Best Museums in Chicago

Chicago museums that are in, around and out of this world

Chicago’s world-class collection of museums may surprise visitors: our museums boast the rich history of an American city of industry and profound creativity. 

Chicago is a pioneer of industry and it's hard to see it all in one day at the Museum of Science and Industry.  Learn why Chicago is called both the Second City and Windy City at the Chicago History Museum or book a walking tour of historic Old Town, the Gold Coast or Pilsen's murals. 

While the Museum Campus in the South Loop is best known as the center for museum activity (three of the city’s stalwarts consider the campus as home ~ Adler Planetarium, Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium), the unparalleled Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art are easy to reach with a quick bus ride.

Museum gift shops offer some the coolest mementos and one-of-a-kind designs - the Museum of Contemporary Art's shop is a standout. 

Take a moment to check a museum's website for current and temporary exhibits as well as free admission days. The National Museum of Mexican Art, a favorite during the Halloween season, is always free, as is Evanston's Block Museum of Art. When you need to duck indoors with the family, consider the compact Museum of Illusions. Peruse the comprehensive Choose Chicago site for a current list of pop-up museums, too.


The "edutainment" destination that opened in late 2020 features engaging hands-on exhibits that challenge the mind. The concept was initially created in 2015 and started in Zagreb, Croatia and now has locations in over 20 major cities around the world. The Chicago outpost is in the Loop, near lots of shopping, Millennium Park as well as myriad restaurants. There are 80 visual, educational exhibits featuring holograms, stereograms, optical illusions and rooms, like the Anti-Gravity Room and the Rotated Room, designed to elicit some laughs while learning about perception, our brains and science. Even though it may have felt as if you were in a Vortex Tunnel during the pandemic, this one challenges your brain and perception. If only pandemic pounds melted so easily as they appear to the Ames Room, where you can watch yourself shrink. All ages will go for the Smart Play Room, where adults and kids can engage in mental competition.

Recommended for Museums because: The museum is a good bet to beat the Chicago elements with the family or an interesting spot for date night.

Jacky's expert tip: Looking for chow before or after your visit? The brand new Urbanspace food hall is steps away offering plant-based dishes, lobster rolls, Stan's donuts, Edzo's famous burgers, pizza, barbecue and beer.

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This eye-catching, twelve-sided building includes two sky theaters, one of which was the first planetarium in the western hemisphere. The theaters depict the night sky and allow visitors an up-close look at distant planets, moons and galaxies. The complex also features exhibition rooms, a cafe and a StarRider theater that offers amazing, interactive, virtual reality shows. In it, visitors use controls in their seats' armrests to participate in a 3-D simulation of space travel. On family-friendly Far Out Fridays, visitors get to see shows, sit in on lectures, view the night sky, play games and learn how to set up and use a telescope. Visit after February, 2022 when the museum reopens to the public or check out fascinating virtual programming until then.

Recommended for 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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The Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art nails its aim to be a "dynamic, imaginative and innovative" institution as it celebrates its 40th anniversary and the full reopening of its galleries with the fall 2021 exhibition "Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block's Collection." Among the more than 80 modern and contemporary artworks recently acquired by the museum that explore the idea of history, you'll discover works by Dawoud Bey, Shan Goshorn, the Guerrilla Girls, Louise Lawler, Kerry James Marshall, Catherine Opie, Walid Raad, Man Ray, Edward Steichen and Kara Walker. Look into special exhibition events like Curator Tours: "Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts." The Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art on the campus of Northwestern University is free and open to all.

Recommended for Museums because: It's a great place to feed your head and expand the old gray matter in a completely legal way.

Jacky's expert tip: The museum's free in-house cinema program screens classic and contemporary films you just can't see at the mall theater anymore.

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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. Seek out touch experiences to feel cool, smooth stingrays to leathery sturgeons or a Virtual Reality 3-D swim with a humpback whale mother and her calf off the Islands of Tonga. 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. Shedd also specializes in personalized events featuring menus focused on locally sourced, seasonal, sustainable ingredients.

Recommended for Museums because: Animal encounter experiences allow visitors to get close to belugas and penguins and Shedd is a great place to forget about winter.

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

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This accredited museum in the Pilsen area is dedicated to preserving and facilitating knowledge about Latino life and history. Exhibits focus on Mexican culture as it's represented in the US and in Mexico, and the permanent collection includes folk art, ephemera, sculpture, textiles and drawings. Performing arts are also featured and the center hosts special events throughout the year to advance the museum's objectives. The Museum proudly houses more than 7,000 objects and its permanent collection is one of the largest of Mexican art in the country. After visiting the Museum, opt to have some authentic Mexican food nearby since Pilsen in loaded with great Mexican restaurants and bakeries as well as new breweries.

Recommended for Museums because: National Museum of Mexican Art houses more than 7,000 objects and its permanent collection is one of the largest of Mexican art in the country.

Jacky's expert tip: Admission is free to everyone throughout the year.

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The Chicago History Museum is dedicated to collecting information about, and preserving the heritage of, the city's past. It also focuses on select areas of American history and features permanent and rotating exhibits of art, historical objects and artifacts. Visit and discover answers to questions such as how was Chicago involved in the Civil War and why is it so often called the Windy City and Second City. Do not miss the museum's newest "get" - Vivian Maier: In Color, a multimedia exhibition of 65 color images made during her time as a suburban Chicago nanny from the 1950s to 1970s, most of which have never been exhibited. The Society holds about 20 million historical documents and artifacts. Admission price includes two audio tours: Chicago: Crossroads of America and In Our Own Words (a tour created by local teens). Children aged 12 and younger enjoy free admission year-round.

Recommended for Museums because: Why is Chicago called "The Windy City?" You'll learn to the answer to this question and more at the Chicago History Museum.

Jacky's expert tip: Public parking is available one block away for a lower fee with museum entry. Check website for location and details.

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When this museum opened in its new aluminum-lined facility in 1996, it became the country's largest museum of contemporary art. Featured works go far beyond two dimensions and include such diverse media as sculpture, photography, dance, performance and music. Three large exhibition floors showcase more than 7000 objects, including pieces by Sol LeWitt, Alexander Calder, Jeff Koons and Rene Magritte. Don't miss the sculpture garden, which covers more than an acre. If you're there in the summer, check out a number of unique, outdoor art-related events. Admission is free for anyone 18 and under throughout the year. Don't miss six solo exhibitions of women artists on view in 2021, reflecting a commitment to gender equity in the museum's programming. MCA exhibitions program has consistently presented 50-percent female artists since 2015.

Recommended for Museums because: One of the world's largest contemporary art venues, the Museum of Contemporary Art features art exhibits, theater, dance, music and film.

Jacky's expert tip: All museums end in the gift shop, but this one's worth it.

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The exterior of this hulking marble facility only hints at the historic treasures inside. The architect's goal was boldness and he achieved it with massive columns and striking galleries filled with natural light. Visitors are immediately greeted by two massive elephants and Maximo the Titanosaur. Keep going and you'll delve into paleontology, geology, botany, anthropology and 4.5 billion years of history. With nine acres of space to set up, curators can change displays regularly and still have more than 40 million items from which to choose. If time 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.

Recommended for Museums because: The Field Museum of Natural History is home to SUE, the largest and most complete and best-preserved T. rex to have been discovered.

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

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Interactive museums are multiplying like rabbits, but this complex is considered one of the first and best. In fact, it's the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere. You'll find more than 2,000 hands-on exhibits including the newly renovated Zephyr (a famous train that once set a land-speed record). You can manipulate a 40-foot indoor tornado and travel through a mathematical mirror maze. Take a short tour of an authentically recreated coal mine or step inside the U-505 submarine and experience life aboard the sub in the days leading up to her capture. The five-story Omnimax Theater presents shows that take visitors on a virtual voyage to outer space, under the sea and to breathtaking national parks. MSI celebrates the holidays with its annual Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light exhibits when you can see more than 50 trees and displays decorated to represent Chicago's diverse communities.

Recommended for Museums because: Guests at the Museum of Science and Industry can enjoy science experiences, tour the U-505 submarine and catch a big-screen film all in one day.

Jacky's expert tip: MSI also offers world class private event curation, so one can "wow" their guests while entertaining among world famous exhibits.

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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. People are drawn first to the vast Impressionist collection, including the world's largest group of Monet paintings. But treasures abound, including the haunting "American Gothic" and Seurat's groundbreaking Pointillist work. The contemporary section has expanded and now 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. Museum admission is always free for children under 14. Check the web site for fabulous temporary exhibitions, too.

Recommended for Museums because: Visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago can view the haunting "American Gothic" and Seurat's groundbreaking Pointillist work.

Jacky's expert tip: Check out the world's largest Monet collection.

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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