The American Museum of Natural History comes as close as any tourist attraction to summarizing all human knowledge under one roof. That's why nearly 5 million people visit the institution every year. You should be one of them.
Enter at the Hall of the Universe on 81st Street, where the exhibitions exploring astronomers' efforts to observe hundreds of planets and examining the evolution of humanity's perception of the universe through Ptolemy, Copernicus, Shapley, Hubble and today's leading scientists will immediately remind you that you're just one little speck in the cosmos.
Whatever interests you, you'll find it in the museum: taxidermic versions of nearly every type of animal under the sun, artifacts from civilizations in every corner of the globe and throughout history, vivid explanations of geological and ecological phenomena, looks inside the human body and deep beneath the ocean and, of course, dinosaur fossils.
President Theodore Roosevelt even has major connections to the museum: he donated specimens after a 14-month trip to Africa that began in spring 1909; there's a hall within the building honoring him and a statue outside; and you can see a taxidermied elephant shot by Roosevelt himself in the Hall of African Mammals.
To really understand the scope of the museum, see it for yourself. It's big—but, like, not as big as the universe, man. Here's how to get the most out of a visit
How to Get There
B or C subway train to 81st St./Museum Of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street, Manhattan
The Rose Center for Earth and Space lives up to its all-encompassing name. Indeed, it's a place where you can hear a world-renowned physicist explain the vast expanse of the universe: In addition to discrediting big-budget films on scientific grounds, Neil DeGrasse Tyson narrates the Dark Universe show at the Hayden Planetarium's Space Theater. The eye-popping program focuses on "dark matter" and "dark energy"—the portion of the universe we can't yet see—which astronomers estimate is about 95%.
More outer-space fun: the Cosmic Pathway allows you to cover the 13-billion-year history of the universe along a spiraling path not much longer than a football field. (Think that's efficient? The whole universe was once compressed into the size of a golf ball).
The Hall of Planet Earth, meanwhile, answers questions about our own home within the universe: How has the planet's climate changed over time? What's a stromatolite? What causes a volcanic eruption? How old is the oldest known fossil? The estimate for the last question: 3.5 million years old, and you can view the specimen through a thin layer of clear plastic.
The Fossil Halls may be the first thing most kids and many adults picture when they think of the museum. The big prizes here are in the Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs and the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs; that's where you'll find fossils and casts of the likes of the Tyrannosaurus rex (a Saurischian, in case you're wondering—that group is distinguished by its hands, which feature a grasping thumb). One particularly noteworthy specimen in the Ornithischian display is a dinosaur mummy that's so well preserved it includes an imprint of the duck-billed creature's skin.
The Hall of Ocean Life is all about the many creatures that live under the sea, where life on Earth first began and which remains largely unexplored. The hall has models approximating hundreds of the known species that make their homes underwater, including that famous 21,000-pound, 94-foot blue whale presiding over the entire room from the ceiling.
The Human Origins and Cultural Halls trace the development of world civilizations through artifacts from human history; all are accompanied by helpful captions. In one section, the Hall of Mexico and Central America, you can see the famous 20-ton Aztec Stone of the Sun; over in the Hall of African Peoples you'll learn about life on the continent and discover, for example, how such innovations as iron tools changed society. The Hall of Human Origins, meanwhile, is where you can see millions of years of evolution up close—among the most striking items on display is the skeleton of Lucy, a 4-foot-tall hominid more than 3 million years old.
Special exhibition The Secret World Inside You gives a blown-up look at the 100 trillion bacteria that live within a typical human body and the ways they shape lives. The Butterfly Conservatory (Sept–May) is especially popular in winter because it's heated to accommodate the hundreds of live butterflies fluttering about.
• If you're planning to take in all the shows and special exhibitions—which require separate tickets—the SuperSaver pass is a good way to save cash. Just make sure to leave enough time to do everything: arrive early and map out your showtimes and exhibition visits in detail. The floor plan (available for free in person at the museum and on its website) can help you strategize the most efficient walking routes.
• In addition to the main entrance in the Rose Center, you can enter the museum on its lowest level, directly from the subway station at 81st Street.
• Guided museum tours are free with admission and take place hourly from 10:15am to 3:15pm. They last between 45 minutes and an hour.
• If you only have time for a short visit, consider one of the times when the museum is least crowded—late afternoons and early Sunday mornings.
• The gift shop, much like the universe itself, is always changing. They've got old standbys like space ice cream along with other more timely stuff: for example, you might find merchandise themed to upcoming holidays or recent box-office blockbusters.