New York City has dozens of incredible museums covering everything from art and space to the history of the subway. Maybe it’s on your bucket list to visit them all, but in the meantime, these are the 12 best museums in Manhattan you should visit first.
1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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The Met, which opened in 1872, is the biggest art museum in the US, housing 2 million works from the past 5,000 years and bursting at the seams with Old Masters. The main collection is at the massive Gothic Revival building at 1000 Fifth Avenue. Highlights include Caravaggio’s The Musicians, Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters, Vermeer’s Woman With a Lute and Sargent’s scandalous Portrait of Madame X. The Met’s staggering collection of 26,000 objects of Egyptian art is founded on the 14 digs the museum conducted in Egypt between 1906 and 1935. Also part of the museum are the Met Cloisters (see number 10 below) and the Met Breuer, which showcases modern and contemporary art. The Met is scheduled to vacate Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist building at 945 Madison Avenue before the Frick Collection temporarily occupies the building in 2020.
In 1959, 20 years after its inception, the Guggenheim moved into its spiraling Frank Lloyd Wright building at Fifth Avenue and 89th Street – one of the world’s most beautiful art spaces. The collection was based originally on the work of early Modernists, but it soon expanded to include paintings by Expressionists, Surrealists, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The museum houses a magnificent array of sculptures (Brâncusi, Degas, Serra, Giacometti, Bourgeois) and some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s most beautiful photographs. Among the most popular works are Manet’s Before the Mirror, Kandinsky’s Composition 8, Malevich’s Morning in the Village After Snowstorm, Magritte’s Empire of Light and Pollock’s Alchemy.
The most extensive natural-history museum in the world is located in Theodore Roosevelt Park on the Upper West Side. Spanning four city blocks, it contains 32 million specimens and artifacts and houses a colossal dinosaur-fossil collection. No self-respecting kid of any age visits the two dino halls without thrilling to the fossil reconstructions of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Apatosaurus (or Brontosaurus). Other popular exhibits include the hall of African mammals (featuring Carl Akeley’s 28 breathtaking dioramas) and those dedicated to North American mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and tribal peoples. Stand under the suspended blue-whale model (94 feet long, or 29 meters) in the Hall of Ocean Life or go star-seeking at the Hayden Planetarium in the Rose Center for Earth and Space.
The Whitney was founded in 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to house 20th-century American art. After a nomadic history in Manhattan, it settled in architect Renzo Piano’s fabulously asymmetrical, industrially influenced edifice at 99 Gansevoort Street in the West Village and Meatpacking District in 2015. Over the years, the museum has showcased Modernism, Social Realism (especially paintings of the Ashcan School, which unglamorously documented working-class life in NYC), Abstract Expressionism, Pop art and Minimalism. Favoring the work of young and little-known contemporary artists, the Whitney Biennial exhibition is one of the major events on the NYC art calendar. The museum’s 23,000 holdings include works by Warhol, Johns, O’Keeffe, Oldenburg, Ruscha and Cindy Sherman.
Home for this relatively small museum at 1 East 70th Street and Fifth Avenue is the three-story Beaux Arts-style mansion designed by Thomas Hastings as the family residence of the industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick and built in the 1910s. The collection, which opened to the public in 1935, offers one of the most exquisite art-viewing experiences in the city. Its 19 galleries (due to be renovated) feature numerous Old Masters (Titian, Velásquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer), Impressionist paintings (Renoir, Monet), sculptures, furniture from the Renaissance to the 19th century and Limoges porcelain. The room devoted to the principal panels of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s erotic masterpiece The Progress of Love (1771-72) – painted for Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry – is a strangely sinister rococo spectacle.
A repository of 750,000 items detailing the dynamic history and culture of NYC’s five boroughs, the museum started at Gracie Mansion (now home to the city’s mayors) in 1923 and moved to 1220-1227 Fifth Avenue in 1932. Those items include paintings, photographs, maps, badges, postcards, prints, theatrical memorabilia, silver, toys, furniture and costumes. Here you’ll find a man’s suit worn to George Washington’s presidential inaugural ball, some of playwright Eugene O’Neill’s handwritten manuscripts, 412 glass negatives made by the social reformer Jacob Riis, and the famous 12-room Carrie Walter Stettheimer dollhouse, which includes artworks customized for it by Duchamp, Archipenko, George Bellows and others.
This is the former Pierpont Morgan Library, built in 1902-07 to hold the rare books, prints and drawings owned by banker JP Morgan. Its astonishing collection includes Medieval artworks, illuminated manuscripts and original manuscripts or paper artifacts penned by Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, George Sand and Charlotte Brontë. There are also personally annotated libretti and scores by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mahler and Verdi as well as handwritten lyrics by Bob Dylan (including those to “Blowin’ in the Wind”). Among other gems are William Blake’s original drawings for The Book of Job, Charles Dickens’s marked-up manuscript of A Christmas Carol and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s artwork for The Little Prince.
Opened in 2011 on the World Trade Center site, the museum presents the history of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, as well as the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93, on September 11, 2001, and the bombing under the WTC’s North Tower on February 26, 1993. Visitors can explore interactive video timelines of these grievous events, hear audio testimony from survivors and learn about the heroism of the firefighters, police and ordinary citizens who responded to them. There’s also a memorial section dedicated to each individual victim of the attacks. The museum has assembled 11,000 artifacts from ground zero, including many personal and professional belongings of people who died or were injured: firemen’s helmets, business cards, a pair of bloodstained high-heeled shoes, a rag doll. Visiting parents are warned that such items may distress children.
The Met Cloisters overlooking the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park is ideal for an uptown day trip. Built between 1934 and 1939 from stonework imported from the sites of French and Catalan Medieval abbeys, the museum was inspired by a collection of architectural fragments and Gothic art assembled by the sculptor George Grey Barnard (1863-1938) in a building close to his home in nearby Fort Washington. Among the artworks and artifacts on display (many of them from Barnard’s collection) are Robert Campin’s Annunciation Triptych (or Mérode Altarpiece); a tiny prayer book once owned by the 14th-century French queen Jeanne d’Evreux; and the seven mysterious Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, which John D Rockefeller Jr, who financed the Cloisters, once kept in his apartment. The museum’s three cloister gardens are Medieval in their plantings and arrangement.
The tenement at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side was built in 1863; the one at 103 was built in 1888. It’s thought that some 15,000 working-class immigrants from 20 nations occupied these five-story buildings through 1935 (after which number 97 was shuttered for over 50 years). Today, they’re home to the Tenement Museum, which is dedicated to preserving and understanding the history of immigrant life in NYC. Visitors go on guided tours of the restored (and noticeably cramped) apartments and businesses of the tenements’ former inhabitants, some of whom are impersonated by costumed performers. You’ll learn about Jewish Holocaust survivors, Puerto Rican and Chinese garment workers, a Depression-era Italian family and 14-year-old Victoria Confino, who lived at 97 Orchard in 1916. The museum also runs an outdoor neighborhood tour that tells of other tenement dwellers, the architects who designed the buildings, and streets once teeming with merchants, hagglers and the hoi polloi.
The oldest existing Jewish museum in the world started as the collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1904. It opened in 1947 when Frieda Warburg, the widow of banker Felix M Warburg, donated their former mansion at 1109 Fifth Avenue at East 92nd Street for the display of artifacts preserving and celebrating the history of the Jewish people. Covering 4,000 years, the museum contains 30,000 items, including antiquities, Judaica, paintings, sculptures and examples of contemporary art. Objects range from a silver circumcision shield and probe dating from 1765-75 to Warhol’s 1980 Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century. Other artists represented include Chagall, Stieglitz, Richard Avedon, Eva Hesse and Deborah Kass. Offering weekend workshops and a permanent children’s exhibit, the museum is especially good for families. The Museum of Jewish Heritage at 36 Battery Place meanwhile focuses on Jewish life before, during and after the Holocaust.