Whether you’ve already visited the top art museums in NYC or just want to see a cool exhibit that’s far, far away from tourists, these under-the-radar museums in NYC might surprise even lifelong New Yorkers. From a cultural center dedicated to explaining the architecture of the most iconic and beautiful NYC buildings to a colorful mini museum in the heart of one of the best New York beaches, these museums are sure to give you a unique experience.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to museums in NYC
Best under-the-radar museums
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Whether you’re hoping to become a world-class magician or you just have a passing fascination with the occult, this non-profit organization’s collection of over 11,000 books is an amazing resource for aspiring magic-makers. The center preserves written records on psychic phenomenon, hypnosis, deceptive gambling, science and the history of playing cards, mentalism, ventriloquism, juggling and sleight of hand techniques.
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 the end of May. Special talks and tastings also take place at MoFAD after hours.
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.
You ride them practically every day, but did you ever wonder how they work or where they come from? Located in the second floor of the Taxi Building in Long Island City, the Elevator Historical Society’s elevator museum is free to the public, by appointment, and explores the ups and downs throughout the history of the elevator through artifacts and exclusive industry knowledge. You’ll never press an elevator button the same way again. 21-03 44th Ave No. 206, Queens (917-748-2328)
Treasures in the Trash Museum
One city’s trash is another man’s curated collection, especially in the case of sanitation engineer Nelson Molina, who has been collecting castaway treasures for over two decades and storing them in East Harlem’s MANEAST 11 garage. Though the collection isn’t open to the public, contacting firstname.lastname@example.org may help you score a visit. 343 East 99th St