These sanctuaries of art and beauty make you forget the metropolis outside their doors. They're worth the walk. (And the plane trip.)

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Five days in New York City. Five museums. Five million miles of walking (or, at least, it felt like that, but not unpleasantly).

On a vacation to NYC this month, I thought I’d bypass the vast crowds of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art to visit a few museums that were a little smaller, a little more focused, a little (but just a little) less jampacked. The result: venues that ranged from Gilded Age mansions to soaring modern aeries — and, everywhere, something to get happily lost in.

 

The Frick Collection

If you go

New York museum hopping

The Frick Collection

1 E. 70th St. (at Fifth Avenue), frick.org. General admission $20; pay-what-you-wish Sundays 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Gift shop. Current exhibits include “Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture,” through June 5.

The Morgan Library and Museum

225 Madison Ave. (at 36th Street), themorgan.org. General admission $18; free admission Fridays from 7-9 p.m.; admission to McKim rooms only (Mr. Morgan’s library, study, rotunda and office) is free Tuesdays 3-5 p.m., Fridays 7-9 p.m. and Sundays 4-6 p.m. Cafe, gift shop. Current exhibits include “Wagner’s ‘Ring’: Forging an Epic,” through April 17, and “Warhol By the Book,” through May 15.

Neue Galerie

1048 Fifth Ave. (at 86th Street), neuegalerie.org. General admission $20; free admission on the first Friday of every month, 6-8 p.m. Cafe, gift shop. Current exhibits include “Munch and Expressionism,” through June 13.

The Whitney Museum of American Art

99 Gansevoort St., whitney.org. General admission $22; pay-what-you-wish Fridays 7-9:30 p.m. Cafe, gift shop. Current exhibits include “The Whitney’s Collection,” through April 4.

The Museum at FIT

Seventh Avenue at 27th Street, fitnyc.edu/museum. Admission is free. Current exhibits include “Fairy Tale Fashion,” through April 16.

More information

The advantage of smaller museums is that you can visit more than one in a day: The Frick and Neue Galerie, for example, are within an easy walk of each other; the Museum at FIT is walkable from either the Whitney or the Morgan, if you’re feeling fit. nycgo.com/museums-and-galleries has useful listings of current and upcoming museum exhibits.

Accompanied by his wife, his daughter and 27 servants, industrialist Henry Clay Frick moved into his vast, brand-new Fifth Avenue mansion in 1914. From the beginning, it wasn’t planned to be just a house: Frick’s intention was always to create “a public gallery, to which the entire public shall forever have access.” He lived there just five years before his death in 1919, and in 1935 the Frick Collection opened its doors, showcasing both the home’s gracious spaces and Frick’s vast collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture and decorative objects.

The Garden Court, with its graceful fountain, is the serene center of the Frick Collection. (Michael Bodycomb)
The Garden Court, with its graceful fountain, is the serene center of the Frick Collection. (Michael Bodycomb)
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Visiting today, you’re struck by the sense of quietness; New York’s orchestra of street sounds fades away. The house — particularly the central Garden Court, with its gently bubbling fountain, and the Fragonard Room’s delicious wall-panel painting series “Progress of Love” — has an uncanny way of never feeling too crowded; even on a busy weekend, there’s always a quiet corner. I like to imagine Mr. Frick in the wee hours, tiptoeing down the grand staircase in his nightshirt to spend some private time with his art.

At his death, Frick owned 137 paintings, most Old Master or 19th-century works; more than 50 additional paintings have since been acquired by the museum’s trustees, and the Frick also hosts frequent special exhibits (currently, a collection of Van Dyck portraits). Among the artists represented are Rembrandt, El Greco, Gainsborough, Turner, Vermeer and Whistler. Though they were not on display during this particular visit (the art rotates, depending on current exhibitions), I’m particularly fond of a pair of Whistler portraits: two 1870s women — Lady Meux and Mrs. Frances Leyland — dressed elegantly in shades of pink, gray and cream, looking ready for a stroll down Fifth Avenue on a perfect New York day.

 

The Morgan Library and Museum

Like its uptown cousin the Frick, the Morgan began its life as a private building: a library and study built in 1906 as an annex to banker Pierpont Morgan’s Madison Avenue home, to hold his unwieldy collection of books and manuscripts. Those rooms survive to this day, but make up just part of what’s now a multi-building complex that includes a concert hall, gift shop, restaurant and soaring central atrium.

On any given visit, the Morgan offers a delightful array of exhibits, often of the strange-bedfellows variety: In March, “Wagner’s Ring: Forging an Epic” occupied an upstairs gallery, with “Warhol By the Book,” a collection of Andy Warhol’s playful self-published books and art, installed below. (I quite liked his “A la recherché de shoe perdu,” a shoe-focused riff on Proust.) Among the music manuscripts and ephemera in the Wagner exhibit was an elaborately jeweled baton given to the composer by the King of Bavaria (how, exactly, could you conduct with something so heavy?) and a poetically faded set of four tickets — in soft yellow, gray, blue and pink — to the first complete “Ring” staging at Bayreuth in 1876.

Particularly appealing, though, are the original rooms (open free of charge to the public for several hours per week; see box). Mr. Morgan’s library features three stories of shelves, an ornately painted ceiling, a vast 16th-century tapestry, and a revolving display of manuscripts, and the adjacent study, with its massive fireplace and red-flocked walls, feels like a shrine to the art of reading.

 

Neue Galerie

Just across the street from the Met Museum is this elegant town house (once occupied by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III) turned museum, specializing in early 20th-century German and Austrian art and design. Its three stories house special exhibits (currently, an Edvard Munch retrospective, including the surprisingly soft-edged original rendition of “The Scream”) and collections of decorative objects.

Its greatest jewel sits on the second floor, in a bright gallery: Gustav Klimt’s 1907 “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” a painting seemingly made of light. Its subject, a dark-haired Viennese woman, gazes out as if from an ornate cocoon, her gown and chair made up of geometric patterns — triangles, circles, symbols — in gleaming gold and silver, with hints of blue and red.

“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”: a Neue Galerie jewel. (Hulya Kolabas/NEUE Galerie New York)
“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”: a Neue Galerie jewel. (Hulya Kolabas/NEUE Galerie New York)

On the wall is the painting’s haunting story: Stolen by Nazis during World War II, it was finally recovered many decades later, after lengthy legal procedures, by Adele’s niece Maria Altmann. (Maria’s fight is the subject of the 2015 feature film “Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren.) Though the museum was bustling, I found quiet sitting on a bench gazing at Adele; it’s the kind of painting that pulls you in, creating its own shimmering world.

 

The Whitney Museum of American Art

Relocated just last year from its smaller Madison Avenue location (now home to a new outpost of the Metropolitan Museum, the Met Breuer), the Whitney is now downtown. The museum anchors the formerly sketchy Meatpacking District (you know, where Glenn Close lived in “Fatal Attraction”), now a neighborhood full of designer shops, pricey eateries and random ice-skating rinks for local kids. The museum’s new, modern building, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, features a series of terraces, connected by an outdoor staircase, from which you can gaze at the ever-changing work of art that is the borough of Manhattan (or, across the water, New Jersey).

Traffic streams past the new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
Traffic streams past the new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Another outdoor staircase, near the entrance, takes you to the High Line, an elevated public park on the former site of a train path; shrubs and the occasional flower now embrace the still-visible tracks. From 14th Street to 34th, it’s a pleasant, mile-and-a-half walk along the High Line, crowded with New Yorkers enjoying the sunshine.

Inside the Whitney’s eight floors are an ever-changing display of contemporary American art. The seventh floor, in early March, held an enticing array of selections from the museum’s permanent collection; I paused for a long time in front of a couple of Edward Hopper paintings, trying to grasp just how he was able to convey a certain faded, early-morning quality of light. The fifth floor is a vast single room — it is, according to the Whitney, the largest column-free museum space in New York — where sound bounces off the walls. Museum goers stroll its length, gazing at the expansive views on both ends; appreciating in this busy city a sense of unencumbered space.

 

The Museum at FIT

This one’s a bit of a well-kept secret — and it’s that rarity: a free New York museum. The Fashion Institute of Technology, an accredited college since the 1950s, holds a permanent collection of more than 50,000 garments and accessories; from these, an ever-shifting array of exhibits are formed. “Fairy Tale Fashion,” on display when I visited, pulled designs from the 18th century (a perfect Red Riding Hood cloak) to the present day (an ethereal tulle Marchesa evening gown, just right for Sleeping Beauty) to imaginatively illustrate an array of classic fairy tales.

A “Fairy Tale Fashion” exhibit, at the Museum of FIT, includes historical clothing (such as the 1930s dress, left) from the museum’s vast archives. (such as the 1930s dress, left) from the museum’s vast archives. (Copyright 2016 The Museum at FIT)
A “Fairy Tale Fashion” exhibit, at the Museum of FIT, includes historical clothing (such as the 1930s dress, left) from the museum’s vast archives. (Copyright 2016 The Museum at FIT)

Lingering pleasantly in memory: a Charles James “Swan” evening gown, its black tulle gracefully swirling like its namesake’s wings; a fanciful, twisty hat, inspired by “The Red Shoes,” that seemed like it would dance upon its wearer’s head; and a 1930s gown festooned with stars, as if dropped from a fairy-tale sky. The crowded city around me vanished; all that was left, as in all great museum experiences, was art and beauty.