In the Northeast, New York City is, of course, museum central. But go a few hours outside of the city and you’ll find the home to more transcendent art, with fewer crowds and smaller entrance fees: New Haven, Connecticut. Best known as the hometown of Yale University and a corporate center that bustles with business commuters during the week, New Haven is just a two-hour train ride from NYC. In fact, most of our favorite museums here are free.
Yale University Art Gallery (Free)
Name any ancient region you learned about in your grade school Social Studies class and you’ll find examples of its art at the Yale University Art Gallery. Founded in 1832, this is the oldest university art museum in the United States. Its collections include Etruscan, Egyptian, European, African, and Asian art. So vast are its holdings that they’re housed in multiple buildings — each of which is an architectural marvel, with styles ranging from traditional “Yale gothic” (think: lots of gargoyles), to Louis Kahn’s first modernist masterpiece.
Pro tip: See something that you want to bring home with you? Thanks to Yale’s open-access policy, the Museum offers downloadable photographs of the Gallery’s collection through the Gallery’s website.
The Peabody Museum of Natural History ($13)
If you love the 94-foot fiberglass whale in New York’s American Museum of Natural History, New Haven’s Peabody Museum packs a similar punch. Its Great Hall of Dinosaurs features one of the world’s largest murals. It depicts the wild habitat where dinosaurs roamed — and you can see a vast collection of their prehistoric bones around the hall. In the Hall of Mammalian Evolution, you’ll see a sprawling mural called The Age of Mammals — a sister mural to the dinosaur version, and a backdrop to the Peabody’s other extensive fossil collection. And don’t miss the Discovery Room, where you’ll find live animals that, contrary to most museum rules, you can both see and touch.
Pro tip: Admission is free on Thursdays from 2-5 p.m. from September to June; the museum gift shop is worth checking out any day of the week for its reasonable prices.
Knights of Columbus Museum (Free)
Ever wanted to see a scale model of Michelangelo’s dome in St. Peter’s Basilica? That’s precisely what you’ll see, and more, at the international headquarters of the Knights of Columbus. The museum honors this Vatican connection, the organization’s Catholic roots, with rotating exhibits that reflect the many aspects of the religion. In particular, the museum’s glorious, 120-square-foot Neapolitan crèche has made the museum’s holiday display an annual ritual for locals. But any time of the year, the museum’s narrower focus makes it the perfect culture-rich-yet-digestible diversion after a classic New Haven meal.
Pro Tip: Here’s a perk you’ll never find in the Big Apple: Park for free in the underground lot below the museum, and then ride the elevator straight up to the second floor.
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Free)
The Beinecke Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts may not technically be a museum, but a visit here is just as enlightening. A mezzanine wraps around the edges of the building and displays a range of rotating exhibits. Permanent items on show include the first Western book printed from movable type, and John James Audubon’s Birds of America. Just as interesting as the books? The architecture. On the Yale campus, the Beinecke building rises out of a sunken limestone plaza. It has no windows, but look out toward the exterior walls from the inside and you’ll see how the marble and granite were designed to filter in light in a way that won’t damage the irreplaceable books in the glass column in the center of the library.
Pro Tip: The Beinecke is closed through early spring 2016 for renovations, but if you can’t wait for the spruce-up, check out this podcast on the library from the dean of the Yale School of Architecture. If you’re in town, you can still check out the Alexander Calder artwork “Gallows and Lollipops” across the square from the building.
Yale Center for British Art (Free)
A bequest from Yale alum Paul Mellon, the Yale Center for British Art has become the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom. It’s currently closed for renovations, but there’s lots to look forward to once it reopens in early 2016, including frequent guided tours with docents — perfect for those who like expert structure in their museum visits. Prefer a solitary wander? Exhibits include paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures from British artists and artists who lived in Britain from the Elizabethan period onward. There’s also a library of rare books and manuscripts.
Pro Tip: The Center stands at the heart of downtown New Haven, just off the town green. From here, it’s an easy walk to an early dinner at one of New Haven’s finest dining establishments — or you can step down the block into crackerjack independent bookstore Atticus Books, where you can sip and nibble a snack as you continue your cultural edification.