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Top 15 Museums in the United States

The best museums can open your mind and expand your world, revealing everything from ancient history to works of art, and you don’t have to travel far to find one. While viewing works by van Gogh and Vermeer in Amsterdam or fascinating Egyptian collections in Egypt might be your dream, there are some fabulous institutions right in the U.S. to explore in the meantime. These top museums offer a little bit of everything without having to travel thousands of miles from home.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York City, New York The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York City, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, often referred to as “The Met,” boasts a collection that includes more than two million pieces, spanning the globe from antiquity to the present. A top attraction in New York City and the largest museum in the Western Hemisphere, it sits within a huge gothic-style building with highlights like the Egyptian Collection featuring the circa 2440 BC tom of Perneb and the circle 23 to 10 BC Temple of Dendur. The European paintings are another must-see, with works by greats like Vermeer, Rembrandt and Botticelli. As it’s so large, you’ll want to plan your visit in advance, creating a list of what you want to see the most. Otherwise, it will take at least a week of daily visits to view everything.

The Art Institute of Chicago - Chicago, Illinois Institute of Chicago
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The Art Institute of Chicago - Chicago, Illinois

Chicago is home to one of the country’s best art scenes, and The Institute of Chicago makes it worthy enough for art enthusiasts to visit on its own. Set within a beautiful Beaux-Arts building against the city’s tall skyscrapers and world-renowned attractions, this exceptional museum hosts one of the world’s finest collections of Impressionist paintings, with Musée d’Orsay in Paris only its true competitor. View remarkable works from icons that include everyone from Picasso, Monet, Renoir, and van Gogh to Warhol and Dali. 

Getty - Los Angeles, California Getty - Los Angeles
Credit: Getty - Los Angeles by Getty

Getty - Los Angeles, California

The J. Paul Getty Museum, or “The Getty,” is an art museum housed in two different locations, Getty Villa, which features a vast collection of Greek and Roman art, modeled after a Roman seaside villa, and the Getty Center which includes an extensive collection of Western art from medieval times to the present. The campus is magnificent, with pools, fountains, gardens, and outdoor sculptures, making it easy to spend an entire day here. Best of all, this popular LA attraction is free.

Chihuly Garden and Glass - Seattle, Washington Chihuly Garden and Glass
Credit: Chihuly Garden and Glass by Chihuly Garden and Glass

Chihuly Garden and Glass - Seattle, Washington

Chihuly Garden and Glass is located next to Seattle’s iconic Space Needle and includes 45,000 square feet of galleries displaying incredible soft-glass works and fine chandeliers created by Washingtonian Dale Chihuly, a world-renowned glass sculptor. A place where color, creativity, and curiosity come to life, you’ll wander through the surreal landscape of colorful glass sculptures that interact with the natural environment. The Glasshouse is a highlight with the towering 40-foot tall work of art the result of Chihuly’s fondness for conservatories.

California Academy of Sciences - San Francisco, California Academy of Sciences San Francisco
Credit: Academy of Sciences San Francisco by © Enrique Gomez Tamez | Dreamstime.com

California Academy of Sciences - San Francisco, California

Located in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences includes the world’s largest planetarium, an aquarium, a four-story rainforest with a coral reef ecosystem, and a natural history museum. One of the most popular attractions in San Francisco, Conde Nast Traveler called it one of the “New Wonders of the World.” The natural history museum is among the largest institutions of natural history on Earth, with over 46 million specimens. Some 2.5 acres of plants cover the roof of the museum, known as the Living Roof, which provides habitat for wildlife and keeps the building 10 degrees cooler than it would normally be. The observation platform provides expansive views of the roof along with interpretive signs.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History - Washington, D.C. National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C
Credit: National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C by © Kmiragaya | Dreamstime.com

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History - Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and includes 19 different museums along with the National Zoological Park. While all are worth visiting, for those on limited time, you won’t want to miss the National Museum of Natural History. Located on the National Mall, admission is free, and you’ll be able to explore the wilds of the natural world from dinosaurs to diamonds, including Lucy, one of the most complete skeletons found to date from the early hominids that flourished between four and two million years ago. One of the best things to do in Washington, D.C., this museum also holds the only neanderthal skeleton on display in North America and the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond.

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum - Santa Fe, New Mexico Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Credit: Georgia O'Keeffe Museum by Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum - Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is dedicated to artist Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, known as the “mother of American modernism.” A top attraction in artsy Santa Fe, it includes many of her New Mexico landscapes and iconic paintings of enlarged flowers.

National Gallery of Art - Washington, D.C. The National Gallery of Art
Credit: The National Gallery of Art by © Erix2005 | Dreamstime.com

National Gallery of Art - Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art was the first museum of American art to open in the country. It’s not one of the district’s Smithsonian museums, but it’s located on the National Mall and provides a unique look at the American experience over a three-century period. The over 150 works donated by Andrew Mellon became the core of the collection which has since grown to hold more than 150,000 pieces as one of the largest of its kind. It includes everything from impressionist paintings to modern art, Latin art, and photography. You’ll see works from famous artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Johannes Vermeer, including his Woman Holding a Balance and Girl with the Red Hats.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum - Washington, D.C. Visitors enjoy The National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC
Credit: Visitors enjoy The National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC by bigstock.com

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum - Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is sure to fascinate anyone who has an interest in flight, space or science. It’s the “world’s premier collection of air and space artifacts, stories, and expertise” set within a uniquely designed building located on the National Mall featuring 23 galleries of exhibits based on aircraft, rockets, spacecraft, missiles and other artifacts related to flight. The Hubble Telescope test vehicle and the Wright Flyer from 1903 are two of the highlights that shouldn’t be missed. There’s also an IMAX theater with a five-story screen and a planetarium on-site.

Museum of Pop Culture - Seattle, Washington Museum of Pop Culture
Credit: Museum of Pop Culture by © Sergii Figurnyi | Dreamstime.com

Museum of Pop Culture - Seattle, Washington

Anyone who loves pop culture should visit the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle at least once. Even those who don’t are unlikely to be bored here. Often referred to as “MoPOP” it’s dedicated to the history and culture of pop music and science fiction, set within a shimmering building made of sheet metal that resembles a smashed electric guitar. The exhibits are diverse, focused on video games, fantasy, fashion, sports, horror, and of course, sci-fi and music. With the city considered to be the birthplace of grunge, it offers a special tribute to Nirvana, with a permanent exhibit featuring 200 rare photographs, artifacts, and oral history.

The Institute of Contemporary Art - Boston, Massachusetts The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
Credit: The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston by © Jiawangkun | Dreamstime.com

The Institute of Contemporary Art - Boston, Massachusetts

The Institute of Contemporary Art, or the “ICA,” was originally founded as the Boston Museum of Modern Art in 1936. Much more than an art museum, it sits along the South Boston waterfront set in a building that’s considered an architectural icon with its dramatic folding ribbon form and a cantilever that extends to the water’s edge. It hosts films, videos, performances, presentations, and galleries. There’s something for kids and adults alike, with a focus on contemporary artists’ explorations of the physical and unseen world.

Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum - San Jose, California Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose
Credit: Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose by bigstock.com

Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum - San Jose, California

The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum is home to the most extensive collection of Egyptian treasures in the western United States. Its grounds are vast and include a peace garden, temple, planetarium, and research library. Visitors can explore artifacts, art, and pre-dynastic rituals, but most come for the mummies. They fascinate, along with the objects they’re entombed with, which reveal what people found important and what they believe happened after death. Modern-day scientists are able to use them to determine what ancient people ate, the diseases they suffered from, and the reason for their deaths.

Pearl Harbor National Memorial - Honolulu, Hawaii USS Bowfin submarine in Pearl Harbor museum
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Pearl Harbor National Memorial - Honolulu, Hawaii

While it might be hard to tear yourself away from the beautiful sandy beaches, it’s worth making time for the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, which includes the memorial site and museums commemorating the events of December 7, 1941. The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor sits at the very spot where the Second World War began for America and while it’s a rather sobering experience, you’ll literally standing over a gravesite where 1,177 men lost their lives. Visitors can also explore the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, which covers over 75 years of aviation history from the start of World War II.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art - Los Angeles, California LACMA Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Credit: LACMA Los Angeles County Museum of Art by LACMA Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Los Angeles County Museum of Art - Los Angeles, California

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is the largest art museum in the Western U.S. and one of the most popular museums in L.A. It’s spread over multiple buildings and includes an impressive permanent collection of more than 142,000 works from across the globe dating as far back as 4,000 BC. You’ll see everything from American and European art to Islamic, Asian, and an outstanding Latin American collection with pre-Columbian masterpieces along with works by modern and contemporary artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum - New York City, New York The National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Credit: The National September 11 Memorial & Museum by © Mohamed Abdelrazek | Dreamstime.com

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum - New York City, New York

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum includes the memorial that was completed just before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, with 30-foot waterfalls that sit on the footprint where the Twin Towers once stood. The pools are nearly an acre in size and at the edge, bronze panels are inscribed with the names of the 2,983 people who died in the terror attacks at the World Trade Center site as well as at the Pentagon and in Flight 93’s crash in Pennsylvania. The museum details the story of that tragic day through a collection of artifacts, multimedia displays, narratives and archives.

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