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Field Museum lobby
Photograph: Courtesy the Field Museum

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
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Whether you're a first-time visitor to Chicago or you've lived here your whole life, there's always something new to discover at the best Chicago museums. Want to see world-class art? Head to the Art Institute to check out thousands of works from the likes of Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse, or swing by the Museum of Contemporary Art for buzzy touring exhibitions. Itching to learn about dinosaurs? Pay a visit to the massive skeletons of Máximo and SUE the T. rex at the Field Museum. Hoping to save some money? Check out the free 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. With gorgeous architecture, killer collections and convenient access (many of these spots are located within a short walk from one another in the Loop), it's easy to see why these museums are some of the top Chicago attractions our city has to offer. Plan a day to explore the best museums in Chicago and get ready to learn a thing or two. 

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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 30 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, turtles and moray eel of the Caribbean; frightening predator sharks, mesmerizing jellies, adorable penguins (including the famous rockhoppers Wellington, Edward and Annie) and marine mammals like sea lions and otters. 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 "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. 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, such as an exhibition dedicated to Louis Vuitton artistic director and Off-White founder Virgil Abloh or 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). 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 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 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! Kepp in mind that you're walking through a building that was originally created for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. 

  • 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
  • price 1 of 4

Guests must register in advance to visit the Oriental Institute Museum.

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.

  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • Museum Campus
  • price 1 of 4

The first planetarium in the western hemisphere partially reopened in summer 2021, bringing back some of its most popular attractions after an extended closure. You’ll have to wait until March 2022 for the full reopening, but in the meantime, check out weekly shows at the domed Grainger Sky Theater, where visitors can watch dazzling projections of the sun, moon and broader solar system. 

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  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Washington Park

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.

  • 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, new shows debut regularly and you'll usually find vendors selling fresh churros just outside the museum's entrance. 

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