Chicago Museums That Are in, around and out of This World

Photo courtesy of Polish Museum of America
Photo courtesy of Field Museum of Natural History
By Megy Karydes

Chicago’s world-class collection of museums often surprise visitors. On one hand, our museums boast the rich history of an American city of industry. On the other, it shows a city that welcomed an international presence at the turn of the century. Museums in Chicago have something to satisfy every curiosity. Even the little tykes. 

Chicago is a pioneer of industry and science. It's hard to see it all in one day at the Museum of Science and Industry (it seems never-ending). Learn why Chicago is called both the Second City and Windy City at the Chicago History Museum while Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts will love the architect’s Home and Studio tour that focuses on his iconic architecture and design.  

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 Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art are conveniently located near Chicago’s Loop.

Every museum has a gift shop and these shops include many locally-made artisan designers which make for great memories of your visit.

Take a moment to check a museum's website for current and temporary exhibits as well as their free admission days.

10. Polish Museum of America
Photo courtesy of Polish Museum of America

Outside of Warsaw, the biggest Polish population lives in Chicago with more than one million people of Polish ancestry residing here. This museum is one of the oldest and largest ethnic museums in the United States and has been collecting pieces of its history since the first immigrants settled here. The museum's library, with English and Polish titles in history and literature, is one of the most significant Polish libraries in the United States. It offers visitors a range of exhibits, resources and activities related to Polish history, culture and heritage, as well as Polish American history. Tour guides are available to assist visitors and provide additional information and events and exhibits are planned throughout the year.

9. DuSable Museum of African-American History
Photo courtesy of DuSable Museum of African-American History

The African-American experience is depicted in unique fashion at this museum. The project started as a small display in a teacher's home, and with lots of community effort, the labor of love got its own building in 1973. Thousands of artifacts, photos, paintings, drawings, sculptures and textiles are displayed, along with information describing the evolution of African-American culture. The civil rights movement of the 1960s is particularly detailed. Events like concerts, lectures, and poetry readings are held regularly. It's a relatively small museum by Chicago standards but no less important. Worth a trip and depending on interest level, much of the museum can be enjoyed within a couple of hours. Free admission on Sundays for everyone throughout the year.

8. Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. Photographer: James Caulfield

Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright began building this house in 1889. As his style developed, so did the home, and Wright continued to make unique additions to it to suit his personal needs. Today, guided tours showcase his studio and its chain-hung balcony, along with a playroom designed for his children that offers treetop views. The architect's signature style and taste are clearly evident throughout the intricately designed home. Tours depart from Ginkgo Tree Bookshop and run from 45 minutes to an hour in length. After the tour, check out the restaurants and retail shops nearby in downtown Oak Park.

7. National Museum of Mexican Art
Photo courtesy of National Museum of Mexican Art

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.

6. Chicago History Museum
Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum

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. 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.

5. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

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 the summer solstice celebration that includes a number of unique, art-related events. Admission is free for children under 12 throughout the year and for all Illinois residents on Tuesdays.

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

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.

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

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 much more. 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.

2. Museum of Science and Industry

Interactive museums are multiplying like rabbits, but this complex is considered one of the first and best. You'll find more than 2,000 hands-on exhibits including 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). 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 or under the sea.

1. Art Institute of Chicago
Photo courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund.

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 been 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.