Post Overview: Roundup of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History
As a local of the Upper West Side I frequent the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) whenever I’m itching to get out of my apartment. After more than one friend asked for my recommended exhibits I opted to gather a list of the 15 best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History. (And hopefully it helps you too!)
Welcoming 5 million visitors per year and spanning all aspect of the natural world, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is considered one of the greatest natural history museums in the world.
The AMNH is home to 33 million specimens, yet only 3% are on display (and even that amount can get quite overwhelming!). In an effort to make the museum more manageable for folks on a time crunch here are my 15 recommendations of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History.
Visiting New York City? If you haven’t decided where to stay (yet) check out our helpful guide on Where to Stay in New York City (The best neighborhoods for first timers +2 to avoid). Don’t have time? Here’s our favorite hotel in NYC, hands down.
Tips for visiting the American Museum of Natural History
Don’t Rush the Experience
Before getting to enjoy all the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History visitors have to book their ticket online for a selected time slot. If the American Museum of Natural History the only thing on the itinerary for the day choose an early time to get the best bang for your buck. However if it’s merely a couple hour pit stop make sure to book an entry time that fits your schedule.
Pay What You Want
Residents of the Tribe-State area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) still have to book tickets online, but there is an option to “pay what you want”. Simply enter what you would like to pay when prompted (minimum is $1) and provide proper ID when you arrive at the museum.
Photos are Allowed
Unless the exhibit makes note not to, guests of the American Museum of Natural History are allowed to take photos. For obvious reasons the camera must be handheld (leave the selfie stick at home, mom).
Masks are still recommended
The American Museum of Natural History is still recommending visitors over the age of 2 wear masks. Be sure to bring one with on your visit. The drinking fountains are also closed, but there is a cafe open from 10:30 to 4:30, Wednesday through Sunday where guests can purchase drinks.
Best Things to See at the American Museum Of Natural History
#15. African Elephants
In the middle of the Akeley Hall of African mammals visitors get to take in the massive size of a family of 8 elephants. One of the elephants was killed during an expedition to Africa in 1909 by Theodore Roosevelt shortly after his presidency.
It’s hard to describe the sheer size of an elephant. In zoos we only see them from a distance, but here guests get to practically stand alongside them. Not only are they the largest living land mammal, they are also one of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History.
Now a lot of you might be wondering, “why would I want to see an animal thats been murdered by a US president?”. That’s a valid question. It’s important to keep in mind that in the early 20th century expeditions like these are how we learned about nature, we didn’t have the resources to study from a distance like we do today.
Game butchery is as objectionable as any other form of wanton cruelty or barbarityTheodore Roosevelt
#14. Folsom Spear Point
Okay, why is something so teeny-tiny among the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History? That’s because the Folsom Spear Point was found embedded in an extinct 10,000 year old bison that changed the way scientists viewed North America forever.
The small projectile told anthropologists that humans had been in North America much longer than they had previously thought. During the early 20th century contemporary science said we had only been here for 3,000 years, the Folsom Spear Point more than tripled that.
#13. Willamette Meteorite
Being the largest meteorite found in the United States and the sixth largest in the world warrants the Willamette Meteorite a spot among the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History.
The whopping 15.5 ton space rock has had 3 major changes in scenery in the last few thousand years. It traveled at nearly 40,000 MPH to earth where it landed on a glacier in either Canada or Montana (I’m not sure, I wasn’t there). From its impact site the Missoula floods brought it to Oregon during the end of the last ice age.
It’s insane to imagine the journey the meteorite has gone on to get to where it is now. There are times I don’t even want to run down the stairs to get my Amazon package. Getting to see the meteorite first hand can be a humbling experience to say the least.
#12. Aztec Stone of the Sun
Okay, although not the original Aztec Stone of the Sun, the replica is still one of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History. Unless you have a trip to Mexico City anytime soon, this is your best bet to take in the most iconic piece of Mexican art in history.
The symbols that encompass the 12 foot stone all relate to the sun and have to do with the Aztec’s beliefs and religion. In the center is Tonatiuh, the Aztec sun god and main deity.
Made from a cast of the original, the one the American Museum of Natural History represents an accurate size. It has a captivating aura to it, almost like you’re staring Tonatiuh eye to eye.
#11. Big Bang Theater
Every 5 minutes on the lower half of the Hayden Sphere visitors get to watch the short history of our universe. Played in a dark room, the Big Bang presentation is a short film played on a concave screen. Showing an actual representation of our universe (or what we know of it thus far) guests get to fly through space and see how our universe evolved into what it is today.
It’s a quick walk through, nothing too complicated. It touches on the Big Bang that brought our universe to existence and the subsequent birth of galaxies with stars and planets.
The Big Bang theater takes up so little time, but provides such a breath of inspiration and wonder. I consider it one of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History (and you will too).
Our universe is a dynamic place that inspires wonder and exploration, its history is written in light traveling to earth across vast cosmic distancesLiam Neeson for the Big Bang Theater (AMNH)
Okay – regardless of whether you were introduced in your youth via the movie Ice Age or through a school textbook, the mammoth is one of the most beloved pre-historic creatures of all time.
The fascination this pre-historic mammal provides its audience with is why I consider it one of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History.
In the Hall of Advanced Mammals guests get to take in the epic grandeur of a full skeleton found in Indiana. The skeleton is of Mammuthus, not to be confused with the its smaller cousin Mammuthus Primigenius. AKA the woolly mammoth (whose hairstyle was all the rage in the Pleistocene era).
At the base of the skeleton is a little baby mammoth named Effie. Effie is a mummified woolly mammoth who froze about 21,000 years ago. I bet parents wish they could freeze their toddlers too, I hear the terrible twos are traumatizing.
#9. Butterfly Conservatory (Seasonal+Paid Admission)
Although only open from November to May, the Butterfly Conservatory is still one of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History. Over 100 species of butterflies from all around the world call the 80 degree conservatory home. (80 degrees in November in NYC?, I’d love to call it home too.)
The butterflies have a curated habitat similar to what they’d get in their natural environment. Visitors get to watch them interact much like they would in the wild. They feed, mate (cover your eyes, kids) and at times even crawling around on visitors hands.
New Yorkers are excited to welcome back the butterflies after a short hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 2021/2022 was the exhibits 23rd year at the museum. Thanks to the dedicated folks who work so hard on our behalf the Butterfly Conservatory will remain one of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History for years to come.
#8. Moai Head
No need to avoid the Moai head at the American Museum of Natural History, it won’t call you dumb dumb and harass you for gum gum. The monolith draws a lot of “Night of the Museum” fans but since the museum closes at 5:30 you won’t be there late enough for it to wake up. 😉
The head at the museum is made from a cast taken of one of the 887 registered monoliths found on Rapa Nui (AKA Easter Island). The (short) story of Easter Island is that at some point a Polynesian people arrived to the island and made it their home. They thrived, but in doing so quickly depleted their resources which led to the community’s eventual collapse.
When Europeans arrived in 1722 the monoliths drew a lot of curious conversation. The Moai were moved from where they were carved onto specially made pedestals (up to 11 miles away). Why and more importantly how a culture lacking modern tools and technology were able to accomplish such a feat has baffled anthropologists for centuries. (Much like the discussion about Egypt’s pyramids.)
Some conspiracies attribute the transportation of these monumental monoliths to the work of aliens. Whether you choose to indulge into the conspiracies or not, the Moai has to be one of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History.
My personal favorite dinosaur of all time, the triceratops, is my first stop when showing friends all of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History. The one on display at the AMNH is a staggering 65 million years old.
If you look closely, there is also a visible injury on the skull. Although we have no way of being sure how it got injured, scientists assume it could’ve happened during a tiff with another triceratops.
One of my favorite facts about the triceratops is that it’s skull makes up approximately a third of the length of its body. Now that I think about it, maybe it’s my favorite dinosaur because I’ve been called “big head” my whole life and I feel like I can relate to it (minus a couple million years).
#6. Sequoia Round
The tree from which the the American Museum of Natural History sawed its display from was felled in 1891. It was more than 300 feet tall. For context, General Sherman in Sequoia National Park is the current largest tree in the world at 275 feet. That means this specific tree stood head and shoulders above what we have today on earth.
Along the age rings on the tree round visitors get a glimpse into the history of the world. It really puts into perspective not only how massive it was, but how long it lived. 1300 years ago, when this specific tree first sprouted, the English language didn’t even exist!
New York doesn’t grow giant trees like California (maybe the only thing California does better) so the Sequoia round is one of the can’t best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History.
A grove of giant redwood or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great and beautiful cathedralTheodore Roosevelt
#5. Amethyst Crystals
I’ll be the first to say it – I don’t understand the world’s current fascination with crystals. That is I didn’t – until I saw the amethyst geode housed in the Mignone Hall of Gems and Minerals. I’m used to small crystals we made in elementary school from borax and water, but this one is over 9 feet tall!
Not to get too technical, but it’s technically a geode. The geode is a 12,000 pound hollow rock, in which quartz crystals are housed. Even though the crystals formed quickly, probably in about a year, it took them millions of years to turn into the purple color amethyst.
At the sight of the geode guests could assume they accidentally walked into the planetarium because it seems to be from out of this world. This geode however is of this earth and one of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History.
#4. Hayden Planetarium (Paid Admission)
If you’re looking to see the stars in New York City, your best bet is going to be the Hayden Planetarium. As the crown jewel of the Rose Center for Earth and Space it’s one of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History.
The spherical design of the planetarium is reminiscent of the Death Star from the Star Wars movies. Contrary to the Death Star however the planetarium does so much good for the community. Imprinting the mysteries of space onto young minds that can grow up to explore them.
Meant to be an immersive experience that not only educates but inspires, the top half of the planetarium is a domed theater that plays a 25 minute film all about our earth and our cosmic neighbors. Admission is an extra charge, when purchasing your ticket be sure to add the showtime that works best for you.
the Hayden staff continues to conduct research in astrophysics and, of course, to bring the universe down to Earth.Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Director
#3. The Blue Whale
What do three school busses, a Boeing 737-500, and a blue whale have in common? I’ll let you think about it. It’s that they’re both roughly 100 feet long! Being told that and seeing it are two very different things. That’s why the flying blue whale is among the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History.
I call it flying because it’s suspended from the ceiling in the Hall of Ocean Life. (They don’t actually fly in real life.)
If you’re looking for a fun fact to impress your friends with during your visit mention that the museum cleans the whale once a year. Using long handled brushes and vacuums the cleaning takes a whopping 3 days!
Having first been discovered in 1973, Lucy took the world by storm. It is one of the most complete skeletons ever found of Australopithecus afarensis, a hominid that existed between two to four million years ago.
The original skeleton is in Ethiopia, where it was originally discovered. However its recreation is still one of the best things to see at the American Museum of Natural History.
And in case you’re wondering, it was named after the Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. The song was played while the anthropologists celebrated their discovery.
Barnum Brown is arguably the most prolific paleontologists of all time. Nicknamed “Mr. Bones” he joined the museum in 1897 and began his storied career. He discovered the first Tyrannosaurus rex in 1902.
Six years later in 1908 he discovered a nearly complete specimen in Big Dry Creek, Montana. It was shipped back to New York City and is the one currently on display, inspiring visitors for over a century.
Getting to take in the grandeur of the most famous predator to ever walk the planet is an experience you won’t soon forget. Even though you can’t play fetch with it like in Night at the Museum it’s still the best thing to see at the American Museum of Natural History.
Best Things to See at the AMNH (Post Summary)
- Blue Whale
- Hayden Planetarium
- Amethyst Crystals
- Sequoia Round
- Maoi Head
- Butterfly Conservatory
- Big Bang Theater
- Aztec Stone of the Sun
- Willamette Meteorite
- Folsom Spear Point
- African Elephants
Map of the Best Things to See at the American Museum of Natural History
And there it is folks! Our roundup of the 20 best things to see at The American Museum of Natural History! Let us know if we missed one of your favorites.
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