The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City draws more than 6 million visitors a year. Translation: On any given day, you might share its hallowed halls with about 16,000 other art enthusiasts — an overwhelming crowd level for kids, especially smaller ones who can’t see over anyone’s head. Add in the fact that most children will only spend so long in museums before they begin to get antsy, and you have a recipe for family frustration.
This is where Viator’s wonderful EmptyMet tour comes in. Part of the company’s slate of VIP offerings, it’s a 90-minute walking tour through the galleries before the doors open to the general public. On a recent trip to New York, I got the chance to take the tour with my 10-year-old son, who had never been to the Met before. What a way to experience this iconic museum for the first time!
Our tour group (25 people in all, the maximum size) gathered bright and early inside the Met’s soaring lobby. The tour begins at 8:30a, well before the 10a opening time, and one of the fringe benefits at this hour is that participants get to witness the museum waking up. Staff polish display cases, fix lighting, settle into their security stations and other routine daily tasks. It adds to the intimate, behind-the-scenes feeling that makes an EmptyMet session so special.
Our guide, Page — an art history lecturer at Columbia University — did a first-rate job of leading us through the different wings and galleries efficiently but thoroughly, weaving in collection high points and museum anecdotes along the way. The tour isn’t meant to be comprehensive; the Met is simply too vast to cover in a morning or even a day. The plus is that you get a full overview that helps immensely in deciding where to go back and focus additional time afterward. Tour guests enjoy admission to the museum for the rest of the day, as well as the sister Met Breuer and Met Cloisters branches — though these two deserve their own dedicated outings.
Guides move briskly and participants need to keep pace. A couple of times, my son or I lingered to look at an artifact or a painting and missed part of Page’s narrative.
The ancient Temple of Dendur, built in the time of Caesar Augustus and brought over from Egypt in the 1960s, is one of the Met’s most spectacular exhibits, and it gets mobbed within minutes after the doors open. It’s an incredible treat to view it with no one else in sight: Without the crowds, you can truly take in the temple’s grandeur as well as the arresting space that was purpose-built to house it, and you can admire it at close range without being jostled along. This experience alone is worth the price of the tour.
Other marquee works, such as Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, Monet’s Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies, and Degas’ Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, are also much easier to appreciate without throngs of visitors around them. The tour goes deeper than big-name highlights, however; we also had the chance to explore less widely touted departments such as Oceanic art and decorative arts. Kids especially will love the treasures on display in the Egyptian Wing and the military gear in Arms and Armor.
Page wrapped up our tour on the rooftop garden, which is well worth a visit in fine weather; views of Manhattan from here are lovely. Although we were tempted to linger in the morning sun, we hurried back down in order to snatch a little more solo museum time. Plan it right and start with the galleries farthest from the main entrance, and you’ll buy at least 20 or 30 extra minutes before people begin streaming through.
Although EmptyMet is open to all ages, it is not specifically tailored for young kids; the commentary is fairly high-level. Tweens and up will get the most out of it, though it can also work well for parents of younger children who want to see the museum in a quick and hassle-free way. The tour is offered exclusively through Viator and is the only early-hours Met tour that can be booked on an individual basis (the museum’s own similar tour is limited to groups). Guides are all Met employees, i.e. highly qualified experts in the arts.
Pricing for the EmptyMet tour starts at $125 per person, regardless of age.
Editor’s Note: Viator provided a complimentary tour in order for us to review EmptyMet for families. As always, all opinions on Ciao Bambino are our own. Photos by Lisa Frederick.
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