A Helluva Town For Offbeat Museums

Next time you're hungry to go museum-hopping in New York, don't instinctively bolt for warhorses such as the Metropolitan or the Guggenheim for the umpteenth time. Instead, choose one of the city's smaller, offbeat museums. You can visit them in as little as 45 minutes--an ideal respite for a traveler with a meeting-packed day. And the memories could last a lifetime.

To escape the relentless speed and growling traffic of Manhattan streets, the contemplative Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Queens--complete with chirping birds and weeping cherry trees--is the perfect retreat. This indoor-outdoor gallery, opening onto a sculpture garden, was the workshop of Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). His abstract compositions, carved out of marble and granite boulders, avoid being for connoisseurs only, and some works are truly spellbinding. My favorite: an outdoor sculpture fountain that has a hypnotic effect as water spills gently over the rim of a basalt basin.

IMMIGRANT LIFE. If cross-cultural modern sculpture sounds too cerebral, try the more down-to-earth Lower East Side Tenement Museum, at 90 Orchard St. Here you will be taken on a tour through one of the dark and dingy buildings that housed immigrant Jewish and Italian families at the turn of the century. You'll get a good sense of the cramped living conditions of the time as well as a whiff of the malodorous, windowless rooms. The trophy is an original, soiled water closet with newsprint pinned to the wall for toilet paper. (New Yorkers apparently took to recycling early.) The surrounding neighborhood is still the first stop for the city's current wave of Chinese immigrants--whose living conditions are not much better.

If you prefer riches to rags, a visit to the gold vault of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York at 33 Liberty St. could be fun. It must be booked at least a week in advance (212 720-6130) but it's worth the extra planning. Locked behind steel bars, buried five stories below street level, the world's most-guarded "inmates"--about 10,000 tons of gold ingots--are stashed away in a basement half the size of a football field. The vault houses $126 billion worth of gold belonging to foreign central banks, causing the New York Fed to sit atop the world's largest gold cache. Luckily, the stuff still hasn't sunk as low as Vladimir Lenin prophesied: "When we are victorious on a world scale," he wrote, "we shall use gold for the purpose of building lavatories in the streets...."

INTERACTIVE TRIBE. If you have any interest in ethnic art, don't miss the revamped National Museum of the American Indian, located in the palatial U.S. Customs House building at One Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan. I was taken aback by the museum's innovative way of displaying art: You can use interactive videos to put the work into context or join a "talking circle," a workshop in which Native Americans who still live on reservations talk about their lives, tribes, beadwork, and art with visitors.

Ironically, the Customs House that holds the art was built at a time when many believed Indian culture would disappear in the wake of Western civilization. One of the sculptures is a female figure, representing America, crushing an Aztec deity underfoot.

Another gem beyond the usual Manhattan haunts is the Studio Museum in Harlem, one of the nation's premier venues of African-American art. From one of the gallery's windows, you can glimpse a burned-out tenement house, parts of which have been used in one of the works currently on display.

In fact, much of the art reflects the rough edges of its urban surroundings, such as poverty and drug use. But don't let that deter you from exploring the neighborhood. The museum is in the busy 125th Street shopping district, where you'll find everything from African fabrics to genuine hair wigs and extensions. After all, New York's best museums are its living, breathing neighborhoods, on permanent display and free of charge.

Getting There

BY CAB Each museum mentioned is less than a $5 cab ride from downtown hotels or offices, except for the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum at 32-37 Vernon Blvd. in Long Island City, Queens (about $14), and the Studio Museum at 144 W. 125th St. (between Lenox and Seventh Avenue) in Harlem (about $20).

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.