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The Art Institute of Chicago
Photograph: Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

The 13 best Chicago museums

Learn about art, science, history and beyond at the best museums Chicago has to offer.

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long
Contributor
Lindsay Eanet
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Don't ask yourself if you should visit one of Chicago's many museums and cultural institutions—instead, let us help you figure out which one. Want to see one of the world's premiere collections of art? Time to visit the Art Institute. Love everything related to natural history and dino bones? Grab tickets to the Field Museum on Museum Campus. Whether you're an art lover, history buff, architecture nerd or just looking for a fun way to spend an afternoon, the city's museums are some of the top Chicago attractions. And you don't have to spend a lot to learn and explore: check out the always-free permanent collections at the National Museum of Mexican Art, Smart Museum and other local institutions, or keep an eye out for upcoming free museum days in Chicago. Plan a day to explore the best museums in Chicago and get ready to learn a thing or two. 

RECOMMENDED: Discover more of the best things to do in Chicago

Best Chicago museums

  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • Museum Campus

Originally 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 20 permanent exhibitions covering 480,000 square feet. Guests come from all around the world to see towering dinos, marvel at ancient artifacts from a royal Egyptian tomb or relax in a Chinese rock garden hidden inside the Cyrus Tang Hall of China. While a gigantic titanosaur skeleton named Máximo now guards the lobby, you'll find the Field's former greeter, SUE the T. rex, residing in the “Evolving Planet” exhibit. There's something for everyone, and you can easily spend an entire day here. 

  • Attractions
  • Zoo and aquariums
  • Museum Campus
  • price 3 of 4

Guests must buy timed tickets online before visiting the Shedd Aquarium.

Anchoring the aquatic offerings at this Chicago institution are enduring favorites such as piranhas, frogs and snakes of the Amazon; rays and turtles of the Caribbean; frightening predator sharks, mesmerizing jellies, adorable penguins (including the famous rockhoppers Wellington, Edward and Annie) and marine mammals like sea lions, otters and the beloved beluga whales. The aquarium boasts seven permanent exhibits, making it easy to spend an entire day wandering through the Shedd. We recommend identifying a handful of must-see exhibits before you go to prioritize your time. Or just make a list and tick off the others on your next visit! 

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Grant Park

One of the city's most well-known cultural buildings—thanks to the iconic pair of bronze lions that flank grand steps leading up to the entrance—the Art Institute of Chicago is just as impressive once you make your way inside. With almost 300,000 artworks in its permanent collection, you'll find thousands of paintings, sculptures, photos and drawings displayed throughout a sprawling complex of galleries and halls. If you're a first-time guest, make a beeline for Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (as seen in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—high and low culture is the best combo, after all) and the contemporary collection in the Modern Wing. Returning visitors can explore the Thorne Miniatures Rooms (reportedly a favorite of director Wes Anderson) in the museum's basement, as well as traveling exhibits devoted to the likes of Andy Warhol and Van Gogh. There’s arguably too much art at this institution—at least, too much for one day—but we're not complaining.

  • Museums
  • History
  • Lincoln Park

Formerly known as the Chicago Historical Society, this lively museum commemorates the past through the exhibitions that explore historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and local delicacies like the Chicago-style hot dog. Range! Guests can climb aboard a vintage L car in "Chicago: Crossroads of America" or gaze at lithographs of the city that were created in the 1860s. If you're working on a project that draws on the history of Chicago, you can register for access to the museum's Research Library, which houses thousands of photographs, publications and artifacts that document the city's history. It's situated just inside Lincoln Park near Old Town, so it's an ideal spot to kick off a nice long stroll along the lake.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Streeterville

Among the largest institutions in the world dedicated to art created post-1950, the Museum of Contemporary Art is best known for hosting major touring exhibitions, including past exhibitions celebrating luminaries like Virgil Abloh, David Bowie and Takashi Murakami. Throughout the MCA's galleries, you'll also find exhibits dedicated to rising local and international artists (including the museum's ongoing Chicago Works series). Once you're finished strolling through the galleries, make sure to exit through the well-curated gift shop.

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Loop

Guests are encouraged to register in advance when the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Stop scrolling through Instagram and check out some of the amazing shots that line the walls of the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Founded by Columbia College Chicago, the Loop-based gallery hosts around multiple shows each year, including groundbreaking new work made by artists around the globe as well as archival prints from the institution's archives. It doesn't take long to see everything on display in this relatively small museum, which makes it a perfect place to experience a bit of culture during your lunch break, or between checking out all the other great museums, galleries and other things to do in Chicago. 

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  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • Hyde Park
  • price 2 of 4

Packed with exhibits that allow you to step inside a simulated tornado or navigate a maze lined with mirrors, the Museum of Science and Industry has no shortage of interactive bells and whistles that will appeal to younger and older visitors alike. Even if you graduated high school decades ago, displays featuring a restored U-505 German submarine, a simulated coal mine and a recreation of a Chicago street circa 1910 might make you feel like you're on a school field trip again—but a good one, and with a better lunch! Keep in mind that you're walking through a building that was originally created for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. 

  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • price 1 of 4

For more than 100 years, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has been leading excavations and research projects in the SWANA (South West Asia and North Africa) region to understand our collective human history. Going as far back as 6,000 years, artifacts include an ancient saddle, various ceramic items such as jugs, bowls and incense burners, and some of the famous Megiddo Ivories. Also on display are objects from ancient Assyria, Anatolia, Israel, Egypt, Persia and in the Mesopotamian gallery, a stunning, hard-to-miss 40-ton human-headed winged bull sculpture from Khorsabad.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Hyde Park

Situated on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park, the Smart Museum of Art was conceived as an institution where scholars could study the arts and develop exhibitions. Today, it's open to the public (admission is always free) and is home to the college's collection of fine art and antiquities, including scrolls and ceramics from China as well as contemporary works by the likes of Kerry James Marshall and Andy Warhol. Explore exhibits devoted to sprawling installations and local art movements before taking a seat in the museum's courtyard sculpture garden.

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  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Washington Park

Open since 1961, this Hyde Park cultural hub is the oldest independent African American museum in the country, housing documents and artifacts from the lives of movers and shakers like activist Ida B. Wells and poet Langston Hughes, plus a collection of vibrant African American art. You'll even find Chance the Rapper's Grammy award for best rap album on display.

  • Museums
  • Natural history
  • Lincoln Park
  • price 1 of 4

Set amid prairies and gardens in Lincoln Park, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum offers a variety of ways to heighten your appreciation of the natural world. Exhibitions explore Chicago's prairie and river ecosystems as well as the biology of Ice Age mammals and Midwestern birds. Kids will enjoy taking a guided tour of the museum's 1/3-mile outdoor nature trail while guests of all ages will be wowed by the thousand fluttering beauties that reside within the 2,700-square-foot Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. It's near the middle of Lincoln Park, so it's a great spot to visit mid-stroll, too. 

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Lower West Side

You can see bright, colorful murals by walking through the streets of Pilsen, but there's even more amazing art on display at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Harrison Park. One of the largest Latinx cultural organizations in the U.S., exhibitions draw from a permanent collection of more than 10,000 works, highlighting the creativity of artists on both sides of the border. Start with the permanent exhibit "Nuestra Historias," which includes everything from 18th century religious paintings to a tricked-out lawn mower. Admission is always free, and new shows debut regularly, including a new exhibit featuring photos from Frida Kahlo's personal collection.

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