The 10 Best U.S. Art Museums That Should Be on Your Bucket List
TRAVEL AND ART EXPERTS RECOMMEND THEIR TOP CHOICES FOR AN ART AND CULTURE FIX.
You've seen famous paintings and sculptures in books, on TV, and on social media, but there's nothing like taking in great works of art in real life. And if you're looking to expand your artistic horizons, there are a wide variety of art museums throughout the country. Some institutions, like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are vast and all-encompassing, while others, like the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, are more specialized. To learn more about these creative destinations and to see where you'd like to plan your next trip, read on to hear from experts about the 10 best art museums in the U.S.
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The 10 Best U.S. Art Museums
1. The Art Institute of Chicago
If you want to see some of the most recognizable pieces of art, there are few places better than The Art Institute of Chicago. Not only is the museum home to some of the world's most famous paintings (like Grant Wood's American Gothic and Pablo Picasso's The Old Guitarist), but it's also well-known for showcasing modern works, including The Obama Portraits, which were housed at the museum for several months in 2021.
"The permanent collection has grown to nearly 300,000 works of art in fields ranging from Chinese bronzes to contemporary design and from textiles to installation art," says Shannon Palmer, the Art Institute's assistant director of public affairs. "Today, the museum, one of the oldest and largest art museums in the world, is known for its extensive collections of 19th-century French paintings, Impressionist works in particular, and 20th-century paintings and sculptures."
The museum is located in the city's largest park, Grant Park, in the heart of downtown, which makes it a convenient destination. When you're done, head to Anish Kapoor's famous "bean" sculpture Cloud Gate in the park.
2. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
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Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was developed through the personal collection of its namesake, who was an avid art collector and philanthropist and opened the home to the public in 1903. Today, it showcases an impressive collection of thousands of works, including paintings by Titian, Rembrandt, and Botticelli.
"Walking through the museum can feel like exploring a miniature Versailles," says Bryn Culbert, a budget travel expert at Wanderu. "The museum's namesake, Isabella Stewart Gardner, lived in the gallery during the beginning of the 20th century, and some of the rooms have couches, dining tables, and desks that humanize the space."
But the museum is probably best known for a robbery in 1990, in which 13 of its works, worth about $500 million, were stolen and have still not been recovered. There's currently a $10 million reward for information about the theft.
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3. The Getty Villa
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The Getty Villa in Malibu, California is just one part of the J. Paul Getty Museum, with the main campus located in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. But The Getty Villa contains enough works of art to stand out on its own.
"This museum features 44,000 works of Roman and Greek art exclusively, and what sets it apart is that the art is housed in a full-scale recreated Roman seaside home complete with lavish courtyards, fountains, and gardens," says Alanna Koritzke, a travel blogger at Periodic Adventures. "It's like an art museum, botanic garden, and architecture experience all rolled into one."
The museum is so renowned for its collection that it also serves as the home campus of the University of California, Los Angeles' graduate program in Archeological and Ethnographic Conservation.
4. Delaware Art Museum
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As the first state in the U.S., it makes sense that there would be a dedicated collection of centuries-old art in Delaware, which can be found at the Delaware Art Museum in the state's largest city, Wilmington.
"The Delaware Art Museum is recognized as having one of the most comprehensive collections of British Pre-Raphaelite art anywhere," says Eric Ruth of Visit Delaware. "The collection focuses on American art and illustration from the 19th to the 21st century, and on the English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood movement of the mid-19th century."
The museum is also loved by visitors for its walkable labyrinth maze in the sculpture garden.
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5. The Clark Art Institute
Many times, art museums are a way to take in the culture while traveling to different cities, but The Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Mass., is a destination in itself. The museum is a great place to appreciate Impressionism—an art movement that invites viewers to experience the artist's perception of nature and the settings around them—especially because of where it's located.
"The Clark is set on a magnificent 140-acre campus in the beautiful Berkshires of western Massachusetts, in a setting that preserves woodlands and meadows and invites visitors to walk more than five miles of trails throughout the spectacular scenery," says Victoria Saltzman, the director of communications for the museum.
It also has a library with more than 285,000 volumes on art and art history for visitors to peruse.
6. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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There are few museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the Americas. It has more than two million works in its wide-ranging collection, which showcases pieces made during Greek antiquity and ancient Egypt. The Met is also well known for the Met Gala, an annual themed fundraiser that raises money for the museum and attracts some of the biggest celebrities in the world.
"It is the largest museum in the United States, and you can easily spend multiple days inside due to the sheer number of art pieces," says Jon Stephens, a travel expert and the director of operations at Snowshoe Vacation Rentals. "There are pieces from all over the world and from some of the most well-known artists in history."
Not only is the Met one of the best art museums, but it's also an iconic New York City institution. Located across from the famous Central Park, it was built in 1880 in the Gothic-Revival style.
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7. Peabody Essex Museum
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First established more than two centuries ago, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., has grown over its lengthy history to become one of the largest art museums in North America. Today, it's best known for its large collection of Asian art from China, Japan, Korea, and India, as well as a large collection of Native American and maritime art. It's also a hub for information on the local history of Salem.
"The Peabody Essex Museum emphasizes local history," says Leslie Carbone, a Salem native and travel blogger at Sancerres at Sunset. "There's a permanent exhibit on 'Salem Stories.' The Museum also maintains several Salem buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places and offers a 90-minute audio-guided walking tour exploring the witch trials."
8. Anchorage Museum
Some of the best museums in the country are the most hyper-focused, like the Anchorage Museum, which specializes in Alaskan art. A majority of the museum's collection focuses on landscape paintings of Alaska and works by contemporary artists, including Sydney Laurence, the state's best-known landscape painter.
A perk of visiting the Anchorage Museum is that it also has exhibits that focus on history, ethnology, ecology, and science. Its collection of artifacts from Indigenous Alaska Native peoples celebrates the native culture.
"Visitors discover the richness and variety of Indigenous Alaska Native artifacts on loan from the Smithsonian Institution," says Kathy Dunn, the vice president of communications at Visit Anchorage. "The Smithsonian loaned the artifacts so they could be in their place of origin; the collaboration is the largest and longest loan made by the institution. The Living Our Cultures exhibition features historical treasures of more than 600 Alaska Native artifacts."
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9. Museum of Modern Art
Is it any surprise that New York City has an overwhelming number of art museums? While the Met has classic works steeped in history, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is also worth a visit to see more contemporary artwork. Some of the famous paintings from the past few centuries include Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans, Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night, and Piet Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie.
"The Museum of Modern Art… is a highly acclaimed gallery with a rich collection of over 200,000 paintings, drawings, and sculptures," says Emily Clare, the publisher at Fine Art Tutorials. "It houses some of the most evocative and important artworks in modern history from the 19th century onwards."
10. Museo de Arte y Diseño de Miramar
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At the Museo de Arte y Diseño de Miramar ("Museum of Art and Design of Miramar" in English) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the art isn't only on the interior. The museum is located inside a historic French Neoclassical Revival home, which was formerly owned by Judge Luis Méndez Vaz and his wife María Bagur.
This museum is not filled with historic paintings or noted sculptures: Instead, it houses designs and pieces that were important to Puerto Rican people and celebrate the culture of the island's middle class.
"The selection exhibited in the permanent galleries is inspired by the types of furniture and objects—whether produced locally or imported—that reflect the lifestyles of the middle class in Puerto Rico from the beginning to the midpoint of the 20th century," says Xiomara Rodríguez, the communications director for Discover Puerto Rico. "Although these objects are not what one generally considers works of 'high art,' they are functional and decorative works that show the changes occurring in Puerto Rico under the influence of Modernism and its philosophy of 'designed progress.'"