Choosing the best museums in NYC is a challenging task. It’s home to so many fantastic museums, galleries and cultural institutions it’s hard to see all of New York City’s cultural highlights within a single trip. To help you plan your visit, here is the Culture Tourist guide to the best museums in New York City.

Best museums in NYC

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Being an art historian living in Europe, I’m pretty spoiled with the amount of fantastic fine arts museums on the Old Continent. Within a few hours, you can see Rembrandt in Amsterdam, explore museums in London or follow the footsteps of Impressionists in Paris.

However, what American museums surprised me with was the fantastic quality of their artworks. A few European museums could match the quality and great shape of artworks in MET. I could barely see any cracks on older paintings; they were all perfectly restored. Another thing that blew my mind was educational programs in NYC museums. During my visit to MOMA, I saw several guided tours, and they all seemed great.

The best thing to see in museums in NYC is modern and contemporary art. What the Louvre or Uffizi Gallery are for Renaissance art, that’s what New York museums are for modern and contemporary art. And that’s especially true when it comes to American art.

The list of the best museums in NYC I compiled here is aimed at first-time visitors to New York. These are simply the museums you shouldn’t miss in New York. They are unique, have fantastic collections and are worth visiting from around the world to see them.

TIP: As always with visiting museums in big cities, my advice is to buy museum tickets in advance and avoid waiting to get to museum that way. Next to each museums I recommended in this guide to best museums in NYC, you’ll find a link to an online entrance tickets, too.

MET – The Metropolitan Museum

The MET online tickets / Address: 1000 5th Ave, New York, NY 10028, USA

The Metropolitan Museum (or simply the MET) is one of the best museums I have ever visited. Located in Central Park, with more than two million objects in its permanent collection, the MET is the largest museum in the US. Founded in 1870, it includes artefacts from Ancient Egypt to Modern Art.

Interestingly, most of the Ancient Egypt collection comes from the archaeological excavations conducted by the museum between 1906 and 1941. The American Wing is also fascinating, telling America’s history through art from early days to the present. Its Impressionist and modern art collection is worth visiting, too. The MET also regularly organises fantastic temporary exhibitions, so check them out before your visit.

Among the MET highlights are The Temple of Dendur, Emanuel Leutze’s ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’, George Seurat’s ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’, Claude Monet‘s ‘Haystacks’, Edgar Degas’ ‘The Dance Class’, one of the copies of the ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’, and many more.

TIP: The MET is a huge museum, so don’t plan to see everything during one visit. It’s best to take a museum map at the entrance and pick up the collections you’d like to see. However, if you’d like to see the MET highlights, joining one of the guided tours is the best thing to do. Here is the MET guided tour I recommend.

Whitney Museum of American Art

Whitney Museum online tickets / Address: 99 Gansevoort St, New York, NY 10014, USA

The Whitney Museum is the best museum in NYC to see modern and contemporary American art. Although they present art from the 20th century, the museum focuses on artworks made by living artists. It’s one of the best museums of American art in the world.

The Whitney Museum building was designed by the famous architect Renzo Piano. The museum was established in 1930 by the sculptor and one of the most critical American modern art patrons, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. It was a place where many contemporary artists had their first exhibitions way before gaining worldwide fame. Jasper Johns and Cindy Sherman are just some of them. Today, the Whitney Museum collection consists of around 25,000 artworks.

I especially loved Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings at the Whitney Museum. They are intimate and appealing, making them one of this museum’s highlights.

The museum also organises fantastic temporary exhibitions. During my visit, I saw ‘Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria’ and ‘Edward Hopper’s New York’ and utterly enjoyed them.

MoMA – Museum of Modern Art

MoMA online tickets / Address: 11 W 53rd St, New York, NY 10019, USA

I have wanted to visit the Museum of Modern Art for years because it’s home to one of the most famous paintings by Vincent van Gogh, the ‘Starry Night’. It’s also one of the world’s most influential museums of modern art and home to some of the most famous artworks created during the 20th century.

Besides the ‘Starry Night’, some of the MoMA’s highlights are Pablo Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, Francis Bacon’s ‘Painting (1946)’, Salvador Dali‘s ‘The Persistence of Memory’, Jasper Johns’ ‘Flag’, Frida Kahlo’s ‘Self-portrait with cropped hair’, Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Drowning Girl’, Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’, and many more.

TIP: MoMA isn’t only one of the best museums in NYC but also has one of the best museum shops in New York. You’ll find it on its ground floor. However, there is also a special MoMA Design Store across the street. You can enter both of these shops without buying an entrance ticket.

The American Museum of Natural History

Museum online tickets / Address: 200 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024, USA

The American Museum of Natural History is one of the world’s most famous museums of that kind. And the one starring in the largest number of movies (next to the Louvre in Paris).

Established in 1869, it’s one of the most important natural history museums because of the many expeditions it organises each year. A place you shouldn’t miss in it is the Hall of African Mammals. It’s an oval-shaped room where you can see diverse African ecosystems, from a group of elephants to lions and different kinds of birds. This part of the museum also fills quite historical and gives you a sense of how this institution could look in its early days.

Numerous exhibitions highlight flora, fauna, humans and life on our planet. The dinosaur fossils collection is one of the best in the world, with Tyrannosaurus Rex being the star of the collection. With its fascinating sphere, the Hayden Planetarium is where you can learn more about Space.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum tickets / Address: 1071 5th Ave, New York, NY 10128, USA

Established in 1939, Guggenheim Museum got its current name in the early 1950s when its founder, Solomon R. Guggenheim, died. It moved into its famous building after completing its construction in 1959. The museum building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most famous American architects. Consisting of a six-storey long spiral ramp serving as a central gallery, its design revolutionised the museum architecture.

The museum has around 8,000 artworks in its collection. Some of its highlights are Édouard Manet’s ‘Before the Mirror’, Pablo Picasso’s ‘Woman with Yellow Hair’, Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Morning in the Village after Storm’, and many more artworks by famous painters from the 20th century.

Read more: How to visit the museum – A guide for the perfect museum visit

New York is undoubtedly one of the world’s art centres and home to many excellent cultural spots. However, if you’re visiting for the first time, these are the five best museums in NYC you shouldn’t miss.