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10 FREE New York City Museums (That Don’t Suck)

exterior of the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown NYC, best free museums in NYC

This helpful list the best free museums in New York City was written by Antonina Pattiz, founder of New York Simply (an official partner of Apple Maps). So happy to have you here!

We all know how it goes, sometimes a free museum isn’t worth the detour. As a budget-conscious 10-year local, I’ve spent my fair share of time searching for free NYC museums where “free” didn’t imply skimping on quality.

Sometimes your time is more valuable than feigning surprise or interest while being encircled by someone eager to chat (simply because you walked through the door). So, whether you’re a history buff or art lover this list of free NYC museums provide provide memorable experiences that challenge the stigma of cost-free entry, let’s dive in!

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 10 Best Neighborhoods for First Timers & 3 to Avoid). Don’t have time? Here’s my favorite hotel in NYC, hands down.

Best Free Museums in New York City

(Table of Contents)

The New York Public Library in the snow
best free museums in New York City

The New York Public Library’s Special Exhibit

When it opened to the public in 1911, the New York Public Library (NYPL) was the largest marble building ever built in the country. You can sign up for a free guided tour and learn more about one of NYC’s most iconic buildings.

Apart from books, the New York Public Library has an extraordinary collection of 56 million items. For the first time ever, the library is opening the collection to the public through the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures.

The exhibition is free to tour, which is mind-blowing, considering visitors can see Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence (one of 26 known copies in the world). While this isn’t a free New York City museum in the traditional sense, there’s no denying that the collection rivals those in more notable museums.

Other highlights from the Polonsky Exhibition include: The Gutenberg Bible, Charles Dickens’s Desk and Chair, Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick, the original Winnie-the-Pooh dolls that inspired the beloved children’s story and Malcolm X’s Briefcase and Diaries. All this to say, touring the exhibit is one of the best things to do in NYC on a rainy day.

Website: The New York Public Library Special Exhibit
Address: 476 5th Ave, New York, NY

The Center for Brooklyn History

Located in a magnificent Queen Anne-style building, the Center for Brooklyn History was formed in 2020 by uniting the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Brooklyn Public Library. The Brooklyn Historical Society been serving as a custodian of Brooklyn’s rich past since 1863 (for more than 150 years!).

The center houses an extensive collection of maps, photographs, and manuscripts that tell the story of Brooklyn’s evolution from a small Dutch settlement to one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods. There’s also a slew of engaging exhibitions and speaking panels that offer deeper insights into everything from architectural to current social issues.

Visiting the Brooklyn Historical Society (one of the best free museums in NYC) will give you a deeper appreciation for the area’s history.

Website: Center for Brooklyn History
Address: 128 Pierrepont Street

National Museum of the American Indian in the Financial District

National Museum of the American Indian

Located within the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in Lower Manhattan, The National Museum of the American Indian in NYC is a branch of the Smithsonian Institution. Committed to exploring the history and culture of Native American people, this museum stands out for its comprehensive collection of Native artifacts.

From traditional clothing and pottery to weapons and artwork, the museum’s collection spans over 12,000 years of history in the Western Hemisphere. Because this is one of museums in NYC that doesn’t charge admission, it’s easy to assume that the displays are lack-luster. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The National Museum of the American Indian provides an invaluable experience through thought-provoking exhibitions, live performances and film screenings. The museum strives to foster a deeper understanding of Indigenous cultures and their significant contributions to the world.

Website: National Museum of the American Indian
Address: 1 Bowling Green, New York, NY

The National Museum of the American Indian makes an appearance on our list of the best things to do in the Financial District.

Federal Hall NYC

Federal Hall National Memorial

Brimming with American history, Federal Hall is, quite literally, the birthplace of our country. This iconic building stands where the original 1700s City Hall once did. The original building served as New York City’s first City Hall and housed the first US Congress.

Known for being the place where George Washington took the oath as the first President of the United States in 1789. Today, Federal Hall serves as a free NYC museum and memorial to the nation’s early history and the birth of American government. As mentioned, entry is free and tours are offered by the National Park Service (advanced-booking required).

Visitors can explore exhibits showcasing artifacts from colonial times and learn about pivotal historic events that occurred in the area. Any way you slice it, swinging by Federal Hall is one of the best things to do in the Financial District for history buffs.

Website: Federal Hall
Address: 26 Wall St, New York

Building 92 at the Navy Yard

Building 92 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard is a fascinating museum that offers a deep dive into the rich maritime and military history of one of America’s oldest naval shipyards. Established to celebrate the Yard’s extensive 200-year history, this musuem is a joy for history buffs.

The free Brooklyn museum showcases the transformation of this 300-acre site from a shipbuilding powerhouse (which once launched the USS Missouri), to its current role as a model for urban revitalization. You can explore the Yard’s impact on American industry, technology, and innovation through tons of interactive displays.

Website: Brooklyn Navy Yard
Address: 63 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, NY

The Bronx Museum of the Arts

Established in 1971, the Bronx Museum of the Arts stands as a beacon of contemporary art and cultural advocacy. This Free New York City museum is dedicated to showcasing works by artists of African, Asian and Latin American ancestry. Reflecting the rich diversity of the Bronx community, the collection has grown to 2,000 pieces and emphasizes underrepresented artists.

Admission is free, with the hopes of making art accessible to all and encouraging a broader dialogue. In my opinion, this is one of the most underrated free museums in NYC, don’t miss it.

Website: The Bronx Museum of the Arts
Address: 1040 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY

Hispanic Society Museum & Library

Located in the Bronx, the Hispanic Society Museum & Library is a treasure trove of Iberian, Latin American, and Filipino art. The musuem was founded in 1904 by Archer Milton Huntington and includes more than 18,000 works of art. Masterpieces by Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya are displayed alongside rare books and objects that span from the Paleolithic age to the 20th century.

The highly at this free NYC museum is Joaquín Sorolla’s “Vision of Spain” series (an homage to Spanish regionalism). With a commitment to cultural education, this is a must-see for visitors keen to learn more about Hispanic culture.

Website: Hispanic Society Museum & Library
Address: 613 W 155th St, New York, NY

The Museum at FIT

The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in NYC is a must-visit for fashion lovers in search of the best free museums in New York City. Solely dedicated to the art of fashion, it houses one of the world’s most impressive collections of clothing and accessories.

With more than 50,000 garments and accessories from the 18th century to the present, the museum explores the connection between fashion, culture and history. Better still, the works showcase iconic designers as well as avant-garde contemporary talents. It’s hard not to be inspired while visiting the The Museum at FIT.

Website: The Museum at FIT
Address: 227 W 27th St, New York, NY

The New York Earth Room (AKA the Dirt Museum)

The New York Earth Room is a thought-provoking art installation created by artist Walter De Maria in 1977. Located in a SoHo loft on Wooster Street, it’s essentially a room full of dirt. But hear me out, it’s more interesting than that. It’s 280,000 pounds of fragrant earth spread over 3,600 square feet of gallery space. I mean, can you imagine the value of the real estate alone?

The installation offers a stark, meditative contrast to the busy streets of Manhattan. I actually learned about the New York Earth Room through a co-worker. When he first visited NYC, he was overwhelmed by the stimulation and randomly happened upon this unique and free museum in NYC. Intrigued, he popped inside and said he found himself emotional by the silence and pleasant earthy smells.

Immersive, thought-provoking and original, the New York Earth Room is a must-see for lovers of contemporary art. Hell, it’s great for anyone that just wants something strange to talk about. Whether you use this free NYC musuem as a conversation piece or a point of reflection, one this is certain – it’s a quintessential New York experience.

Website: The Dirt Museum
Address: 141 Wooster St, New York, NY

inside of the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown NYC

Museum of Chinese in America

The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) explores Chinese-American history, culture, and contributions to American society. Established in 1980, MOCA houses an expansive collection of over 85,000 items. These include artifacts, photographs, and documents that chronicle the Chinese-American experience from the 19th century to the present.

The museum’s dynamic exhibitions and programs delve into themes of identity, immigration, and community. They’re great because they offer a difference perspective on nuanced narratives that challenges stereotypes. Through thought-provoking displays and educational initiatives, the Museum of Chinese in America earns a spot on our list of the best free museums in New York City.

Website: Museum of Chinese in America
Neighborhood: Chinatown
Address: 215 Centre St, New York, NY

List of Free New York City Museums

In sum, here’s a roundup of the best free museums in NYC.

  1. The New York Public Library’s Special Exhibit
  2. The Center for Brooklyn History
  3. National Museum of the American Indian
  4. Federal Hall National Memorial
  5. Building 92 at the Navy Yard
  6. The Bronx Museum of the Arts
  7. Hispanic Society Museum & Library
  8. The Museum at FIT
  9. The New York Earth Room (AKA the Dirt Museum)
  10. Museum of Chinese in America

Map of the Best Free Museums in NYC