Just looking at the American Museum of Natural History, a sprawling expanse of pink granite towers and turrets with a huge crystal cube attached, you can tell that amazing things are going on inside. And they are, from stars shooting across the night sky to giant squid floating through the depths of the ocean. No need to feel like an explorer in uncharted territory as you try to find your way through the four blocks of galleries – free Highlights Tours depart hourly to show off such prizes as the 21,000-carat Princess Topaz, a 63ft-long canoe crafted by Pacific Northwest Indians from a single cedar tree, a 34-ton fragment of a meteorite that careened into the Greenland ice sheets.
In enormous and elaborate dioramas created by taxidermists and painters in the 1940s, gorillas, lions, and other magnificent beasts range across the African rainforests and veldts; in the dinosaur halls, Tyrannosaurus rex strikes a rather terrifying stalking pose, surrounded by prehistoric companions.
One of the world’s oldest natural history museums also finds flashy new ways to capture the excitement of the natural world. More than 500 butterflies flutter freely through the Butterfly Conservatory, undisturbed by us spectators watching from a glass tunnel (Oct–May). Cosmic collisions and other stunning extraterrestrial phenomena are earthshakingly recreated in the Rose Center for Earth and Space.
If you have little ones in tow, sign them up for a Night at the Museum (selected Friday and Saturday nights); kids 7 to 13 see an IMAX movie, tour the spookily dark galleries by flashlight, and tuck into sleeping bags beneath a 94ft-long blue whale.