It’s impossible to do justice to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in only a few hours. You could spend days browsing its more than 2 million pieces of art!
If you’re short on time, you’ll need to prioritize and focus on the pieces you really must see at the Met.
What you absolutely must see at the Met
Of course, different people have different views on which paintings at the Met and other art objects you really should view.
There are so many things to do in New York City that we could only devote an afternoon to the museum on our recent visit to the Big Apple. We did our best and managed (we think!) to at least take in some key Met paintings, exhibits and masterpieces.
So with that preamble behind us, here’s our guide on what to see at the Met.
Famous paintings at the Met
One of the top highlights of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is its famous collection of European paintings.
This is where we headed first.
You can ooh and ahh over a mind-boggling number of gorgeous European art from the 13th to the 19th centuries.
Works by the Spanish artists, El Greco and Goya. French paintings by Monet, Degas, Cezanne and Van Gogh. Dutch art from the 17th century by Rembrandt and Vermeer.
Mind you, we don’t know if we actually saw much of what there is to be seen. Many of the European paintings are being shuffled around and/or going into storage while gallery skylights are being replaced and other renovation work is carried out. The four-year work project is expected to be complete by 2022.
No matter though if we missed seeing some of the famous paintings at the Met. We were sufficiently impressed by the European paintings we did see!
“The Fortune Teller,” Georges de la Tour
This notable painting (from the 1630s?) by French Baroque artist, Georges de la Tour, caught our eye. It shows a wealthy young man getting robbed by three thieves as an old gypsy woman tells his fortune.
It’s celebrated probably in part because of the painting’s mysterious discovery some 80 years ago.
The story goes that a French prisoner-of-war, who was reminded of an old painting at his uncle’s castle, had a priest examine the painting after the war. It was confirmed to be a genuine La Tour. An art dealer then bought the painting in 1949 (outbidding the Louvre); the Met acquired it in 1960.
“The Love Letter,” Jean Honore Fragonard
We fell in love with “The Love Letter,” a famous canvas by the French painter, Jean Honore Fragonard.
The young woman in the picture looks to be flirting with us as she holds a bouquet of flowers and a love letter.
Who is the letter from? Her fiancé? Or is she married, and is the letter from her secret lover?
The painting from the early 1770s is also intriguing because it looks somewhat unfinished. The darker brown sections of the canvas aren’t as detailed as the young woman. She alone is shown in intricate feathery brushstrokes of color and light.
“Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat,” Vincent Van Gogh
While living with his brother in Paris between 1886 and 1888, Van Gogh painted 22 self-portraits, including this one (in 1887). Wearing peasant clothes, he looks out with one blue and one green eye.
Unfortunately, we missed seeing this painting, along with the Met’s other Van Gogh paintings.
If you’re a Van Gogh fan, now is a good time to visit the Met.
Normally, the Met’s Van Gogh paintings are off touring the world. But all 16 of the Met’s paintings by the Dutch master are currently on display in the museum – in Galleries 822 and 825.
No doubt art connoisseurs would say that the Van Gogh paintings are definitely among the best things to see at the Met!
Egyptian art and cultural artifacts
Another rich collection that’s a crowd-pleaser is the Met’s compilation of amazing Egyptian art and artifacts. So after browsing the European art, we beetled over to see the Egyptian art at the Met.
The museum contains a whopping number of ancient Egyptian statues and artifacts (26,000!), displayed chronologically over 39 rooms.
We were interested to discover that many were collected when the Met sponsored several archaeological expeditions to Egypt in the early 1900s. (At the time, Egypt gave concessions to foreign institutions to excavate various sites. This was based on the understanding that half of what was found would go to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; the excavators could keep the other half.)
“Hatshepsut Seated,” 1473 to 1458 B.C.
She lived 1,000 years after the Pyramids were built – and centuries before Cleopatra (accomplishing more than Cleopatra did too).
The first notable female leader in history, Queen Hatshepsut ruled Egypt for two decades (1473 to 1458 B.C.).
During her reign, peace prevailed and life was prosperous. She restored monuments, set about building new temples and renewed trade.
(If you’re lucky enough to visit Egypt, don’t miss her own mortuary temple, the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri. It’s an architectural marvel and one of the most wonderful sights to see in Egypt – it blew us away when we visited several years ago.)
Here at the Met, Hatshepsut is shown seated as the pharaoh in this lovely limestone masterpiece (over 6 feet high). She’s dressed in the ceremonial clothes typically worn by a male Egyptian king – bare-chested and wearing the shendyt kilt – but it’s obvious she’s female.
The Temple of Dendur
You’re not likely to see an Egyptian temple anywhere else in the western world than at the Met!
The Temple of Dendur is a real temple, carefully rebuilt from its original stones and blocks.
This sacred temple was built in southern Egypt in the first century B.C. to honor the Egyptian goddess Isis.
It was given to the U.S. by Egypt in 1967 as a thank-you for American help in saving Egyptian monuments from being flooded by rising waters from Lake Nasser when the Aswan High Dam was built. The Smithsonian Institution wanted the temple rebuilt outdoors in Washington, D.C. (Jackie Kennedy was a keen advocate of this idea too.) But the Met won out as the temple’s new home.
The Temple of Dendur was eventually reassembled in the Met’s Sackler Wing in 1978, behind a glass wall looking through to Central Park and a large reflecting pool in front.
It’s impressive. And we say that even though we’ve ogled many temples in their original splendid setting in Egypt.
A human-headed winged lion (lamassu)
In the 9th century B.C., the great Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II built a luxurious new palace in Nimrud (in what is now northern Iraq). Guarding the entrance to the palace stood a winged lion with a human head and five legs, called a lamassu. (It probably stood with another lamassu as a pair.)
Head to the Assyrian Sculpture Court at the Met, and you’ll see this magnificent lamassu.
Standing beside it is a winged bull (though in ancient times, each gateway would be guarded by a matching pair, two lions or two bulls).
Greek and Roman sculpture court
Wander into the two-story hall with Ionic columns, flooded with natural light from the skylights above, and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to ancient Greece or Rome.
That’s the intention of the main Greek and Roman showroom – and it works.
Take a seat….
Absorb the cool smooth beauty of the marble statues, the portrait busts, the beautiful Three Graces (though they’re headless today).
And marvel at the fabulous museum that is the Met…
Where to stay in New York City
We loved the Kimberly Hotel & Suites, perfectly located in Midtown.
Rooms and suites are delightful and bigger than what you’ll typically find in other NYC hotels. And the beds are heavenly.
Book early, as this hotel has a very loyal following of repeat guests and it can be hard to get a reservation here.
More NYC reading
You may find one or more of these travel guide books useful…
Photos 1, 3 – 5, 7, 8 and 10 – 13 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Photos 2, 6 and 9 courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art | Hotel photos courtesy Kimberly Hotel & Suites