New York City has a museum to suit every taste, budget and creative inspiration. This is, after all, the city that gave the world the Met Cloisters and the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
Whether you’re looking for a bustling institution offering a sweeping survey of the history of art, or a small niche museum devoted to a specific century, region or genre, the Big Apple has you covered. As the famous Romantic poet John Keats said, “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” – read on to discover the beautiful things that make New York’s museums shine.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: best for all-day entertainment
With a permanent collection of more than 2 million objects and artworks covering 5,000 years of art history, and multiple visiting exhibitions showcasing works from around the globe, it would take a week of constant perusing to explore this marvelous museum in its entirety. This makes it the perfect place to spend a day immersing yourself in art from morning to evening.
The museum opens early and has long evening hours on Fridays and Saturdays for those who want to maximize the browsing. In fact, there’s little need to leave the premises until the guards call time – the museum is well-appointed with comfy benches, scores of phone charging outlets, information booths, and a tasty cafe with seasonal delights to help fuel your art marathon.
The Frick Collection: best for classical art
This inspired collection is usually displayed in a stunning mansion on the Upper East Side, the former home of the late fine art and decorative art collector, Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919). As well as highlights from Goya, Renoir and Titian, there are paintings, sculpture, furniture, ceramics, works on paper, textiles, clocks, medals, and enamels to explore.
It’s refreshing to see these delicate, rare, and renowned works in a more intimate setting as opposed to the larger public museums and this elegant home does not disappoint. For now, however, the mansion is being renovated and the collection has been temporarily rehoused in a modern building at Madison Ave and 75th St (the former home of the Whitney Museum). It’s due to return to its original premises once the work is complete but it’s still a very impressive collection.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA): best indoor-outdoor experience
Recognized as one of the most significant modern art museums on the planet, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is an absolute must-visit. Galleries sprawl across multiple levels and the five-story central atrium means a bird’s-eye balcony view from every floor. Sound installations in the atrium can be heard throughout the museum, creating a cacophonous, immersive experience.
Best of all is the outdoor sculpture garden, accessible only from within the museum, with a floor made of polished marble and a rotating array of sculptures from such greats as Aristide Maillol, Rachel Whiteread, Henri Mattise and Pablo Picasso.
The Rubin Museum of Art: best for Asian and Eurasian art
This museum in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood is a true original. Come for an experience dedicated exclusively to the art of Eurasia, Central Asia, India and the Himalayas. The Himalayan collection at the Rubin has a heavy focus on Tibetan culture, and includes thangkas (cloth paintings), votive objects, statues and more.
The museum is free every Friday night until 10pm with a ticket booked in advance. Even if you’ve been before, it’s worth a return trip to see the immersive installations that are periodically on display. The recent highlight is the Tibetan shrine room perfect for contemplation, complete with flickering candles and the soothing lull of chanting from Tibetan nuns and monks.
The Whitney Museum of American Art: best for a downtown adventure
This excellent museum is perfectly located for a culture fix while exploring the West Village, Meatpacking District, High Line, and Hudson River Park neighborhoods. Known as “The Whitney” in NYC shorthand, this museum’s phenomenal permanent art collection covers American creativity from the late 19th century through to the present day.
You’ll find everything from painting and sculpture to photos and video artworks, alongside eclectic multimedia installations. The museum prides itself on showcasing living artists, giving the galleries a fresh and ultra-contemporary feel. On Friday evenings, their “pay-what-you-wish” ticketing option is a great, inexpensive way to kick off a fun night.
The Met Cloisters: best for medieval art
For medieval history buffs, the Met Cloisters – fondly referred to simply as “The Cloisters” – is a unique treat. The museum has a wonderful assortment of ancient objects on display, including hand-carved wooden panels, perfectly preserved stone sepulchers and elegantly woven tapestries that come to life on every wall.
While you’re here, pop into nearby Fort Tryon Park for gorgeous river views from one of the highest points in the city.
The Leslie Lohman Museum of Art: best LGBTQIA+ art museum
This cozy neighborhood gallery in Manhattan’s Soho is lesser-known but it packs an impressive cultural punch. Covering more than 22,000 works by historic and contemporary LGBTQIA+ artists, its collection is nothing short of legendary.
Items include contributions from iconic queer artists ranging from Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe to David Hockney and Berenice Abbott, and hundreds more in between. Located on a quiet cobblestoned street, this outwardly unassuming museum is an important community builder and outstanding collection all in one.
The American Museum of Natural History: best for families
This engaging museum has something for anyone with an interest in the natural world, but it’s particularly good for family fun. Adults will marvel right alongside teens and toddlers at the displays of skeletal dinosaurs and other natural wonders in this massive, 2-million sq ft museum, which also includes a stellar planetarium and an extensive library.
The museum’s impressive manifesto says it all: “To discover, interpret, disseminate—through scientific research and education—knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe.” Admission is “pay as you wish” which makes a visit affordable for families with smaller budgets. A 200-strong team of scientists is behind the informative displays.
Nicola Vassel Gallery: best new gallery
This contemporary art gallery opened in early 2021 and is home to a fascinating array of works from talented contemporary artists. The gallery is committed to starting fresh and imaginative conversations about both the history and future of art, so there’s always something interesting on display.
Nicola Vassell herself is a longtime art dealer, a veteran curator, and a global lecturer who has organized exhibitions everywhere from London and Berlin to Shanghai and beyond. If there is a gallery to visit to get your finger on the pulse of the New York art scene, this is it!