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Top 10 museums in America
Read time: 6 mins
The U.S. is home to a wealth of museums – some 35,000 of them in fact, including many that are a destination in itself. Exploring a museum while on holiday is not only fun, it can also provide one with an impressive glimpse into the city’s or country’s past, and how it came to be the way it is today, but to truly get an in-depth look at the culture, through art as well as a variety of other exhibits.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Where: In Boston's Fenway-Kenmore neighbourhood on Huntington Avenue.
What: The fourth largest museum in the U.S. the Museum of Fine Arts houses over 450,000 works of art, including numerous temporary exhibits as well as permanent exhibits ranging from ancient artefacts to contemporary furniture, for one of the most comprehensive collections in the Americas.
Highlights: Some of the must-sees include the nearly 800-year-old Song Dynasty Nine Dragons scroll, Portrait of Paul Revere, The Madonna in the Clouds (1425-1435) and Woman in a Japanese Embroidered Dress by Claude Monet. Be sure to gaze up at the 42-foot-tall monumental Lime Green Icicle Tower by Dale Chihuly in the Shapiro Family Courtyard. Galleries like Homer and the Epics, as well as Gems and Jewellery from the Ancient Mediterranean, are especially fascinating, even for the casual visitor. If you’re in need of some quiet time, you can also discover some rather discreet exhibits in the tranquil Buddhist Temple Room, tucked away on the second floor.
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Where: Its primary location is in Midtown Manhattan, while a secondary location can be found in Queens, New York City.
What: One of the most influential, and largest, modern art museums in the world, this glassy Yoshio Taniguchi-designed MoMA hosts a collection that provides an overview of modern and contemporary art. In addition to sculpture, painting and photography galleries, there is a collection of 22,000 films, architecture, design, and performance art.
Highlights: Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl; Monet’s Water Lilies; Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory; Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. In addition to permanent exhibits are the not-to-be-missed MoMA Design Store, a sculpture garden with works by Rodin and Picasso, and the attached cinema which blends art-house fare and more accessible offerings. Dine at The Modern, a highly acclaimed upscale restaurant which holds two Michelin stars and four James Beard Foundation awards, as well as boasting an award-winning wine menu.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Where: On the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
What: One of the world’s preeminent museums, the National Gallery of Art features a collection that includes more than 140,000 paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, decorative arts, sculpture, and new media, tracing the development of Western art from the Middle Ages through today. Free programmes, including tours, concerts, films, lectures, and family activities, are offered throughout the year.
Highlights: The French Impressionist paintings have been the most popular for years, including a 1905 oil painting by Pablo Picasso’s longtime rival, Henri Matisse, The Open Window, and four Claude Monet masterpieces. Across the street from the original West Building, the Sculpture Garden features 19 sculptures that were created by an impressive international roster of artists, like the shiny stainless steel and concrete tree called Graft, and a stalking Spider, along with a spectacular Chagall mosaic.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
Where: In the heart of the Civic Center district, directly opposite San Francisco’s City Hall.
What: The Asian Art Museum is a stately building that holds one of the most diverse collections of art and objects from across the Asian continent in the world today, with over 18,000 works of art in its permanent collection. It spans 6,000 years of human history, featuring everything from magnificent paintings and sculptures to furniture, armour and textiles, originating from Japan, China, India, Turkey, the Philippines and other Asian cultures.
Highlights: The clothed rod puppets from Java and the extraordinarily painted, jewel-encrusted, 19th-century Burmese Buddha on the third floor, which features highlights of Buddhist art in Southeast Asia and early China, including portraits of Indian rulers, silver, jade, and ivory decorative objects, and Hindu deity sculptures are items you won’t want to miss. The Buddha dated 338, the earliest Buddha sculpture in the world, is especially impressive, with an inscription on its base including the ancient year, as well as the bronze rhinoceros. This early 11th-century ritual vessel shaped like the animal, is known as one of the most celebrated ancient Chinese bronzes on Earth, rare for its naturalistic depiction of a creature as well as its undecorated surface. The extensive Japanese art collection with more than 5,000 pieces of art, including remarkable works that date back to 3000 BC, is also a must-experience.
American Museum of Natural History, New York City
Where: Across the street from Central Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City.
What: A museum complex with 28 interconnected buildings that house 45 permanent exhibition halls as well as a library and planetarium. The collections within AMNH feature more than 33 million plant, animal, fossil, mineral, rock, meteorite and human remains specimens, along with human cultural artifacts spread through over 190,000 square meters of space.
Highlights: The Fossil Halls which contains nearly 600 specimens, including the skeletons of a massive mammoth, a Deinonychus and an especially imposing Tyrannosaurus Rex, at 65 million years old, the fossilized bones of the original thighs are arranged in a walking position, are the most popular exhibits with visitors. Be sure to gawk at the famous 94-foot-long blue whale model in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life and the Reticulated Python, in Reptiles and Amphibians, a 25-foot-long snake coiled around a tree. The Rose Center for Earth & Space, with its cutting-edge planetarium, is a must for space fans who want to discover the universe at the Hayden Planetarium. Visitors can view “Dark Universe,” narrated by famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, in the IMAX auditorium.
Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Where: Merritt Island in Central Florida, about an hour east of Orlando.
What: NASA's primary launch center of human spaceflight and a popular tourist destination offering public tours of the center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Highlights: While the famous space shuttles have flown their final missions, visitors to the Kennedy Space Center can still experience what it might be like to be an astronaut by launching into the stratosphere on the Shuttle Launch Experience flight simulator. Other options include embarking on a mission control tour, dining with an astronaut, or even training with an astronaut in the family Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) programs. It includes getting ready for those g-forces as well as a mock adventure to the International Space Station.
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Where: The J. Paul Getty Museum is located on two campuses. The Getty Center is its primary location in the Brentwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles, while the Getty Villa, situated in the Pacific Palisades neighbourhood on a bluff overlooking the ocean.
What: The Getty Center, which opened in 1997, is best-known for its architecture, gardens and views overlooking Los Angeles. It hosts pre-20th-century European paintings, decorative arts, illuminated manuscripts, drawings and sculpture, along with 19th- and 20th-century American, Asian, and European photographs. The Villa, opened in 2006, houses an extensive collection of Greek and Roman art, and is modelled after a seaside Roman villa.
Highlights: At Getty Center, be sure to see Claude Monet’s The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light, Van Gogh’s Irises, André-Charles Boulle’s Cabinet on Stand and Gentile Da Fabriano’s The Coronation of the Virgin. Spend time outdoors too, among the numerous garden spaces, fountains, pools and sculptures. At The Villa, see the large-scale bronze known as Statue of a Victorious Youth, one of the few surviving life-size Greek bronzes left in the world. The Adriatic shipwreck discovery is kept in a temperature-controlled room to preserve the metal. Modelled after the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy, the architecture itself is a highlight.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Where: Chicago’s Grant Park, a large urban park in the Loop community area.
What: The one-million-square-foot Art Institute of Chicago is second in size among U.S. art museums to only the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It features more than 300,000 works of art and artefacts from around the world, in every era from antiquity to today.
Highlights: The Art Institute of Chicago displays one of the finest collection of Impressionist paintings in the world, along with amazing works from the likes of masters Dali, Warhol and Picasso. The most famous works include The Bedroom by Vincent Van Gogh, American Gothic by Grant Wood, The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. The light-filled Modern Wing is the ideal spot for enjoying the architecture and design collection, modern and contemporary art, along with magnificent views of Millennium Park.
Smithsonian, Washington D.C.
Where: The Smithsonian Institute is made up of 17 separate museums and galleries in Washington D.C., 11 of which are located on the National Mall.
What: The world’s largest museum complex houses more than 137 million objects, and nearly all of the museums and exhibits are free.
Highlights: The Smithsonian Institution Building, known as “The Castle,” houses the Smithsonian Visitor Center and is a popular starting point where visitors can view highlights of collections from each of the museums, as well as to tour the structure itself. Some of the must-sees, are the ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz, the Hope Diamond, the original Star-Spangled Banner and the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer.” The Air & Space Museum, American History Museum and the Natural History Museum are three of the most popular of the Institute’s museums.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
What: The Met is one of the most-visited museums in the world, and the largest in the Western Hemisphere with its permanent collection featuring more than two million works, which span the globe from antiquity to today, and are all housed in a massive, Gothic-style building.
Highlights: Favourites with museum visitors include a seven-ton Sphinx of Hatshepsut and Italian painter Caravaggio’s The Musicians, while some of the other not-be-missed works include spectacular European paintings by masters such as Vermeer, Botticelli, Rodin and Rembrandt, as well as the impressive Egyptian Collection which features the tomb of Perneb, circa 2440 BC, and the Temple of Dendur, built by the Roman Emperor Augustus in 15 BC.
Delve into the best of America's past with these recommended tours
America's Heritage - Independent Rail Tour (13 nights)
Heritage of America Escorted Tour (9 nights)
Self-Drive American Heritage - New York to Miami (15 nights)
Self-Drive Historic Highlights (7 nights)
Self-Drive Colonial America (10 nights)
The Great American Road Trip (21 nights)
Gone with the Wind Escorted Tour (11 nights)