It’s pretty easy to make a list of great (or at least buzzed about) art museums in NYC, and if you’re an art aficionado, you may even spend your whole trip wandering galleries and exhibits.
But if you’re short on time, or just have a lower art appreciation threshold, and you’re trying to narrow it down to just one art museum while you’re in NYC, which one should you pick?
I would say I’m maybe a slightly above average art lover, but when I’m on a trip, visiting art museums is usually just one of many things that I’m trying to fit in.
I’ve been to NYC quite a bit though so over the course of many trips I’ve visited most of the major museums and I’ve definitely got my favorites. But on my last trip to NYC, I decided to buckle down and revisit some of my favorites and finally hit a few more that have been on my list for awhile so that I could officially put together a guide to what (I believe) are the best art museums in NYC.
If you do even the tiniest bit of research, you’re going to quickly narrow it down to “the big three.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET)
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
So in this post I’m going to give you an idea of what to expect from each of these museums, break down the pros and cons of each, and let you know the scoop about the logistics.
MET vs MoMA vs Guggenheim
Well, the good news is you’ve narrowed it down to three of the world’s best museums ; ) I mean really, these three are WORLD CLASS.
Which you’ll like best between these really depends on what kind of art you’re interested in seeing and the kind of experience you want.
Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET)
Let’s start off with a bang. The MET is in a class all its own…really only comparable to places like the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum in London. It’s among a handful of what can truly be called the best museums in the WORLD.
The scope here is unreal (the art! the building!) and you could easily spend multiple days here trying to see everything.
From the sheer number of artists represented to the time periods covered, it’s overwhelming. You want Egyptian artifacts? A mummy perhaps? Ok. Rooms full of Picassos, Monets, Van Goghs? Sure. Greek and Roman antiquities? Rooms full.
This isn’t just a museum full of paintings with a few sculptures here and there. You might never know there are so many forms of “art” until you stroll around the MET. Musical instruments, clothes, jewelry, furniture, dishes, etc. And from the earliest known civilizations all the way up to contemporary and modern collections.
So here’s what you need to know about visiting the MET:
It’s one of the “best,” “biggest,” “most famous,” “most impressive” art museums in the world in one of the world’s great cities. So it gets CROWDED. This is a tippy tippy top NYC attraction, not an undiscovered spot. So from opening to close, there’s a steady stream of people filing through the doors, lounging on the steps out front, walking down hallways with their noses in maps, perusing the gift shop, etc. But also, because it’s sooooo massive, when you get back away from the areas closest to the entrance, the crowds really thin out.
The museum actually sits in Central Park so it’s a pretty idyllic setting and great location with plenty to do and explore nearby.
It’s pretty impossible to see it all. Even if you have an entire day dedicated to spending at the MET, it’s just completely overwhelming. So you’ll either want to go in with a plan ahead of time with exactly what you want to see (either a list of specific paintings, artifacts, etc. or a list of certain areas/collections you want to see like the Egyptian collection, the Impressionist collection, etc.) of if you really do want to see it all then you’ll need to get a map and KEEP MOVING. You could spend HOURS walking through this museum at a brisk pace and not see every gallery. It’s bonkers.
If you’re traveling with kids (or your art attention span is childlike ; ) then I think this actually might be the best of the three museums. The scale is so grand and impressive and there’s so much more than “just paintings” that it’s probably going to be the best experience for those who have more minimal art appreciation.
There’s a cafe in the basement that has a pretty wide range of offerings, and believe me, you’re going to want a break.
You also don’t want to miss the rooftop cafe (mostly drinks I think) because it has great views of Central Park.
And make sure you budget plenty of time (and money) for the gift shop. Like most high level museums, it’s impressive.
Admission is $30/adult, $22/senior, $17/student, children under 12 are free.
The MET is open from 10AM to 5PM every day except Wednesday, and on Fridays and Saturdays they’re open until 9PM.
The museum is located at 82nd & 5th Ave right on Central Park. If you’re taking the subway, the closest station is the 86th St (4, 5 or 6 GREEN train) stop.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
Ahhh the MoMA. This is usually the museum in NYC that’s most commonly compared to the MET (“we’ve only got time for one museum in New York…which should we do, the MET of the MoMA?)
Well, they’re different. That’s a big help, huh? I’ll tell you this…
On my first trip to NYC, I went to the MET because, well, it’s the MET. And I went to the MoMA just to see Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night.
And that’s a pretty good comparison really. The MET is outstanding because of its scope and the staggering size of its collection. But a lot of specific paintings by modern artists that have become household names are often seen in higher concentration at the MoMA.
I’ve heard people say that the MoMA had more paintings by artists that they recognize. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case, but it’s a much smaller, more concentrated collection so it feels like most of what you’re seeing is by a recognizable artists whereas at the MET you’d have to traverse sooooooo many different galleries in different parts of the museum to see the same artists.
So first off, what is modern art? Is this a museum full of the kind of paintings that people look at and say “I could do that” or installations of objects that go right over some people’s heads (umm it’s me. It’s my head ; ) Part of it, yes. But especially on the upper floors of the museum (it’s sorted mostly by time period with the oldest at the top working your way forward in time as you come down), you’re going to see Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Kahlo, O’Keefe, Warhol, Pollock….
If you’re an adult (I wouldn’t say don’t bring kids here, but I don’t think it’s really a big attraction for kids) who has a reasonable awareness of art from say the mid 1800s to the present, I do think this is the best place to come and recognize paintings (if not specific paintings, then artists). And maybe that’s low brow, but I think museums are more fun when you have an awareness and appreciation for what you’re looking at.
Also I think part of what I like about the MoMA is that it’s not as completely overwhelming as the MET. It’s located in part of a high-rise in midtown (just south of Central Park) and takes up five or so floors and it’s all laid out very linear. It’s not the kind of place where you’re going to wander around and lose track of where you’ve been and where you haven’t.
I would say it’s an impressive, but digestible sized museum. And honestly, that’s usually my favorite kind.
As far as the art compared directly to the MET, both the MET and the MoMA have modern art, but the MoMA’s collection is definitely better. So if that’s what you’re after, the MoMA is definitely your pick.
Modern art is only a small part of what you’ll see at the MET and to be perfectly honest, the modern art galleries at the MET are a little…drab. I went out of my way to find them since I wanted to do a direct comparison and the galleries themselves are pretty small, dark, and dated which does nothing to show off the collection. The Impressionists galleries in the European section upstairs is better, but I still think the MoMA does both better.
Like I said, at the MoMA it’s easy to see the entire museum in a couple of hours, but my don’t misses are Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night, Monet’s waterlilies (there’s a whole room of them and the MoMA was the first museum outside of France I believe to acquire some of the large panels), and Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans plus I really enjoyed the bit about Frank Lloyd Wright. They had some close up relief panels from a house of his that I had just seen in Springfield, IL.
And I know I say this about everywhere, but don’t miss the gift shop! It’s pretty famous actually. So much fun stuff!
Admission is $25/adult, $18/seniors and visitors with disabilities, $14/students, 16 and under are free. Tickets are TIMED ENTRY so I strongly recommend purchasing in advance. I didn’t until that morning and when I checked the first two hours were sold out and I had to rearrange my plans.
The museum is open every day from 10:30AM to 5:30PM (7PM on Saturdays), but Monday mornings from 10:30AM-1PM are reserved for members and their guests.
There’s free admission for NYC residents on the first Friday of every month from 4PM to 8PM.
The museum is located on 53rd St between 5th and 6th Ave. If you’re taking the subway, the closest station is the 5th Ave/53rd St station (E BLUE train or M ORANGE train)…but in general this is a part of town where a lot of hotels and other attractions are within walking distance.
This trip was my first visit to the Guggenheim. It had been on my list to visit for awhile, but never quite worked out.
Here’s the deal…I’m probably going to show my ignorance here, BUT I’ll level with you. “I think” (this is my opinion and I’m sure it’s not true ; ) that the Guggenheim is more about the building than the art. Okay, I said it.
The building is FAMOUS. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (a favorite of mine) and introduced a pretty radical new way of exhibiting art.
Here’s the thing about the Guggenheim, they dedicate something like 80-90% of their gallery space to temporary exhibitions and don’t display much of their permanent collection.
So exactly what you’ll see is really hit or miss. I think it makes it a great museum for locals or frequent city visitors who will make a special visit to see (fill in the blank special exhibit) but not so much for first time visitors to NYC who want to see more of the museum’s permanent collection.
But…the building IS very cool. If you appreciate architecture (especially Frank Lloyd Wright!), I think that makes it a must-see at least once. But for me that puts it more in the category of the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, New York City Public Library, etc. than an art museum.
And they don’t really offer any exhibits or programming about the building itself. I printed off this educator’s guide to the museum to take with us.
Anyways, so the bottom line is…for me…the Guggenheim isn’t in a category to be compared with the MET or the MoMA. It’s definitely for some people, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it generally as a “must see” NYC art museum compared to the other two. It’s going to be for more of a niche audience (architecture enthusiasts, stronger art aficionados or people interested in whatever the special exhibition is during your visit).
Admission is $25/adult, $18/students, seniors and visitors with disabilities, children under 12 are free.
Also I want to point out here…when I checked on their website right before I wrote this post, most of the museum is actually closed while they’re changing out exhibitions, so they’re offering reduced admission (like $14/adult, etc.) which I think tells you everything you need to know. There’s basically very little art on display and they’re still charging a little over half price just to see the building.
The museum is open every day EXCEPT Tuesday from 11AM-6PM (8PM on Saturdays). And like the MoMA, the Guggenheim also does timed entry so make sure to book in advance.
The museum is located on 89th St & 5th Ave right across from Central Park. The closest subway station is the 86th St (4, 5 or 6 GREEN train) station.
And PS…in September 2022 when I visited it was the only place I went in NYC that required and enforced mask wearing. Some people weren’t happy about it…however you feel about that…just something to be aware of.
More NYC Art Museums
Okay, I kind of teased this post as a breakdown of the MET vs MoMA vs Guggenheim (and I hope I delivered on that), but I’ve also visited a couple of other noteworthy NYC art museums that I want to mention here…
The MET Cloisters
So basically, I’m kind of burying the lead here, but guys…I think this is actually my favorite art museum in NYC! Yeah yeah, it’s not the typical Impressionist/Modern Art scene that I normally go for, but it is IMPRESSIVE.
The Cloisters were built in the 1930s on the upper tip of Manhattan on the Hudson River to display the MET’s Medieval art collection which includes architectural elements, tapestries, and basically everything you’d expect to see in a French castle.
Here’s the deal: your admission to the MET also includes admission to the Cloisters, but it’s only on that specific day and they’re about an hour apart on the subway so it’s really hard to squeeze them both in on the same day (especially since the MET is so immense), but it’s absolutely worth a shot and really even worth going a different day and paying twice. If you’re going to try them both on the same day, I think I would start at the Cloisters when they open, stay for a couple of hours and then go to the MET for the rest of the day.
So, back to the Cloisters…I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily a big medieval art fan (or really somebody that even thought much about medieval art), but the setting here is SPECTACULAR.
This is not like going to an art museum and looking at paintings, sculptures, etc in galleries…the museum IS the castle. So much of the collection are architectural elements that have been incorporated into the building that this really feels like you’re touring a 12th century monastery in France.
The gardens are exceptional, the unicorn tapestries are a feature (yep, there are UNICORN TAPESTRIES), and I walked through the entire place with my mouth open.
I don’t feel like I know enough about medieval art to definitely say…much…but this has got to be one of the most impressive collections anywhere. And the whole experience is 100% worth trekking up to the farthest part of Manhattan to experience.
So yes, it’s pretty far. But it’s super easy to get there on the subway. Take the A train (BLUE) to the Dyckman stop in Inwood and it’s just a short walk. There’s a Starbucks right by the subway entrance if you need a drink (it’s not a bad idea to grab a water because it’s a short little hike up to the museum from here).
Okay, so it’s a short walk from the subway station, and it’s mostly through a park, but you have to kind of wind your way up so it’s not insignificant. It’s soooooo pretty though and the walk really sets the scene for the Cloisters. It feels a million miles away from NYC.
The MET Cloisters are open 10AM to 5PM every day except Wednesday.
In researching art museums in NYC, I came across the Whitney and while it’s not on the same level as the MET or the MoMA by any means, I wanted to check it out.
The Whitney focuses on American Art and so much of what I read about it kept mentioning its location.
Well, having now been there, yeah. It’s a huge attraction. The big three art museums in NYC are all either in Midtown or the Upper East Side, but the Whitney is down in the Meatpacking District near Chelsea on the southwest side of the island. It’s at the base of the Highline and right around the corner from the famous Chelsea Market so it’s in a GREAT area to explore that’s pretty far from where most tourists end up.
Well to sum it up, I’m glad I went, but probably wouldn’t go back. The upper floor had some interesting art (some Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, etc), but back to my point about the MoMA, I didn’t feel like I “recognized” a lot of the art or artists so I just didn’t appreciate it as much. I know that says more about me than the museum, but I think I probably have an average to slightly above average art appreciation background so take it for what it’s worth.
I was visiting during the Whitney’s Biennial which I guess is a big deal. Maybe kind of like Vogue’s September issue? A curation of up and coming ideas, movement, artists, etc. And I’ll be totally honest, it was almost completely over my head. But I’m always mildly interested when I discover that there’s a whole “world” out there that I know nothing about.
All of this to say, this is not me saying don’t go to the Whitney or it’s “bad.” But I think it has a much more niche audience and the type of museum goer who is going to appreciate this probably isn’t the same as the more mainstream MET and MoMA.
But I really loved the building itself and the neighborhood. The upper outdoor decks have GREAT views of the city and overall I’m glad I got to see it.
So if you have a general appreciation for art and can be interested/amused/entertained by things that you don’t necessarily get and you have the time and budget, I think it’s a really great activity to pair with exploring the neighborhood.
The Whitney is open every day but Tuesday. The closest subway station is the 14th St (1, 2 or 3 RED train) station.
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