Museum Hopping in New York City

Content originally written for the Let’s Go: USA & Canada Guide by our researcher-writer, Daphne Thompson.

American Museum of Natural History

Central Park (W & 79th St.); (212) 769-5100; amnh.org; open daily 10am-5:45pm

The American Museum of Natural History is a zoo, and not just because of its extensive, terrifying taxidermy collection—it’ll seem like every eighth grade class in New York decided to check out the fossils the same day as you. There are two main ways to experience this ginormous museum (it’s two-and-a-half times the size of the Louvre): you can take the “pay- what you wish” seriously and slip the cashier a few bucks to see the main collections, or ball out and pay full price ($33 for adults, $27 for students) to get access to all the special exhibitions and the planetarium. The first option, if you can withstand the cashier’s withering glare, is more than enough to fill a few hours; it’s easy to get lost in the dioramas-on-steroids showcasing the world’s creatures and the appropriately massive dinosaur halls. The “Cultural Halls” are decidedly dated (and tellingly lacking a European wing), but newer exhibitions on biodiversity and evolution are more visually arresting and less problematic.   

Pay as you wish; wheelchair accessible; Wi-Fi

Cooper Hewitt Museum

2 E 91st St.; (212) 849-8400; cooperhewitt.org; open M-F 10am-6pm, Sa 10am-9pm, Su 10am-6pm

Don’t let the boring law-office name fool you: Cooper Hewitt, a modern design museum housed in Andrew Carnegie’s old Upper East Side mansion, is undoubtedly the cool kid of the Museum Mile circuit. A wayward arm of the Smithsonian Institution, Cooper Hewitt reopened in 2015 with a refreshed face and a new bag of techy tricks. You’ll be handed a chunky stylus-like “pen” when you buy your ticket, and you can tap that pen on placards throughout the museum to “save” objects you find particularly interesting. And unlike many other design museums (how many Rococo-era chairs can one person look at?), Cooper Hewitt boasts an unusually high “wow, that’s interesting”-to-square-foot ratio. Their summer exhibition, showcasing inventions that aid people with disabilities, is genuinely inspiring, while their immersive “Design Beyond Vision” installation—featuring designs you can smell, touch, and hear—is a trippy, pungent adult funhouse. Buy your tickets online for a slight discount, or come by on a Saturday night for pay-what-you-wish admission.

Admission $16, students $7 in advance; tours M-F 11am and 1:30pm, Sa-Su 1pm and 3pm; wheelchair accessible; Wi-Fi

Guggenheim Museum

1071 5th Ave.; (212) 423-3500; guggenheim.org; open M 10am-5:45pm, Tu 10am-9pm, W 10am-5:45pm, F 10am-5:45pm, Sa 10am-7pm, Su 10am-5:45pm

As an art museum, the Guggenheim definitely isn’t being used to its full potential—it would make a fantastic scooter course or roller rink, if it weren’t for all the expensive art in the way. The museum is as renowned for its building, the circular Frank Lloyd Wright-designed space with its continuously spiraling ramp, as it is for the modern and contemporary collections it holds. Make sure you’re interested in the current exhibition, as you’ll be viewing it all the way up; the current show on Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti is a must for fans of World War II angst and Salad Fingers-esque sculptures. The Guggenheim draws a more scholarly, all-black-wearing crowd than the touristy Met or MoMA, so try to control yourself when you’re confronted with an animated penis covered in ants or a Jeremy Lin virtual reality experience (from the perspective of a basketball) in the museum’s contemporary art exhibits. Saturdays are pay-what-you wish, and students get $7 off everyday.

Admission $25, students $18; audioguide available; wheelchair accessible; Wi-Fi

Museum of Chinese in America

215 Centre St.; (212) 619-4785; mocanyc.org; open Tu-W 11am-6pm, Th 11am-9pm, F-Su 11am-6pm

A stop in the Museum of Chinese in America ought to be mandatory before any Chinatown chow mein chow-down. Quiet, contemplative, and super woke, the MOCA (not to be confused with MoMA) packs 160 years of Chinese-American history into one compact floor. Its mission is political: in its core historical exhibition, the museum rips into the history of anti-Chinese discrimination from the Chinese Exclusion Act (thanks, “most-forgotten” President Chester Arthur) to yellowface theater (@Emma Stone in Aloha) to the model minority myth. The darker stuff is interspersed with first-person video biographies of trailblazing Chinese Americans—don’t miss the high-flying, heartbreaking story of Hazel Ying Lee, a thoroughly badass World War II pilot. It’s free on the first Thursday of the month, though cheap enough with a student ID.     

Admission $10, students $5; wheelchair accessible

Museum of Modern Art

11 W 53rd St.; (212) 708-9400; moma.org; open M-Th 10:30am-5:30pm, F 10:30am-9pm, Sa-Su 10:30am-5:30pm

The Guggenheim may be more daring, the Whitney more hip, and the Met Breuer more nightmare-inducing, but the Museum of Modern Art still comes out on top in the critical metric of most Iowan families per square foot. Located conveniently on a main tourist drag near Rockefeller Center, the once-edgy MoMA has become a destination on a par with Times Square and the Met. And for good reason—it’s full of crowd pleasers, from Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (the melting-clocks one) to Van Gogh’s Starry Night (the swirly sky one) to Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (the soup ones). The wackier stuff pops up in the exhibitions: an Adrian Piper retrospective makes performance art shockingly relevant, while a show on mid-century Yugoslavian architecture is so niche it’ll probably be incredible. If you don’t want to pay up for your Picasso, stop by on a Friday after 4pm for free admission, or take a break in the sculpture garden any time.

Admission $25, students $14; wheelchair accessible; Wi-Fi

Whitney Museum of American Art

99 Gansevoort St.; (212) 708-9400; moma.org; open M 10:30am-6pm, W-Th 10:30am-6pm,  F-Sa 10:30am-9pm, Su 10:30am-6pm

Tall, gorgeous, and way cooler than you, the Whitney is the museum equivalent of the Instagram influencer: her approval can make splatter paintings or giant balloon animals the next big art world trend, and make or break an emerging artist’s career. Visitors to her stylish new Renzo Piano digs in the West Village will find some recognizable works in the permanent collection (both in artist and subject matter—Edward Hopper was good at painting houses that looked like houses). The more exciting stuff, however, is in the hit-or-miss exhibitions. Don’t miss the slightly terrifying rooftop terrace with an incredible view. Admission is pay-what-you-wish on Friday nights, and the city turns out for it, so expect long lines.

Admission $25, students $18; wheelchair accessible; Wi-Fi

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