Things to do in Chicago

Chicago Museums

Visiting Chicago’s many museums is a terrific way to experience the city and learn about its rich history.

Museums offer an intimate peek into a city’s cultural makeup — especially in Chicago, where each gallery paints an enthralling history of the Windy City as you’ve never seen it before. From natural history to contemporary art, here are 12 Chicago museums to explore on your next day out. For more ideas, check out these things to do in Chicago.

1. The Art Institute of Chicago

Human creativity is something we see every day — in our performances, performers, and our community. The Art Institute of Chicago's mission to “inspire an expansive, inclusive understanding of human creativity” is near and dear to us. With historical pieces from around the world, it has something to discover even for art lovers who think they’ve seen it all.

From the huge collection of impressionist works to modern and pop art, you’ll see plenty of pieces that have made an impression on Chicago culture. It even has a work by Takashi Murakami.

For an exhibit that’s off the beaten path, venture downstairs to the basement collection of miniature rooms. These 68 tiny spaces were meticulously crafted to illustrate a variety of architectural design eras. Many skilled artisans hand-make every element, from silk curtains to delicately upholstered sofas.

With a level of detail like this, you can’t help but be impressed.

Photographer: Marilou Trias

2. Field Museum of Natural History

The Field Museum of Natural History is really a collection of stories, each hidden in one of the 40 million artifacts inside the collection. You’ll find them in every inch of the gallery, whether suspended from the ceiling or embedded in the tiles at your feet.

The museum’s most famous inhabitant is an exhibit 60 million years in the making. Sue the T. rex is the largest skeleton of her kind ever unearthed and assembled.

After excavating her bones for a full 17 days, paleontologists spent another 30,000 hours preparing for their unveiling in the year 2000. Sue is also the most complete T. rex in the world, with about 90% of her bones intact. Copies of the bones were assembled into skeletons to inform science centers and museums worldwide on T. rex biology and behavior.

Feast your eyes on this stunning symbol of archeological wonder as you traverse the historic halls of the Field Museum.

Photographer: Thomas Barrat

3. Museum of Science and Industry

For a hands-on learning experience that’s out of this world, the Museum of Science and Industry is the destination for you. This interactive experience involves visitors to deepen their understanding of the wider world.

Science Storms is a great place to start for a closer look at the beauty and fury of the natural world. Step into the middle of a 40-foot tornado, manipulating its speed and pressure to see its enthralling effect.

It’s a top choice among museums for kids. You can trigger a 20-foot avalanche, create giant rainbows, or use an enormous Tesla coil to spark a lightning storm. You're in control of Mother Nature here.

Other exhibits let you walk through a German submarine, run around a giant hamster wheel, or watch the action of the world’s largest pinball machine. Discover an enchanted fairy castle full of miniature treasures for all the fairy princesses and princes in your family. There’s something for everybody during a museum day here.

Photographer: Thomas Barrat

4. The Museum of Contemporary Art

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s collection shifts along with the fluid landscape of modern art. But what’s constant is the quirky, diverse, and courageous nature of the creations gracing the gallery walls. This museum showcases the art world's innovative new takes on painting, sculpture, photography, and film.

One of the crown jewels of the MCA is The Sorceress’ Mirror, a permanent piece by Chris Ofili. You'll find this masterpiece in the private dining room of the museum’s restaurant, Marisol. Here, talented chefs create artwork of their own with local ingredients and dynamic flavors.

Photographer: Kevin Kipper

5. Chicago History Museum

Chicago’s history is a tale fraught with invention, danger, and ultimately success. Discover its story at the Chicago History Museum, where the events are highlighted in an engrossing array of exhibits. Whether you’re a native or a visitor, you’ll be fascinated by its history and cast of characters.

Solve a spine-tingling mystery with the quirky Haunted Dolls 2: The Riddle of the Wayward Spirit. Or employ all five senses in your Windy City exploration at the Sensing Chicago exhibit.

6. The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center

Walking through the DuSable Museum is a powerful experience curated to reveal the rich history of Chicago’s Black community. The oldest independent African-American museum in the country, it provides an intimate view of their history. Here, exhibits dive deep into iconic figures from the past, like the first Black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington.

Housed in historic Washington Park, the DuSable has more than 15,000 items in its collection. Paintings, sculptures, and historic memorabilia combine to paint a mighty picture of Black history.

7. National Museum of Mexican Art

With its founding in 1982, the National Museum of Mexican Art sought to break down barriers and expose a vibrant world of colorful culture. Bringing together over 3,000 years of art and artists from both sides of the border keeps it striding toward this goal today.

The permanent collection offers a comprehensive overview of Mexican art through the ages. It depicts the evolution of cultural identity across time with illustrative art and artifacts.

Time your visit right and you’ll enjoy one of the museum’s special events. Dia de los Muertos exhibition is celebrated annually, honoring both the day and people who've passed on. Or visit during the Sor Juana Festival to celebrate the accomplishments of Mexican women.

8. The International Museum of Surgical Science

Some museums just aren’t macabre enough for the modern visitor. And while it might be shocking at first, an archive full of centuries-old skulls is more fascinating than you might think. The collection at the International Museum of Surgical Science charts the history of surgery from 10,000 years ago to today.

You're in for an experience that’s as informative as it is delightfully grotesque. Some of the exhibits look like something out of a horror movie — the iron lung and 1920s dental X-ray machine come to mind. Every piece, though, is a reminder of how far medical science has come. At the very least, you’ll find your next doctor’s appointment a lot less stressful.

9. The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

The broad sweep of human history isn’t easy to absorb in a single afternoon, but a trip to the Institute of Ancient Cultures will get you pretty close. Most of the 350,000 items in the collection were excavated by student archaeologists from Illinois. These brand-new additions to the museum team continue to unearth the secrets of civilization’s earliest days.

Each gallery looks at a unique hub of ancient civilization. Kick off your journey at the verdant mouth of the Nile and see Egyptian tombs. You'll walk into cultures you probably didn’t study in high school, such as Nubia, Persia, and Mesopotamia. There’s even an extensive collection of artifacts from Megiddo, more commonly known by its Greek name of Armageddon.

The permanent collection looks at 10,000 years of humanity. Special exhibits are regularly on display for an even deeper insight into the vast, unseen world of ancient cultures.

10. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

Even a sky-scraping city like Chicago makes room to celebrate the wonders of the natural world. The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum campus promotes conservation through interactive exhibits and artwork.

Start your adventure at the greenhouse, stuffed with the rich, heavy air you expect in the tropics, not Chicago. Better than a butterfly garden, this glass-encased edifice is home to more than 1,000 free-flying butterflies.

Find a quiet space to sit, and you might just earn yourself a visit from one of these fantastical flying friends. Or enroll in a Butterfly Haven Yoga session, for an out-of-the-ordinary exercise experience.

But don’t stop at the butterflies. Here, nature trails take you on a winding path through native regions of Illinois. A bird walk lets you catch a glimpse of North Pond’s feathered inhabitants, and nature-focused art is on display.

If you're bringing little ones, save time for Nature’s PlaySpace. Tailored to kids up to age 7, this funhouse features a giant bird’s nest and a larger-than-life fish ride. And for those who love the outdoors, exploring these outdoor activities in Chicago is a must.

Photographer: Henryk Sadura

11. Museum of Contemporary Photography

Photography galleries are great, but sometimes they just don’t offer the close-up experience you’re looking for. Not the Museum of Contemporary Photography, where private print viewings give you an intimate glimpse at the photos that move you.

A helpful museum guide will pull out those that interest you so you can study the artsy, historical, or just plain beautiful photos at your leisure. Groups and individuals can partake in this experience — just remember to book your private viewing at least 2 weeks in advance.

If you haven’t planned ahead, there’s still plenty to see. Free admission gives you access to over 17,000 works in the collection. These are segmented into unique exhibits that look at the ways photography shapes art, culture, and politics. Docent-led tours offer greater insight into the pictures, while regular lectures will turn you into a photography fan.

12. Swedish American Museum

Chicago’s collection of cultures and backgrounds is part of what makes the city a hotspot for artistic activity. Flourishing traditions and long-told stories give the Windy City the robust cultural backdrop it holds to this day. And it’s these rich histories that are celebrated at the Swedish American Museum.

Filled with lovingly donated artifacts, it offers insight into the lives of Swedish Chicagoans through the years. Their story is intertwined with that of a broader America, as seen through permanent exhibitions like “We Are America.” Revamped in 2023, the collection incorporates the perspectives of over 30 cultures to show how migrants helped mold the U.S.

If you’ve got kids in your party or school field trips, the Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration is the place to start. This fully interactive exhibit features a Viking ship. It also includes a space exhibition that honors one of the country’s most famous Swedish-Americans, Buzz Aldrin.

Once you’ve explored the galaxy, head into Andersonville to sample some Swedish delicacies.

Explore Art, History, Science, & Culture at Chicago’s Museums

Natural wonders, shocking history, and the beauty of the human experience — you’ll find it all within the halls of Chicago museums. To delve even deeper into the city’s rich tapestry, consider going on a Chicago walking tour.

For another thrilling experience, finish the night off with one of our shows in Chicago.

You'll experience soaring physical feats, breathtaking visuals, and captivating storytelling. Each performance is an exercise in creative innovation. It's just one of our shows in Chicago for art lovers looking for the next imaginative triumph.

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