Tour guides often get asked what our favorite museums are, and the truth is, we will all have different answers because we all have different interests.
One of the most amazing things about NYC is how many extremely niche museums we have.
We obviously have staples such as The Met, The MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the American Museum of Natural History. We also have the the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, the Tenement Museum, the Museum at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the Whitney, The Skyscraper Museum, The Jewish Heritage Museum, and the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. We have quirkier museums such as The Museum of Sex, the Morbid Anatomy Museum, and the Elevator Historical Society. New York City also gets pop up museums ranging from the Museum of Ice Cream to the Troll Doll Museum to the Museum of Dirt. No matter how quirky your tastes, you will find a museum perfectly tailored to your interests.
I am going to outline some of my favorite museums. Other guides and other New Yorkers will have different favorite museums. These are those I love best.
This is hands down my favorite museum in New York City. There isn’t even a competition for me. This is probably because I am extremely interested in immigration, both past and present. Another feature that I really love about this museum is that you MUST take a tour. There is no meandering and reading little cards next to an item. You have a tour guide that takes you through each room, using props and sometimes even incorporating multimedia, to teach you about the lives of different immigrants you lived the tenements.
The museum is inside of an actual tenement building. In 1988, Ruth Abram, a historian and social activist, stumbled upon an abandoned tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. It was the perfect place to honor America’s immigrants and the tenement museum was born.
The rooms inside have been restored to look as they did when different immigrant families lived at 97 Orchard Street. You can virtually travel back in time and experience everything from a sweatshop to a flamboyant 1970s underwear store, a German family, an Irish family, a Jewish Family, and Italian family, you’ll learn the bar in the basement and the loos outside, and the museum’s “neighborhood tours,” will teach you about the schools, the politics, and the foods of the Lower East Side. This is honestly the best way to get a comprehensive history of New York City’s politics, commerce, and every changing diverse demographics.
Make sure you buy your tour ahead of time as they tend to sell out the day of the tour. I would definitely try to choose and confirm a tour the day before you want to visit. I would recommend a favorite tour, but honestly I have loved the all. “Hard Times” is probably the best introduction to the museum for a first time visitor, but honestly you will love every tour they offer.
Check out the book store and gift shop as well. This is my favorite place to pick up New York based bookies and trinkets. They have everything from Empire State Building and Chrysler building salt and pepper shakers, New York themes finger puppets for the kids, and books such “Island at the Center of the World” that provides the most in depth account of New Amsterdam out there.
This museum is inside of an actual World War II aircraft carrier. Inside of this musuem you will learn about the aircraft carriers really thrilling history, explore military jets, a British Airways Concord, a Space Shuttle, a Soyuz, and a Cold War submarine called The Growler. They also have special exhibitions which can range from Star Trek to Women in Space to the Intrepid’s role in the Vietnam war.
The intrepid offers guided tours as well as free programs and demonstrations. Check out their calendar because the programs and demonstrations change form day to day. There are also often concerts on the deck of the intrepid, so you might get lucky and be treated to free music!
It can get cold in there during the winter, so dress accordingly.
I mean, what kind of tour guide would I be if I didn’t recommend the Met.
Seriously, they have something for everyone, and that is actually maybe a problem. The Met is so big that if you were to spend 10 seconds looking at every single work of art inside of the Met, and were there from open to close every single day, it would take you 39 weeks to see everything! So you really have to go in with a plan.
My personal favorite sections are Ancient Egypt (they have an actual Egyptian temple called the Temple of Dendur, which if you visit see if you can find graffiti that Napoleon’s army left on the temple), antique weapons and armor, musical instruments (they have the oldest known existing piano forte, and perhaps even more interestingly, instruments that were invented and then never really caught on), the Costume Institute (they feature fashion as art), and the rooftop exhibit in the summer time.
This is all personal, you might be more interested in painting in which case, skip right to the Van Gogh section!
If you are feeling overwhelmed and just want to highlights, several companies offer tours of the museum.
If you have seen the Disney cartoon of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, think of that moment when the beast first reveals his library to Belle. That is what walking into the Morgan library feels like.
It literally used to be the private library of J.P. Morgan. J.P. Morgan was a collector of rare books in virtually every medium, and after his death, his son gave his father’s extraordinary library to the Public. Highlights of this collection include a “Crusader Bible” from 13th century France, a 1454 Gutenberg Bible, original mansucripts in the handwriting of Herny David Thoreau, Victor Hugo, Wofgang Amadeus Mozart, and Richard Wager, and rotating exhibitions that include everything from “Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth” to “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.”
Walking in this museum gives you a unique glimpse of the opulence that Manhattan’s elite of the early 20th Century enjoyed. If you are a lover of books, this museum will be an unparalled experience for you.
I am a HUGE Roosevelt fan. Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor - I love them all! So imagine my excitement when I discovered there was a museum dedicate entirely to Theodore Roosevelt in the heart of Manhattan!
This site a recreation of the brownstone where Theodore Roosevelt was born and lived for the first 14 years of his life. This recreation (overseen by Roosevelt’s widow Edith and his two sisters) gives us a glimpse of how the house would have looked in 1865.
They offer tours led by National Park Service Rangers. (I have taken the two twice with a ranger named Eliza who is one of the best guides in NYC.). On the tours you will get to hear stories of the former president, see items that were in the home when he lived there, and maybe even get to touch and item or two that shaped Roosevelt into the great man he later became. You will also see Roosevelt artifacts inlcuding pages from his journal, his spectacles, and the shirt he was wearing while giving a speech October 14th, 1912 when an assassin tried to take Teddy’s life! You can see the bullet hole in the shirt, and the books that contained the 84 minute speech that Roosevelt was giving, that ended up taking the brunt of the bullet’s force thus saving his life.
There is also a cute Roosevelt gift shop if you are a nerd like me and want to buy all the Roosevelt books.
This is another New York City staple. While this museum has an impressive collection of everything from dinosaur bones to meteorites, what really shot it to modern day fame was the movie A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM. In fact, after that movie came out, the museum enjoyed a 300% increase in visitors. And as this fact may suggest, this museum is fabulous for both science nerds, and any children you might be traveling with.
One of the founders of this museum was Theodore Roosevelt, Sr (the father of the 26th president.). It was founded with the mission: ‘To discover, interpret, and disseminate - through scientific research and education - knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe.’ Because part of the mission is to discover, they actually sponsor research missions across the globe.
Highlights inside of this museum include a giant life sized model of a blue whale, the bones of a Titanosaur, the Hayden planetarium,. and, in the winter, a butterfly conservatory. While the permanent exhibits are great, I also encourage you to check out their seasonal exhibits. At the time of this writing, the upcoming exhibition is T. Rex: The Ultimate Predator. If that doesn’t excite your kids, I don’t know what will.
This museum is also a by donation museum, meaning that you literally pay what you can. They have a suggested donation, but if you’re feeling more you can pay less and if times are good for you, feel free to shell out more.
The subway is one of NYC’s most defining features. For $2.75 you can get anywhere you’d like in the five boroughs. Considering that underground transit has kept this city going, and in many cased, shaped this city, since 1904, it makes sense that there is a museum dedicated to its history. It is also located in an old abandoned subway station - so that’s an added layer of awesome.
The Brooklyn Museum is often forgotten when discussing the iconic museums of New York City, but it is pretty spectacular. It has an art collection that is actually larger than that of the Met!
They have an impressive Egyptian collection and African Art collection, as well as a healthy helping of painting and sculpture throughout the centuries. They also have really daring and bold works of art such as an installation called “The Dinner Pary” by Judy Chicago. One of the biggest draws for me are the Schenk Houses. These are two actual Dutch houses owned originally owned by the Schenk family in 1665 and give us a first hand glimpse of what life was like back when New York was a Dutch trading colony known as New Amsterdam.
The Statue of Liberty has a brand new shiny museum for any visitor on Liberty Island. Inside of it you will find artifacts such as the original steel girders created by Gustav Eiffel to hold the statue up, original designs for the statue by Bartholdi, and the original torch that made the Statue of Liberty the first electric lighthouse in the United States. They also offer free audio tours in a variety of languages. If you’re a history buff, this museum will give you great insight into the creation of America’s most famous lady.
The museum at Ellis Island is one of the most important museums you can visit in the United States. It packs a lot of information talking about immigration in the Americas, literally started with the very first people to set foot on the continent. It covers immigration before Ellis Island, during Ellis Island, and after Ellis Island closed. The “Through America’s Gates” exhibit is very much the bread and butter of Ellis Island, giving visitors a unique insight to what immigrants would have experienced as they passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924. If you only visit one exhibit, this is the one I’d recommend. The next one I’d push for is the “Modern Eras of Immigration,” which helps visitors understand what our current immigration laws, why they came to be, and when they came to be. It does a remarkable job of giving all points of view regarding our immigration laws due time and respect. Much of the exhibit is interactive as well, so it can captivate even the most restless of minds. Ellis Island also offers free audio tours, which I’d recommend picking up. Another suggestion is to try and find a Park Ranger and ask them for insider information. Both Liberty Island and Ellis Island are part of the National Parks Service, and the rangers working on Ellis Island can answer just about any question you have about immigration and also engage you in some secret tasks, such as trying to complete a puzzle that was given to some immigrants as an “intelligence test.”
If you book ahead of time, you can also take the “Hard Hat Tour,” where a ranger will take you to a closed section of the island and you will learn about what happened in those buildings not yet open to the public. I could literally spend an entire day on Ellis Island, so give yourself time to really devour of the information the site has to offer.
Pro Tip: Many NYC Museums have apps you can download that give you insider information and even tours. Before you go, check out if the museum has an app to enhance your experience!:-)