Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to this New York in a Day itinerary. It is an undeniable fact that the two most prestigious museums in New York City are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. They stand astride Central Park like two colossi, constantly battling for domination and supremacy. And only the bravest and most adventurous souls would be able to see both of them during one New York in a day itinerary.
The Museum of Natural History has the blue whale! But the Met has the Temple of Dendur! The Museum of Natural History has the T-Rex! Yet the Met has William the Blue Hippo! I say, why choose between the two? They’re only a 15 minute walk apart on Museum Mile, so you can easily see them both in the same day. And they’re different enough that you won’t feel like you’re repeating yourself. Join me for a New York in a Day of museum miles, mayhem, and murder…
24 Hour Tip
Please note that I follow this New York in a Day itinerary as part of my 5 Borough Christmas celebration of the holiday season in New York City. During the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I have to do something Christmas related in all 5 boroughs. But this New York in a Day itinerary is extremely easy to follow any time of year. You just won’t see the Christmas trees at the Museum of Natural History or the Met.
New York in a Day
Where Do I Stay?
I always laugh hysterically when people ask me this question. I have lived in the same apartment in New York City my entire life. That means I have never stayed in a New York City hotel. However, if you really want to maximize this New York in a Day itinerary, try staying on the Upper East Side. It won’t be too inconvenient for you to get from there to the Met and the Museum of Natural History.
If I had unlimited funds, I’d stay at the Hotel Carlyle for the glamour and the bar with the Madeline drawings on them. Or I’d stay at the Plaza, so I could pretend that I was Eloise from the adorable children’s books. I’m basically a Very Fancy Eight Year Old Girl who refused to grow up.
If you’d like to explore great deals on over 1400 other hotels in New York City, click here.
New York in a Day
What to Pack?
You’ll also need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
If the weather is rainy or snowy, which happens quite often in NYC, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out without feeling like some gauche tourist with gross feet.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
New York in a Day
Morning: Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the greatest thing ever created by humans. (I might be biased because I’m from New York City, and I think everything we do is amazing. But the Met really is that good.) It’s the biggest museum in the United States.
It’s also the third most popular art museum in the entire world, after the Louvre and the National Museum of China. But do those museums have a children’s book about two kids who run away from Connecticut to go live in the museum? Do those museums have an adorable blue hippo mascot? No! So I say that proves the Met is the best.
People say it would take you eight years to see everything in the museum. But we only have one morning of our New York in a Day itinerary! That’s why I recommend taking a Museum Hack tour to see the highlights. Museum Hack specializes in unconventional tours of museums. They tell you all the hidden scandals of the art world that other guides won’t share with you. And if there’s anything I love almost as much as food, it’s high-class gossip.
One last important thing to remember: no New Yorker calls it the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s the Met.
Approximately Top 5: Met Edition
1) Breakfast at sant ambroeus
Sant Ambroeus is my favorite place to get breakfast near the Met. Make a 9AM reservation and you will definitely be able to get to the Met before it opens at 10. (The Museum Hack tour starts at 11. This New York in a Day itinerary is perfectly times) I always get Crostino Milanese which are scrambled eggs with Parmesan and potatoes. When I eat it, I feel like Sophia Loren in a black and white movie, riding a motorcycle with sunglasses on. (Pro tip: Don’t eat scrambled eggs on a motorcycle.)
Full Disclosure: I actually know one of the owners of Sant Ambroeus. I’m not sure I needed to tell you this for ethical reasons. I just wanted to brag.
2) Christmas tree
So obviously this tree is only around at 5 Borough Christmas time, but if you’re in enjoying New York in a Day at Christmas, you can’t miss it. The tree is decorated with elaborate 18th century Italian figurines. They are dressed in period clothes, so if you’ve ever wanted to know what were the latest fashions in Italy during the 1700s, now is your chance. The display is paid for by the Loretta Hines Howard Trust. (Ms. Howard’s daughter has been keeping it going since her death, which is adorable.)
My favorite thing about the figurines on the Christmas tree are the anthropomorphized expressions on the animals faces. Have you ever wanted to see a smug cow? A cranky donkey? A judgmental sheep? Now’s your chance.
3) Roman sculptures
Now that we’re breakfasted and have 5 Borough Christmased, it’s time in our New York in a Day itinerary for the Museum Hack tour to start! Our guide Sarah first took us to the Greek and Roman sculpture exhibit. She explained that the Greeks made realistic human sculptures out of bronze. They were able to make their statues stand independently using a technique called contrapposto. When Rome conquered Greece, they weren’t so sentimental about sculptures. So they melted down the bronze statues to use the bronze for weapons.
The Romans were also too busy fighting to figure out contrapposto. That’s why these Roman figures above are all learning on each other. The Romans didn’t know how to get them to stand on their own! In fact, the urns are also there to stop the statues from falling down. But this guy coming up uses my favorite technique.
This is known as the “stick up the butt”. I really had to wonder who the sculptor thought he was fooling. Is there any way this stick would look like an organic part of the sculpture? Unless the stick is meant to be some crazy sex toy, I can’t see how.
4) Bis Poles
These elaborate carvings are called bis poles, and they come from New Guinea. Specifically, they are made by the Asmat tribe. Each figure represents an important member of the Asmat tribe who has been killed in battle. Because the Asmat tribe used to practice cannibalism, the swirls coming out of the stomach represent the people that warrior cooked and ate.
Of course, the most interesting part of the story is perhaps how the Met acquired these works. They were donated to the museum by the Rockefeller family. Nelson Rockefeller’s son Michael went to New Guinea to collect some art for his family. He definitely did not pay what the art was worth, so perhaps the Asmat grew frustrated with him. They were also upset because five members of their tribe had been killed in a recent skirmish with some Dutchmen.
So perhaps it is unsurprising that Michael Rockefeller disappeared one day, never to be heard from again. A few years ago, a journalist visited the Asmat and claims that they explained to him how Rockefeller had been killed and eaten as a balance to the five Asmat who were killed by the Dutch. (The Asmat are no longer cannibals.)
But what I want to know is…how did these pieces get to the Met? If my son were killed by cannibals looking for art, I don’t think I’d have those works displayed in a museum. But maybe that’s why I’m not a Rockefeller.
5) Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett was an African-American artist in the 20th century. She was denied admission to some prestigious art schools in the United States, like Carnegie Mellon, because she was black. Fortunately, there was nothing to stop her from moving to Mexico where she was free to study and practice art. She also got involved in Mexican left-wing political movements.
Unfortunately or fortunately for Catlett, this was during the McCarthy era of constantly hunting for Communist spies. Catlett was declared “un-American” because of her political views and barred from entering the country. She married a Mexican and became a Mexican citizen, so she doesn’t seem to have let this stop her from doing anything she wanted.
Not So Fun Fact
Sarah, our guide, pointed out that the docent notes describe Catlett’s work as tender, even though anyone with eyes can see that her work is angular and not especially touchy-feely. But I understand where the Met is coming from. If you don’t describe a woman’s work as tender, it’s possible she’ll get the vapors or burst into tears or something.
6) Madame X
And now for another woman who is also not tender, meet Madame X. This scandalacious portrait was done by bad boy American painter John Singer Sargent. Madame X was actually the wife of a French businessman named Pierre Gautreau. She was a notorious beauty and rumored to be quite unfaithful. Yet the biggest scandal of her life was actually…this painting!
You see, this painting hanging in the Met is not the original. The original painting actually showed Madame X’s dress falling off her shoulder. Her breasts remain covered up, but just barely. In 19th century Paris, this had all the socialites clutching their pearls in horror.
Sargent finally agreed to repaint the work so the strap was no longer falling off her shoulder. Also he changed the name of the painting to Madame X so she could be anonymous, but it was too late. Everyone already knew who she was.
This story seems so quaint in modern times. I wish Twitter would freak out over nothing more serious than a shoulder strap.
7) Arms and Armor
Every New York City child loves the arms and armor collection at the Met. But I did not know the story behind its founding. Apparently the Met was having a hard time finding armor for its collection. All the great European museums had armor! But for the United States, it was harder to find some because we don’t have lords or knights. Enter Bashford Dean.
Bashford Dean was an armor enthusiast. And by that I mean that he liked to stroll around New York City fully dressed in a suit of armor. (Please Google Bashford Dean if you don’t believe me.) He donated his collection to the Met on the condition that they would build a working forge underneath the museum. Insanely enough, they agreed. Unfortunately, the Met’s insurers shut the forge down some time ago, but apparently its remnants are still there if you are ever lucky enough to take a look.
8) Charles Engelhard Gallery
The Charles Engelhard Gallery is one of the loveliest indoor sculpture gardens I have ever seen. But that’s not why I am talking about it today. I want to share an adorable curator joke with you. Charles Engelhard, the businessman for whom this gallery is named, was good friends with James Bond writer Ian Fleming.
Apparently Engelhard was the inspiration for legendary Bond villain Goldfinger. (“No Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”) And what sculpture do we see placed at the center of the gallery? A naked woman covered in gold, just like Goldfinger used to make. I do so love a good nerd joke!
New York in a Day
Afternoon: Museum of Natural History
The Museum of Natural History is dedicated to exploring human cultures, the natural world, and the known universe. That is literally everything that has ever happened or ever will happen. It’s an Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum. If the Met is dedicated to high art and culture, the Museum of Natural History is the place you go if you want to see big fish, stuffed animals, freaky rocks, and dino skulls. Also if you take the free docent tour, you might get a cool surprise at the end.
Approximately top 5: Museum of natural history
1) Levain Bakery
Before we check out the museum, we’re going to need a little lunch. But we have a big dinner ahead of us, and we already had breakfast in a restaurant. That’s why I suggest for lunch on our New York in a Day itinerary we feast on the finest cookie in Manhattan at Levain Bakery. It’s very near the Museum of Natural History.
Of course you can get other baked goods here, but why would you want to? Isn’t a 6-ounce chocolate peanut butter cookie that melts in your mouth and also all over your hands good enough for you? Show a little gratitude.
As a bonus, Levain Bakery donates all their baked goods that aren’t sold at the end of the day to help feed the hungry. So now you can feel like you’re doing some good while you’re scarfing down a pound’s worth of cookies! This is quite a feat!
2) Origami Tree
At 5 Borough Christmastime, the Museum of Natural History is always home to a glorious holiday tree decorated with what seems like an infinite number of elaborate origami figures. There’s always a theme chosen; this year’s was the ocean. So if you’ve ever wanted to see origami jellyfish, squid, sharks, and a yellow submarine, now is your chance.
Also if you have kids, it’s fun to take them to the nearby origami booth and watch them attempt to fold their own origami. Either they will succeed and end up with a splendid origami creation, or they won’t and you won’t have to waste your time buying them pointless origami kits that they’ll give up on after a couple of folds. It’s win/win!
If it’s not 5 Borough Christmas season, head to the first floor of the Museum of Natural History and get a selfie taken with a statue of Teddy Roosevelt, the only president born in Manhattan. Bully!
3) Blue Whale
If you’re looking to save a little money, don’t miss the free docent tours of the American Museum of Natural History. You don’t need to reserve ahead! You can just show up at the meeting point. They’re usually on the quarter hour. My docent was extremely knowledgeable and funny. She started by taking us to the blue whale, which is the most famous exhibition at the Museum of Natural History.
Apparently the blue whale is the largest animal ever, not because of its length, but because of its weight. Its heart weighs as much as a small car! A child could crawl through its blood vessels! I wonder if germs and microbes talk about us to their children the same way we talk to ours about the blue whale. I’d like to think I’m a majestic and intimidating figure to somebody.
This display is both the saddest and the cutest in the Museum of Natural History. There used to be millions of bison roaming the United States. Many Native Americans depended on them for food and clothing. But the United States government wanted to expand out West and build the transcontinental railroad. So they began a targeted campaign of slaughtering bison indiscriminately. Soon the number of bison was reduced from millions to a mere hundreds.
Fortunately the American Bison Society was started at the turn of the century to help save the bison. One of its founders was none other than our President/statue Theodore Roosevelt. The early society actually used the Bronx Zoo to help mate and restore the numbers of the bison. Then the bison were relocated out West. So many of the bison you might meet in this country today are actually New Yorkers. (Our docent said you could tell because they were the rudest bison.)
Also, note the little bird on the bison’s back. This is a cowbird, the laziest birds in the world. They don’t fly; they just ride around forever on the bison’s back. I don’t understand that at all. If I were a bird, I would literally never stop flying.
Unfortunately my favorite display at the Museum of Natural History, the Hall of Gems and Minerals, is closed for renovation. Lucky for us, there’s a miniature display of a few good gems in the Great Gallery. Our docent explained that this piece of stibnite was discovered in China by a group of miners. It is the largest piece of stibnite on display in the world. Stibnite is more commonly known as antimony, and it’s used in inventions from safety matches to TV screens.
Our docent (I should just call her Ms. Frizzle) also told us that ancient Egyptians also used stibnite as medicine or cosmetics. This is a bad idea because stibnite is highly toxic. Ms. Frizzle warned us that if someone offers us a refreshing stibnite shake, we should turn it down. Too bad because I just drank a stibnite shake some stranger offered me. Woe is me, for I have been poisoned. Farewell cruel world!
I’m back and I’ll be writing the rest of this blog as a ghost. (BOOOOO!)
If you didn’t come to the Museum of Natural History for the gems or the blue whale, then it gots to be the dinosaurs. The coolest dino we saw on display was the titanosaur. This behemoth was discovered in 2014 on the Mayo family ranch in Patagonia. Ms. Frizzle told us that the titanosaur had an extremely small brain relative to its size, so it probably wasn’t the most clever of creatures.
But brains aren’t the only thing that counts. I’m sure universities would be impressed by the titanosaur’s crazy long neck that stretches out the gallery door. That’s got to count for something on a resume.
24 Hour Treasure: Shark Teeth
Ms. Frizzle explained to us that sharks have a kind of conveyor belt of teeth in their mouths. If they lose one, another just pops us. A shark can have around 15,000 teeth in its life. To prove a point, she actually gave each person on the tour a fossilized shark tooth. Now I carry it with me always in my change purse. If someone hassles me on the street, I can just pull out my shark tooth and sing the Jaws theme at them. This will make them run away, if only to get away from the Crazy Shark Tooth lady.
New York in a Day
Evening: Red Rooster
I insist on dining at Red Rooster Harlem every 5 Borough Christmas. There is nothing Christmas-themed about the restaurant, and it is open year round. But their fried chicken is so delicious and I’m always in the mood for the dish when the temperature drops. Also I try to work as many neighborhoods as possible into 5 Borough Christmas, and I would never want to miss Harlem. It’s one of the best food neighborhoods in the city.
Red Rooster makes excellent cocktails. Usually when I go out for a three-course dinner, I pair a cocktail with my appetizer and a glass of wine with my main course. But at Red Rooster, I got two cocktails instead. It’s 5 Borough Christmas and I can drink if I want to!
24 Hour Treat: Muddy Waters
This first cocktail was called a Muddy Waters. It was made with vanilla bourbon, a Caribbean almond syrup called falernum, and sherry. It tasted like someone turned one of those Italian rainbow cookies into a cocktail. I’m a big believer into turning desserts into cocktails. Each is great on its own, so together they are especially amazing.
24 hour treat: fried chicken
My appetizer is a Harlem classic, chicken and waffles. This dish was supposedly invented when customers were out so late that it was the next morning. The restaurant wasn’t sure if they should get dinner or breakfast, so they got both! This take on chicken and waffles combines Nashville hot chicken with a sweet potato waffle. You can tell it’s inspired by Nashville hot chicken because they use the pickle on it.
I love how many different crunches this chicken has. There’s the light crunch of the waffle, the snappy crunch of the pickle, and the crackling crunch of the chicken skin. In fact, I think this dish should be called Captain Crunch. Feel free to steal that, Red Rooster!
24 hour treat: cornbread
The cornbread is one of the house specialties. It doesn’t come with the meal, but it’s worth a little extra. Usually the bread is served with apple butter. However I have to assume that Red Rooster was celebrating 5 Borough Christmas because this treat came with pumpkin butter. Pumpkin and corn together are the most autumnal combination imaginable. I could practically see the colored leaves falling before my eyes as I bit into this.
24 Hour Treat: Shrimp and Grits
For my main course, I chose the shrimp and grits. These were given a bit of Louisiana flavor because there was a rich, spicy gumbo underneath the shrimp. I’m digging the whole Two Face presentation going on here. It’s like the grits are the angel side and the gumbo is the devil side.
The grits are whispering on one shoulder, “Eat me! I’m so wholesome and filled with fiber! Your grandmothers ate me every morning for breakfast.” And the gumbo is whispering, “Eat me! I’m so spicy, I’ll give you an excuse to order another cocktail to wash me down.”
24 Hour Treat: Harlem Mule
So my second cocktail of the night was this frosty Harlem mule. It’s just like a Moscow mule, except you use bourbon instead of vodka. That makes sense to me. I don’t know that bourbon has ever really caught on in Moscow. And I can’t see there being a lot of Stolichnaya floating around during the Harlem Renaissance.
24 hour treat: donuts
The donut is Red Rooster’s signature dessert. You never know what kind of donut will be on the menu. This little bite of nostalgia is a vanilla donut with chocolate frosting, jelly filling, and peanut butter ice cream. That’s right, it’s a PB and J donut! My eight year old self would have considered this the greatest dessert imaginable.
I have to admit, my current self was pretty excited to be transported back to being an eight year old, at least while I was eating this dessert. And it’s pretty impressive a dessert could make me feel like a kid again, considering I am a ghost. (BOOOOO!)
That’s New York in a Day
What would you do with New York in a Day? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in New York City right now? Which is better, the Met or the Museum of Natural History? And what would you do if a stranger offered you a stibnite shake? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend one New York in a Day. And there’s a million other things to do in New York City. Want to see New York in a Day in Brooklyn? With the Brooklyn Bridge? In New York City for Christmas? How about New York in a Day in the Bronx? In (gasp!) Staten Island? Or New York in a Day with the best street food in Manhattan? I’ve got you covered here!