Museums

The Best NYC Museums You’ve Never Heard Of

Skip the lines and pop into these NYC masterpieces.

Photo by Megan Swann

Sure, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is pretty cool. The American Museum of Natural History is neat. But we’re guessing you’ve been there and done that. Plus, sometimes you want a more intimate museum experience, one where you don’t have to wait in long lines or fight to catch a glimpse of your favorite painting. (I was once nearly trampled by crowds trying to view Van Gogh’s The Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art.)

Thankfully, the biggies aren’t the only game in town. New York City boasts plenty of boutique museums, ranging from the educational to the downright bizarre, where you can peruse and discover the cult-cha at your own uncrowded leisure. Our favorite niche spots:

Skyscraper Museum

Architecture buffs—and NYC skyline lovers—must head to the Skyscraper Museum to learn about the history of the high-rise through mini models, photographs, and interactive displays. The museum looks not only at the brick-and-mortar background of our supertall buildings, but the social implications of constructing them, as well. Bonus: Kids love this place. 39 Battery Place (between Little West Street and First Place), Battery Park

best museums in nyc

Treasures of the Trash Museum

This appointment-only museum defines one man’s trash as “another man’s treasure.” Tucked away in a garage on East 99th Street lies a collection of objects from Upper East Side and East Harlem trash cans put together secretly for more than 20 years by sanitation worker Nelson Molina. These pieces of “garbage” range from university diplomas to 19th-century stained glass from an East Harlem church. 343 East 99th Street (between First and Second Avenues), East Harlem

City Reliquary Museum

Connect with New York’s past and present through quirky, quintessential urban artifacts—we’re talking everything from old-school seltzer bottles and subway tokens to remnants from the 1939 World’s Fair and Statue of Liberty postcards—housed in a Williamsburg space that looks like a colorful bodega. The Reliquary also hosts cultural events and rotating exhibitions curated by locals. This summer’s theme is the history of roller-skating in NYC, primarily focusing on Crown Heights’s Empire Roller Skating Center and its participation in Brooklyn’s African-American community. 370 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg

best museums in nyc
Courtesy of City Reliquary Museum

Museum of the American Gangster

This winner was designed to be a secret. The two-room museum dedicated to mobster crime in NYC lives directly above the infamous speakeasy Theater 80 St. Marks, which welcomed the likes of Al Capone and Frank Sinatra back in the day. Owner Lorcan Otway (read our interview with him; he’s a fascinating guy) actually grew up in the speakeasy, and with your museum ticket comes an hour-long tour—sometimes led by Otway himself—focusing on hundreds of items that tell the story of New York gangsters, including seven .45-caliber bullets from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, sheet music of Prohibition-era songs, and classic tommy guns. 80 St. Mark’s Place (between First and Second Avenues), East Village

Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Want to know how your New York ancestors lived in 1784? Visit the Dyckman Farmhouse, which completely preserves colonial, rural life in the Big Apple. The Dyckman family helped collect objects from their relatives in order to show the house as it most nearly would have looked more than two centuries ago. Stroll the gardens, smokehouse, and original farmhouse to transport yourself back to a slower, simpler time. 4881 Broadway (between West 204th and 207th Streets), Inwood

best museums in nyc

Museum of Food and Drink

Food offers a platform to talk about many hot topics—politics, gender, immigration—and MOFAD’s rotating exhibitions explore these intersections of culture and cuisine well. Its newest show, held in its 5,000-square foot Lab, tackles the history of Chinese immigrants in the United States through the lens of food, highlighting the ways in which they used traditional cooking to connect to one another and how their cuisines were appropriated into mainstream American culture. Each month, MOFAD hosts different tastings that focus on a distinct aspect of Chinese-American cuisine. Pro tip: Purchase the Chow Dow ticket, which includes unlimited fortune cookies and some dim sum with admission. 62 Bayard Street, Williamsburg

best museums in nyc

Museum of Jewish Heritage

Even with my familial connection to the Holocaust (my grandfather is a survivor—and still a bada businessman at 96!), I was totally unaware of this museum, which is dedicated to preserving the memory and history of survivors. Located at the tip of Manhattan, it is instantly recognizable thanks to its unique pyramid formation. The core exhibition surveys Jewish life through an immense collection of objects like diaries, contact sheets, and photographs, which each carry a personal story pertaining to the larger experience of Jews in the 20th and 21st centuries. The goal of the museum is to place the Holocaust in a larger historical perspective, detailing the events leading up to it and the means by which Jewish communities rebuilt afterward. 39 Battery Place (between Little West Street and First Place), Battery Park

Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

While you could argue that almost all art museums are de facto gay and lesbian museums, this one is dedicated exclusively to the conversation-changing work of LGBTQ artists. There is always something incredible on view here; stop by this summer to see “Daybreak: New Affirmations in Queer Photography” and Leonard Fink’s self-portraits26 Wooster Street (between Canal and Grand Streets), SoHo

best museums in nyc
Courtesy of Leslie-Lohman Museum

New York Earth Room

If you can’t travel all the way to Dia:Beacon in the Hudson Valley, visit its SoHo outpost for a taste. The stark-white space is filled with a 22-inch-deep layer of pure dirt. This sculpture is the last remaining Earth Room by artist Walter De Maria (the two others have been dismantled). Walking through these galleries is almost meditative; you instantly settle into the quietude and become transfixed by the earthy smell. 141 Wooster Street (between Prince and West Houston Streets), SoHo

Download our mobile app for more off-the-beaten-path things to do in New York City.