From ancient dinosaur bones to iconic paintings to confusing modern art, Chicago’s many fascinating museums cover the full spectrum. The Windy City is truly one of the top cities for museums in America!
After living in Chicago for 8 years, I finally put together a guide to the best Chicago museums, covering my personal favorites, popular tourist spots, and some under-the-radar selections.
Highlights from the list include the penguins of Shedd Aquarium, the strange vintage medical equipment of the Surgical Science Museum, and the immersive theater of the Adler Planetarium.
This guide is split into three sections: Most Popular Museums, Local Favorites, and Under-the-Radar Museums. Let’s discuss Chicago’s best museums!
The Most Popular Museums in Chicago
This first section features the iconic museums which are the most popular among both tourists and locals. If you’ve heard of any Chicago museums, it’s probably these.
The Field Museum of Natural History
Exhibits: Animals, dinosaurs, ancient cultures, the Earth and solar system, DNA technology
Location: 1400 S. Lakeshore Drive
As you walk into the Field Museum, you’re greeted by Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found. She’s 42 feet long and 67 million years old, and she was discovered near the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Move on and you’ll encounter a “Nature Walk” that shows displays of animals in various habitats around the world, an Ancient Egypt section with mummies and a reconstruction of an elaborate ancient tomb, a DNA laboratory, and exhibits depicting different cultures of people around the world.
There’s an “Evolving Planet” exhibit that tracks the ways the world has changed over the past 4 billion years.
In these polarizing political times, I was almost surprised to see such an exhibit – I would have expected that extremists would have protested it out of existence.
One of the most sobering displays is an electronic display that reads, “Number of species that have gone extinct since 8:00 this morning,” with a numeral behind it. When I visited in late afternoon, the number at that time was 39.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Exhibits: Renowned Impressionist paintings, Asian- and African-American statues and sculptures
Location: 111 S. Michigan Avenue
The Art Institute is where you’ll find the classical paintings you used to read about in Humanities class. Monet, Renoir, van Gogh… all the biggies are here.
You can see Georges Seurat’s ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ – for those who aren’t art geeks, that’s the 1886 painting composed of thousands of tiny dots depicting families in a park and women holding umbrellas.
Also at AIC is Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ – the colonial couple with the pitchfork.
Be sure to give yourself plenty of time for a visit. At one million square feet, the Art Institute is the second-largest art museum in the United States, behind only NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The AIC used to be free to all visitors on Thursday evenings, but the free time slots have now been reduced to the first and second Wednesday of each month, and only for Illinois residents.
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Exhibits: Modern art of all types
Location: 220 E. Chicago Avenue
I’ve mentioned before my love of modern art, because you can construct pretty much anything and call it art.
That includes wheelbarrows full of popcorn and Christmas bulbs, mirror tiles stacked together to create a “funhouse” effect, a giant pile of haphazardly-arranged rocks, or video clips projected into barrels full of water.
The MCA only features art created after 1945 and emphasizes surrealism and minimalism.
The museum is also well-known for the sharp geometric angles of its long staircase, which ends in a full of giant goldfish at the bottom. You’ll want to bring your camera for sure.
I’m generally not a fan of museum gift shops, but MCA has perhaps my favorite, with a lot of unique and quirky items.
The last time I visited, they even had small plush microbes in the shape of dangerous viruses. If you’re looking for a gift to get people talking, you can’t go wrong with a stuffed animal in the shape of “Herpes” or “E. coli!”
Exhibits: All things astronomy
Location: 1300 S. DuSable Lake Shore Drive
The Adler Planetarium was founded in 1930 as America’s first planetarium. This iconic museum is dedicated to exploring and understanding the universe, with a focus on astronomy and space science.
The Adler Planetarium offers a variety of informative exhibits, including “Mission Moon,” which showcases the history of America’s space program, and “Telescope Live,” where guests can peer into space through a high-powered telescope.
The planetarium also features the Sky Theater, a state-of-the-art theater that simulates the night sky and offers visitors a chance to explore the stars in a 360-degree immersive experience.
With its emphasis on technology and discovery, the Adler Planetarium is one of the best Chicago museums, especially for those into space and the mysteries of the universe.
Exhibits: Aquatic animals of all kinds
Location: 1200 S. DuSable Lake Shore Drive
One of the largest indoor aquariums in the world, the Shedd Aquarium was founded in 1930 and is home to more than 32,000 animals representing more than 1,500 species!
Among the featured exhibits here are “Wild Reef,” which guides the viewer on an underwater adventure through a replica of a Philippine coral reef, and “Amazon Rising,” which showcases the unique wildlife and habitats of the Amazon River basin.
What kinds of interesting animals can you see here? Try jellyfish, penguins, beluga whales, sea otters, sharks, stingrays, dolphins, and thousands 1000 more!
Another of the aquarium’s highlights is the Polar Play Zone, featuring a Touch Pool where patrons can gently touch sea stars, sturgeons, and a select few other marine animals.
The Shedd Aquarium is one of Chicago’s most popular attractions, so expect large crowds any time of day.
Museum of Science & Industry
Exhibits: Scientific displays, actual vintage airplanes, interactive genetics and farming exhibits
Location: 57th Street & Lakeshore Drive
Since opening in 1933, Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry has hosted more than 1.75 million guests.
The Hyde Park building covers more than 400,000 square feet, which allows it to house a huge Transportation Gallery containing vintage planes, which range from British and Nazi aircraft from World War II to a Boeing 727 United passenger airplane.
You’ll find a German submarine captured during WWII, old steam locomotives, and model ships showing how marine transportation has changed over the years.
There’s a Space Center, a Baby Chick Hatchery, a Coal Mine Shaft, a farming technology display, and the largest pinball machine in the world.
And those are just the permanent displays. Current temporary exhibits include The Hidden Life of Ants and an interactive Mythbusters “Explosive Exhibition.”
Best Chicago Museums: Local Favorites
This section contains museums that may not be as popular among tourists as the first group, but they’re still excellent attractions that locals enjoy a lot. Many of my personal faves are included here.
National Museum of Mexican Art
Exhibits: Mexican paintings, sculptures, artifacts and photography
Location: 1852 W. 19th Street
Founded in 1982 and totally free to the public since 1987, the National Museum of Mexican Art is one of the city’s coolest museums.
Hop on the Pink line and head to the Pilsen neighborhood to check out an appealing collection of visual works.
This establishment is a bit smaller than the rest on this list, but it’s packed full of entertaining exhibits.
“Mexicanidad: Our Past is Present” is a permanent collection that takes visitors through the history of Mexico from the early explorers to its current residents. Other rotating collections often focus on photography.
Captions are presented in English and Spanish. The art here is revealing, educational, colorful, and full of detail, and through it you can learn the story of a group of people.
The museum holds special annual programs for holidays like Dia del Niño and Dia de Los Muertos.
The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center
Exhibits: Educational exhibits about important Black achievements, individuals, and moments in history
Location: 740 East 56th Place
Head to Chicago’s South Side to visit the DuSable Black History Museum, which preserves and shares the history and culture of Black Americans.
Founded in 1961, it’s one of the oldest museums of its kind in the country. The DuSable Museum possesses more than 15,000 pieces in its collection, including paintings, sculpture, and historical memorabilia.
The displays delve into slavery, the civil rights movement, and Black art, music, and literature. Current exhibits highlight former Mayor Harold Washington, and the 1919 Chicago Race Riot.
Visitors can also explore the contributions of Black Americans in fields like science, technology, and medicine.
The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 am to 4 pm. The DuSable hosts a number of special events, including author conversations, jazz performances, and film screenings.
Chicago History Museum
Exhibits: Displays detailing important events in the city’s history
Location: 1601 N. Clark St.
Chicago has accumulated such a colorful history in its nearly 200 years of existence. Learn about it all at the Chicago History Museum.
Immerse yourself in the past through a variety of exhibits, including “Chicago: Crossroads of America,” which explores the city’s pivotal role in the development of the U.S., and “Sensing Chicago,” an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to experience the city through their senses.
The temporary exhibit “Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King: 1929-1968” is another must-see, as it explores the legacy of the civil rights icon and his connections to Chicago.
The exhibit I found most interesting was “City on Fire: Chicago 1871,” which details the famous, devastating fire that destroyed of much of the city.
The History Museum is open six days a week, and it still costs less than $20 to get in. That’s a good deal!
Chicago Children’s Museum
Exhibits: Hands-on exhibits that facilitate creativity and imagination
Location: Navy Pier
Got kids? Chances are you’re already planning to visit the ferris wheel at Navy Pier. So make a stop at the Chicago Children’s Museum while you’re there!
This dynamic museum aims to inspire children’s creativity, curiosity, and imagination. The focus here is on play-based learning and exploration – in other words, a whole lot of interactive exhibits.
Guests should try the “Tinkering Lab,” where children experiment with tools, materials, and machines, and “Kids Town,” a miniature city where youngsters can roleplay and learn about civic engagement.
The museum’s daily programming includes story time, sensory play, and art making. As of 2023, tickets are $19 for both adults and children.
The Chicago Children’s Museum is open 10 am to 2 pm from Monday through Thursday, and 10 am to 5 pm from Friday to Sunday.
Garfield Park Conservatory
Exhibits: Flowers, trees, and vegetation from around the world
Location: Garfield Park
While not strictly a museum, I have to include the Garfield Park Conservatory on this list because it’s so cool. Consider it a “plant museum,” if that helps it fit better.
I was overwhelmed by the scope of the plants on display here. Everything from pretty, colorful flowers to hundreds of species of cactus, to food trees like bananas and coffee.
My favorite rooms include the Palm House, a 65-foot high room with towering palm trees; the Desert House, which holds those cacti and succulents; and the Fern House, a swampy lagoon that shows what Chicago may looked like millions of years ago.
The conservatory is mostly indoors, making it ideal for a visit any time of year, though they do have some outdoor gardens as well.
It’s been open since 1908, and admission is still totally free(!), but donations are suggested.
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Exhibits: Butterfly room, children’s play space, exhibits about various habitats
Location: 2430 N. Cannon Dr.
The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, opened in 1999 and is dedicated to exploring and understanding the natural world, with a focus on environmental education and conservation.
The museum’s exhibits showcase the biodiversity of the Midwest, including wetlands, prairies, and forest habitats.
Visitors can explore interactive exhibits like “Butterflies & Blooms,” where guests can wander through a greenhouse filled with more than 1000 live butterflies of 40 different species, and “The River Works,” which teaches visitors about the importance of healthy water systems.
The museum is open everyday from 10 am to 4 pm. Tickets are $15 for Illinois residents, and $17 for those from out of state.
Cool Under-the-Radar Chicago Museums
This final section features some cool museums that not even all local residents are familiar with. They tend to focus on niche topics, which makes each one a fascinating opportunity to learn something new!
The Swedish American Museum
Exhibits: Photos and documents about Swedish immigrants arriving to America
Location: 5211 N. Clark St.
Head to Andersonville, one of the coolest neighborhoods in Chicago, to find the Swedish-American Museum.
This area of the city was originally inhabited by Swedish immigrants, so the museum is a nod to the locals who settled here and elsewhere in America.
The exhibits here change frequently, so there’s no telling exactly what you may see. On my last visit, I saw “The Dream of America” exhibit focusing on immigration to the U.S.
There were documents and photographs from the immigrant ship showing the journey across the Atlantic. Another photo depicted an 1894 class of Swedish immigrants in a local Chicago school.
The gift shop is really fun, with lots of Swedish flags, snow globes, wooden characters, books, dolls, mugs, and a lot more. This is one of my favorite lesser-known Chicago museums.
Mitchell Museum of the American Indian
Exhibits: Educational displays about the tribes of various regions, and hands-on tables with beadwork and clothing
Location: 3001 Central St., Evanston
For nearly 50 years, the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian has presented exhibits on the art, history, and culture of the native people of the USA and Canada.
Five permanent galleries focus on different regions of North America, with rotating temporary exhibits as well. “Touching tables” allow guests to have a hands-on experience with caribou fur, snakeskin, pottery, beadwork, baskets, and other types of cultural items and clothing.
The museum is slightly further away since it’s in Evanston, but you can still get there from downtown Chicago via subway. And adult tickets are only $8!
The museum website reminds visitors, “The land that the Mitchell Museum occupies today is the unceded, ancestral homelands of the Council of Three Fires: the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), Odawak (Odawa), and Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi) Nations.”
Sock Monkey Museum
Exhibits: More than 2000 sock monkeys collected over 16 years
Location: 210 Robert Parker Coffin Rd., Long Grove
Here’s an awesomely quirky museum! Sock monkeys are the classic, hand-sewn folk art toys that have been around for nearly a century.
Located in Long Grove, about 25 minutes north of O’Hare Airport, the Sock Monkey Museum features more than 2000 of the adorable toy creatures, gathered over the years from garage sales, thrift stores, donations, and online.
It’s amazing to think that this collection began with a single sock monkey, which served as a mascot on family vacations, and now it’s grown so much that it requires a museum to display them all!
Visit to see the collection of monkeys, plus a “sockumentary” video narrated by Sockrates. (Can you tell they love puns here?)
Admission is only $6 for adults and $4 for kids, and a portion of ticket proceeds are donated to the Chimp Sanctuary Northwest.
Fans of the sock monkey may also want to drive an hour west to see the sock monkey statues of Rockford.
The Ukrainian National Museum
Exhibits: Ukrainian folk art, paintings, sculptures
Location: 2249 W. Superior St.
Given recent worldwide events, the Ukrainian National Museum is more relevant than ever. Like the Swedish-American Museum, this one also has a deep connection to its community – the Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago.
Founded in 1952, the facility is dedicated to preserving and sharing the history and culture of Ukraine and Ukrainian Americans.
The museum’s exhibits showcase folk art, textiles, ceramics, and fine art, including paintings and sculptures by notable Ukrainian artists.
Visitors can also learn about the history of Ukraine and the Ukrainian American community through exhibits such as “Holodomor: Genocide by Famine,” which explores the forced famine imposed on Ukraine by the Soviet regime in the 1930s.
This museum has limited visitation hours, open from Thursday to Sunday 11 am to 4 pm.
International Museum of Surgical Science
Exhibits: Old surgical instruments and medical gear
Location: 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive
Wanna see vintage wheelchairs, statues of Hippocrates and Louis Pasteur, and ancient Inca skulls with holes that show evidence of brain surgery? Then come to my favorite quirky museum in Chicago!
The International Museum of Surgical Science is the nation’s only museum dedicated strictly to surgery.
I love this place because of all the primitive medical devices. I can’t imagine living in an era before modern medicine. See the new exhibit “The Operating Room: Surgical Technology Then and Now.”
Among the highlights from my last visit: a vintage iron lung, a dental x-ray machine from 1920, and an old-time drug store replica.
They also have Hall of Murals (surgery paintings) and a Hall of Immortals (busts and statues of medical pioneers.)
Leather Archives & Museum
Exhibits: Adult-themed exhibits about the history of leather and fetish culture
Location: 6418 N. Greenview Ave.
Here’s an interesting spot: Located in the Rogers Park neighborhood, the Leather Archives & Museum focuses on the history of leather, fetish, and BDSM communities and culture, with a strong LGBTQ+ focus.
This is definitely a place that is appropriate for an adult audience. They have displays dealing with queer history (“The Bear Community and its Leather Origins” was a recent exhibit), as well as installations from local artists.
The museum hosts a surprising number of regular events here, too, including drag shows, film forums, and drawing classes.
The gift shop sells clothing, books, post cards, and more. The LA&M is open Thursday through Sunday, and admission is $10.
Other Windy City Museum Options
While the museums above are the ones I most recommend for tourists or residents, you may also be interested in these other attractions:
Chicago Architecture Center
Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum
Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago
Hyde Park Art Center
National Hellenic Museum
American Writers Museum
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art
Loyola University Museum of Art
Glessner House Museum
Which of these cool Chicago museums would you most like to visit? Leave a comment and let me know!