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 vast collection of 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 Museum
Of course, different people have different views on what to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and which art objects you really should view.
The artworks are divided among 17 curatorial departments.
These range from the American Wing (with American art by John Singer Sargent) and European Paintings to Musical Instruments; European Sculpture and Decorative Arts; the Costume Institute; Modern and Contemporary Art; Arms and Armor; and Asian Art.
What might be of interest to you may be different to what grabs our attention.
Still, there are some Met Museum must-see exhibits that most people agree are absolute highlights.
Metropolitan Museum of Art virtual tour
If at home, you can check out in advance what you’d like to see on a virtual tour.
What to see at the Met in 2 hours (or 3)
There are so many things to do in New York City that we could only devote an afternoon to the museum on our October 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 on our 3-hour visit.
(BTW, New York City is one of the best places to visit in October in the U.S. Pleasant sightseeing weather and vibrant fall foliage, especially in Central Park, make autumn a great time to go to NYC.)
Note: You can take photos inside the museum, including photos of the famous art at the Met. Indeed, the Met is one of the best photography spots in New York City!
So with that preamble behind us, here’s our guide on the Metropolitan Museum of Art must-see pieces.
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Famous paintings by European masters
One of the top highlights of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is its famous and extensive collection of European paintings.
This is where we headed first.
You can ooh and aah over a mind-boggling number of gorgeous European artworks (more than 2,500, in fact) from the 13th to the 19th centuries.
Works by the Spanish artists El Greco and Goya. Dutch art from the 17th century by Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer. French paintings by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne and Van Gogh.
Mind you, at the Met, we don’t know if we actually saw much of what can be seen there.
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.
These skylights allow natural overhead light to shine through – the best light for viewing the Metropolitan Museum art.
The multi-year work project is expected to be complete in 2023.
No matter, though, if we missed seeing some of the most famous paintings at the Met.
We were sufficiently impressed by the European paintings we did see!
“The Fortune Teller” by 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 probably celebrated 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 Dance Class” by Edgar Degas
Another one of the most famous paintings at the Met Museum is “The Dance Class” (1874) by Edgar Degas.
Set in the old Paris Opera, the oil painting shows a group of young ballerinas and their mothers watching a ballet dancer perform her moves.
The imaginary scene is just one of many canvases Degas painted on the theme of dance.
Degas himself loved to dance, and he became known as the “painter of dancing girls.”
It makes you want to go and see a ballet, doesn’t it? (We actually did just that during the same NYC trip.)
“The Love Letter” by 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.
Van Gogh at the Met
While living with his brother in Paris between 1886 and 1888, Vincent Van Gogh painted 22 self-portraits, including “Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat” (1887).
Wearing peasant clothes, Van Gogh looks out with one blue eye and one green eye.
If you’re a Van Gogh fan, it’s one of the best paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view. Unfortunately, we missed seeing it, along with other Van Gogh paintings at the Met – like his “Sunflowers” piece.
The Met’s Van Gogh paintings are often off touring the world.
But sometimes, all 16 of the Met’s collection of paintings by the Dutch master are on display in the museum – typically in Galleries 822 and 825.
Perhaps you’ll be more fortunate than us when you visit and manage to admire some of Van Gogh’s paintings.
No doubt art connoisseurs would say that the Van Gogh paintings are definitely among the top things to see at the Met!
Did you know painters can copy the art in the Louvre? Read more about the Louvre copyists
Must-see art at the Met: American Wing
What about leading Metropolitan Museum of Art artworks by American artists?
Yes, there’s a fabulous painting – “Madame X” (1883-84) by John Singer Sargent – on display in the American Wing.
Hailed as the premier portrait artist of his generation, Sargent was an American expat artist who lived most of his life in Europe.
“Madame X” is his controversial portrait of Virginie Avegno Gautreau. The Louisiana-born wife of a French banker, she was famous in Paris for both her beauty and her reputed marital affairs.
The painting depicts the French femme fatale in a figure-hugging black satin dress, showing off her alabaster skin to perfection.
Sargent originally painted Gautreau with the right strap of her black gown falling off her shoulder.
But the portrait was criticized when displayed at the Paris Salon art exhibition in 1884 (too daring!), and he had to remove it.
So he repainted the shoulder strap – and this is the painting you see today.
One of the masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Madame X” is a real crowd-pleaser.
Egyptian Wing: Art and cultural artifacts
Also on the list of Metropolitan Museum of Art highlights is the Met’s compilation of amazing Egyptian artworks and exhibits.
So after browsing the famous paintings, 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 intrigued to discover that many of the artifacts 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.
And so the Met Museum acquired a splendid Egyptian collection!
“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 ancient Egypt for two decades (1473 to 1458 B.C.).
During Hatshepsut’s 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.)
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 – definitely one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art highlights.
Recommended reading: Take a peek at some of the most beautiful tombs and temples 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 this two-story hall with Ionic columns, flooded with natural light from the skylights above.
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, another popular attraction at the Met.
And it works. It’s one of the most impressive rooms in the Met.
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…
Metropolitan Museum of Art tours
Of course, you can visit the Met independently on your own. We did.
In retrospect, it would have been better to take a guided tour. Then we wouldn’t have missed some of the must-see things at the Met that somehow escaped us – like the Van Gogh paintings!
Exclusive Met Museum guided tour (2 hours and 30 minutes)
To take in the Met Museum highlights on a private or semi-private tour, this exclusive guided tour of the Met art gallery is 5-star rated.
If you choose the private option, you’ll benefit from a personalized introduction to the best exhibits at the Met.
If you choose the semi-private option, the group size will be limited to eight persons.
You’ll zoom in on all of the most important galleries, accompanied by an excellent guide – all in a curated tour of 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Small-group guided tour (3 hours)
Alternatively, you might like this less expensive small-group Met tour, with skip-the-line tickets. It’s also top-rated – and a little longer.
You’ll discover the Met’s top art works and galleries in 3 hours in a small group limited to 15 people.
Passionate about art, your tour guide is an expert art historian, who will entertain you with all the juicy stories behind the famous pieces.
Where is the Met?
Met Fifth Avenue location
One of the best museums in the world, the main Met building is located on 5th Avenue near Central Park.
It’s one of six New York City museums along the fabled “Museum Mile” in the Upper East Side.
The other museums sharing this prime stretch of real estate are the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, El Museo del Barrio, Museum of the City of New York, The Jewish Museum and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
The Met Cloisters
There are more Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits at The Met Cloisters.
Located in Fort Tryon Park, this building, designed to resemble a medieval cloister, houses some 2,000 medieval European artworks.
More information about the Met
Where to stay in New York City
We love 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.
Kimberly Hotel, New York: Check rates and availability
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Photo credits: 2, 4 to 7, 11 to 17 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 8 Metropolitan Museum of Art | Hotel photo Kimberly Hotel & Suites