A Local’s Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Visit to NYC’s Natural History Museum

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Triceratops skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC
Triceratops is one of the awesome dinosaurs at the AMNH in NYC. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

To visit the American Museum of Natural History, one of the top attractions in New York City, you need a game plan. The massive museum has exhibits on dinosaurs, interplanetary exploration, butterflies and marine life. Every time I visit, I discover something new. Here’s the strategy to see the best of the best.

Devoting even a full day to the American Museum of Natural History is insufficient to see it all. But you can see some of the highlights of one of the Big Apple’s top tourist attractions with a little planning. 

Before we get to the fun things to see at the American Museum of Natural History, check out what is new. The fabulous Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation opened in 2023, making this already huge museum even larger. The Gilder Center features fun things like an amazing immersive Invisible Worlds exhibit, a free-flying Butterfly Vivarium and an Insectarium. The undulating walls of the new center, both inside and out, give the building a lunar landscape feel. 

The architecture of the Gilder Center is stunning. This is the Research library’s ceiling. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Read More: NYC’s Hidden Gems: Secrets the Locals Know

Top Things to See at the Natural History Museum

Although every exhibit is noteworthy, there are four I consider essential for visitors (especially those who are visiting for the first time):

  • T. Rex
  • Rose Center for Earth and Space, including the Hayden Planetarium
  • Blue Whale and Hall of Ocean Life
  • Dioramas and other permanent exhibitions

The American Museum of Natural History features dominating dinosaur displays.

One of the biggest draws at the American Museum of Natural History, T. Rex. Photo credit: AMNH

T. Rex: King of the Dinosaurs

The Tyrannosaurus Rex and Apatosaurus dominate the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History and are the museum’s number one attractions. A whole dinosaur wing attracts visitors and what’s amazing to me is how much these exhibits have changed since I was little. T. Rex is mounted now in a crouching attack position. You can see dinosaur fossils and walk on a glass floor over a recreated dig. And the 2016 Titanosaur dinosaur exhibit highlights the newest member of the fossil halls. Don’t skip this – The Museum of Natural History is one of the best dinosaur museums in the USA.

Read More: How to Plan the Best Family Vacation in New York City

Rose Center for Earth and Space, including the Hayden Planetarium

Rose Center for Earth and Space includes the Hayden Planetarium, the Big Bang Theater and the giant Willamette meteorite. The state-of-the-art planetarium, which replaced my childhood planetarium in 2000, is wonderful. But it can be scary for little kids. Before you spring for the extra ticket, consider how well your child handles the dark.

The Hayden Planetarium, an 87-foot-diameter sphere that ‘floats’ in a glass cube, beckons Upper West Siders to the museum. If you want to go, get tickets when you arrive. Or ahead of time. They sell out early.

Bigger than your photo frame! The museum’s most famous resident is suspended from the ceiling! Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Blue Whale and Hall of Ocean Life

No trip to the AMNH is complete without a visit to the 94-foot-long model of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling of the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. This is always our destination on hot days. It is one of the most heavily air conditioned parts of the museum. And the dim lighting keeps it cool. Sadly, the coral reef might be the only one your kids ever see.

One of my daughters was terrified of the sperm whale and giant squid diorama. This is the same diorama that inspired the Noah Baumbach movie title, The Squid and the Whale.

The Natural History Museum is known for its dioramas of local and exotic animals.

New York City vacations are incomplete with a visit to the Natural History Museum. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Dioramas and other Permanent Exhibits

The dioramas in the mammal halls have animals depicted in their habitats. The Hall of African Mammals has elephants and the Water Hole features giraffes, zebras and gazelles. There are an overwhelming number of animals, so for an overview, stick to birds, or small mammals or primates. My kids liked to see the familiar animals at The Hall of North American Mammals.

The Hall of Biodiversity has a giant walk-through diorama. You can see extinct animals, like a Dodo bird, and endangered ones like a Siberian tiger. There are also figures from Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, part of the Human Origins Hall.

See an IMAX film, (a great chance to rest your feet) then spend more time in the Rose Center, walking the cosmic walkway to explore the history of the universe.

Discovery Room (Currently Closed)

This interactive space for younger children was a pandemic casualty. It should eventually reopen. My kids loved finding the specimens in the baobab tree and assembling skeletons.  

What to Skip at the Natural History Museum

If you are pressed for time, or want to save money, stick to the permanent exhibits. The AMNH is one of the biggest natural history museums in the United States; the dinosaur exhibits are a long walk from the Hall of Ocean Life. Just seeing the dinos and some of the dioramas could be enough. On another visit, you could start with the planetarium and work your way over to the Hall of Biodiversity. But if your kid loves amphibians or fossil halls, you may want to see those.

We rarely spend any time in the Hall of New York State Environment. Not that it’s a ‘bad exhibit.’ But so many are more dynamic.

Natural History Museum Admission

Reservations for timed-entry admission are required. Currently, tickets are $28 for adults, $16 for kids ages 2-12 and $22 for teens with student ID. Special exhibits including the Hayden Planetarium and the Butterfly Conservatory (a recurring temporary exhibit) and IMAX movies cost extra. Expensive? Yes. But how much are Disney tickets?

The American Museum of Natural History is “pay what you wish” for residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and offers access to the permanent exhibition halls.

CityPASS lets you skip the line. You can buy CityPASS ahead of time, and show your mobile ticket to get in. CityPASS includes general admission, the Hayden Planetarium Space Show or an IMAX movie. And you save money, depending on how many attractions you visit.

Another way to save money is through the NYC Explorer Pass, from GO City. This includes general admission to the museum.

You have arrived! Even first time visitors will be able to navigate the clearly marked subway entrance to the museum. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

How to Get To the Natural History Museum

The AMNH, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, stretches from 77th Street to 81st Street on Central Park West. It is across Central Park from some of Manhattan’s other top cultural institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim. Don’t try to see both in one day.

The B and C trains stop at 81st Street, You exit the NYC subway right into the museum, perfect on a cold winter day. This subway station has tile work depicting animals in the museum. My kids always found this to be an exciting way to enter a museum. Note that you have to carry a stroller up stairs to get into the museum from the subway. [The station is not handicapped accessible].

The entrance on 79th Street and Central Park West at 200 Central Park takes you up the grand outdoor staircase.The infamous Theodore Roosevelt statue has been removed.

If you are going first to the space show, you can enter on 81st Street directly into the Rose Center.

The museum has a parking garage, a rarity in New York City. The hourly rates are quite expensive. However, if you park here for the entire day and then visit Central Park, another museum and a restaurant, you can stay here all day, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., for a much more reasonable rate. There is ev charging here.

Nearby cultural institutions include the New York Historical Society (which has a Children’s History Museum) and the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.

Plan an uptown Manhattan day and save midtown, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the Museum of Modern Art and a Broadway show for another day.

Best Times to Go to the Natural History Museum

Get to the museum at 4 p.m. on a weekend. You have an hour and forty-five minutes to see as much as possible. The crowds who arrived between 10 a.m. and noon are streaming out of the museum while you don’t have to wait online, or jostle to see the dinos or meteorites. You can have a quick, focused visit. And you don’t have to stop for a snack.

Weekdays, the best time to visit is 2 p.m. School groups come in the mornings, and if they stay after lunch, they have to leave by 2 for 3 p.m. dismissal. This gives you several hours to explore the relatively quiet museum.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Check the NYC public school calendar. Camps take over the museum when schools are out, and local families also crowd the exhibits.

Where to Eat at the Natural History Museum

The Museum Food Court, on the lower level, has the broadest choice. You walk around to different stations to collect your food, then pay to get to the seating area. There are always kid-friendly foods like pizza and burgers. And there are plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free options. That being said, it can get pretty expensive for a family. The Restaurant at Gilder offers a refined setting, table service and delicious, but pricier food. This is where to go with grandparents in tow.

If you want to bring your own food, you have to eat it in the student lunchroom, near the food court. This room is seemingly unchanged since I went to a New York City elementary school. I remember we dropped off our lunch boxes, toured the museum and returned for lunch.

The Natural History Museum has a cafe for a quick snack on the 4th floor, and one geared towards adult visitors on the first floor. This one has beer and wine.

In nice weather, you can eat in the newly landscaped Theodore Roosevelt Park next to the Natural History Museum. Hold on to your tickets for re-entry.

Night at the Museum


For those who can’t get enough of the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, the museum offers special sleepovers. This is for children ages 6-13, along with parents or caregivers. You could actually skip a night at a hotel and stay here. No, it’s not the Four Seasons, but it is a very cool way to see the museum.

I did this with my youngest daughter and we had dinner, saw a movie and got to wander around the museum free of the usual crowds. The highlight was seeing the planetarium show in our pajamas.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The museum sleepovers, which include breakfast, sell out early. When they return, plan ahead.

Adults Only: The Natural History Museum Isn’t Just for Kids

Building on the success of the family sleepovers, the museum offers adult-only sleepovers [ALSO CANCELED TEMPORARILY]. I haven’t done this yet, but it sounds like a great party. It includes a champagne reception, live music, dinner with beer and wine, snacks and breakfast.

Judy Antell is an empty-nester mother of 3 who spends a lot of time visiting her daughters. Why don’t they live in Brooklyn? Judy and her husband love to travel, by bike, car, or plane, whether to see their kids or have friend or couple adventures, mostly centered around vegetarian food.
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