Best Cities to Visit in the U.S. for Exciting Museums

Attractions, City Escapes

Cities large and small hold treasure troves of history in their museums, where interactive exhibits, ancient artifacts and curiosities await

Museums are wormholes to other worlds: they can take you back in time, give you a glimpse of how something felt and teach you lessons no textbook or pamphlet could convey. Some of the best cities to visit in the U.S. offer intriguing history and culture through museums, with many providing hands-on opportunities.

21st-century curators try not just to inform, but to do so in a way that gives visitors the chance to truly understand the complex, detailed history before them. Thus, when exploring a new city, your itinerary should always include at least one museum, where hours pass quickly as observers absorb the subject at hand. Fortunately, the U.S. is chock-full of fascinating museums—the list below showcases which cities have the most to offer when it comes to this vital type of attraction.

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Boston, MA

One of the best cities to visit in the U.S. for American history is Boston. Before you fill up your itinerary with Red Sox games and duck tours, make sure to add some of Boston’s historic museums to your list. A prime option is the Museum of Fine Arts, which boasts over 8,000 paintings and more than 450,000 works of art. It is the 20th largest art museum on the planet, so pack your walking shoes as you prepare to peruse glass sculptures and Brutalist paintings.

After viewing priceless artwork, you want a taste of American history at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, located in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood. You can reach this historical hotspot, home to President Kennedy’s original papers and correspondence, easily via nearby Interstate 93.

Washington, D.C.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

National Museum of African American History and Culture exhibit. Photo credit: Ted Eytan/Flickr

The capital of the U.S. might also be its museum capital: Washington, D.C. is home to many of the country’s finest curated collections, like the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum. These are top-notch options not only because of their incredible exhibits but also because they are both Smithsonian museums, which are free. Those pining for a newly constructed masterpiece should head down Pennsylvania Avenue to experience the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is dedicated to showcasing African American experiences throughout the nation’s history.

Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia is one of the best cities in the U.S. to visit for a number of reasons. Between taking in a Phillies baseball game and glancing up at the Liberty Bell, Philly visitors should consider one of the City of Brotherly Love’s museums. For example, the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is a new immersive museum stocked with high-tech exhibits that give viewers a glimpse of colonial Philadelphia. The Museum of Illusions is another popular choice: in inviting you to question your idea of reality, it offers transformative exhibits that put your brain and eyes to the test.

Chicago, IL

Art Institute Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago provides museum exhibits appealing to everyone. Photo credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr

While munching on a Chicago-style hot dog or digging into some delicious deep-dish pizza, Windy City visitors should head to one of the city’s amazing museums. Chicago is one of the best cities to visit in the U.S. for groups looking for a mix of experiences. The Art Institute is world-renowned for works like Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Picasso’s The Old Guitarist and Hopper’s Nighthawks. Meanwhile, the Field Museum is one of the world’s largest of its kind, while the Shedd Aquarium holds 32,000 animals and bills itself as the third-largest aquarium in the Western Hemisphere. Sure, there is lots to do in Chicago—but guests should always make time for one of these renowned museums.

Portland Art Museum in Oregon

Portland Art Museum. Photo credit: Mary Harrsch/Flickr

Portland, OR

Portland’s museums might not be as famous as those in other cities, but Rip City has a lot to offer when it comes to historical prowess. The Portland Art Museum is Oregon’s largest museum—it spans two buildings in the South Park Blocks and has large collections of prints and drawings, photography, Asian art and Native American art. On the topic of Native American works, the Center for Native American Art offers an even more comprehensive picture of tribal creations that shaped U.S. history. Finally, the Oregon Maritime Museum, situated in a sternwheeler moored on the Willamette River, gives insights into the state’s river-based history.

Little Rock, AR

Little Rock might be slightly smaller than the other cities on this list, but it packs a punch when it comes to museums. There is the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, which reopened in April 2023 after four years of renovations. The building now sports a modern exterior and a better-flowing interior. General admission is free, so don’t worry about booking tickets beforehand.  Additionally, Little Rock visitors often flock to the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, which has exhibits on the Civil War, World War I and World War II. It was first built as a frontier military post, so rest assured that this option is authentic.

A visit to any of the cities above should include a trip to a local museum. Here, groups and solo travelers can learn about history, observe timeless artistic creations, and understand subjects through hands-on exhibits. Since admission to many of these attractions is free or relatively inexpensive, they also present a great opportunity for trip planners who are operating on a budget. As you embark on a journey this summer, ensure a top-notch museum is in your sights.

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