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The giant among New York museums both figuratively and literally: At 1.6 million square feet, it’s not just the biggest museum in the city, it’s the largest one in this hemisphere. And I’d argue it competes in stature with the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Uffizi in Florence, and the British Museum in London.

On view are masterworks from nearly all the world’s cultures—from Egyptian mummies to ancient Greek statuary to Islamic carvings to Renaissance paintings to Native American masks to 20th-century decorative arts. Obviously, there’s no way to see it all in one, two, or even five visits. So you must choose carefully among the 18 curatorial departments and decide what interests you most.

One way to do so is by taking one of the hour-long scholarly “Highlight” tours—free with admission and offered five times a day—led by volunteer docents. These enthusiastic art lovers are a treasure in and of themselves, highly trained and well-spoken. They’ll run you all over the museum, pointing out and expounding upon the various gems of the collection, offering a quick taste of the museum’s highlights so that you can come back yourself and feast upon what really interests you.

If I had to pick the top five highlights, I’d select:

  • The European paintings collection on the second floor (expanded in 2013 from 450 works to 700) with such jewels as Velazquez’s truer-than-life portrait of Juan de Pareja (the slave whom the painter respected enough—you can see it in the painting—to set free); El Greco’s brooding land scape of Toledo; 20 Rembrandts; five light-kissed Vermeers; a roomful of van Goghs; and works by Manet, Monet, de Goya, Breughel, Van Eyck, and every other master you read about in your college art-history course.
  • The period rooms, which re-create dozens of important chambers, including Louis XIV’s state bedroom in Versailles; and the stunning Cubiculum from Boscoreale, a perfectly preserved, brilliantly colorful room from a villa a mile from Pompeii that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in a.d 15 b.c.79. Whenever I visit these rooms I’m always reminded of the terrific children’s novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which the protagonists slept each night in a historic bed. Share it with your tweens and they’ll be dying to come here.
  • The American Collection, the most comprehensive in the world, featuring masterworks by Sargent, Homer, Tiffany, Leutze (his sentimental but rippingly fun Washington Crossing the Delaware), and many more.
  • The Egyptian Collection includes some pieces discovered by the Met’s own teams of archaeologists, such as the miniature figures found in a tomb in Thebes that show in intricate detail what daily life for a wealthy Egyptian was like. There are also elaborate statuary; mummy cases; jewelry; wall paintings; and the Temple of Dendur, an actual temple to the goddess Isis that was saved from the rising waters of the Nile after the construction of the Aswan Dam.
  • The hidden Hall of Art from Japan, with its famed Iris Screens (on many Metropolitan Museum products), is also home to architectural-looking suits of armor, delicate woodcuts, and dazzling kimonos. To my mind, this one of the most ravishingly beautiful sections of the museum.
Along with all the art, the Met has half a dozen cafes and restaurants, wonderful gift shops and bookstores, and tremendously engaging art and culture programs for children of all ages (mostly on the weekends; visit the website for info).

Note: The Metropolitan will be taking over the Whitney’s old building and moving its modern art collection into that in early 2015 while a 7-year gut renovation of the Met’s modern wing takes place.