New York City is home to some of the most illustrious institutions of art and culture in the world, but there’s more to the museum circuit than the Met and the MoMA. A world of creativity waits in tucked-away galleries, repurposed spaces, and eclectic collections that defy traditional expectations. From a museum hidden inside a freight elevator to a historic townhouse frozen in time, our curated list takes you on a fascinating detour through the less-traveled corners of the city’s museum scene.
While the Brooklyn Museum couldn’t rightly be called a hidden gem, it’s worth the mention for museumgoers who tend to stick to Manhattan’s well-trodden paths. Located at the head of picturesque Prospect Park in Brooklyn, this cultural hub offers a rich and diverse collection, from ancient Egyptian artifacts to mid-century furniture to spectacular mosaics made of trash found along the Hudson River.
The museum’s commitment to inclusivity is evident in its exhibits; make sure to seek out Judy Chicago’s epic installation The Dinner Party, an epic piece of feminist artwork. Take note of the museum’s current selection of temporary exhibits, which are often worth shelling out the extra $15.
The Rubin Museum of Art
Dedicated to the art of the Himalayan region, the Rubin Museum is a tucked-away sanctuary in the heart of Chelsea. From ancient ritual tools to contemporary paintings, the exhibits span centuries, each one weaving a narrative that invites both artistic exploration and spiritual contemplation. Beyond its impressive collection of Tibetan, Indian, and Himalayan artifacts and art, the museum’s ambiance has been carefully curated to provide a serene escape from the city outside.
When visiting, take advantage of the museum’s programming, which often includes talks, workshops, and performances. Be sure to end your visit with a quiet moment of reflection in the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room before venturing back out onto the busy streets.
The Renaissance Revival-style former church around the corner from Gramercy Park looks plucked straight from a European city, and in fact, the museum inside was. Fotografiska is a Swedish import, a U.S.-based arm of a Stockholm-based photography museum of the same name. It speaks to the ever-evolving language of visual storytelling, stretching and redefining the boundaries of traditional photography.
Part of Fotografiska’s draw is its function as a gathering place as well as a museum: it stays open late, and you can sip on a coffee or cocktail while strolling through the sleek neon-lit halls. Afterwards, let the crowd carry you towards the in-house café, where museumgoers have lively discussions about the exhibits as they finish their drinks.
The Cloisters at the Met
Perched on a tall hill in northmost Manhattan, The Cloisters are a lesser-known branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’re also a portal to medieval Europe – quite literally, as original elements of historic monasteries, churches, and castles were integrated into the palatial structure. Sit inside the authentic Gothic chapels complete with tombs, dissect the mysterious Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, and stroll through the gardens overlooking the Hudson River.
Whether you’re an art history buff, a nature enthusiast, or just someone seeking a peaceful retreat, The Cloisters are sure to leave an impression. The museum hosts various events, from medieval music performances to educational programs, providing a deeper understanding of this fascinating period. Try to time your visit during the early morning or late afternoon for a truly serene experience, allowing you to soak in the ambiance sans crowds.
Housed inside a freight elevator in Tribeca, this is certainly the most compact museum on this list, and perhaps the most peculiar. Mmuseummm describes itself as a “modern natural history museum,” and it features offbeat exhibits like “Toothpaste Tubes from Around the World” and “Personal Possessions Found in the Pacific.”
While some of the objects hold historical significance (the shoe thrown at George W. Bush in 2008 makes an appearance), most are innocuous outside the context of the collection. Exploring the cramped room is more a novelty experience than a culturally enriching one, but that’s not to say it lacks impact: each exhibit is a carefully curated window into the extraordinary within the ordinary.
The City Reliquary
This Williamsburg spot may look like a particularly intriguing antique store, but The City Reliquary is in fact one of the quaintest museums in New York. Chock-full of curios from the city’s colorful past, this offbeat spot celebrates the city’s history through an eclectic collection of artifacts, from vintage seltzer bottles to fragments of the original Penn Station.
Keep an eye out for The City Reliquary’s rotating exhibits, each offering a new example of the eccentricities that make New York City one of a kind. Before you leave, be sure to visit the gift shop modeled after a vintage dime store.
Merchant’s House Museum / The Tenement Museum
If you have a particular interest in how both halves lived in New York City’s younger years – or just enjoy wandering through other people’s houses – we recommend a double feature of the Merchant’s House Museum and The Tenement Museum. The Merchant’s House Museum, once the residence of hardware dealer Seabury Tradwell and his descendents, is one of the city’s few 19th-century homes. Step into the gaslit parlors and walk through the intricate details of daily life in a bygone era.
Pair this with a visit to The Tenement Museum, where the stories of immigrant families come to life in the Lower East Side. Wander through restored tenement buildings, each revealing the challenges and triumphs of those who called them home. This museum duo allows you to experience the city’s history firsthand, one meticulously preserved room at a time.
New York Transit Museum
Fittingly housed in a decommissioned subway station in Downtown Brooklyn, the New York Transit Museum is a dynamic exploration of the world beneath the city streets. You don’t need to be a transportation enthusiast to relish this museum experience – the interactive exhibits will have you walking through vintage subway cars and stepping into the shoes of transit workers.
Designed for hands-on exploration, the exhibits offer an engaging experience for visitors of all ages. Whether you’re an adult fascinated by urban history or a child enamored with trains, the New York Transit Museum has something for everyone. Check the schedule for upcoming events, including family-friendly activities that add an extra layer of excitement to your visit.