Photograph by Todd Banor, Alamy Stock Photo
Read Caption

Flowers bloom in Millennium Park, just outside the Art Institute of Chicago.

Photograph by Todd Banor, Alamy Stock Photo

How to visit the best park museums in the U.S. and Canada

These parks feature a treasure trove of art and artifacts.

A version of this article originally appeared in the book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.

Tourists might think of parks as a place to get a nature fix—picnics, hiking, sweeping views, and babbling streams—and while that’s definitely the case, they safeguard plenty of cultural resources, too. Here are 10 parks across the United States and Canada whose museums may surprise you.

A Central Park landmark since it opened in 1870, the beloved Met safeguards more than two million works of art ranging from an ancient Egyptian temple through the Great Masters and 20th-century masterpieces. The medieval Cloisters in Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park is also part of the Met collection.

The main immigrant intake building is now a three-story museum that details the “peopling of America” from the 1550s through modern times, including the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. Part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, the museum offers ranger-guided tours and a genealogical collection where visitors can trace their roots.

The nation’s best battlefield museum covers the entire war from Fort Sumter through Appomattox, with emphasis on the bloody clash that unfolded around Gettysburg in summer 1863 and Lincoln’s famous address. The collection also includes the Gettysburg Cyclorama, an epic football-field-long oil painting of the battle by Paul Philippoteaux.

Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

It’s the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums, most of them located on or beside the Mall in the nation’s capital. Sometimes referred to as the “Nation’s Attic,” it includes the Air and Space Museum; American History Museum; National Portrait Gallery; American Indian Museum; and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Rising amid the lush greenery of Grant Park, the institute introduced the Windy City to world-class art when it opened in 1879. The permanent collection, with more than 300,000 pieces, is especially known for its Impressionist and modern works.

Located beneath the Gateway Arch on the St. Louis riverfront, the recently revamped museum examines America’s manifest destiny and how it affected all of those involved in the nation’s relentless expansion after the Louisiana Purchase. Exhibits are now lit by natural light filtered through a transparent ceiling that also affords views of the arch above.

Charles Darwin was one of the original consultants on this cutting-edge science and nature academy, founded in 1853. The Golden Gate Park museum encompasses the Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium, a living rain forest beneath a 90-foot (27.43 m) glass dome, and a remarkable, environmentally friendly green roof.

Founded by celebrated “Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry, this expansive museum in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park ranges from Native Americans and 19th-century cowboy culture to Western music and movies. Among its many excellent collections are firearms, fashion, cowboy art, and movie memorabilia. The Autry also hosts film screenings, culinary events, live music, and lectures.

View Images

A version of this article was originally published in the book 100 Parks, 5,000 Ideas, which includes other great park suggestions.

Located along the Prado museum row in San Diego’s Balboa Park, the offbeat Mingei features historical and contemporary folk art, crafts, and designs from all epochs and every corner of the world. Exhibitions focus on everyday objects that double as artworks. The collection contains more than 26,000 pieces from 141 countries.

Many of the primordial bones uncovered in nearby Dinosaur Provincial Park are on display at this landmark on the Alberta prairie. Among the 40 mounted skeletons are a complete Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, and woolly mammoth. Visitors can also cast fossils and test their bone-hunting skills at a simulated fossil dig.