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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, history and culture

Paul Velgos
Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois,

Whether you’re just visiting or you’re a local pondering how to spend a day off, you’d be remiss if you didn’t dig into Chicago’s museums. We’ve got a world-class museum scene—while the Art Institute makes us an international destination, our science, history and nature institutions make up some of the best attractions in Chicago. From Hyde Park to Pilsen to the Loop, these are the ten best museums in Chicago.

Oh, and, while you’re at it, make sure you take advantage of free museum days. Talk about a no-brainer.  

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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Grant Park
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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Museum Campus
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 presents works by local artists, showcasing rising talent and hosting workshops and discussion. The museum is currently undergoing a a rennovation, which will add a new restaurant (helmed by Lula Cafe chef Jason Hammel) and expanded areas for public programming.

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4

Museum of Science and Industry

Recommended

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
5

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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Lower West Side
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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Museum Campus
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7

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. Chance the Rapper recently joined the museum's board—our fingers are crossed for a Chicago hip-hop exhibition.

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Washington Park
8

Chicago History Museum

Recommended

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
9

Smart Museum of Art

Not into the cutting edge installations at the Renaissance Society? Art-lovers visiting the University of Chicago have more than one option for seeing art on campus, including the Smart Museum of Art which houses the college's collection of fine art and antiquities. The institution works with art scholars to develop exhibits and public programs that help spread the appreciation of art in all its forms.

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Hyde Park
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10

The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

Recommended

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.

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Lincoln Park

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