With hundreds of cultural institutions and historic sites in New York City, it can be difficult to narrow down which ones to include on your itinerary. There are options that will appeal to just about everyone, whether you want to see exhibits dedicated to art and design or history and science.
You should plan to visit no more than two museums in one day, and really one museum is usually more than enough daily. It's hard to really absorb what the museum has to offer if you're rushed or have reached saturation. A good plan is to visit one museum in the morning (this is when museums tend to be less crowded) and then choose a neighborhood to explore, a walking tour, bus tour, or a sightseeing cruise to round out the day.
American Museum of Natural History
In 1869, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., helped found the American Museum of Natural History. Today, the legendary museum’s motto is “To discover, interpret, and disseminate – through scientific research and education – knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe.” Uncover the majesty of the blue whale in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, view spectacular films on intergalactic science in the Rose Center for Earth and Space’s Hayden Planetarium, and gaze at sparkling sapphires and precious stones in the Guggenheim Hall of Minerals.
It's one of the very best museums for kids in NYC; bonus: AMNH hosts memories-of-a-lifetime sleepovers several times each year, too.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
About 12 million steerage and third-class steamship passengers were processed on Ellis Island in New York Harbor between 1892 and 1954. Immigrants who entered the United States through the port of New York were legally and medically inspected there. In 1990, Ellis Island was renovated and transformed into a museum dedicated to educating visitors about the immigrant experience.
The Guggenheim Museum, designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is best known for its spiral structure and unique museum layout. The permanent collection and temporary exhibitions at the Guggenheim, on the Upper East Side, highlight modern paintings, sculpture, and film.
Accessible only by guided tour, the Tenement Museum offers visitors the opportunity to see into the immigrant past of the Lower East Side while visiting the actual apartments where immigrants lived and hearing stories about their lives. The museum also gives tours in Spanish and American Sign Language.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The largest museum in the Western Hemisphere, the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcases arts and artifacts from around the globe, including everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics to a Greek and Roman collection of over 17,000 objects to paintings by Van Gogh. The Met first opened in 1870, and since then, its halls have expanded to include African, Islamic, Indian, Byzantine, and Oceanian art, among many other types. The Met also includes The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park, filled with reconstructed medieval monasteries.
Founded in 1929 as the first museum dedicated entirely to contemporary art, MoMA, in Midtown East, is host to an impressive collection of modern artistic efforts in a variety of media that includes paintings, sculpture, design, and film. Some of the museum's most famous works include Vincent Van Gogh’s "Starry Night" and Pablo Picasso’s "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." MoMA is also a thriving center of cultural events, including educational programs and international films.
The museum offers special events and activities for families with children as young as four-years-old, making it a very family-friendly choice.
Museum of the Moving Image
The Museum of the Moving Image focuses on film, television, and digital media and their impact on culture and society. Located in Astoria, Queens, the museum is easily accessible by subway, just a short ride from Manhattan, and is a great destination for film buffs and families alike.
New York Historical Society
The New York Historical Society, on the Upper West Side, offers visitors an opportunity to see a collection that reveals much of New York's history. The collection includes Tiffany lamps, decorative objects, paintings, and furniture, and there are frequent special exhibits, as well as the Dimenna Children's History Museum.
Whitney Museum of American Art
Now stationed next to Chelsea’s popular High Line park (check out these 10 essential highlights along the High Line while you're in the neighborhood), the Whitney Museum of American Art features over 21,000 pieces of art from across two centuries. The Whitney was initially founded in 1930 by sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, primarily displaying art in her Greenwich Village studio. It opened on West Eight Street in 1931. Today, this museum draws thousands of viewers from around the globe to its celebration of contemporary American art. Exhibits include performance art, sculptures, painting, and film.
Best of all, 13,000 square feet of the museum highlights outdoor exhibitions, each facing the High Line.
The 9/11 Memorial Museum
The tragic terror attacks of September 11, 2001, altered the hearts and minds of New Yorkers—and the world. To pay tribute to those who lost their lives, visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which rises over the center of the former World Trade Center site. On display is the Survivors’ Staircase, the last known visible piece of the towers that was left after the debris settled, and over 10,000 artifacts and 23,000 photos pertaining to that fateful day.