Of course, landmark art museums like NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and D.C.’s National Gallery of Art are national treasures, but checking out an exceptional permanent collection ranks among our favorite things to do in any urban destination (yes, even more than devouring every single one of the best desserts in America). Since several cities offer more than their fair share of standout cultural destinations, we had to make some tough choices, but our short list includes some idiosyncratic gems among the encyclopedic art institutions. In our view, these are the best museums in the country for feasting your eyes on the finest paintings, sculptures, photography, installations and other visual art forms. And, once you’ve perused through all the indoor offerings, don’t forget to browse through the best graffiti walls across America.
Best art museums in America
After a two-year renovation based on a design by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, MoMA reopened in 2004 with almost double the space to display some of the most impressive artworks from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. On the horizon is another expansion project, which will extend the museum into adjoining sites for an additional 50,000 square feet of gallery space. MoMA’s permanent collection encompasses seven curatorial departments: Architecture and Design, Drawings, Film, Media, Painting and Sculpture, Photography, and Prints and Illustrated Books. Highlights include Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, as well as masterpieces by Giacometti, Hopper, Matisse, Monet, O’Keeffe, Pollock, Rothko, Warhol and many others. Outside, the Philip Johnson-designed Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden contains works by Calder, Rodin and Moore. The destination museum also contains a destination restaurant, the Modern, which overlooks the garden.
Not only does this massive institution—comprising 17 curatorial collections and more than two million objects—preserve such treasures as an Egyptian temple from 10 B.C., but the Met is also in a state of constant self-improvement. The halls housing Greek and Roman art, the American Wing, the European Paintings Galleries and the rechristened Anna Wintour Costume Center have all received impressive revamps in recent years. And in March 2016, the museum opened Met Breuer, which showcases contemporary art and performances in the old Whitney space on Madison Avenue for the next eight years. Upstairs, the central western section is dominated by the expanded European Paintings Galleries, which hold an amazing reserve of old masters—the museum’s five Vermeers are now shown together for the first time. The 19th-century and early 20th-century European galleries contain some of the Met’s most popular works—in particular, the two-room Monet holdings and a colony of Van Goghs that includes his oft-reproduced Irises.
You could spend the next four years getting to know this encyclopedic institution, which owns more than 300,000 artworks and artifacts from all over the world and from every era, from antiquity to the present. Our favorite pieces in the Art Institute include the Japanese prints, fragments of local buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Thorne Miniature Rooms. We’re also in love with the light-filled Modern Wing, which is the perfect place to enjoy the museum’s architecture and design collections, modern and contemporary art and gorgeous views of Millennium Park. Several of the most famous paintings in the world call this museum their permanent home, including Van Gogh’s The Bedroom, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and, a favorite of Ferris Bueller’s, George Seurat's massive pointilism masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Pittsburgh investment banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon presented the National Gallery’s neoclassical West Building as a gift to the nation in 1941, and his son Paul created the East Building, designed by I.M. Pei, in 1978. The former’s sky-lit main floor covers European and American art from the 13th to the early 20th centuries, among them Leonardo da Vinci’s almond-eyed portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi and Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation. The sculpture galleries contain the world’s largest collection of Edgar Degas’s wax and mixed-media sculptures. An underground concourse connects the two buildings via a moving walkway through Multiverse, a starry installation by American artist Leo Villareal. After three years of construction, the East Building re-opened boasting two spectacular towers and a roof terrace outdoor sculpture garden overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. One of the towers plays host to perhaps the museum’s most jaw-dropping rooms, which features abstract expressionist masterpieces, Barnett Newman’s 14 black-and-white series of paintings Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani contrasted with a collection of his contemporary Mark Rothko’s iconic, vivid colorful abstractions.
LACMA is truly a multiday destination, given the size and scope of its collection. From Chris Burden’s iconic entrance installation Urban Light, a piece made up of 202 cast-iron street lamps gathered from around L.A., to the Pavilion for Japanese art, a day at LACMA can include works spanning hundreds of years and thousands of miles. Highlights in the collection include Diego Rivera’s portrait of Frida Kahlo, 17th-century artist George De La Tour’s The Magdalen With The Smoking Flame and Henri Matisse’s La Gerbe. Exhibitions at the Renzo Piano-designed Resnick Pavilion have included retrospectives by artists such as Alexander Calder, James Turrell and Tim Burton.
After nearly 50 years on the Upper East Side, the Whitney decamped to new downtown digs, at the foot of the High Line, in 2015. Founded in 1931 by sculptor and art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the institution holds more than 20,000 pieces by about 3,000 artists, including Willem de Kooning, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Claes Oldenburg. Yet, its reputation has rested primarily on its temporary shows—particularly the prestigious and controversial Whitney Biennial. The nine-story, steel-and-glass building, designed by Renzo Piano, is roughly three times the size of the old premises. For the first time, there is space for a comprehensive display of the collection, including such iconic works as Alexander Calder’s Circus and Jasper Johns’s Three Flags. The dramatic, asymmetrical structure features a series of outdoor terraces: On the fifth, sixth and seventh floors, you can take in alfresco sculptures and installations while admiring sweeping Hudson River and city views.
This spectacular, aggressively modern cylindrical building by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was completed in 1974 to house self-made Wall Street millionaire Joseph Hirshhorn’s collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture. The Hirshhorn Museum now presents art in a range of media, including works on paper, painting, installation, photography, sculpture, digital and video art. Third-level galleries house works from the permanent collection, which includes a significant Giacometti collection, the largest public collection of works by Thomas Eakins outside the artist’s native Philadelphia, and a pair of Willem de Kooning’s rare “door paintings” (the museum has the largest public array of his work in the world). Located on the side of the gallery facing the National Mall, across Jefferson Drive, the Sculpture Garden features works by Rodin, Matisse, Koons, Calder and more.
L.A.’s hilltop acropolis was conceived as a home for the contents of the J. Paul Getty Trust, but that’s the only straightforward thing about it. Architect Richard Meier was hired to build the museum in 1984, but it took 13 years, several additional designers (to work on the interior and landscaping) and $1 billion to complete. The result is a remarkable complex of travertine and white metal-clad pavilions that resembles a monastic retreat with panoramic views James Bond would dig. The Getty’s gardens are a highlight, as is the lobby, an airy, luminous rotunda that opens to a fountain-filled courtyard surrounded by six pavilions housing the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the largest museums in the United States, with more than 200 galleries containing some 227,000 objects from the first century A.D. to the present day. Its broad holdings include renowned collections of American painting, sculpture and decorative arts, particularly 18th- and 19th-century Philadelphia furniture and silver, and Pennsylvania German art. The museum also houses the most important collection of works by American realist artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) in the world. What has made the PMA a mecca for generations of artists, though, is the Louise and Walter Arensberg collection of modernist masterworks—including Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1915-1923)—which the couple donated to the museum in 1950. The price of admission also gets you into the Rodin Museum, which PAM administers.
The Cleveland Museum of Art celebrated 100 years in 2016 and is one of the best encyclopedic art museums in the nation. Renowned for its deep Asian and Egyptian holdings, it’s also strong on medieval art from Europe and America and boasts a growing collection of postwar masterpieces. An expansion, designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly and completed in 2013, increased the museum’s floor space to a whopping 592,000 square feet. The myriad treasures on view range from an exquisite Egyptian hardstone sculpture of the head of Amenhotep III from 1391-1353 B.C. to Albert Pinkham Ryder’s symbolist painting The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse), 1896-1908.
See the best art museums in American cities
In New York, there’s a museum for every aesthetic and intellectual taste. But it’s especially rich in museum holdings of art, with something for everyone. The city is home to some of the world’s finest examples of Ancient, Old Master, Impressionist, Modern and bleeding-edge contemporary work. To help you find the exact sort of edification you’re looking for, we’ve compiled this list of New York’s very best art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and more. And when you plan your visit, make sure to check for free museum days as well!
Okay, Angelenos, it's time to come clean. We know museums in Los Angeles are pretty spread out, and it's always soooo nice outside, and sometimes it's just hard to choose indoor attractions in Los Angeles or dino bones at the Natural History Museum over a 75-and-sunny day at the beach. Except, you really should, because the caliber of museums here rivals that of Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York—without a doubt. To get you started (or to continue your education) we've narrowed down LA's long roster of museums to the essentials. Locals, consider this your must-see list (and if you've already visited them all, check out these great off-the-beaten-path museums). No short-on-cash excuses either—many of these are free museums and all of them offer free admission on select days. Visitors, whether you'll be in LA for a couple of days or longer, make sure you hit at least a few of these. RECOMMENDED: Free things to do in LA
Whether you’re just visiting or you’re a local pondering how to spend a day off, you’d be remiss if you didn’t dig into Chicago’s museums. We’ve got a world-class museum scene—while the Art Institute makes us an international destination, our science, history and nature institutions make up some of the best attractions in Chicago. From Hyde Park to Pilsen to the Loop, these are the ten best museums in Chicago. Oh, and, while you’re at it, make sure you take advantage of free museum days. Talk about a no-brainer.