Had it up to here with winter? Bad news, then – for many Americans, the coldest season is only just, er, warming up. With signs of spring far away in the distance, it may be time to take your search for inspiration indoors – if these unique museums don't cure your winter blahs at least temporarily (after all, some of them are in places where winter is hardly even a thing), you may need your pulse checked.
Chihuly Garden & Glass, Seattle
Even the darkest Northwest winter day is no match for the volcano's worth of light and color contained within this compact but truly memorable museum, perhaps the most essential in Seattle for any casual visitor. Dedicated to the life and work of one of the city's best-known artists, the Chihuly is nothing like any museum you've been to lately – it's easy to be cynical about the price of admission ($22), but once you set foot inside, you'll be more than glad you did.
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American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore
Charm City's no slouch in the culture department, with two terrific traditional art museums – the Walters and the BMA – that are always free (and you should really make time for both.) But the quirky AVAM, steps from the Inner Harbor, is a true Baltimore essential, a haven for outsider and folk artists that's run by some of the genre's most passionate advocates. In typical Baltimore style, even the most unusual pieces are presented without so much of a whiff of judgment or paternalism.
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Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville
You're thinking, what kind of museum gets built with Walmart money? An unforgettable one. From its location deep inside a 120-acre nature preserve to the striking designs of starchitect Moshe Safdie, to the largest Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture you've ever seen to the gorgeous café bathed in natural light and suspended over water to the surprising selection of American greats, it's all one big win. This might not be the most essential collection in the country just yet, but you're never going to forget your visit. Admission is always free, that includes a visit to the new Bachman-Wilson House, a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece recently relocated from the East Coast to a secluded clearing just a short walk from the museum's main entrance.
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National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, Washington, DC
Buried inside the vast National Arboretum, itself an underappreciated gem on a long list of same in the nation's capital, this inspired and surprisingly extensive museum is laid out like the Asian garden of your dreams and dedicated entirely to that most delicate of gardening arts. So secluded is the museum, you'll often find yourself in utter solitude – particularly in winter – to meditate upon the world-class collection of ancient miniatures, including a handsome white pine that survived the decimation of Hiroshima during World War II – it's closing in on its 400th birthday. Note: The Japanese Pavilion – a crucial part of the experience – is currently closed for renovation, but there's still plenty to see.
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National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago
Founded nearly 35 years ago far from the museum cluster along Chicago's tourist-friendly lakefront, this colorful and cozy jewel situated in a city park near an 'L' stop in the fast-changing Pilsen district is a no-admission-charged cure for even the most notorious of Great Lakes winter days. Celebrating the heritage of one of Chicago's largest ethnic groups as well as cutting-edge art from both sides of the border, the seasonal Dia de los Muertos exhibit alone is worth a journey for its avant-garde ofrendas. Year-round, the extensive museum store is a favorite with gift-givers, a trip to Mexico without the sunburn.
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Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford
The nation's oldest public art museum is again one of our most exciting, following a recently-completed, $33 million renovation that's guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even the most cynical visitor to one of New England's most misunderstood cities. Time your visit to one of the museum's many community outreach programs -- from First Thursday evenings to family-friendly Second Saturdays to the multiple Community Days held each year, there's never a dull moment.
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Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids
From the stark – and great – outdoors of this 158-acre campus filled with world-class sculpture to the steamy tropical gardens indoors, the Meijer in winter is a great place to remind yourself of just how beautiful the season can be. Also, with all that hot/cold/hot/cold, it's kind of like going to a spa. A spa with terrific art, both natural and manmade. If you've never been, this is the year – a landmark exhibition from celebrity Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has just opened; it'll be up until August 2017.
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Mingei International Museum, San Diego
Dedicated entirely to folk art (and contemporary craft) from around the world, there's something so very delightful about this relatively small museum, one in a crowd along Balboa Park's culture-heavy Prado. Whether it's a tribute to surf culture (a recent show) or an intriguing look at craft icons from each of the fifty states (closing in late February, hurry), the Mingei is ever-changing and never boring.
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Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Of all the things Boston's known for, exploring its wild side – whether it be architecturally or otherwise – isn't one of them. That's what makes stepping into the bright, Venetian-style courtyard at this iconic art museum such a joy, particularly in the frozen depths of February. Through the spring, a tropical flower show adds even more life to the temperature-controlled courtyard – it's the perfect retreat after (or before, or during) some serious quality time with the Gardner's world-class collection.
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Perez Art Museum, Miami
Flying to Miami is cure enough for the winter-addled, but there's even more to love these days, with the once-forgotten mainland (the actual city of Miami) absolutely on fire with waves of new development. The first arrival in the city's promising Museum Park, the Perez is one of the most ambitious new museum buildings on the continent, featuring a striking, eco-friendly design complete with hanging gardens, all in a gorgeous, bay front setting – it's modern Miami very nearly at its most seductive. Oh, and there's some art inside, too, if you can tear yourself away from the sunshine.
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