The Best Museums in Chicago for Families

Photo courtesy of Field Museum of Natural History
By Jacky Runice, Chicago Local Expert

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.

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. Even a museum-phobic kid will go for the brand new U.S. Pizza Museum (as long as you promise some after the visit). 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.

10. Chicago History Museum
Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum

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 such as climbing 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 the Sensing Chicago exhibition 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, Slavery, and the 1963 Chicago School Boycott. Check the web site for impressive temporary exhibits, such as Amplified: Chicago Blues, that should thrill teenagers.

9. U.S. Pizza Museum
Photo courtesy of U.S. Pizza Museum

Vermont has a museum dedicated to maple syrup and the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, WI has it followers so why not a pizza museum - in Chicago where we have New York, Detroit, New Haven, Quad Cities, Naples and Chicago style covered in a most delicious fashion. And what family has not relied on the cheesy pie at least a couple of times a week to quell hunger among the hangry troops? With exhibits that even the shortest attention span can focus upon, the museum aims to preserve and interpret pizza-related items in current and historical contexts: pizza-themed menus, pizza boxes, vinyl records, vintage ads, toys, video games, souvenirs, clothing and artwork, plus a museum gift shop. Check the web site for special events such as art activities, food demonstrations, pizza parties and food trucks parked outside of the museum. Entry is free but reserve your timed entry online.

8. Art Institute of Chicago
Photo courtesy of © 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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.

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

Kohl Children's Museum was recently 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 Science Sleuths, Math Counts, Theater Games, and others 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.

6. Field Museum of Natural History
Photo courtesy of Field Museum of Natural History

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. If time and money is tight, opt for the Basic Admission pass which doesn't include access to the special exhibits but allows visitors plenty to see and enjoy.

5. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Photo courtesy of Telephone Melts

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. Test your amphibian knowledge as you slither through a hands-on exhibit and get the news about the ooze at Mysteries of the Marsh. 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.

4. Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum
Photo courtesy of Adler Planetarium

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. Young Explorers Mondays, for ages 2-6, offers hands-on activities for the youngest astro-nuts.  

3. John G. Shedd Aquarium
Photo courtesy of Shedd Aquarium

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).

2. Museum of Science and Industry
Photo courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

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 the wonderful The Science Behind Pixar are perfect for all ages.

1. Chicago Children's Museum
Photo courtesy of Chicago Children's Museum

Located within Navy Pier, the Chicago Children's Museum is geared to children from 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. Check the museum's calendar of events for special events. Children under one are always free and from 5-8 p.m. Thursdays, enjoy free admission for everyone. The new 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 daily workshops led be trained artist-educators and there's even a special weekly workshop designed for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers held every Friday morning.