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The United States is home to more than 35,000 museums—that’s more than any other country in the world and more than all of the nation’s McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Walmarts combined. In other words, Americans like museums. But not just in quantity. According to National Geographic, America ties Italy for first in terms of highest-rated museums in the world. Looking for the best of the best? From esteemed to offbeat, here are the 12 every American should visit at least once in their lifetime.

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The Smithsonian: Washington, D.C.

National Museum of African-Amerian history and culture.

The Smithsonian is the largest museum in the world spread out across 19 different buildings on or around the National Mall. Each are free, but it would take years to see them all. For the best of the best, consider the family-oriented Museum of Natural History, The Air & Space Museum for understanding the miracle of flight, and the Museum of American History for the original Star-Spangled Banner flag, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Julia’s Child’s kitchen and the Greensboro Lunch Counter. Allow for at least 2-3 hours at each. Reserve a private tour of the Natural History Museum right here.

City Museum: St. Louis

City Museum, St. Louis

City Museum, St. Louis

The second museum on our list is also the most playful. Located near downtown St. Louis, City Museum is basically a giant fun-house filled with adult-sized slides, tunnels, steps, climbing walls, and ladders. Whether you’re a kid or kid at heart, you’ll enjoy the steampunk design, four full floors of exhibits, 30 multi-story slides, and massive outdoor jungle gym with a floating bus and airplane.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art: NYC

Welcome to the largest art museum in the United States and the third-most visited in the world. Here you can get lost in more than 5,000 years of art from all over the world. The diversity and breadth of exhibits is absolutely mind-blowing, even for people who think they don’t like art. Unless you’re planning on spending weeks here, it’s best to strategize a plan of attack before your first visit. Highlights include masterpieces by Monet, Van Gogh, and O’Keefe, plus “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” and many others. Reserve a guided tour here.

National Civil Rights Museum: Memphis

A somber but important institution that is suitable for all ages. Built within and around the former Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the National Civil Rights Museum offers a sobering look at the enslavement, liberation, segregation, and eventual civil rights of African Americans since their arrival to the North America  in the 1600s. An adjacent building walks visitors through Dr. King’s assassination. Plan for at least 2-3 hours and prepare to be humbled.

Andy Warhol Museum: Pittsburgh

Located in the city where the pop artist was born and raised, The Andy Warhol Museum is the largest museum in North America dedicated to a single artist. The permanent and impressive collection not only displays many of his most famous works of art, including film and video and the interactive Silver Clouds, but also offers insight into the life and times of the mercurial artist. Take a screen test and grab your very own 15 minutes of fame. Easily one of the most fun and lively museums you’ll ever visit.

Neon Museum: Las Vegas

Photo courtesy of the Neon Museum

Although Paris is known as “The City of Lights,” Las Vegas could legitimately challenge that nickname. Founded in 1996, the Neon Museum attempts to capture the highly electric and gaudy lighting the city is famous for. Located within walking distance of downtown, the outdoor campus covers nearly three acres of decades-old, recently retired, and large neon signage ready to explore via guided tours that reveal Sin City’s turbulent and fascinating history (advance reservations are essential). Absolutely visit at night when working signs are lit up.

The Henry Ford: Detroit

The Henry Ford, Detroit

The Henry Ford, Detroit

Although he didn’t invent the automobile, Henry Ford certainly popularized it, and made it accessible to many. At The Henry Ford museum in suburban Dearborn, which is also the headquarters for the motor company, visitors can explore “one of the world’s coolest museums,” according to the New York Times. Featuring more than nine acres of exhibits, highlights include Rosa Parks’s famous bus, President Kennedy’s limousine, and Abraham Lincoln’s chair among other Americana. You can easily spend over three hours here.

The Getty Center: Los Angeles

Getty Center

Both inside and out, The Getty just might be the most beautiful place in the already beautiful City of Angels. Although it cost more than $1 billion to construct, the museum and its six buildings are entirely free to visitors (though parking is not), as are the well-manicured gardens and stunning views overlooking Los Angeles. Whether you appreciate the amazing outside architecture or inside paintings on display (Van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne, etc.), this is one place you will not forget.

Kennedy Space Center: Florida

Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Although the U.S. placed second for first person into outer space (behind Russia) in the late 1950s, America has led the space race ever since. Located 50 miles east of Orlando on Merritt Island, the space center is both NASA’s primary launch center as well as a visitors center. Here you can see a real space shuttle, touch a moon rock, meet an astronaut, tour NASA, and view a real moon rocket. Plan for well over three hours to experience it all. Reserve your advance tickets here.

The Art Institute of Chicago

Take in the painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” at the Art Institute of Chicago. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Recently voted the best art museum in America, The Art Institute of Chicago packs a mighty punch. And the best part is you can see a lot of impressive artwork (some might argue even more than The Met) without ever feeling overwhelmed. Built for the 1893 World’s Fair, this downtown stunner’s highlights include Grant Wood’s “American Gothic, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” and Seurat’s “Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” The beautiful Modern Wing includes a pedestrian bridge that drops visitors right into the heart of Millennium Park.

National WWII Museum: New Orleans

One of the highest-rated museums in the country, The National WWII Museum is also one of its largest and most moving. Located in the Central Business District in New Orleans, this 32,000-square-foot exhibit details why the war was fought, how it was won (both at home and abroad) and what the allied victory means today. The only downside, the museum can be overwhelming. Some visitors report the need for two or three full days to see it all.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland

To really fit in, be sure to refer to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum as the “Rock Hall.”

What better place to celebrate and examine the story of rock and roll than in America, the place where it was born? Located in downtown Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame documents the artists, producers, engineers, and other notable figures who made the music possible. But since it traces the roots of rhythm and blues, hip hop, and country music in addition to rock, it’s a must for all music fans. Reserve your advance tickets here.

About the author: Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a seasoned writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his supportive family and loyal dog.

Tagged: California, Chicago, Chicago, Florida, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Memphis, Midwest, New Orleans, St. Louis, Tennessee, Washington DC

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Blake Snow

Blake Snow

Blake writes for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a seasoned writer-for-hire and energetic travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his loving family and loyal dog, and hopes to visit all seven continents someday.

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