The 12 Best Museums in the U.S. That Should Be on Your Bucket List
Whether you like history, art, or simply learning something new, these museums are worth paying a visit.
Throughout the United States, you'll find many wonderful museums—documenting everything from history to art to sports to professions and so much more.
Large and small, these museums tell the stories of people, places, communities, nature, animals, and more from centuries past all the way through to current events. They are worth traveling to in order to gain a broader perspective on life, where we've come from, and where we may be headed. Plus, they can be a part of a truly memorable trip or vacation.
Narrowing down the list of must-see museums is quite the challenge, but here are 10 of the best museums in the U.S. that should be on your bucket list.
READ THIS NEXT: The 10 Quirkiest Small Towns in the U.S.
The Best Museums in the U.S.
1. Tenement Museum – New York City
Located in New York, the Tenement Museum showcases the stories of the immigrants and migrants who came to America between the 1860s and the 1980s.
See how they lived in the historically recreated tenement apartments as they pursued the "American dream." Their determination, resiliency, and endless desire to carve out a better life not only reflects the depths of the human spirit, but also how America came to be the country it is today. No wonder Reuters named the Tenement Museum "the world's third-best non-art museum," and the White House awarded it a National Medal for Museum Services.
2. International Spy Museum – Washington D.C.
For those interested in the world of intrigue, intelligence, and espionage, the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. features the largest collection of international espionage artifacts available to the public.
Some of the most notable artifacts include a 1922 silver dollar with a spring-loaded pin laced with a lethal toxin worn by U.S. pilots who could choose death over capture, Operation Bernhard forged currency created by the Nazi SD (Sicherheitsdienst) intelligence service to disrupt the British economy, and the four-rotar Japanese Enigma machine used to send scrambled messages.
3. National Museum of the American Indian – Washington, D.C.
Also in Washington, D.C., the National Museum of the American Indian contains one of the world's largest collections of native artifacts, photographs, archives, and more documenting Native Americans in the entire Western Hemisphere.
Featuring both ongoing and temporary exhibits, the museum documents the many ways American Indians are embedded in American history and culture by looking at individual tribes and notable figures in history. Current exhibits dive deep into treaties between the United States and American Indian Nations and why Native Americans serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.
4. Mississippi Civil Rights Museum – Jackson, Mississippi
Shining a spotlight on the people and places of Mississippi that changed a nation, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson features eight galleries filled with interactive exhibits that tell the stories of oppressed black Mississippians and their fight for equality from 1945 to 1976.
You'll hear the stories of Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Vernon Dahmer, but you'll also hear about the many men, women, and children who also fought to be recognized as equals not only as Mississippians and Americans, but also as humans with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Artifacts include a "colored" entrance sign, textbooks from segregated schools, the rifle used to assassinate Evers, a burned cross, and a button from the 1966 March Against Fear.
READ THIS NEXT: 10 Best Cities in the U.S. for Outdoor Adventures.
5. The National WWII Museum – New Orleans
New Orleans' No. 1 attraction, the National WWII Museum, takes an in-depth look at why World War II was fought, how the Allies won, and what that victory means for today through exhibits, personal accounts, and multimedia experiences spread out through five galleries.
Visitors can see how the U.S. became involved in the war, explore key moments such as D-Day and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and put themselves in the shoes of those who had to make difficult decisions during the war. You even can take a 4D journey through the war in "Beyond All Boundaries," narrated by Tom Hanks.
6. Musical Instrument Museum – Phoenix, Arizona
With more than 8,000 instruments from more than 200 countries, the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, focuses on instruments played every day by people around the globe. Each piece demonstrates how music is a universal language, one that won't be denied regardless of location or circumstance.
From examining the inner workings of a Steinway grand piano to an African xylophone to a Japanese shõ mouth organ, it's amazing to see how music has been brought to life throughout the years. There's even an exhibit showcasing instruments made from recycled and discarded materials including oil drums, kitchen utensils, water pipes, and X-rays.
7. Booth Western Art Museum – Cartersville. Georgia
In association with the Smithsonian Institution, the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, showcases the largest permanent exhibit for Western American art in the country. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, and more document the people and places that lived in the West.
In the Frank Harding Cowboy Gallery, all cowboys, including Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, and Asian, are honored in a variety of artwork. A notable gallery is the Carolyn & James Millar Presidential Gallery, which features a one-page, signed letter from every U.S. president. There's even an interactive gallery, Sagebrush Ranch, geared to children between the ages of 2 and 12.
8. Bishop Museum – Honolulu, Hawaii
In Honolulu, the Bishop Museum honors Hawaii's culture and heritage through more than 25 million historical, cultural, and natural artifacts. Items are displayed in permanent and temporary exhibits such as "Taxonomy: Our Lives Depend On It," which looks at how the identification and naming of plants and animals affect our day-to-day lives.
Be sure to check out the museum's outdoor murals, which bring together traditional culture, creative expression, and indigenous perspectives.
9. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – Washington, D.C.
At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., visitors can experience a narrative and haunting history of the Holocaust that took the lives of approximately six million European Jews and at least five million prisoners of war.
Exhibits include historical artifacts, photographs, video footage, and personal accounts from both victims and survivors. It also includes an exhibit that looks at Americans' responses to Nazism, war, and genocide, plus an exhibit that shares the experiences of Americans who saw firsthand evidence of Nazi atrocities. This is a heartbreaking but necessary step back in history that everyone should see.
READ THIS NEXT: The 10 Best Amusement Parks in the U.S. for Thrill Seekers.
10. Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum – Oklahoma City
Located in the heart of Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum documents the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and honors the victims, the survivors, and the community that was forever changed by the event. Visitors can learn the stories of those who died this day as well as those who survived, plus walk through law enforcement's efforts to piece together what happened to not only find and arrest the bombers, but also put together the necessary evidence to bring the bombers to justice.
When there, take time to walk among the Field of Empty Chairs in the Outdoor Symbolic Memorial, which represents the victims.
11. Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum – Boston
The Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, on the waterfront in Boston, allows tourists to not only see where the tea was thrown into the harbor almost 250 years ago, but also to take on the role of someone who witnessed the historical event.
The one-hour program begins in the Meeting House, where each participant is issued a feather and assigned a character from the original Tea Party, Leslie Carbone a travel expert at Sancerres at Sunset tells Best Life.
The tour is quite immersive and will easily transport you back to one of the most talked about events of American history. "It has an original crate from 1773, and retrievable replicas for young patriots to throw overboard into the Harbor," Carbone says.
From there, folks can enjoy the rest of the museum, as well as the gift shop and Abigail's Tea Room & Terrace for light food and beverages.
12. National Museum of Natural History – Washington, D.C.
As part of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C., the National Museum of Natural History boasts a unique and timeless collection of artifacts. Carbone says they have an astonishing accumulation of more than 145 million different items.
Located in the National Mall, there's more than enough to see at this museum. "Its beaux-arts design gives it one of the city's most elegant museum interiors—an elegance it maintains despite the presence of an 11-ton elephant in its rotunda," Carbone jokes.
It's also home to the famous Hope Diamond, as well as hundreds of different butterfly species. The museum is completely free, so go ahead and spend hours getting lost in all the historical gems.