Having rare opportunities to venture to Manhattan for a few days, I try to make the most of every trip. Nights are usually reserved for concerts and theater, with daytime hours up for grabs. For this whirlwind trip of three days, I wanted to visit six museums within walking distance of our Midtown hotel. The challenge was to craft an itinerary that offered a satisfying experience without burnout. Truth be told, I tend to feel quite full after a relatively short visit at most any museum, needing time to absorb and process before taking in more. So the idea of tackling six museums, each separated by lunch and mind-clearing walks, actually seemed doable and relatively balanced. I ended up with a rewarding schedule that left me feeling stimulated and fulfilled, but not exhausted — though my feet told a slightly different tale.
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum of Modern Art is one of my first stops almost every New York visit. My eye is self-educated and my tastes are eclectic, but there’s always something at MOMA that catches the visual imagination and provokes the brain. I tend to wander through the museum until something draws me in — a collage here, a sculpture there. One of the big draws is “American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe” (through Jan. 26), which provides fresh context for more than 100 of the museum’s most celebrated American masterworks created between 1915 and 1950, from sculptures and photographs to drawings and paintings. And MOMA just opened “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938” (through Jan. 12), showcasing the visionary artist’s breakthrough Surrealist years. Don’t miss MOMA’s gift shops, which are troves of reproductions and innovatively designed gadgets, clothes, and jewelry.
Museum of Art and Design
From there it’s just a few blocks to the Museum of Art and Design on Columbus Circle. My favorite lunch spot is halfway between, Radiance Tea House and Books on 55th Street between 6th and 7th avenues. Bright and airy, the dining area is rimmed with shelves of Japanese teapots and books to peruse while waiting for your meal to arrive. (My favorite is the Teriyaki Glazed Salmon Rice Box, which is exquisitely prepared and artfully presented.) I always take advantage of the extensive tea menu, trying something new each time. Tea can be purchased as well.
The Museum of Art and Design, one of my favorite “go to” spots in Midtown, is packed with exhibits that explore the intersection of art, craft, and design in eye-catching, provocative displays. I head first to the studio and art jewelry gallery. The current exhibition, “Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger” (through Jan. 20), features highlights from the famed collector’s 4,000 pieces, ranging from Art Deco jewelry to haute couture necklaces and brooches by notable designers. In addition, contemporary and historical pieces from the museum’s extensive permanent collection range from elegantly wearable to outlandishly innovative and conceptual. Gallery walls are inset with dozens of drawers that visitors can pull out one by one, like combing through a treasure chest. Another major exhibition that just opened is “Body & Soul: New International Ceramics” (through March 2). The museum’s store is a fabulous place for gift-buying, and Robert, the restaurant on the top floor, offers late afternoon desserts and cocktails along with a splendid view of the city.
American Museum of Natural History
You can spend days at the American Museum of Natural History, and I always include a bit of wandering. But I was especially keen this trip to see “Whales: Giants of the Deep” (through Jan. 25), an engaging timed exhibit from New Zealand that examines the planet’s largest mammals from both scientific and cultural perspectives. With skulls, skeletons, videos, artifacts, and a variety of interactive exhibits, it promotes understanding and appreciation as well as conservation. The live animal exhibit “Frogs: A Chorus of Colors” (through Jan. 5) celebrates the museum’s dazzling assemblage of one of the earth’s ubiquitous creatures, highlighting the remarkable range of colors, sizes, shapes, and natural habitats of frogs while noting the sobering impact environmental changes are making on these amphibians.
You’ll need a break for lunch and the popular Shake Shack across the street is burger heaven. But if the weather’s nice, try a picnic in Central Park. For take-out provisions, the city abounds in small delis and grocery stores. But if you’d like something adventurous, a trip to Zabar’s (a.k.a. the “food museum”) at Broadway and 80th Street can net a veritable feast. Walking across the park on 81st Street takes you east past Belvedere Castle and Belvedere Lake, as well as near the Delacorte Theater and the Obelisk, for a wealth of lovely picnic spots before exiting the park at 79th Street. It’s a leisurely stroll up Fifth Avenue to the Guggenheim Museum at 89th Street.
After the vast terrain of the American Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim feels especially manageable because you can see at an upward glance what you’re getting into. The spiral ramp of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building is ideal for a slow ramble with diversions into the side galleries. Current exhibitions include the recently opened “Robert Motherwell: Early Collages” (pictured, through Jan. 5) and “Kandinsky in Paris, 1934-1944” (through April 23), which showcases the last years of the influential artist’s life. (Note: Currently, the museum ramps are closed and views of the rotunda obscured in preparation for the upcoming “Christopher Wool” exhibit opening Oct. 25.)
An artist friend recommended I check out the Neue Galerie. Specializing in German Expressionist painting and decorative arts, the museum is housed in a 100-year-old Upper East Side townhouse with original and restored interiors, and it’s adorned not only with paintings, drawings, sketches, and sculpture, but a wealth of glassware, pottery, and furniture. (I recommend getting the audio tour for context.) It’s a Klimt lover’s dream — reproductions don’t do justice to the rich texture and gold leaf of the artist’s distinctive works. An exhibit on Kandinsky just opened (through Feb. 10). Located on Fifth Avenue at 86th Street, Neue Galerie is also famous for its two classic Viennese cafes. Café Sabarsky, modeled on a fin-de-siècle kaffeehaus, is perfect for lunch. Decorated with period objects, it boasts an enticing menu of German-Austrian specialties — leave room for one of the lavish desserts and specialty coffees.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
From there, it’s four blocks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fifth Avenue at 82d Street), where one could spend hours in any one gallery. If I have time, I do just that, and the newly opened “The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of the Best in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” (through October 2014) is especially intriguing. It showcases the late vice president’s extraordinary collection of non-Western art. But you can also just meander through gallery after gallery of some of the world’s most extraordinary artistic creations. And if you want a little guidance, the Met offers a “highlights” audio tour of some of its most distinctive holdings that takes you on a spin “through time and across cultures.” That’s on the list for my next visit.