As an art history student and professional painter, I have a lot of favorite art museums in the United States. If you’re wanting artistic inspiration, beauty, or just something to feed your soul, look no further than my top five art museums (along with some places to eat that suit the artistic nature of your trip)—listed in order of preference:
1. National Gallery of Art: Washington D.C.
I will never stop singing its praises because it’s entirely free, its catalogue is huge, and the buildings themselves are stunning. The Smithsonian museums in D.C. are all extremely impressive, but the art museums are especially so. The Portrait Gallery is amazing (and the architecture of the museum is among the most photogenic of the local museums), but their Gallery of Art is unbeatable. There is a separate building for modern art (and a sculpture garden!), and it’s personally my favorite part, but the main section is also incredible. Expect endless displays of Vincent Van Gogh, Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet, Marcel Duchamp, Dorothea Lange, Raphael, Judith Leyster, Leonardo Da Vinci, Johannes Vermeer, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and much more! You’ll never find a more impressive collection in the country.
It’s open 7 days a week, and the atmosphere in both the east and west building is ideal for taking in art and really letting it sit with you. Spend an entire day looking through the museums, taking advantage of the plush sofas scattered throughout the galleries to really take it in without feeling rushed. Stroll through the outdoor sculpture garden and enjoy the impressive art and lovely plant life. It’s one of the best spots in the entire city. Their gift shop also happens to be the best place in D.C. to grab souvenirs and gifts, and it’s by far the best museum gift shop I’ve ever been to—and there are three! One is in the building for modern art, and it’s filled with beautiful, fluttery scarves printed with O’Keefe paintings, Warhol mugs, and prints. The other one is in the main building and it’s the biggest shop out of all of the Smithsonian museums. This is where I love to just browse for an hour because they have everything from art kits to Parisian jewelry to sculptures. The last one sits underground between the two and it’s the most colorful as it features beautiful 20th century art-inspired gifts!
Where to eat: Pavilion Cafe (easily veganizable salads and sandwiches—best spot in town for the beautiful setting, encased in glass in the middle of the sculpture garden), Garden Cafe (Mediterranean salads that can be veganized, snacks, and oat milk espresso creations, in the museum), Cafe du Parc (French-style eatery serving up grilled tofu, artisanal platters, and gazpacho), A Baked Joint (cauliflower sandwiches, curry soup, roasted tomato soup, and among other things, vegan cupcakes), Jaleo (authentic Spanish food that serves plenty of colorful and accidentally vegan dishes), Bluestone Lane (Aussie eatery with lots of colorful food like farro wraps, rainbow bowls, and avocado toast), Oyamel (incredibly beautiful and authentic Mexican food with tons of accidentally vegan options like hearts of palm and grapefruit salad, grilled chayote squash, and Mole Verde Oaxaqueno), or at one of the many food trucks along the National Mall.
2. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York City
New York City is home to some incredibly amazing things to do, but I never visit without spending at least an hour at the Met. There are many other very impressive museums in the city (even right there on the Museum Mile), but they’re very expensive while the Met is only $12 for students and $25 for adults (which for the city is quite affordable). They have a huge selection of things, so ideally try to spend an entire day here just taking in the exhibits. I’ve tried to do it in two hours but it never feels like long enough, and I’ve only felt satisfied and ready to leave when I’ve spent my day there. Keep in mind, unlike the Smithsonian museums, you can’t just leave when you’re hungry and come back—you’d have to pay twice, so bring food and water if you don’t plan on buying the food available there.
My favorite spot in the museum is actually the roof! Not many know you can go up there so it’s never crowded, it’s covered in plants and sculptures, and it has the best view of the city in Manhattan. I usually spend at least half an hour up there, just admiring the view and having a snack. If you love to paint or do photography, this is where you can do it! After, head back inside and continue perusing through the amazing exhibits. Currently, they are showing In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met; The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570; A New Look at Old Masters, Arte del mar: Artistic Exchange in the Caribbean; and The Good Life: Collecting Late Antique Art at The Met. Again, you’ll need a lot of time to take it all in even if you don’t see all of the other exhibits. The European Sculpture Hall and the Egyptian temples are some of my must-see’s every time I’m in the city. The gift shop is my favorite place to get souvenirs while in New York City, so make sure to stop in for some arty home decor, stationery, books, and obviously, incredible art.
Where to eat: American Wing Cafe (eatery inside the museum serving snacks and Chipotle Carrot Salad), The Dining Room (also inside the museum but with a view—serving up artisanal dishes like peaches and tomato toast and watermelon salad), Amy’s Bread (my favorite bakery in the city, and it has a location along the Museum Mile—complete with organic sandwiches, roasted squash bowls, chickpea salads, and refreshing cold drinks), Bread N Wine (barley soup, build your own sandwiches and salads, and avocado toast), Franchia (vegan ramen bowls, summer rolls, and even vegan duck salad), and Le Botaniste (an all-vegan, colorful cafe).
3. The Renwick: Washington D.C.
This place is the most underrated spot in the city, in my opinion. The Renwick focuses on contemporary craft and decorative arts, so they feature the most unique and eye-opening exhibits. My favorite one that I ever saw was the Burning Man exhibit in the summer of 2018. I got to enjoy towering and mind-bending statues, rainbow light installations, and so many other incredible pieces that I still think about often. This is where I like to take those who don’t consider themselves to be art connoisseurs. After walking through this museum, they always end up changing their minds. The museum itself is in a classy, brick building and is practically right outside the White House. It’s never as crowded as the other museums, and just like the other Smithsonian museums, it’s entirely free. Currently, Forces of Nature is being hosted here—a beautiful ode to humankind’s relationship with the natural landscape. The other exhibit that is ongoing as of right now is Janet Echelman’s 1.8, which is an exploration of time and geology using light and vivid fibers. You’ll need at least an hour or two to walk around the whole museum and really take it in, so plan for that. Their gift shop sells a lovely collection of textiles, glass, and modern jewelry. It’s a great spot to stop in afterwards.
Where to eat: Elizabeth’s Gone Raw (upscale, colorful, and entirely plant-based eatery with a seasonally changing menu), Fancy Radish (Peruvian potatoes, radish crudité, and crispy cauliflower tacos among other things), Fare Well (an all-vegan eatery serving dishes like benedicts, breakfast sandwiches, pierogis, and even vegan steak), Hip City Veg (vegan junk food in case you don’t want something as arty when you’ve already been in that atmosphere all day), or any of the options listed for the National Gallery!
4. Museum of Pop Culture: Seattle
Seattle is prime for those who love art. It’s filled with artists, musicians, and connoisseurs and fans. There are a lot of museums to choose from, but my favorite is this one. It’s colorful, modern, and unique. They feature everything pop, and currently they’re featuring a pride exhibit, one of Disney villain costumes, a fantasy film one, and much more! Tickets are generally around $30, so while this is a pricier activity, it’s one that offers a lot of really cool ways to feel more cultured. In the museum there are lounges, learning labs, theaters, and lots of events always happening in many of the venue spaces. At the gift shop you can get t-shirts, pop art, and hip sculptures of artistic icons. You’ll need at least an hour to enjoy this museum fully.
Where to eat: Plum Bistro (fried oyster mushrooms, Cuban tofu, and even African salad), Broadfork Cafe (yam and kale bowls, vegan grilled cheese, and lots of vegan smoothies), Kati Thai (an all-vegan eatery serving jackfruit on sticky rice, garden rolls, satay, and tom yum), HeartBeet Healthy (curry and build your own vegan bowls!), and El Borracho (all-plant-based Mexican food near the museum)
5. The Broad: Los Angeles
This is one I have never been to, but have always wanted to see it in real life. Everyone that I know who has been there has absolutely loved it, and out of all of the museums that I haven’t been to in the country, this is the one I want to see most. The museum is dedicated to modern art and it looks so dreamy. Designed by world-renowned architects, the museum itself is stunning. It is home to over 2,000 works of contemporary art so make sure to plan for at least an hour or two there. The highlight of your trip there will surely be Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away. It’s something I’ve been wanting to see in person since it opened in 2013. Their gift shop is the best place to grab colorful dishes and other sleek additions to your living space.
Where to eat: Flore Plant Based Kitchen (the options are endless here thanks to their vegan menu, including vegan chicken and waffles), Cafe Gratitude (this famous vegan eatery features coconut “calamari,” warm broccolini salad, and almond pad thai among their many choices), Wild Living Foods (vegan bagels and “lox,” stuffed avocado, bruschetta, and huge vegan sandwiches), Beelmans (tofu tacos, crispy chickpeas, and lots of artisan sandwiches), Locali (incredibly accurate vegan deli sandwiches and salads), and Sage Vegan Bistro (a classy all-vegan eatery featuring dishes like their Goatless Greek Salad, mole bowls, and Asian Kelp Noodle Salad).
Get more like this—Sign up for our daily inspirational newsletter for exclusive content!
Photo: Emily Iris Degn