Visiting one of New York’s world-class museums and galleries was on my list of Top 10 Experiences in New York because it’s part of what makes New York one of the world’s most dynamic cultural capitals. If you’ve got more than 48 hours in the city, I think squeezing in a visit to a museum is a great idea (I hate telling people anything is a “must”!).
In two months in New York City, I visited 9 museums and galleries – and not one of them disappointed! They’ve all made it onto this list, and at the end of the post I’ve got my list of more to visit on my next trip(s).
Throughout the post, I’ve given my two cents on what I think the museum is best for, my personal highlights, and links to full blog posts about my visit (if I’ve written them).
Hope this helps!
1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met is the defining museum of New York City, and is the biggest art museum in the United States. Its collection spans 5000 years of art and the museum is more than 2 million square feet. It’s one of the most famous museums in the world and is an ever present pop culture fixture, whether it was as the setting for many Gossip Girl showdowns on the steps of the met, to the fashion world most glamorous night out, the annual Met Gala.
It’s a behemoth. Since it’s impossible to see the entire collection in one go, avoid museum fatigue by picking a few collections that sound the most interesting to you.
At the end, head up to the Met’s rooftop bar for a drink with views over the treetops of Central Park. Also enjoyable: a delicious dirty street hot dog or insanely good soft serve, eaten on the steps of the Met.
Best for: Seeing one of the most diverse art collections in the world
My highlights: Precious Celtic and Byzantine jewellery in the Great Hall, Greek and Roman sculptures, the American Wing and the fin de siecle Wisteria Room.
2. The American Museum of Natural History
The Natural History Museum is another New York City icon, and is one of the largest museums in the world. It’s mission is to educate audiences about human cultures, the natural world and the universe, which it achieves with a collection of more than 33 million artefacts.
Read about my visit: Wandering the Upper West Side
Best for: rediscovering a childlike sense of wonder of the natural world
My highlights: Cultural artefacts from indigenous American cultures
The Museum of Modern Art is one of the largest and most influential modern art museums in the world. It’s home to several iconic paintings, prints and sculptures and has an exciting program of temporary exhibitions.
I finally saw Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, which is the painting I’ve been most looking forward to seeing in person. I saw some more panels from one of my favourites, Monet’s Waterlillies and Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic comic book-style work in the flesh. I also discovered a new favourite, Henry Rousseau, and saw more paintings of another new favourite, Gustav Klimt, whose work I’d only become aware of a few weeks earlier at the Neue Galerie.
Right as I was about to leave, I stumbled upon a photography exhibition called From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern & Horacio Coppola. The exhibition covers the careers of the two avant-garde photographers, Stern, a German, and Coppola, an Argentinian, who made an impact on both sides of the Atlantic between the 1920s – 1950s.
Don’t miss the sculpture garden, which is a nice spot to sit with a coffee after your visit. Also, as you’d imagine, the museum store is nuts.
Read about my visit: Notes on visiting MoMa
Best for: Seeing some of the most iconic modern art in the world
Mt highlights: The Dream by Henri Rousseau, The Starry Night by Van Gogh, Waterlilies by Claude Monet. Also From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern & Horacio Coppola.
4. The Guggenheim
Half of the allure of The Guggenheim is the building itself. Designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue is an architectural icon.
The Guggenheim in New York is one of four museums part of the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, with other outposts in Venice, Bilbao and Abu Dhabi.
The Guggenheim started with Solomon Guggenheim’s collection of abstract art, in the 1930s. Since then, it has grown significantly with gifts, purchases and bequests of collections of art in a wide variety of artistic styles. Today, along with abstract art you’ll find Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Surrealist, Expressionist, Minimalist, Conceptual and Contemporary art, just to name a few.
Unfortunately, the famous spiral gallery was closed when I visited, and only a couple of small collections were on display, like the Kandinski Gallery. I will definitely visit when I’m back in New York in 2018.
Best for: Modern art and iconic architecture
My highlights: Works by Georges Seurat, Le Moulin de la Galette by Pablo Picasso, Mountains at Saint Remy by Vincent Van Gogh and Constantin Brancusi’s modernist sculptures. I didn’t get to see these last time, but this is what I’ll be heading back for! Actual highlights from the day: pre-museum fuelling at The Wright, the space-agey Guggenheim restaurant.
5. The Whitney
I can’t tell you why, but I had low expectations for The Whitney. Perhaps it was an (unfounded) belief that European collections would have more to offer. I was happy to be proved wrong when I joined a free tour of the new Whitneys’s inaugural exhibition, America is Hard to See. Twenty-three thematic chapters told the story of America from the beginning of the 19th century to the present day. As a foreigner, it was such a great introduction to American culture and modern American history.
The Renzo Piano-designed new Whitney building is on the Hudson River in the Meatpacking District, which is a refreshing change from the Museum Mile on the Upper East Side.
The museum’s collection includes work by influential American artists such as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Diane Arbus, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns.
Best for: an introduction to North American art
My highlights: Works by Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns.
6. The Frick Collection
At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 71st St, on Manhattan’s former Millionaire Mile, The Frick offers an escape into New York’s Gilded Age. Henry Clay Frick was a wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist but at heart he was a passionate art collector. He designed his Fifth Avenue mansion facing the park, Henry Clay Frick House, not only to live in but also to best display his burgeoning collection of European masterpieces. He died in 1919 and 20 years later, the house opened as The Frick Collection.
Because Frick was collecting art to be enjoyed as his home, rather than the more academic setting of a traditional museum, all of the work is, to be blunt: prettier. No dystopian futures, morose religious warnings or fatalistic celebrations of the glory of war – or if there were, I didn’t see them because they were outnumbered by dreamy landscapes, pretty portraits and cherub-like children getting into all sorts of mischief.
Best for: a glimpse into New York’s Gilded Age.
My highlights: The Garden Court, a former courtyard enclosed in glass, with a central fountain surrounded by plants and sculptures.
7. Neue Galerie
A gallery focusing on early twentieth-century German and Austrian art might seem like an unusual way to spend a morning in New York City, but I’m glad I took a chance on the Neue Galerie because it’s my favourite small gallery in New York.
Unfortunately, only one (small) room was open during my visit, but I spent so long in there that I wasn’t too fussed. The famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt, The Woman in Gold, is one of the most mesmerising pieces of art I’ve ever seen. Bloch-Bauer was a member of Viennese high society, married to the wealthy industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who commissioned the painting. One of the Bloch-Bauer descendants, American-based Maria Altmann, took the Austrian government to court in 2000 for ownership of the painting. The legal drama surrounding the painting was made into the 2015 film Woman in Gold starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.
I really enjoyed seeing a number of other Klimt pieces, since I wasn’t really that familiar with his work before. The Neue Galerie has two cafes, but as they have identical menus, you’d be better off getting a table at Cafe Sabarsky, the fin-de-siecle Viennese-style cafe on the ground level, rather than Cafe Fledermaus downstairs (which looks better in photos than in reality).
Best for: seeing internationally renowned art without the crowds or museum fatigue
My highlights: Gustav Klimt’s The Woman in Gold and a window seat at Cafe Sabarsky
8. New York Historical Society
The New York Historical Society is the oldest museum in New York, and is dedicated to exploring the political, cultural and social history of New York City, the state of New York and the country.
I ducked in here on a whim and found one of the most inspiring exhibits I’ve seen in a long time. It was celebrating legendary New York-based caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, best known for his drawings of celebrities and Broadway stars. Not long before I’d seen the exhibition, I’d been getting back into illustration myself, so it was very inspiring to discover such an impressive body of work. I prefer drawing places and urban life, but I thought it was really cool that Hirschfeld’s illustrations would be printed alongside the opening night reviews of broadway shows, characterising the production for the public. I love photography, but I have to admit it made me nostalgic for a world where the soft-focus magic of illustration held so much sway.
Best for: getting to know the nuances of New York’s history
My highlights: Al Hirschfeld’s illustrations of New York theatre and celebrities
9. The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
If it wasn’t for my boyfriend, I probably would have given this open air museum a miss. I’m glad he suggested it, because it was a really memorable experience and I actually found it way more interesting than I expected. The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum is a museum of America’s military, maritime history and space exploration. It’s housed on the USS Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier docked in Hell’s Kitchen.
We clambered up into the hulking SS Intrepid, which was quite a fascinating insight into life on a warship – and made me very glad that I’d never have to live on one. There were several volunteers stationed around the ship, many of them Vietnam vets, who were sharing their knowledge of the ship with gusto, which really added to the experience.
Downstairs, there’s a pavilion all about space exploration, which includes The Enterprise space shuttle, which was probably my favourite section of the museum.
Read about my visit: Out of this world: the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
Best for: finding a new appreciation for science
My highlights: The space pavilion, particularly the exhibition explaining the Space Age’s influence on pop culture
Have you been to any of these museums? Are any of them on your list? Let me know in the comments 🙂