Best Museums in the U.S.
There are more than 35,000 museums in the United States — an impressive figure, even when considering the massive size of the country. It’s impossible to visit them all, of course, but you can prioritize and conquer the most important ones.
From the iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, this list takes you on a tour of the U.S. museums you absolutely have to visit at least once. (And more if you can!)
Some, like the MoMa, are world-renowned, while others are hidden gems. Within each, you’ll gain a breadth of knowledge on subjects as diverse as space, Ancient Egypt, dinosaurs, Renaissance art, World War II and beyond.
20. National Air and Space Museum - Washington D.C
This Smithsonian museum is so gee-whiz exciting that it is loved even by people who generally find museums boring — including but not limited to restless youngsters.
Explore everything that has to do with the magic of taking your feet off the ground, including the Wright Brothers’ earliest flight machines, war planes used in WWI and the famous “Spirit of St. Louis,” which Charles Lindbergh flew on the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight in 1927.
You can also enjoy the space exhibitions, featuring several artifacts from the iconic Apollo missions.
Must-See at National Air and Space Museum: Lunar Rock
Although other museums have lunar rock samples, you are actually allowed to touch this one. It's the next best thing to actually stepping on the moon.
19. The Getty Center - Los Angeles
One of the best art museums on the West Coast is a piece of modern art unto itself. The undulating and circular structure, designed by legendary architect Richard Meier, is perfectly complemented by 86 acres of manicured gardens, where visitors can stroll after exploring the galleries and gaze out over West L.A.
The collection centers on European art from the Renaissance to modernity, but also includes photography, decorative arts and so much more. Oh, and admission is free!
Must-See at The Getty: Van Gogh’s “Irises”
Van Gogh painted this beauty, one of his most well-known pieces, just a year before his death.
18. Asian Art Museum - San Francisco
If you want to escape Eurocentrism in art galleries, San Francisco has the perfect antidote.
This large collection of Asian art includes pieces from across the entire continent. Some of the works in the collection date back several thousand years, ranging from samurai armour to Hindu deities from Cambodia to ancient Persian ceramics.
Must-See at Asian Art Museum: Seated Buddha
Dating all the way back to 338, this is the oldest known Chinese Buddha sculpture. It remains in remarkably good condition considering its age.
17. Greenfield Village - Dearborn, Michigan
This sadly underrated museum is not as well known as others on this list. However, it is quite significant, considering that it has collected several important artifacts from American history. You can see the bus where Rosa Parks refused to stand up, as well as the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop and home.
The outdoor museum is part of the Henry Ford Complex and includes his furnished childhood home and prototype garage. Some sections of the village showcase life in different periods of the country, complete with costumed actors demonstrating old-time daily tasks.
Check out this hidden gem before people finally catch on!
Must-See at Greenfield Village: John F. Kennedy Limousine
The limousine President JFK was riding in when he was assassinated makes for a chilling display. In a similar vein, you can also see the theater chair that President Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot.
16. Salvador Dalí Museum - St. Petersburg, Florida
No one expects the largest collection of Dalí works outside of Europe to reside in a small beach town on the west coast of Florida. Then again, when has anything related to Dalí been conventional?
The museum was born from the private collection of a couple who decided to share the masterpieces they had in their possession with the world. The building itself is inspired by surrealism and houses drawings, objects, paintings, photographs, prints and even book illustrations made by the artist.
Keep an eye out for the Aphrodisiac Telephone, more commonly known as the Lobster Phone.
Must-See at Dalí Museum: "The Hallucinogenic Toreador"
One of the artist’s most significant masterpieces was inspired by his wife’s distaste for bullfighting. You could spend your entire day staring at its surrealist elements and symbols, trying to parse their meaning.
15. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
No one ever has to wonder what to do on a family trip to Indianapolis, as the state capital has the largest children’s museum in the entire world. (Its size? Nearly half a million square feet.)
Of course, the museum is highly interactive, with kids being encouraged to touch and play with almost everything. Little ones can hunt for fossils at the Dig Site, examine a model mastodont skull, climb rock walls, build toy boats to float in actual water and much (much) more.
Even your antsiest kid will never get bored.
Must-See at Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: Paleo Prep Lab
Kids are (finally!) allowed to touch a real T-Rex bone at this interactive lab. How cool is that?
And let’s be real: Adults love it too.
14. Kennedy Space Center - Titusville, Florida
If you’ve ever dreamed of going to space, or are merely curious to know how it's possible, head to NASA’s Floridian visitor center. Here, you can learn about the physics behind the launches, see moon rocks and maybe even meet some astronauts.
The museum is interactive, has two IMAX theaters and is extremely child-friendly. We don’t want to say it, but this probably beats a visit to Disney.
Must-See at Kennedy Space Center: Shuttle Launch
Check this handy schedule to see if your visit coincides with an actual shuttle launch — an amazing experience few people in the world get a chance to witness.
13. The National WWII Museum - New Orleans
World War II has obviously shaped the history and culture of this country in many significant ways, and there’s no better place to learn about it than at this extensive, thoughtful NOLA museum.
Built on a former factory where D-Day boats were made, the museum is heaven for any history buff. To arrive at the entrance, you must board a train car, which makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. You can spend the rest of the day walking through the museum’s six acres, listening to oral histories, seeing boats and tanks up close, and even greeting some veteran volunteers who are happy to tell their story.
Must-See at National WWII Museum: War-Themed Canteen
Unwind from all the heavy history while still feeling immersed in it at this canteen featuring all-American foods and authentically old-fashioned entertainment (think: swing bands and vocal trios).
12. National September 11 Memorial & Museum - New York City
Commemorating the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, this memorial stands as a public statement of resilience.
The museum covers what happened before, during and after these tragic events, always keeping those who were lost and those who lost someone at the forefront of the narrative. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come each year to pay their respects while exploring powerful exhibits featuring artifacts, photography and archival recordings.
Must-See at National September 11 Memorial & Museum: The Survivor Tree
Recovered from the ruins with only one branch alive, this tree also survived a storm that uprooted it while it was being replanted in the Bronx. It now stands tall in the memorial, a symbol of strength and hope.
11. Cleveland Museum of Art
With more than 60,000 pieces of art from around the world, this museum is regarded as one of the country’s best. It has an impressive collection of Asian art and a renowned decorative-art wing, but perhaps its greatest selling point is its photography wing, featuring powerful pictures of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.
Unlike precious few museums on this list, its exhaustive collection is also scot-free to see.
Must-See at Cleveland Museum of Art: Botticelli’s “Virgin and Child with the Young John the Baptist”
You don’t have to go to Italy to see the works of Renaissance master Botticelli, whose composition skills are gorgeously displayed in this work. But is it really Botticelli’s? Some people believe the piece was actually painted, in part or in full, by Botticelli’s student, Filippino Lippi.
10. Detroit Institute of Arts
Listed as a National Historic Place and as one of the most visited art museums in the world, the DIA is a reminder that Detroit was once a major, thriving American city. (Happily, in recent years, it’s been working to reclaim this mantle.)
As with other large institutes of its kind, the museum covers thousands of years of art history, ranging from Ancient Egyptian encryptions to contemporary art. Of course, you can expect works from the great masters of Western art as well, including bold-face names like Degas and Van Gogh.
Must-See at Detroit Institute of Arts: Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals
Commissioned in the 1930s, this series of murals depicting labor at the Ford Motor Company and the history of Detroit is the artist's personal favorite work.
9. Museum of Fine Arts - Boston
After The Met, this source of pride for all Bostonians boasts the second-largest collection of art in North America, a fact that every local you encounter will happily throw your way.
Though it focuses mostly on European and American art — it even has more Monets than any museum outside Paris — the museum also has some more diverse offerings. Its Ancient Egyptian sculptures, in particular, are well worth seeking out.
Must-See at Museum of Fine Arts: Gilbert Stuart’s “George Washington”
This unfinished painting of America’s first president is the model that was used for the one-dollar bill.
8. National Museum of African American History and Culture - Washington D.C.
Opened in 2016 to much acclaim, this relatively young Smithsonian museum has enjoyed immense popularity. In fact, it has already earned a place within the country’s 10 most visited museums.
Its collection thoughtfully educates visitors on the history of slavery, segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, highlighting the figures who have often been ignored by mainstream history. Photographs, oral histories, clothing and song recordings contribute to an immersive storytelling experience.
Must-See at National Museum of African American History and Culture: Harriet Tubman’s Personal Items
Learn about the extraordinary woman who helped countless slaves gain their freedom through the use of the underground railroad by exploring a collection of her personal items — including presents given to her by Queen Victoria.
7. National Gallery of Art - Washington D.C.
Located near Capitol Hill, it is difficult to imagine that this expansive gallery started from the donation of a patron’s personal collection. Established in 1937, the museum mainly focuses on European and American art, boasting pieces by the likes of Henri, Monet and Dégas. (Ever heard of them?)
Like most of DC’s museums, this one is also free to explore.
Must-See at National Gallery of Art: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Portrait of Ginevra de' Benci”
This stunning oil painting depicting a 15th-century aristocrat is the only da Vinci work on display in all of the Americas.
6. American Museum of Natural History - New York City
Although the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in D.C. is amazing, New York’s first museum steals its spotlight. More than 32 million specimens are preserved within the walls of this magnificent institution, considered one of the best science museums in the world.
You’ll get to see dinosaur fossils, taxidermied elk and underwater creatures from around the world. The museum is interactive, with an extremely fun space wing and 3-D film showings.
Must-See at American Museum of Natural History
Displayed in a stalking position, this fossil is both awe-inspiring and a little scary. It’s just one part of the museum’s exhaustive collection of fossil mammals and dinosaurs, the largest of its kind in the world.
5. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - Washington D.C.
This museum is the nation’s official monument in commemoration of one of the most horrifying tragedies in human history. Upon entering, visitors receive a card with the name and story of a Holocaust victim or survivor, a way to make the almost incomprehensible number of victims less abstract.
Permanent exhibitions containing original letters from victims, audio and visual recordings of their testimonies, and various recovered artifacts further help tell the story, to painful but important effect.
Must-See at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: The Hall of Remembrance
An eternal flame burns bright in memory of the victims in this somber hall. Visitors are encouraged to light a candle as a way of paying their respect.
4. National Museum of American History - Washington D.C.
Fitting the history of a nation within a museum is a difficult task, but the National Museum of American History is more than up to the job.
Exhibits cover different periods, from the life of indigenous communities before European colonization until today. The collection includes original letters from the Civil War, props used for iconic movies, propaganda posters for WWII and even Julia Child’s kitchen.
It doesn’t capture all you need to know about U.S. history, obviously, but the breath and diversity of its collection wows.
Must-See at National Museum of American History: Original Star Spangled Banner Flag
Located in the center of the second floor, this is the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that would become the country’s stirring anthem.
3. The Art Institute of Chicago
Holding about 300,000 pieces, the Art Institute of Chicago earns its rank among the world’s great art museums, and touts an enviable location in the city’s Millennium Park to boot.
The museum’s collection covers the span of humanity’s affair with art, beginning with ancient curiosities and ending with contemporary showstoppers. It says something that the museum houses both Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Mary Cassat’s “The Child’s Bath,” and neither are what we’re highlighting as the most iconic piece to see.
Must-See at The Art Institute of Chicago: George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”
Perhaps the most recognized work of Pointillism depicts a beautiful day in Paris along the banks of the Seine. This is one of those pieces that it’s easy to get lost in.
2. Museum of Modern Art - New York City
With works like van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” and Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair,” the MoMA boasts one of the best collections of modern art in any country. Located right in the center of Manhattan, it is a New York must-see, with patrons often making multiple visits in order to see its 200,000 pieces.
The collection has everything from impressionism to cubism to abstract geometry and boundary-pushing contemporary works. It’s also better than ever, thanks to a just-completed $450 million renovation and expansion that, among other changes, added a new space for live and experimental programming to the mix.
Must-See at Museum of Modern Art: Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”
One of the artist’s most famous works was crucial to the development of cubism, making it not just riveting, but important.
1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York City
The Met is an icon of culture and the largest museum in the U.S. It is impossible to see everything in this vast museum in a visit (or two or even three), as the collection includes an Egyptian temple, ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, Middle Age armour, Nigerian ivory masks, Renaissance paintings, contemporary masterpieces and so (so) much more.
With more than 2 million pieces in its collection, this museum should be on every art and history bucketlist. The Met also curates special exhibitions, bringing masterpieces from around the world to New York City, and hosts a wonderful lecture series.
Must-See at The Met: Raphael’s “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints”
The only altarpiece by the artist in the United States is a beauty. Other must-sees include Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Cow Skull,” van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat” and Monet’s “Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies,” to name just a few of many, many classics on display.