New York is among the world's greatest cultural centers, so it only makes sense that we would have the best museums in NYC. There really are New York attractions to satisfy every kind of intellectual curiosity and aesthetic, from modern art to outer space. Plus, with plenty of free museums, you can get your culture fix without spending a dime. Click on a listing for more information and complete details on current museum exhibitions.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best New York attractions
Best museums in New York
Occupying an 11.5 acre footprint, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY’s biggest museum), which opened in 1880, is impressive in terms both of quality and scale. However, this iconic New York attraction—one of the world's top art museums—is surprisingly easy to negotiate, particularly if you come early on a weekday to avoid the crowds. Hang out in an Egyptian temple, gawk at period costumes and take pictures on the gorgeous rooftop garden, showcasing views of Central Park and the city skyline.
The Guggenheim New York Museum is as famous for its landmark building—designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and restored for its 50th birthday in 2009—as it is for its impressive collection and daring temporary art shows. The museum owns Peggy Guggenheim’s trove of cubist, surrealist and abstract expressionist works, along with the Panza di Biumo Collection of American minimalist and conceptual art from the 1960s and ’70s. In addition to works by Manet, Picasso, Chagall and Bourgeois, the Guggenheim Museum holds the largest collection of Kandinskys in the U.S. In 1992, the addition of a ten-story tower provided space for a sculpture gallery (with Central Park views), an auditorium, and restaurant the Wright.
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, 148-year-old 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.
One of Kings County’s preeminent cultural New York attractions, the 560,000-square-foot Brooklyn Museum made history as the first American art museum to exhibit African objects as artwork. In addition to the more than 4,000 items in the Egyptian holdings, museumgoers can scope pieces by masters such as Cézanne, Monet and Degas, plus an entire center devoted to feminist art. (The venue is the permanent home of Judy Chicago’s massive installation The Dinner Party.) Beyond its art shows, the spot draws crowds with its BrooklyNites Jazz music series and the perennially popular free Target First Saturdays.
Sure, you could spend a day getting lost in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)'s permanent exhibits, which showcase all manner of priceless pieces from renowned artists. But just as essential are the museum's other elements, including an attached cinema that combines art-house fare and more accessible offerings, top-notch gift shop MoMA Design Store, a sculpture garden with works by Picasso and Rodin, and the Modern, a high-end restaurant and bar run by Danny Meyer.
The first new art museum ever constructed from the ground up below 14th Street, the aptly named New Museum of Contemporary Art marks a major contribution to the continuing revitalization of downtown Manhattan. The bold seven-story building, designed by the cutting-edge Tokyo architectural firm Sejima + Nishizawa/SANAA, opened in December 2007, housing three main art gallery levels, a theater, a café and roof terraces. The focus here is on emerging media and surveys of important but under-recognized artists—further evidence of its pioneering spirit.
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 High Line along Gansevoort Street, the new Whitney building boasts some 63,000 square feet of both indoor and outdoor exhibition space.
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.
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 in Midtown. But it's only at the downtown museum where you can view sensational exhibitions.
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.
Originally designed in 1964 by Radio City Music Hall architect Edward Durell Stone to house the Gallery of Modern Art, 2 Columbus Circle (nicknamed the "Lollipop Building" because of the Candyland-like columns that lined its base) was a windowless monolith that had sat empty since 1998. After an 18-month overhaul (with a price tag topping $90 million), the ten-story building now has a 150-seat auditorium for public events, classrooms, a restaurant and four floors of exhibition galleries, including the Tiffany & Co. Foundation Jewelry Gallery.
Dating back to the 1964 Worlds Fair, this 100,000-square-foot all-ages science museum truly has something for every type of science nerd. Browse more than 450 exhibits to learn about technology, sports, marine biology and climate change, and don’t miss the surprisingly engaging award-winning display on math.
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.
The opulent residence that houses a private collection of great masters (from the 14th through the 19th centuries) was originally built for industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The firm of Carrère & Hastings designed the 1914 structure in an 18th-century European style, with a beautiful interior court and reflecting pool. The permanent collections include world-class paintings, sculpture and furniture by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Renoir and French cabinetmaker Jean-Henri Riesener.
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.
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.
Founded in 1897 by the Hewitt sisters, granddaughters of industrialist Peter Cooper, the only museum in the U.S. solely dedicated to design (both historic and modern) has been part of the Smithsonian since the 1960s. The museum hosts periodic interactive family programs that allow children to experiment with design.
Located in Spanish Harlem (a.k.a. El Barrio), El Museo del Barrio is dedicated to the work of Latino artists who reside in the U.S., as well as Latin American masters. The 6,500-piece permanent collection ranges from pre-Colombian artifacts to contemporary installations. The space also features updated galleries, an exposed courtyard for programming and events, and a Pan-Latino cafe that serves tacos, chili, and rice and beans.
The Jewish Museum, housed in the 1908 Warburg Mansion, contains a fascinating collection of more than 28,000 works of art, artifacts and media installations. The two-floor permanent exhibition, “Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,” examines how Judaism has survived and explores various Jewish identities throughout history. There is also a permanent exhibit specifically for children: The Café Weissman serves contemporary kosher fare.
History buffs will love this Upper West Side institution. Built in 1804, it's the oldest museum in New York City. In a nod to history, the museum kept the hyphen in its name—that’s how the city’s name was spelled back in the early 1800s. The New-York Historical Society features more than 1.6 million works that explore the history of the city and the country, including exhibits, art and historical artifacts.
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.
This Madison Avenue institution began as the private library of financier J. Pierpont Morgan and is his artistic gift to the city. Building on the collection Morgan amassed in his lifetime, the museum houses first-rate works on paper, including drawings by Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Picasso; three Gutenberg Bibles; a copy of Frankenstein annotated by Mary Shelley; manuscripts by Dickens, Poe, Twain, Steinbeck and Wilde; sheet music handwritten by Beethoven and Mozart; and an original edition of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol that’s displayed every yuletide.
When Studio Museum opened in 1968, it was the first black fine-arts museum in the country, and it remains the place to go for historical insight into African-American art and the art of the African diaspora. Under the leadership of director Thelma Golden (formerly of the Whitney), this neighborhood favorite has evolved into the city’s most exciting showcase for contemporary African-American artists.
This elegant addition to the city’s museum scene is devoted entirely to late-19th- and early-20th-century German and Austrian fine and decorative arts. Located in a renovated brick-and-limestone mansion that was built by the architects of the New York Public Library, this brainchild of the late art dealer Serge Sabarsky and cosmetics mogul Ronald S. Lauder has the largest concentration of works by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele outside Vienna. You’ll also find a bookstore, a chic (and expensive) design shop and the Old World–inspired Café Sabarsky, serving updated Austrian cuisine and ravishing Viennese pastries.
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.
Founded in 1863, the society is located in a landmark four-story Queen Anne–style building and houses numerous permanent and ongoing exhibits. 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.
Set in 11 blocks along the East River, this museum is an amalgam of galleries, historic ships, 19th-century buildings and a visitors’ center. Wander around the rebuilt streets and pop in to see an exhibition on marine life and history before climbing aboard the four-masted 1911 tall ship Peking. The seaport is generally thick with tourists, but it’s still a lively place to spend an afternoon, especially for families with children, who will enjoy the atmosphere and intriguing seafaring memorabilia.
This museum explores Jewish life before, during and after the Nazi genocide. The permanent collection includes documentary films, thousands of photos and 800 artifacts, many donated by Holocaust survivors and their families, while the Memorial Garden features English artist Andy Goldsworthy’s Garden of Stones, 18 fire-hollowed boulders embedded with dwarf oak saplings.
This branch of the Smithsonian Institution displays its collection around the grand rotunda of the 1907 Custom House, at the bottom of Broadway (which, many moons ago, began as an Indian trail). The life and culture of Native Americans is presented in rotating exhibitions—from Navajo jewelry to ritual tribal-dance costumes—along with contemporary artwork.
This nirvana for boob-tube addicts and pop-culture junkies contains an archive of more than 160,000 radio and TV programs. Head to the fourth-floor library to search the computerized system for your favorite Star Trek or I Love Lucy episode, then walk down one flight to take a seat at your assigned console. (The radio listening room operates the same way.) There are screenings of modern cartoons, as well as public seminars and special presentations.
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.
Located at the top of Museum Mile, the Museum of the City of New York is the place to explore the city’s past, celebrate its present, and imagine its future. The institution’s entire first floor is devoted to New York at Its Core, a sprawling exhibition including two galleries taking visitors on a tour of all 400 years of New York City history and a flagship space known as the Future City Lab where visitors use interactive technology to design the NYC of the future. Rotating exhibitions throughout the rest of the Museum focus on issues ranging from the city’s history of social activism to New York’s built environment, and include objects from the Museum’s extensive Collections of vintage photographs, costumes and textiles, theater memorabilia, furniture and decorative arts, and more. Don’t miss the amazing Stettheimer Dollhouse, created during the 1920s by Carrie Stettheimer, whose artist friends re-created their masterpieces in miniature to hang on the walls. Look closely and you’ll even spy a tiny version of Marcel Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending a Staircase.
Since 2012, this truly hidden museum has been displaying the seemingly ordinary as extraordinary in a tiny abandoned Tribeca elevator shaft. Oddities and quirky objects like a collection of cornflakes (yes, as in the cereal) and “not bombs” (items like a Taco Bell wrapper and a dildo with an LED light that were once mistaken for bombs) are displayed on the brightly lit shelves. The exhibits are eclectic to say the least, and the museum itself certainly leaves visitors with plenty of questions, both regarding their relationship to objects and to the nature of art.
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.
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.
Bars that call themselves speakeasies might be a popular trend in this city, but learn about the seedy, underground crime that made the phenomenon a reality back in the 1920s during Prohibition. This museum, which is housed in a real former speakeasy at 80 St. Mark's Place, exhibits photographs and illustrations of many of the most famous gangsters of the 20th century as well as the weapons used by mafia members and stories about the lives and heists of these criminals.
Founded in 1976 by the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America, this East Village gem features one of the largest collections of Ukrainian art and archival material in the U.S. The museum presents regular gallery talks, concerts and film screenings, as well as traditional folk-art workshops.
This Soho institution, formerly the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation, was granted museum status by the state of New York in 2011. The space was founded by Charles Leslie and his late partner, Fritz Lohman, and is dedicated to showcasing work by LGBT artists. Check for frequent openings, exhibitions and other special events, such as drawing workshops, studio tours and book-launch parties.
Though this institution originally opened in 2001, it has called its current location—in Banca Stabile, a 19th-century bank founded by Francesco Rosario Stabile—home since 2008. Fittingly, the building is in the heart of Little Italy. At the museum, you'll find a small permanent collection devoted to the history of Italian-Americans, as well as the occasional special exhibit.
China is the focus at this institute, which is the oldest bicultural organization devoted to that country in the U.S. Enter through its bright red front door, which is flanked by twin lion statues—the animals were added to the turn-of-the-century building in 1944. The institute serves all things Middle Kingdom, hosting Mandarin classes for kids and adults, films and lectures on Chinese culture.
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. Special talks and tastings also take place at MoFAD after hours.
Manhattan’s oldest personal residence, this Harlem Heights abode was originally built for British governor Roger Morris but later served as General Washington’s headquarters in the early months of the Revolutionary War. Later, an elderly Aaron Burr lived here after marrying widow Eliza Brown Jumel in 1833. (They divorced a year later.) The restored interior features many of the 19th-century French decorations of which Eliza was so fond, including a master bed reportedly owned by Emperor Napoléon. In addition to tours, you'll find frequent colonial-themed workshops and events for families.
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.
Situated in the old headquarters of the Bank of New York, the permanent collection traces the history of Wall Street and America’s financial markets. Displays in the august banking hall include a crisp $10,000 bill, a bearer bond made out to President George Washington, ticker tape from the morning of the stock-market crash of 1929 and a curvaceous couch made of $30,000 worth of nickels.
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.
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.