10 best Chicago museums: Top institutions to visit in Chicago

The Art Institute, Field Museum and more of the best Chicago museums to learn about art, history and culture
Photograph: Grace DuVal

It doesn't matter if you're a tourist visiting the city for the weekend or a local pondering how to spend a day off—Chicago's museums are can't-miss destinations. There's no shortage of world-class institutions throughout our neighborhoods, including collections dedicated to contemporary art, natural history and science that are among the best attractions in Chicago. Whether you take advantage of a free museum day or pay full-price for a ticket, you can pack an afternoon with incredible sights, amazing artifacts and interesting knowledge at these destinations. Get ready learn something new when you visit one of Chicago's 10 best museums.

The best Chicago museums

The Art Institute of Chicago.
Photograph: Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago
Museums, Art and design

Art Institute of Chicago

icon-location-pin Grant Park
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. Some of our favorites include the "The New Contemporary" exhibition, the scaled-down interior design on display in the Thorne Miniature Rooms and a medieval gallery filled with armor and weaponry. Make sure to walk through the 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.
Museum of Science and Industry
Photograph: J.B. Spector
Museums, Science and technology

Museum of Science and Industry

icon-location-pin Hyde Park

If you’re into exhibits loaded with interactive bells and whistles, this expansive Hyde Park locale is your ticket. Occupying a building that was originally built for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the museum’s focus is broad, with permanent displays that include the popular mirror maze in the "Numbers in Nature" exhibit, the whiz-bang exploration of weather "Science Storms," plus the old favorites: A restored U-505 German submarine, a simulated coal mine and a recreation of a Chicago street, circa 1910.

Photograph: Callie Lipkin Photography, Inc.
Museums, Art and design

Museum of Contemporary Art

icon-location-pin Streeterville
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 masterpieces by local artists, showcasing rising talent and hosting workshops and discussions. The museum recently opened an adventurous new in-house restaurant, Marisol, helmed by Lula Cafe chef Jason Hammel. 
Field Museum
Photograph: Courtesy the Field Museum
Museums, Science and technology

The Field Museum

icon-location-pin Museum Campus
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 Cyrus Tang Hall of China. A gigantic new dino skeleton named Máximo guards the lobby—SUE the T. rex will soon join the “Evolving Planet” exhibit.
Adler Planetarium
Photograph: Neal O'Bryan
Museums, Science and technology

Adler Planetarium

icon-location-pin Museum Campus

Though it’s staffed by world-class researchers at the forefront of their field, the Alder Planetarium’s real draw will always be the immersive trips through time and space in the domed Sky Theater, which projects films at 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 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, 21+ fun, check out the monthly Adler After Dark parties.

Photograph: Mark Wright
Museums, Art and design

National Museum of Mexican Art

icon-location-pin Lower West Side

Pilsen is filled with bright, beautiful murals, but it also hosts one of the largest Latino cultural organizations in the U.S. The National Museum of Mexican Art's 7,000-piece permanent collection includes ancient Mesoamerican artifacts, folk art and contemporary works, allowing guests to explore the ways in which Mexican art has evolved—and admission to exhibitions is always free and open to the public.

Things to do, Literary events

DuSable Museum of African American History

icon-location-pin 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. 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. You'll even find one of Chance the Rapper's Grammys for his album “Coloring Book” on display.
Museums, History

Chicago History Museum

icon-location-pin Lincoln Park

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.

Photograph: Courtesy of Anna R Ressman
Things to do, Literary events

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.

Photograph: Chris Strong
Museums, Natural history

The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

icon-location-pin Lincoln Park

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.

Take a look behind the exhibits

Art Institute of Chicago
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

What's happening behind the scenes at your favorite Chicago museum?

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.