor casualty USS Arizona, were built at the Navy Yard. But the institution also looks to the manufacturing future of the space and increasing number of businesses moving in each year businesses (including Brooklyn Grange, which operates an apiary on site). The location includes a café, weekend bus tours ($18–$30) and an 8,000-square-foot exhibition space that features the permanent “Brooklyn Navy Yard: Past, Present and Future” exhibit, as well as rotating offerings. A free weekend shuttle departs from Jay St at Willoughby St every 15–20 minutes.
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.
Founded in 1863, the society is located in a landmark four-story Queen Anne–style building and houses numerous permanent and ongoing exhibits, including "It Happened in Brooklyn," highlighting local links to crucial moments in American history. A major photo and research library—featuring historic maps and newspapers, notable family histories and archives from the area’s prominent abolitionist movement—is accessible by appointment. The institution offers weekend and after-school programs for children.
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, with the current exhibition “Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant” selling tickets through February 26. Special talks and tastings also take place at MoFAD after hours.
Ahoy! Aboard the red 1914 Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79, one of the last surviving railroad barges in the country, is this floating museum in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Come for a free tour of the historic vessel, where you can see the captain’s quarters, or visit during one of the special themed showboat performances for family-friendly entertainment including pirate shows and river songs.
Museums in Queens
Located on the grounds of two World’s Fairs, the QM holds one of Gotham’s most amazing sights: The Panorama of the City of New York, a 9,335-square-foot scale model of the five boroughs, created for the 1964 exposition and featuring Lilliputian models of landmarks. The museum underwent an expansion to double the size of its galleries in 2013, as well as add public-event spaces, two new entryways and a glass facade facing Grand Central Parkway. A new branch of the Queens Public Library will open in the new space in 2015.
RECOMMENDED: Museum of the Moving Image Only 15 minutes from midtown, the Museum of the Moving Image is one of the city’s most dynamic institutions. Rubbing elbows with Kaufman Astoria Studios, it includes a three-story extension that features a state-of-the-art 267-seat cinema and expanded gallery spaces. Meanwhile, the museum’s “Behind the Screen” exhibit examines every step of the filmmaking process, with artifacts from more than 1,000 different productions, and 14 classic (playable!) video games, including Asteroids, Ms. Pac-Man and Space Invaders.
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!
RECOMMENDED: 50 best New York attractions Housed in a distinctive Romanesque Revival building (a former public school), PS1 mounts cutting-edge shows and hosts an acclaimed international studio program. Artwork crops up in every corner, from the stairwells to the roof. PS1 became an affiliate of MoMA in 1999, and sometimes stages collaborative exhibitions. Reflecting the museum’s global outlook, it has focused in recent years on such luminaries as Janet Cardiff and Olafur Eliasson. It also hosts summer’s popular Saturday-afternoon party, Warm Up.
Pilgrims to the two-story house where the great Satchmo lived from 1943 until his death in 1971 will find a shrine to the revolutionary trumpet player—as well as his wife’s passion for wallpaper. Her decorative attentions extended to the interiors of cupboards, closets, even bathroom cabinets. The 45-minute tour is enhanced by audiotapes of Amstrong that give much insight into the tranquil domesticity he sought in the then-suburban neighborhood: a far cry from the glamorous life he could have led.
When sculptor (and landscape architect, and theatrical-set and furniture designer) Isamu Noguchi opened his Queens museum in 1985, he was the first living artist in the U.S. to establish such an institution. It occupies a former photo-engraving plant across the street from the studio he had occupied since the 1960s to be closer to stone and metal suppliers along Vernon Boulevard. The entire building was designed by Noguchi to be a meditative oasis amid its gritty, industrial setting. Twelve galleries and a garden are populated with Noguchi’s sculptures; also on display are drawn, painted and collaged studies, architectural models, and stage and furniture designs.
Museums in the Bronx
The history of this beautiful estate dates back to the 17th Century, when Thomas Pell signed a treaty with the Siwanoy Indians to purchase what is now the Bronx borough. Located within today’s Pelham Bay Park, the current house was built between 1836 and 1842, and was sold to the City of New York in 1888. Re-opened as a museum in 1946, it now offers tours of its furnishings, carriage house and formal gardens.
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.