American Museum of Natural History

Top choice museum in Upper West Side & Central Park
Image by Kevin Clogstoun / Getty Images

Founded in 1869, this classic museum contains a veritable wonderland of more than 34 million artifacts – including lots of menacing dinosaur skeletons – as well as the Rose Center for Earth & Space, which has a cutting-edge planetarium. From October through May, the museum is home to the Butterfly Conservatory, a vivarium featuring 500-plus butterflies from all over the world that will flutter about and land on your outstretched arm.

On the natural history side, the museum is perhaps best known for its light and airy Fossil Halls containing nearly 600 specimens, including mammoth crowd-pleasers such as an apatosaurus, titanosaurus and fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex (they'll all scare the bejesus out of you).

There are also plentiful animal exhibits (the stuffed Alaskan brown bears and giant moose are popular), galleries devoted to gems and minerals, and an IMAX theater. The Milstein Hall of Ocean Life contains dioramas devoted to marine ecologies, weather and conservation, as well as a beloved 94ft replica of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling. At the 77th St Grand Gallery, there's a 63ft canoe carved in the 1870s and featuring designs from different Native American peoples of the Northwest Coast.

For the astronomical set, the Rose Center is the star of the show. Every half-hour at the planetarium (check website for specific times) you can drop yourself into a cushy seat to view Dark Universe (through 2019), narrated by famed astrophysicist and Frederick P. Rose Center director Neil deGrasse Tyson, which explores the mysteries and wonders of the cosmos. You'll also find an astonishing Willamette Meteor, a 15.5-ton hunk of metallic iron that fell to earth in present-day Oregon some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Note that while you can pay what you wish for general admission (in person only), in order to see space shows, IMAX films or ticketed exhibits you'll need to pay the posted prices for admission plus one show (adult/child $28/16.50) or admission plus all shows ($33/20).

In 2019, the museum broke ground on a $383-million expansion set to be completed by 2022 that will include the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation.