Whether you're visiting the city for the first time or you're a local looking for something to do on your day off, Chicago museums are can't-miss destinations. You'll find world-class institutions throughout the city, including collections devoted to contemporary art, natural history and science that are among Chicago's best attractions. Head to Field Museum to see towering dinosaur skeletons, explore the contemporary masterpieces in the Art Institute's Modern Wing or stand inside a simulated tornado at the Museum of Science and Industry. And if you're short on cash, it might be worth scheduling your visit around an upcoming free museum day. Embrace your inner anthropologist, biologist or astronomer at the best Chicago museums.
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Best Chicago museums
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 more than 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) and the contemporary collection in the Modern Wing. Returning visitors can explore the Thorne Miniatures Rooms in the museum's basement, as well as traveling exhibits devoted to the likes of Andy Warhol and Van Gogh.
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 visitors. 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—not to mention the fact that you're walking through a building that was originally created for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.
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, such as a retrospective of Doris Salcedo's emotionally charged installations and a colorful display of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami's work. 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). Make sure to exit through the well-curated gift shop and consider sticking around for a meal at the adventurous in-house restaurant, Marisol, helmed by Lula Cafe chef Jason Hammel.
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 30 permanent exhibitions covering 300,000 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 previous greeter, SUE the T. rex, residing in the “Evolving Planet” exhibit.
Blast off on a journey through the stars at the Adler Planetarium, where the domed Grainger Sky Theater projects super-high-resolution video on an expansive screen that immerses you in the cosmos. Elsewhere, you'll find exhibitions devoted to manned moon missions (including a peek inside the tiny Gemini 12 capsule), the solar system and the history of the universe. For some after-hours, 21+ fun, check out the monthly Adler After Dark parties, which bring drinks, food and themed activities to the planetarium.
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 lawnmower. Admission is always free, new shows debut regularly and you'll usually find vendors selling fresh churros just outside the museum's entrance.
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, housing documents and artifacts from the lives of overlooked or unjustly marginalized 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.
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. Guests can climb aboard a vintage "El" 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.
You'll feel like Indiana Jones when you step into this small but formidable University of Chicago–run archaeological treasure trove. Going as far back as 6,000 years, artifacts include a fragment of what’s believed to be the world’s oldest rug, an ancient saddle and various ceramic items such as jugs, bowls and incense burners. 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.
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.
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 six 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 pop into and experience a bit of culture during your lunch break.
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.
Take a look behind the exhibits
On the other side of the walls that surround your favorite exhibitions, there’s another world of conservators, curators and preparators (look it up!) who catalog precious artifacts, restore centuries-old paintings and ready objects for display. We stepped into collections, laboratories and libraries at three beloved Chicago institutions to give you a glimpse behind the scenes.