10 best Chicago museums: Top institutions to visit in Chicago
The Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry and more of the best Chicago museums to take in art, nature, history and culture.
The Art Institute is the best Chicago museum guarded by lions.
Whether you're a local or an out-of-towner, if you have a day off in Chicago, spending it at a museum is a no-duh. (Ferris Bueller knew this; he hit up the Art Institute.) These well-respected institutions offer informative and inspiring encounters with art, history, science and culture, not to mention noteworthy architecture.
There's variety to be experienced: Tour the AIC's bright, Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing, commune with butterflies at the Notebaert Nature Museum or encounter aquatic life at the Shedd Aquarium. Whatever your agenda, be sure to hit our list of the best Chicago museums. Another no-duh suggestion: Take advantage of the museums' free days.
Founded to house the biological and anthropological collections assembled for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, this massive natural history museum still packs ’em in with more than 30 permanent exhibitions covering 300,000 square feet. Inside the permanent displays, you can see glowering dinos, marvel at ancient artifacts from a royal Egyptian tomb, undergo a lesson in cannibalism in the “Pacific Spirits” gallery or take a stroll through the newly rehabbed Halls of Gems and Jade.
You could spend the next four years getting to know this encyclopedic institution, which owns more than 300,000 artworks and artifacts from all over the world and every era from antiquity to the present. Our favorite pieces include the Japanese prints, fragments of local buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Thorne Miniature Rooms. We’re also in love with Renzo Piano’s light-filled Modern Wing, which is the perfect place to enjoy the Art Institute’s architecture and design collection, modern and contemporary art, and gorgeous views of Millennium Park.
The Museum of Contemporary Art houses one of the largest collections of modern art in the nation and frequently hosts major touring exhibits. In addition to its galleries, the MCA also boasts a gift store, bookstore, restaurant, 300-seat theater, and a picturesque sculpture garden.
If you’re into exhibits loaded with interactive bells and whistles, this expansive Hyde Park locale is your ticket. The museum’s focus is broad, with permanent displays that include the popular, health-focused new "You! The Experience" gallery, the new whiz-bang "Science Storms," plus the old faves: a restored U-505 German submarine, a simulated coal mine and a glass-covered hatchery of chicks.
Anchoring the aquatic offerings at this 75-year-old institution are enduring favorites such as piranhas, frogs and snakes of the Amazon; rays, turtles and moray eel of the Caribbean; frightening predator sharks and, the most storied of them all, a 100-plus-year-old Australian lungfish believed to be the longest-living fish in any aquarium in the world. A 2009 rehab of the Oceanarium gave Shedd a lifelike river and tide-pool, a reworked otter habitat, and an attempt to revamp its daily mammal presentations with choreography.
Not so long ago this vibrant museum was the stodgy ol' Chicago Historical Society, which let you cull through thousands of archived photographs and curio. Well, that library still exists, but joining it are several permanent and temporary exhibits, the largest of which is "Chicago: Crossroads of America," a treasure trove of historical objects, including a chunk of the original Fort Dearborn. Other exhibits include “Sensing Chicago” (kids swarm around the giant Chicago dog) and revolving displays showing off one of the world's largest costume collections.
From prairie and river ecosystems to the biology of Ice Age–mammals, nature and its conservation, the focus at this Lincoln Park museum situated alongside a lagoon is vast and varied. Hands-on interactive displays on marsh and river ecosystems engage kids, while the thousand fluttering beauties of the 2,700-square-foot Judy Istock Butterfly Haven appeal to all ages.
When this institution opened in 1961, African-American history was suffering serious neglect at the hands of the city’s—and for that matter the nation’s—cultural institutions. The Hyde Park cultural hub is now one of the oldest African-American–focused museums in the country. On display are documents and artifacts from the lives of overlooked or unjustly marginalized movers and shakers, plus a collection of vibrant African-American art.
The largest Latino cultural organization in the U.S. is located in Pilsen. Visit the museum and you'll find a 6,000-piece permanent collection, rotating exhibits, performing-arts showcases and educational programming that represents an illustrious Mexican culture.
Though it’s staffed by world-class researchers at the forefront of their field, the museum’s real draw will always be the virtual-reality trips through time and space in the Sky Theater, which—thanks to a 2011 rehab—features the "highest resolution and quality possible." Themes usually center around the known and unknown universe and how humans have engaged with it throughout history.
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I highly recommend TIMING your visit to Museum Campus (Adler, Field, Shedd) to enjoy LUNCH at ADLER, and take in a sky show before or after. You get a million-dollar view of the skyline from Adler's floor-to-ceiling glass-walled cafeteria, with friendly budget-priced HEALTHY menu options. I'm a big fan of Alder (and a member) and know they have the finest sky show theater technology in the WORLD, and the friendliest astronomers too. Also, Adler's adults-only "Adler After Dark" the 3rd Thursday each month from 6pm - 10pm has been voted the most popular museum date-night event in Chicago. Don't forget to look through the telescopes and make a wish upon a star (or planet ; ) ~cheers+stars, Audrey