THE BLOG

20 Must-See Art Museums In America

06/10/2015 03:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

There's much more to the world's great art museums than just the Louvre and the Prado. In fact, you can skip the jaunt across the Atlantic altogether and set your sights on some world-class art collections right here in the U.S. Even if you're not planning a trip entirely around art, chances are that if you're traveling to a major U.S. city (especially New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.), there's a museum or two that will demand your attention, filled with masterpieces and captivating temporary exhibits. With their rich histories, monumental architecture and incredible collections, here are our picks for the 20 must-see American art museums.

By Laura S. Itzkowitz

  • 1 METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
    Photo Credit: Asier Villafranca/Shutterstock

    Where: New York, New York

    The largest art museum in the country, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unfolds in an enormous Beaux-Arts building fronting Central Park on Fifth Avenue. There are ten wings on the first floor alone, including the American Wing, Egyptian Art, Greek and Roman Art, Medieval Art, Arms and Armor, Arts of Africa, Oceana and the Americas, and Modern and Contemporary Art. On the second floor, you’ll find European paintings and sculptures, Asian art, photography, drawings and prints, and musical instruments. After a major renovation, "the Met" reopened its Islamic Wing, showcasing tapestries, decorative objects, and an entire room from eighteenth-century Damascus.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s New York City Travel Guide
  • 2 GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM
    Photo Credit: Wangkun Jia | Dreamstime.com

    Where: New York, New York

    Visitors to the Guggenheim come as much to admire Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic spiral building as they do to see the incredible collection housed inside it. Wright designed the Guggenheim to break with conventional museum architecture, allowing visitors standing in the light-filled rotunda to glimpse the artwork in the galleries above and to leisurely stroll up and down the ramps while admiring the collections. Solomon R. Guggenheim founded the Guggenheim Foundation in the '30s to foster an appreciation of modern and contemporary art, and the museum here has an impressive collection of paintings by Kandinsky, Klee, Chagall, Picasso, and Mapplethorpe. Plus, it's well known for its robust calendar of excellent temporary exhibits.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s New York City Travel Guide
  • 3 MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
    Photo Credit: Mirceani | Dreamstime.com

    Where: New York, New York

    A veritable New York institution, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Midtown Manhattan boasts a superb collection of modern and contemporary art. Founded in 1929 as an educational institution, it continues its pedagogical mission today via lectures, film screenings, classes, and children’s programming. MoMA is home to some of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century, including Picasso’s monumental painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Like the Guggenheim, MoMA, too, has an impressive roster of temporary exhibits.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s New York City Travel Guide
  • 4 LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART
    Photo Credit: Merkuri2 | Dreamstime.com

    Where: Los Angeles, California

    Continuously growing and expanding, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is the largest art museum on the West Coast, containing some 120,000 objects that span ancient history to modern times, which are displayed in a series of buildings spread out over 20 acres. The modern art collection is especially impressive, with works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Henri Matisse, Rene Magritte, Wassily Kandinsky, and Franz Kline. Visitors especially love Chris Burden’s Urban Light sculptural installation of restored and painted cast-iron street lamps. LACMA’s temporary exhibits are equally exciting.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Los Angeles Travel Guide
  • 5 THE GETTY CENTER
    Photo Credit: spirit of america/Shutterstock

    Where: Los Angeles, California

    The hilltop Getty Center unfolds in J. Paul Getty’s magnificent Malibu villa, as well as in a newer, showstopping complex designed by Richard Meier. All of the buildings were constructed with white travertine marble and gleam brightly against the blue California sky and surrounding rolling green hills. The huge museum spans five pavilions connected by a central courtyard, with walkways and gardens snaking all around. The art collection is divided between the buildings by time period, and the Getty’s collection of eighteenth-century French decorative arts is especially renowned.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Los Angeles Travel Guide
  • 6 ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO
    Photo Credit: luca85/Shutterstock

    Where: Chicago, Illinois

    The Art Institute of Chicago was founded in 1879 as both a museum and a school for the arts. Its monumental building, with a marble lobby and iconic bronze lions out front, was constructed as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition and has since undergone several expansions, including the new modern wing, designed by Renzo Piano. The comprehensive collection spans history, from ancient Egyptian sarcophagi to contemporary photography. The Impressionist collection is especially extensive, with an entire room dedicated to Monet.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Chicago Travel Guide
  • 7 MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON
    Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

    Where: Boston, Massachusetts

    The Beaux-Arts building of the Museum of Fine Arts contains an impressive collection of American works by Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jackson Pollock. There are plenty of decorative arts, too, including Paul Revere’s silver teapots and tableware. Equally outstanding is its collection of Impressionist works, which counts 37 Monets—one of the largest collections of his paintings outside of France.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Boston Guide
  • 8 MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON
    Photo Credit: Houston "Pointillism" at the MFAH by Michael Schaffner Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

    Where: Houston, Texas

    Located in Houston’s Museum District, the huge Museum of Fine Arts spills over two gallery buildings, a visitor's center, sculpture garden, library, movie theater, café, gift shop, two schools, and two house museums. Mies van der Rohe designed many of the wings, and the Audrey Jones Beck building opened in 2000, doubling the museum’s size. The MFAH covers world cultures, including art of the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Europe and has an ample collection of Renaissance and eighteenth-century paintings. It is also home to the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, a leading research institution focused on twentieth-century Latin American art.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Houston Travel Guide
  • 9 PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART
    Photo Credit: Americanspirit | Dreamstime.com

    Where: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    The Philadelphia Museum of Art may be instantly recognizable for its appearance in Rocky (there’s even a bronze Rocky statue at the bottom of the steps), but there's much more to Philadelphia’s premier art museum. Julian Francis Abele, the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture school, designed the enormous Greek Classical-style building. Inside, the collection covers all major periods and styles, but it's the modern collection that is especially notable, including the world’s largest collection of works by Marcel Duchamp, as well as some of Cy Twombly’s monumental abstract paintings.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Philadelphia Guide
  • 10 NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART
    Photo Credit: Jorg Hackemann/Shutterstock

    Where: Washington, D.C.

    Located on the National Mall, the National Gallery of Art was founded in the 1930s by the donations of Andrew Mellon, who established the collection with 126 paintings, including Raphael’s Alba Madonna and Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, and twenty-six sculptures. Other like-minded collectors and philanthropists followed suit, paving the way for the splendid collection housed there today. Highlights include self-portraits by Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and works by European masters Rubens, Raphael, Titian, Vermeer, Ingrès, Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Travel Guide
  • 11 SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
    Photo Credit: Rafael Ramirez Lee/Shutterstock

    Where: San Francisco, California

    The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is the oldest museum devoted to modern and contemporary art on the West Coast. From its inception in 1935, it has championed the most challenging and innovative artists of their times. The museum has an extensive collection of twentieth-century art, ranging from Fauvism and Cubism to Pop Art, Minimalism, and Abstract Expressionism. Important artists represented include Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Louise Bourgeois, Constantin Brancusi, Jasper Johns, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg. SFMOMA also boasts a notable collection of photography.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Travel Guide
  • 12 DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS
    Photo Credit: Detroit Institute of Arts - Thinker (1) by Attribution-ShareAlike License

    Where: Detroit, Michigan

    The Detroit Institute of Arts displays an impressive collection of African-American art, in addition to its holdings of American, European, Asian, African, Native American, and Islamic art. Look out for Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry frescoes, which the artist considered his most successful work. The museum has occupied its home on Woodward Avenue since 1927 and contains more than 100 galleries, an auditorium, a lecture/recital hall, an art reference library, and a conservation services laboratory. A massive expansion completed in 2007 added 35,000 square feet to the museum. Established in 2000, the General Motors Center for African-American Art is one of the first curatorial departments committed to African-American art in a prominent museum.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Detroit Travel Guide
  • 13 CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART
    Photo Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art Roman Portrait Busts by Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

    Where: Cleveland, Ohio

    Ohio’s major cultural attraction is the Cleveland Museum of Art, founded in 1913. The galleries here are organized chronologically, from ancient Greek and Roman art to present day, and the museum is especially known for its Pre-Columbian, medieval Asian, and European collections. In 1971, Marcel Breuer added a modern wing to the Beaux-Arts building, and a recent renovation by Rafael Viñoly has restored both buildings and tacked on an open atrium. The museum’s modern and contemporary collection is notable, touting some incredible Rodins, and surrealist works by Dalí, Duchamp, Jean Arp, and Max Ernst.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Cleveland Travel Guide
  • 14 DIA:BEACON
    Photo Credit: DIA:BEACON by Pierre Marcel Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

    Where: Beacon, New York

    The Dia Art Foundation is known for fostering some of the most abstract and conceptual contemporary art in the U.S. Founded in 1974 to help artists realize ambitious projects, Dia operates several sites in New York, the Western U.S., and Germany, including installations like Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room and The Broken Kilometer in New York City. Dia:Beacon, in the Hudson Valley, occupies a 300,000-square-foot former Nabisco box-printing factory. The permanent collection includes works by Richard Serra, Gerhard Richter, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, Louise Bourgeois, and Joseph Beuys.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Beacon Travel Guide
  • 15 RHODE ISLAND SCHOOL OF DESIGN MUSEUM
    Photo Credit: Main Gallery (European Paintings) by Daniel DeCristo Attribution-NonCommercial License

    Where: Providence, Rhode Island

    The Rhode Island School of Design is one of the leading art schools in the country, and its museum marks one of New England’s best art collections. RISD Museum is made up of five buildings on the historic East Side of Providence, and houses a fine collection of paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, costumes, textiles, Asian art, ancient art, prints, drawings, and photographs. It also showcases works by prominent Rhode Island artists, including eighteenth-century furniture-makers Goddard and Townsend and nineteenth-century painters John Noble Barlow and Gilbert Stewart.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Providence Travel Guide
  • 16 THE FRICK COLLECTION
    Photo Credit: The Frick Collection by Simon Rudkin Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

    Where: New York, New York

    Walking into the Frick Collection on the Upper East Side feels like stepping back in time to nineteenth-century Paris. Steel magnate Henry Clay Frick snatched up European paintings and had famed architects Carrère and Hastings build a mansion on Fifth Avenue, complete with an indoor garden atrium, to house them. Visiting the magnificent Gilded Age mansion is almost as much of a draw as the artwork inside. The collection includes major Renaissance works like Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert, two monumental paintings by Veronese, four Rembrandts, and three Vermeers. There is also a significant collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French paintings and decorative arts.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s New York City Travel Guide
  • 17 THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART
    Photo Credit: Gryffindor [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license], via Wikimedia Commons

    Where: New York, New York

    Renowned as one of the foremost museums of American (especially modern and contemporary) art, The Whitney marks one of New York City’s most dynamic museums. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor and collector, established the museum when the Metropolitan Museum of Art refused her donation of twentieth-century American art. The museum’s collection now includes works by Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Cindy Sherman, and Gordon Matta-Clark, just to name a few. A huge new building in the Meatpacking District debuted May 1 as the new headquarters for the Whitney.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s New York City Travel Guide
  • 18 DE YOUNG MUSEUM
    Photo Credit: Rafael Ramirez Lee/Shutterstock

    Where: San Francisco, California

    The de Young Museum was born out of the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition. Its original building, constructed for the exposition, was done in the Egyptian Revival style, complete with a sphinx and decorated with images of the cow goddess Hathor. It essentially served as a cabinet of curiosities, and after the exposition, the objects remained in the new museum. To this day, the de Young Museum houses a formidable collection of international textiles and costumes, as well as art of the Americas, Oceania, and Africa. The original building was replaced in 2005 with a colossal copper building, which is worth seeing in and of itself.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Travel Guide
  • 19 SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM
    Photo Credit: Stu99 | Dreamstime.com

    Where: Washington, D.C.

    It’s no surprise that the largest collection of American art is located in Washington, D.C. Adjacent to the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum highlights art from the Colonial era through today. The museum includes folk art and crafts, decorative arts, and the largest collection of New Deal art and American Impressionist paintings. Visitors tend to adore the contemporary craft collection, which includes glassworks by Dale Chihuly and John La Farge, and a commemorative piano decorated by Thomas Wilmer Dewing that piano makers Steinway & Sons once presented to the White House.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Washington, D.C. Travel Guide
  • 20 BROOKLYN MUSEUM
    Photo Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license], via Wikimedia Commons

    Where: New York, New York

    The Brooklyn Museum traces its roots back to 1823, almost fifty years before Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art was born. American architectural firm McKim, Mead & White designed the grand Beaux-Arts building, which houses the museum's Egyptian collection that's regularly ranked as one of the best in the world. It also has important collections of Pre-Columbian, Native American, and African art, as well as Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party, a permanent exhibition.

    Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s Brooklyn Travel Guide