Discover some of Chicago’s top attractions, including one of the oldest art museums in the country and the largest science center in the Western Hemisphere.
Art galleries, science centers, planetariums, and historic houses—there’s a Chicago museum to suit every interest.
Aesthetes should head straight for the Art Institute or the Museum of Contemporary Art, while parents with kids will want to check out the Field Museum and its soaring T-rex fossil. Also worth a visit are institutions like the Adler Planetarium, with its shows about the night sky; the sprawling Museum of Science and Industry, where you can watch a model train travel from Chicago to Seattle; and the Chicago History Museum, which explores the Windy City of yesteryear. You can even visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s former home and studio for a closer look at the influential architect.
Below, we’ve rounded up our favorite museums in Chicago. Head to any one for a deeper understanding of the cultural passions that drive this city.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Founded in 1879, the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the country. The Modern Wing alone spans a whopping 264,000 square feet, with a Pritzker Prize–winning design by Renzo Piano and a pedestrian bridge leading straight to Millennium Park. Inside, visitors will find works by such famous artists as Picasso, Matisse, and Magritte. For even more noteworthy works, head to the European Painting and Sculpture Wing, where you can stand in awe of Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, Monet’s Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer), Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge, and Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
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The interior architecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is alone worth the price of admission. Four floors of exhibit halls branch off the central staircase, while east- and west-facing glass windows offer unparalleled views of Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago. As for the art, the permanent collection includes works from 1945 to the present, including pieces by such big names as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, and Cindy Sherman. The museum is also known for its fantastic temporary exhibitions—it famously hosted Frida Kahlo’s premier U.S. show and Jeff Koons’s first solo museum exhibit. For a closer look at the collection, join one of the free daily tours, or visit on Tuesday or Friday night, when the museum stays open until 9 p.m.
Dinosaurs, pyramids, cave paintings, sharks—the Field Museum has a little something for everyone. Home to magical displays that highlight all facets of natural history from around the world, the family-friendly museum offers a fun way to get your culture fix. Start your visit in the Animal Halls, where you can learn about the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo, then head to the Evolving Planet exhibition to see fossils of dinosaurs, extinct mammals, and early great apes. You’ll also want to save time to walk through displays like Inside Ancient Egypt, the Geology Halls, and Underground Adventure, and take in Sue, the largest Tyrannosaurus rex specimen ever discovered. The museum itself—which is one of the largest natural history museums in the world—has been around since 1893, making the building a part of history as well.
It’s difficult to design a museum that appeals to both kids and adults, but the Adler Planetarium makes it look easy. Children will love the area known as Planet Explorers, where they can peer through microscopes, crawl through tunnels, and play astronaut with space rovers and rocket-launch simulators. Adults, on the other hand, will appreciate exhibits like Our Solar System and Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass, which features Chicago’s legendary Dearborn refractor. The Adler is housed in a large, semicircular stone building right on the banks of Lake Michigan, with giant glass windows on both floors opening to lovely views across the lake. In addition to fascinating exhibits, it houses a couple of star theaters with daily shows about space travel, the night sky, and interplanetary relationships. Go by yourself or bring the kids—it’s a great place for visitors of any age.
Museum of Science and Industry
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Housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the Museum of Science and Industry is the largest science center in the Western Hemisphere. Inside, visitors will find several thrilling exhibits, featuring everything from a German U-505 submarine and a mirror maze to model ships and a replica of a coal mine. To feel truly transported, check out the Great Train Story exhibition, where 30 model trains travel along 1,400 feet of winding track, passing miniature scenes of Rocky Mountain ranges, Chicago skyscrapers, and soaring seabirds along the way. Equally exciting is the Science Storms exhibit, which puts you in the middle of lightning, fire, tornados, avalanches, and tsunamis with incredible simulations.
Chicago History Museum
The Chicago History Museum examines past local events as well as Chicago’s role in the larger U.S. annals. Here, engaging exhibits cover a wide range of subjects, such as Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency, the first locomotive to operate in Chicago, the creation of the Miracle Mile, the history of jazz and blues music, and the World’s Fair in 1933. Everything is extremely well designed, so visitors can walk through quickly and glean little highlights, or spend several minutes reading informational materials and absorbing details. Parents with kids should check out the Sensing Chicago exhibit, where children can ride a high-wheel bicycle, catch a fly ball at old Comiskey Park, and sample a Chicago-style hot dog.
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
Frank Lloyd Wright built more than 700 houses all over the U.S., but he lived and worked in Oak Park, just a 45-minute train ride from downtown Chicago. His house and studio are now a museum with guided tours that take you through the playroom with vaulted ceilings that he designed for his children, the ingenious lighting pulley system in his draft room, and the winding front walkway that leads through the garden to the front door. When you’re done touring the museum, stroll around Oak Park’s historic district, which features several other FLW-designed houses and buildings. The museum even offers an audio-guided tour of the area, so you’ll know exactly what to look for on your walk. To make your visit smoother, take the train to Oak Park (street parking can be hard to find), buy your tickets in advance (students get discounts), and be aware that the museum charges an extra $5 photography fee.
>>Next: Plan your trip with AFAR’s Travel Guide to Chicago