There’s an endless list of reasons to visit Chicago. This iconic destination on the banks of Lake Michigan has been voted the best big city in the United States for six consecutive years. Tens of millions of people flock here annually to enjoy its history, architecture, entertainment, retail opportunities, and, of course, its deep-dish pizzas.
However, for lovers of art and culture, its museums are chief among Chi-Town’s attractions. The city’s full of them! From epic displays of natural history to world-famous art collections and everything in between, the best museums in Chicago cater to every interest. Here are 8 of the best Chicago museums you won’t want to miss.
8 Best Museums in Chicago
1. The Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago is arguably the city’s premier cultural attraction. It is also one of the best art museums in the US. A grand Beaux Arts museum flanked by a pair of bronze lions, the building alone is worth seeing. However, the real magic happens inside, where you’ll find one of the most comprehensive art collections in the country. The permanent collection comprises almost 300,000 works, many of which are world-renowned.
Another perk of visiting the Art Institute of Chicago is its proximity to Millennium Park. This bustling part of the city is full of life and home to the Cloud Gate statue, i.e., “The Bean,” where you can snap an obligatory selfie.
2. The Museum of Science and Industry
No list of the best museums in Chicago is complete without the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). Located in Hyde Park on a 14-acre site, it’s a vast and prestigious institution that attracts almost 1.5 million visitors yearly.
MSI’s popularity is easy to understand. Renowned for its interactive exhibits, you’ll find aircraft hanging from the ceiling, model trains whizzing around elaborate maps, “Science Storms” replicating natural phenomena such as tornados, an actual German WWII submarine to walk through, and so much more. Its very own IMAX theatre is the cherry on top.
3. The Field Museum of Natural History
Chicago’s Field Museum is a paradise for anyone interested in the natural world. Packed to the rafters with unique and engaging collections, you’ll see and learn about everything from giant dinosaur skeletons and taxidermy animals to Egyptian mummies, meteorites, and traditional Maori meeting houses.
To visit, head to the Museum Campus on the banks of Lake Michigan. The Field is suitable for people of all ages, but it’s also enormous, so don’t expect to see everything in one day. Only have a few hours to spare? Don’t miss the dinosaurs – especially SUE, the museum’s notorious T. Rex.
4. The Shedd Aquarium
While an aquarium may not be the first thing you think of when hunting for the best museums in Chicago, the Shedd Aquarium definitely deserves its place on this list.
It’s a sight to behold, located next door to the Field Museum and housed in a striking building of classical Greek architecture. More importantly, you’ll find 32,000 aquatic animals inside, including Pacific white-sided dolphins, sharks, stingrays, beluga whales, and penguins. Expect interactive experiences, too, such as dolphin shows and shark feeding tours. Kids and adults alike will love it.
5. Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
Technically, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center isn’t in Chicago. It’s in Skokie, a small village beyond the city’s northern border. Founded off the back of proposed neo-Nazi marches in the late seventies, it has since grown into one of the largest Holocaust museums on the planet. This 65,000-square-foot facility attracts an impressive 130,000 visitors every year.
The entire museum experience is designed to preserve the Holocaust’s legacy. Alongside a permanent collection of over 20,000 items donated by Holocaust survivors and their descendants, expect interactive 3D holograms of survivors telling their stories and various exhibits aimed at children.
6. The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures
History buffs will adore this magnificent Chicago museum. Run by the University of Chicago, it was called the Oriental Institute right up until April 2023, when they decided to rename it to something more reflective of its focus. Today, the museum is known as The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures.
Inside, you’ll encounter a wide array of age-old artifacts from West Asia and North Africa, with some items dating back a staggering six thousand years. Among the many wonders on display, there’s an ancient saddle, gilded bronze statues, and a selection of the famous Megiddo ivories. The pièce de résistance is a 40-ton winged bull with a human head that once guarded the throne room of an Assyrian king.
7. The National Museum of Mexican Art
Looking for one of the best museums in Chicago that’s 100% free? The National Museum of Mexican Art could be perfect. Founded in 1982, this unique and vibrant space in Chi-Town’s trendy Pilsen neighborhood boasts a permanent collection of over 10,000 works celebrating Mexican history and culture.
Don’t be fooled by the price of admission, either. This popular, prestigious, state-of-the-art institution is spread over 48,000 square feet. Visitors will enjoy a wide range of striking artworks – including murals, paintings, sculptures, and photographs – which date from ancient times to the present day. Please note that it’s not open on Mondays, so be sure to time your trip accordingly.
8. The Chicago Architecture Center
Last but not least is the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC). This unique space is full of gigantic scale models of the world’s best-known buildings and a gallery with 4,000 miniature buildings representing the Windy City. In the latter, a sound a light show depicts what happened in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The CAC also runs architecture tours, which you can do by train, bus, foot, and boat. While they aren’t included in the museum’s cost of admission, they’re well worth the extra price if you wish to learn more about Chicago’s famous architecture and downtown development.
Explore the Best Museums in Chicago
The Windy City’s graced with so many cultural pursuits that this list of the best museums in Chicago only scratches the surface of what’s on offer. Yet there’s no denying the delights in store if you visit one or all of these treasured Chicagoan institutions. Pick and choose one of the best Chicago museums based on your interests, and you’re guaranteed a memorable time out in this wonderful part of the country.
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