New York City's cultural amenities are many, but none quite match the number, scale and variety of its museums. There is literally an institution for every interest, whether it’s in art, history, science or quirkier subjects.
The Metropolitan Museum, for instance, shelters 5,000 years of art history under its roof with a collection that runs the gamut from Stone Age objects to the latest examples of contemporary art. And speaking of the latter, there’s a host of institutions dedicated to cutting-edge art, from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of Art to the New Museum and MoMA, which re-opened in 2019 after a significant expansion of its space, and a total rethink of its mission.
There are dozens of other types of museums, too, some of which are encyclopedic (The American Museum Of Natural History), or focused on specific categories, such as NYC history (The New-York Historical and The Museum of the City of New York), architecture (the Skyscraper Museum), photography (International Center of Photography Museum), film (Museum of the Moving Image), sex (Museum of Sex), and even the subway (New York Transit Museum). And, of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, even if you don’t count all of the other museums in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
Is it a lot to take in? Certainly. But if you want find a museum with your name on it, look no further than our complete guide to the best museums in NYC, complete with highlights of current exhibitions at each.
Opened in 1880 and situated on Central Park, this iconic New York institution contains 5,000 years of art—from prehistory to the latest in contemporary works—under one roof. Its unparalleled collection comprises more that two million objects that include Old Master paintings, the Ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur and the museum’s famed period rooms.
After three years of planning and construction—including a four-month closure this summer—the Museum of Modern Art has finally thrown open its doors to a shiny, reconfigured self, offering the public more MoMA to love (or at least to ponder) than ever.
Frank Lloyd Wright broke the mold on museum design when he completed his building for the Guggenheim in 1959. Since then, millions of visitors have come to the Gugg to gawk at its spiraling rotunda, but they stay for its daring art shows and its collection, which includes Peggy Guggenheim’s trove of Cubist, Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist works, as well as the largest collection of Kandinskys in the United States.
In 2015, the Whitney Museum finally slammed the door on its status as the also-ran of major NYC museums by moving into a gleaming new building designed by world-class starchitect Renzo Piano. Standing at the foot of the High Line along Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District, the 63,000 square facility boasts three outdoor sculpture spaces providing views of the Hudson and surrounding neighborhood.
The third-largest museum in the Five Boroughs, the Brooklyn Museum follows the encyclopedic template of the Metropolitan Museum with a collection housed in an 1897 Beaux-Art building that includes period rooms, Ancient Egyptian and African Art, and modern and contemporary paintings, sculptures and more.
Reminisce good times with photos and memorabilia of Studio 54, work by designer KAWS and a soaring multimedia mural of NYC by JR.
In addition to a superb collection of Judaica, The Jewish Museum also mounts important exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. Housed in the 1908 Warburg Mansion, the museum maintains a collection of more than 28,000 works of art, artifacts and media installations.
An exhibition by Jonathan Horowitz looks at how artists have responded to the rise of authoritarianism and bigotry, and a show of fantasy sculptures, installations and paintings from Rachel Feinsteinare on view.
Taking its name from the New School, where it was founded in 1977, the New Museum has grown from a single gallery space to a global showcase of cutting-edge art. In 2007, it moved into a purpose-built, seven-story building on the Bowery, designed by the cutting-edge Tokyo architectural firm SANAA.
Housed in the former Gilded-Age mansion of Henry Clay Frick, The Frick maintains a collection of Old Master paintings (including works by Rembrandt, Holbein and Vermeer) on par with the Met’s. The Frick’s holdings also include paintings by Whistler and Renoir as well as furniture and other examples of the decorative arts.
The Frick is currently closed through early 2021 as it prepares to open on Madison Avenue in the former Whitney and Met Breuer building.
Once the private library of J. Pierpont Morgan, the Morgan Museum was gifted to the city by the Gilded-Age financier along with his collection of artworks and rare books—holdings that include drawings by Michelangelo and three Gutenberg Bibles. There’s also a first edition of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol that’s put on display every Chirstmas.
Clever collages and sculptures that confront and reclaim racist images by Betye Saar are on view.
Devoted entirely to late-19th- and early-20th-century German and Austrian fine and decorative arts, this elegant addition to the city’s museum scene has the largest concentration of works by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele outside Vienna, including Klimt’s masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I.
The Neue Galerie is currently closed due to COVID-19.
The biggest attraction at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is undoubtedly The Panorama of the City of New York, an exacting 9,335-square-foot scale model of the five boroughs created for the 1964 World’s Fair. In fairness, though, there’s a lot of other great things to see, especially since the museum doubled its size during a 2013 expansion.
Works by photographer Bruce Davidson show the everyday life of New Yorkers on the periphery of mainstream society.
With its mind-boggling holdings of artifacts and specimens from around the globe, the American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, tells nothing less than the story of creation, from the Big Bang to the present. Its dazzling highlights include the 94-feet long blue whale in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life and the Hayden Planetarium directed by famed astrophysicist and media personality, Neil degrasse Tyson.
Situated in a former public school, MoMA PS1 hosts an international studio program in addition to mounting exhibitions (including career monographs) of cutting-edge artists. Affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art since 1999, MoMA PS1 is also known for its summer series of outdoor parties called “Warm Up.”
Marking Time spotlights art by people in prisons and work by non-incarcerated artists, while Stage is a participatory installation with sound that tells the story of the microphone.
Located in Astoria, Queens, the Museum of the Moving Image presents exhibitions and screenings that relay the history and cultural impact of movies, television and digital media. In addition to a state-of-the-art 267-seat cinema, the museum features ongoing installations such as “Behind the Screen,” which examines the filmmaking process.
Besides shining a spotlight on neighborhood artists as well as on Africa-American, Asian and Latino artist from the 20th- and 21st-centuries, this multicultural museum founded in 1971 has the virtue being free.
Navigate Sanford Biggers’ intricate quilted works in Codeswitch—an exhibition of over 50 paintings and sculptures all made from pre-1900 antique quilts and discarded scraps.
You know the saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and at the International Center of Photography Museum is where you should go to immerse yourself in the world visual storytelling. The institution caters to a wide audience—not merely shutterbugs and Instagram-addicts. The center does offer stellar academic programming as well as a library containing back issues of photography magazines and thousands of biographical files. As of 2020, ICP is in a new space in Lower East Side's Essex Crossing. The 40,000 square foot grounds is home to educational programs for people of all ages, and media labs and shooting studios.
International Center of Photography Museum is temporarily closed.
The Museum of Arts & Design is housed in the former “Lollipop Building,” a baroque modernist structure that was considered one of the ugliest buildings in NYC. After a 1998 renovation totaling $90 million, MAD moved in and began to mount lively exhibitions dedicated to the latest in contemporary art and design.
Immerse yourself in Brian Clarke’s exhibition of more than 100 works of luminous stained glass and Beth Lipman’s transformations of glass, metal and clay.
A battle-hardened veteran World War II, the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid at Pier 86 has been repurposed as a floating museum since 1982. With a collection of military aircraft crowding its flight deck, the Intrepid also features the space shuttle Enterprise and a British Airways Concorde.
Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum is temporarily closed.
Sure, MoSex is dedicated to elevating porn and erotica to institutional status, but not every exhibit there is presented just for titillation’s sake. Its exhibitions have included serious explorations of such issues as gender and the impact of new technologies on human sexual behavior.
Things to do
Schools and universities
Upper East Side
One of two Smithsonian museums in NYC, the Cooper Hewitt—which, like the nearby Frick is housed in a sumptuous former mansion—is dedicated to the field of design, housing a collection of objects that span 3,000 years. Among the ongoing exhibits is the Immersion Room, which allows visitors to interact with digital projections of wallpaper.
Dedicated to Hispanic artists in the U.S and Latin America, this museum located in Spanish Harlem (a.k.a. El Barrio) holds a 6,500-piece permanent collection that ranges from pre-Colombian artifacts to contemporary installations.
Get a snapshot of life in various locales inthe Americas and the Carribean between the 1930s and 1970s, by30 self-taught artists.
As its name suggests, the American Folk Art Museum celebrates traditional craft-based works, but more than that, it has been instrumental in promoting the work of outsider, visionary and other self-taught artists.
See works by Edward Hicks exhibited for the first time in two decades.
Founded in 1804, the New-York Historical Society is NYC’s oldest museum, and is dedicated to the history of Gotham and its central place in American life, politics and culture. Its collection and library contains more than 1.6 million items including an outstanding cache of Hudson River School paintings, as well as James Audubon's preparatory watercolors for his seminal study, The Birds of America.
Experience a free exhibition mounted in the museum’s rear courtyard, “Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine”. At the height of the quarantine, writer and human-rights activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman spent two days traveling the five boroughs to interview and take photos of ordinary New Yorkers living during an unprecedented moment.
Some of the most exciting today art is being created by young African-Americans and the Studio Museum is the place where many of them received their initial exposure. Opened in 1968 as the first black fine-arts museum in the country, the Studio Museum is undergoing a major expansion with plans to move into a new David Adjaye-designed building by 2021.
Opened in 2004, this six-story museum in Chelsea houses Donald and Shelley Rubin’s impressive collection of Himalayan art and artifacts. It also mounts large-scale temporary exhibitions that have included offerings by contemporary artists.
Fold an origami lotus of your own and bring it along to be a part of a physical community-built installation, that symbolizes gratitude for helping hands in difficult moments.
The other branch of the Smithsonian Institution in NYC along with the Cooper Hewitt, the NMAI displays its collection around the grand rotunda of the 1907 Custom House at 1 Bowling Green. In total, the museum contains some 825,000 items from 1,200 indigenous cultures covering 12,000 years of Native American history.
National Museum of the American Indian is temporarily closed.
The place to explore the NYC’s past, present and future, the Museum of the City of New York on Fifth Avenue at 104th Street takes visitors on a tour of the city’s 400-year history through rotating exhibitions and its extensive collection of vintage photographs, costumes, textiles, theater memorabilia, furniture, decorative arts and more.
Opened as a foundation to promote LGBT artists by Charles Leslie and his late partner, Fritz Lohman, this Soho institution was granted museum status by New York State in 2011. Its program includes solo shows, as well as group shows organized around important LGBT themes such as identity, gender and AIDS.
MOCA occupies an airy former machine shop designed by prominent Chinese-American architect Maya Lin. In an interior loosely inspired by a traditional Chinese house, with rooms radiating off a central courtyard and areas defined by screens, MOCA’s core exhibit traces the development of Chinese communities on these shores from the 17th century to the present through objects, images and video. Mixed-media displays cover the development of industries such as laundries and restaurants in New York, Chinese stereotypes in pop culture, and the suspicion and humiliation Chinese-Americans endured during World War II and the McCarthy era. A mocked-up Chinese general store evokes the multipurpose spaces that served as vital community lifelines for men severed from their families under the 1882 Exclusion Act, which restricted immigration. A gallery is devoted to temporary exhibitions, such as the work of contemporary Chinese-American artists.
As it names suggests, The Drawing Center is devoted to exhibiting and promoting works on paper, both historical and contemporary. A Soho stalwart since its founding in 1977, The Drawing Center is as much a museum as it is a gallery (there’s a five dollar admission), but its wooden floors and cast-iron columns are reminiscent of Soho’s glory days as a gallery district.
Catch the super timely new show, 100 Drawings from Now, featuring works created since the beginning of 2020.
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.
The New York Transit Museum remains temporarily closed.
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.
Monuments and memorials
It doesn’t matter if you’re a tourist, commuter or longtime NYC resident: No visit to lower Manhattan is complete without paying your respects at the September 11 Memorial & Museum. Both the outdoor memorial and accompanying museum are solemn, moving tributes to the nearly 3,000 victims who lost their lives during the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and February 26, 1993. Designed by Israeli architect Michael Arad, two of North America’s largest man-made waterfalls mark the footprint of each tower, framing the perimeter and cascading into reflecting pools almost an acre wide.
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.
The Hispanic Society boasts the largest assemblage of Spanish art and manuscripts outside Spain. Goya’s masterful Duchess of Alba greets you as you enter, while several haunting El Greco portraits can be found on the second floor. The collection is dominated by religious artifacts, including 16th-century tombs from the monastery of San Francisco in Cuéllar, Spain. Also on display are decorative art objects and thousands of black-and-white photographs that document life in Spain and Latin America from the mid 19th century to the present. In May 2010, one of the highlights of the collection—Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida’s Vision of Spain, comprising 14 monumetal oils commissioned by the Society in 1911—returned to a renovated gallery after a three-year tour of Spain.
The Hispanic Society's Museum is closed for extensive renovations.
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.
The Fashion Institute of Technology owns one of the largest and most impressive collections of clothing, textiles and accessories in the world, including some 50,000 costumes and fabrics dating from the 5th century to the present. Overseen by fashion historian Valerie Steele, the museum showcases a selection from the permanent collection, as well as temporary exhibitions focusing on individual designers or the role fashion plays in society.