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10 best Chicago museums: Top institutions to visit in Chicago

The Art Institute, Field Museum and more of the best Chicago museums to take in art, nature, history and culture

Photograph: Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

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 are among the top Chicago attractions, offering 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. Whether you plan on spending time in the Loop or traveling to Pilsen, be sure to hit our list of the best Chicago museums. Another no-duh suggestion: Take advantage of free museum days.

The best Chicago museums

1

Art Institute of Chicago

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 New Contemporary" exhibition, 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.

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Loop
2

The Field Museum

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, take a stroll through the Halls of Gems and Jade or relax in a Chinese rock garden in the new "Cyrus Tang Hall of China."

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South Loop
3

Museum of Contemporary Art

The Museum of Contemporary Art houses one of the largest collections of modern art in the nation and frequently hosts major touring exhibits, displaying work by the likes of Doris Salcedo, Simon Starling and Daniel Clowes. The museum's regular Chicago Works series makes space for pieces by local artists, showcasing rising talent while hosting workshops and discussion. In addition to its galleries, the MCA also boasts a gift store, bookstore, restaurant, 300-seat theater, and a picturesque sculpture garden.

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Gold Coast
4

Shedd Aquarium

Anchoring the aquatic offerings at this more than 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 tide pool and a reworked otter habitat, where you'll find some of the facility's newest (and cutest) residents.

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South Loop
5

Museum of Science and Industry

Critics' pick

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 mirror maze in the "Numbers in Nature" exhibit, the whiz-bang "Science Storms," plus the old favorites: A restored U-505 German submarine, a simulated coal mine and a vintage diesel-electric train.

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Hyde Park
6

Adler Planetarium

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 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. The recently renovated "Mission Moon" exhibit allows visitors to see the Gemini 12 capsule and learn more about the early days of the space race. For some after-hours fun, check out the monthly Adler After Dark parties.

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South Loop
7

Chicago History Museum

Critics' pick

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 hot dog) and revolving displays that explore the life of Abraham Lincoln.

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Lincoln Park
8

DuSable Museum of African American History

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.

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Hyde Park
9

The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

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 countless fluttering beauties of the 2,700-square-foot Judy Istock Butterfly Haven appeal to all ages. You'll want to visit on a nice day—the outdoor gardens are gorgeous.

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Lincoln Park
10

National Museum of Mexican Art

You don't have to look any further than Pilsen to find one of the largest Latino cultural organizations in the U.S. Visit the National Museum of Mexican Art and explore its 6,000-piece permanent collection, rotating exhibits, performing arts showcases and educational programming that represents an illustrious Mexican culture.

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Pilsen

Comments

4 comments
Rosetta C
Rosetta C

Glad I found you. Thanks for being.  I'll find some interesting museums to explore with my granddaughter this summer.  Thumbs Up!

Jake N
Jake N

I should definately recommend you shopanddiscover.com, it's a great resourse for anyone who looking on how to spare his free time around Chicago area. Great small cafeterias, shops and places of interest - it helped me so much when I was in town. 

Strongly recommended. 

Audrey F
Audrey F

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