Best Family-Friendly Museums in Chicago

The best museums in Chicago for families

Parents appreciate the fact that most of Chicago's world-renowned museums offer family-specific tours, activities and interactive events that engage young minds yet are just as enjoyable for adults.

While the Chicago Children's Museum at Navy Pier and the Kohl Children's Museum might be best for tots, the older ones should appreciate the museums on The Museum Campus, a 57-acre museum park near Lake Michigan, just south of the Loop, and home to the Adler Planetarium, Field Museum of Natural History and John G. Shedd Aquarium. And all ages will dig wndr Museum.

The world-famous Art Institute of Chicago is in the heart of downtown and a few miles west you'll find the engaging, colorful and free National Museum of Mexican Art, a popular choice in autumn for its expansive Day of the Dead celebrations. You can pair a morning at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum with an afternoon at Lincoln Park Zoo.

A great way to keep costs down and save time on ticket lines is to buy the Chicago CityPass which offers discount admission up to five popular attractions: the Shedd Aquarium, The Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Adler Planetarium or the Art Institute of Chicago. Or, check each museum’s website for free days of the week. Several offer free admission for children ages 12 and younger.


Every kid loves a wonderland or just the promise of one. A permanent immersive art space, wndr boasts the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirror Room, the only one in Chicago. Located in Chicago's West Loop, the permanent cultural fixture promises world-class art and installations by emerging artists that unfold in new chapters. "The Hero's Journey Through Wndr," inspired by Joseph Campbell's literary analyses of the hero's journey, opened on wndr's first birthday, Sept. 21st, 2019. It encourages visitors to be their own heroes as they traverse through immersive installations. One of the most popular monthly events is Sunday Morning Cartoons (now twice a month due to demand) when classic cartoons are projected in the Atrium and while you belly up to the cereal bar for an all-you-can-eat experience. Kids 10 and under get free admission for Sunday Morning Cartoons when accompanied by an adult.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: In addition to holiday programming, permanent exhibits relieve winter doldrums and reenergize neurons during rainy or steamy days.

Jacky's expert tip: Tickets to wndr are available for purchase in advance at its website or at the door (wndr takes credit cards only).

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The museum in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood is filled with compelling exhibits about the city's history and it's free for ALL kids 12 and under and free for Illinois residents 18 and younger. Chicago: Crossroads of America, the Museum's cornerstone exhibition, offers family-friendly experiences: climb aboard the city's oldest train car 'L' car no. 1 and steam locomotive, the Pioneer. Two self-guided audio tours enhance the experience for teens and adults. Even the youngest will go for Sensing Chicago in which kids can explore the city's history through their five senses. Facing Freedom in America (designed for grades 5 through 12) spotlights eight moments in our nation's past when Americans struggled over the meaning of freedom, including the Civil War and the 1963 Chicago School Boycott. Impressive temporary exhibits, like Millions of Moments (one of the largest newspaper photograph collections ever acquired by an American museum), appeal to teens.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: Get an overview of the city's past, including the stories behind its famous events, characters, buildings and institutions.

Jacky's expert tip: The Chicago History Museum is easy to navigate and the location, adjacent to Lincoln Park, is perfect for pre or post museum fun.

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A highlight of any trip to Chicago, this museum is home to one of the best and most diverse art collections in the world. But there's plenty here that will interest kids, including the Thorne Miniature Rooms, displays of armor worn by Medieval knights, and the Elizabeth Morse Touch Gallery where children are encouraged to touch art pieces. Adults will be wowed by the Art Institute's vast Impressionist collection, including the world's largest group of Monet paintings. But treasures abound, including the haunting "American Gothic." The contemporary section includes pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Pollock and Warhol. The temporary shows are also well known and always receive critical acclaim. Kids particularly enjoy the Thorne Rooms, 68 miniature room models with intricately detailed European interiors from the 16th century through the 1930s as well as American furnishings from the 17th century to 1940.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: This is one of the best art museum's in the world, home to a stunning Impressionist collection and plenty for families to see and do.

Jacky's expert tip: Enjoy free admission for kids under 14 and Chicago teens under 18. Be sure to include family-friendly art-making activities, self-guides and games.

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Kohl Children's Museum
Photo courtesy of Kohl Children's Museum

Kohl Children's Museum was named one of the country's Ten Best Children's Museums by Parents Magazine and it's one of a handful in the country that focuses on early childhood from birth to age eight. Indoors, families explore 17 interactive, hands-on exhibits involving art to animals and sunny days are best for exploring the two-acre outdoor Habitat Park. Check the calendar on the web site for free additional programming such as Ravinia Festival Music Makers; Pet Vet; Nature Explorers; and City on the Move all included with regular admission. Expect a world-class venue where kids can play, and learn in a fun, colorful space built specifically for them. Look throughout the exhibits for concept signage and parent tips to give you ideas on enhancing the learning experience.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: The museum that focuses on early childhood from birth to age eight was named one of the country's Ten Best Children's Museums by Parents Magazine.

Jacky's expert tip: The Museum can be easily reached by public transportation, including Pace bus and Metra trains.

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Mummies, fossils and dinosaurs, kid favorites, are some of the historic treasures inside the Field Museum. Massive columns and striking galleries filled with natural light help kids feel the history and you're immediately greeted by two massive elephants and Maximo the Titanosaur. Delve into paleontology, geology, botany, anthropology and much more. With nine acres of space to set up, curators can change displays regularly and still have nearly 50 million items from which to choose. Check the web site for "Meet the Scientist" demonstrations which can be anything from staff showing how mammals are prepped for the collections or a free screening of a science-related blockbuster film. Families and groups with kids ages 6 to 12 can experience the museum after the lights go out at Dozin' with the Dinos.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: SUE, the largest and most complete and preserved T. rex discovered, returned to Field in 2019 after important scientific updates to the fearsome fossil.

Jacky's expert tip: Pack a lunch or snacks to save time and money.

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As buildings continually go up, nature gets pinched, so a visit to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is an ideal respite from the concrete landscape. Explore the region's only year-round butterfly sanctuary where as many as 40 species of native and exotic butterflies flutter. Get the news about the ooze at Mysteries of the Marsh. The brand new exhibit, Dragons Alive! the Science and Culture of Reptiles, gets you face-to-face with 10 species of live lizards and reptiles from around the world. It makes sense to get outside on the museum's Nature Trails, a nearly 1/3 mile trail to revel in the abundance of nature. Visit the website in advance for a listing of special events and exhibits such as Earth Day family events and the signature Summer celebration, Summer Nature Fest. It's an evening outside with live animals, live music, nature play and hands-on activities.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: The nature museum has plenty of cool interactive exhibits to keep even the youngest tree huggers interested.

Jacky's expert tip: If you have the energy, walk across the street to the free Lincoln Park Zoo.

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Even rocket scientists have a hard time envisioning the size and composition of the ever-expanding universe, so imagine the task for kids who get space info from Pixar. The Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, the nation's very first planetarium, sends families forth on a voyage of planetary discovery through more than 35,000 square feet of exhibits, two full–-size planetarium theaters, workshops, camps and special family programs. Educators lead demonstrations, telescope viewing, crafts or exhibit interpretation almost every day. Adler's historic Sky Theater has been accurately recreating the night sky on its dome since 1930 and the world's first StarRider Theater is a completely digital, virtual outer space environment that allows you to actively participate by operating controls on seat armrests. Planet Explorers, for ages 2-8, offers hands-on activities for the youngest astro-nuts.  

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: Founded in 1930, the museum offers plenty of interactive experiences for the even the most challenged attention span.

Jacky's expert tip: After looking at the sky, turn your gaze outdoors, the Adler was voted "Best View of Chicago" by the American Institute of Architects.

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This large aquarium with 32,000 animals guides visitors through the world's many marine habitats, from the entertaining colony of penguins to the mysterious Amazon. Watch divers as they feed sea turtles, stingrays, sharks and tropical fish in the Caribbean Reef's circular viewing tank. A perpetual highlight is the Oceanarium where dolphins and beluga whales spread their infectious joy. Finally, the towering Wild Reef tank creates the feeling of being underwater and you can eye sharks gliding above. There are special Extraordinary Experiences: choose a guided tour behind-the-scenes to come face-to-face with a beluga whale, experience a shark feeding or meet a penguin. Look into overnights called "Asleep with the Fishes" when you spend the night exploring the aquarium with fun activities like a scavenger hunt, obstacle course, an aquatic presentation, crafts and animal stories (for kids five years or older, accompanied by an adult).

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: Animal encounter experiences and family overnights allow visitors to get close to belugas and penguins.

Jacky's expert tip: Avoid waiting in line by arriving early on weekdays or save money on admission using CityPASS.

Read more about John G. Shedd Aquarium →

This massive museum, one of the first and best in the country, features more than 2,000 hands-on exhibits about everything from outer space to robots. Some of its most famous exhibits are the re-created coal mine ride, walking on the Zephyr (a famous train that once set a land-speed record) and the Idea Factory (whose interactive exhibits have kids of all ages learning without realizing it) Generations of kids have stepped inside the U-505 German submarine to experience life aboard the sub in the days leading up to her capture. The five-story Giant Dome Theater presents shows that take visitors on a virtual voyage to outer space or under the sea. Kids should not miss Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle or the Baby Chick Hatchery. Many special exhibits, such as the wonderful Superpower Dogs (opening March 2020) are perfect for all ages.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: Visit the Museum of Science and Industry to genuinely enjoy learning about science, tour the U-505 submarine and walk through a tornado.

Jacky's expert tip: There are many different admission price options such as those that include museum entry and ticketed exhibits. Check the web site and buy online to avoid lines.

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Located within Navy Pier, the Chicago Children's Museum is geared to toddlers to fifth graders. Its interactive exhibits are spread across three floors, including a Tinkering Lab (great for older kids) and Pritzker Playspace, CCM's open playgroup for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers They might get bit wet splashing in the water in the WaterWays exhibit or they can wiggle up ship-shape rigging in the Kovler Family Climbing Schooner. The new Cloud Buster is 37 climbable feet of structural steel, wood, wire, rope, acrylic, fiberglass, and artificial turf perched over Navy Pier's Fifth Third Family Pavilion. The Art Studio serves as a space for families to embrace and practice creative expression, but it's also an active commitment to the arts. CCM's Art Studio offers workshops led be trained artist-educators and there's even a special weekly workshop designed for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.

Recommended for Family-Friendly Museums because: This large, hands-on museum is geared exclusively to children.

Jacky's expert tip: Check the museum's calendar of events for special events. Children under one are always free and from 5-8 p.m. Thursdays, everyone enjoys free admission.

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Meet Jacky Runice

Born in Bucktown when bulletproof was a home safety choice and not a coffee order, Jacky Runice has been knocking around Chicago as a professional print, online and broadcast journalist and...  More About Jacky