Top 12 Chicago Museums: Local Picks You Can't Miss! [2024]

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Top 12 Chicago Museums: Local Picks You Can't Miss! [2024]
The city of Chicago has some undeniably beautiful natural scenery and hiking to experience. Still, rainy days are never dull here too. On your next visit to Chicago, check out some of the mind-expanding indoor attractions this incredible city offers.
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Chicago museums are some of the best in the country and the world. If you’re in the windy city and looking for something to do that takes your breath away and opens you to a whole new perspective, you’ve come to the right place. If you get sick of the Chicago nightlife, take a breather and soak in some culture.

In this article, I’ll help you learn more about the best museums in Chicago for art lovers, history buffs, naturalists, sports fans, and kids, including those with free admission. 

12. Chicago Sports Museum

If you already know some things about Chicago, you probably know that this city has a lot of sports history. You can learn about the ups and downs of sports teams that represented Chicago in this unique museum and see the artifacts and memorabilia for yourself.

There are also interactive exhibits where you can compare your athletic abilities with those of the greats. 

If you’re a sports fan who wants to learn more about Chicago’s huge role, you owe it to yourself to visit this spot!

Insider Tip: The museum is attached to Harry Caray’s 7th Inning Stretch Restaurant. Admission to the museum is free if you eat at the restaurant, which could be a nice 2-in-1 for your visit.

Location: Water Tower Place, Level 7, 835 North Michigan Avenue

Opening Hours:

  • Monday to Thursday: 11:30 am – 7:00 pm
  • Friday to Saturday: 11:30 am – 8:00 pm
  • Sunday: 12:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Chicago sports museum entrance
Image courtesy: Briannalelli on Wikimedia Commons

11. Smart Museum of Art

What’s better than walking amongst great modern art in a relaxed space at your own pace? The Smart Museum of Art is open to the public for free at the University of Chicago Campus at Hyde Park.

This museum is worth getting lost in featuring a sculpture by Haegue Yang, ancient Chinese artifacts, and a range of fascinating and beautiful modern art pieces. The sculpture garden is a great place to walk, featuring large-scale contemporary sculptures from many notable artists.

Location: North edge of the University of Chicago campus, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave

Opening Hours:

  • Tuesday to Sunday: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
  • Thursday: 10:00 am – 8:00 pm
  • Monday: Closed
Exhibition gallery inside the Smart Museum of Art
Image courtesy: Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago

10. Chicago Children’s Museum

Young kids might not be able to appreciate every museum on this list. But a trip to the Chicago Children’s Museum will be the highlight of their trip.

Everything here is hands-on. There’s a tinkering lab where kids can put things together and take them apart, a WaterWays playground where the little ones can splash and play, and an enchanted forest called TreeHouse Trails to explore. 

They can even take part in an archaeological dig for dinosaur bones!

Young kids will love this museum experience, where they can learn about the expansive world around them by getting directly involved. Talk about a great way to entertain kids or even lean into your inner child a bit.

The Chicago Children’s Museum is located at Navy Pier, where you’ll find the Centennial wheel and other park rides. Getting there is also convenient, as you can reach the museum by car, bus, metro, taxi, or water taxi.

Location: 700 East Grand Avenue, Suite 127

Opening Hours:

  • Monday to Thursday: 10:00 am – 2:00 pm
  • Friday to Sunday: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier
Image courtesy: Adam Fagen on Flickr

9. Chicago History Museum

The Chicago History Museum is the place to go to learn about Chicago’s past. The exhibits cover everything Chicago, from Abraham Lincoln to the Chicago-style hotdog. You can climb into a vintage car to see what it was like during the highway boom or see lithographs of what Chicago used to look like years ago.

Located inside Lincoln Park, near Old Town, you can easily reach the Chicago History Museum with most transportation. Close to the lake, it’s a great place to take a walk before or after your visit too!

Location: 1601 N. Clark St.

Opening Hours:

  • Tuesday to Saturday: 9:30 am – 4:30 pm
  • Sunday: 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm
  • Monday: Closed
Chicago History Museum
Image courtesy: Alan Scott Walker

8. Chicago Cultural Center

The Chicago Cultural Center used to be the city’s public library. The building dates back to 1897 and takes up almost an entire city block! Today, it’s a cultural center providing free art exhibits, classical concerts, and artistic performances. 

You can call ahead to see what the exhibit of the day is or just drop by and be surprised. And don’t worry... there’s always something great to see.

The Chicago Cultural Center is just across the street from Millennium Park, and admission is free!

Location: 78 East Washington

Opening Hours:

  • Daily: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Chicago Cultural Center grand staircase
Image courtesy: Daderot on Wikimedia Commons

7. Peggie Notebaert Nature Museum

Located inside Lincoln Park, the Peggie Notebaert Nature Museum is an excellent way for people of all ages to encounter the natural world. Exhibitions show the natural wildlife of the prairies and forests of Illinois, including native birds and plants. The nature trail is a beautiful ⅓ mile walk. 

Don’t miss out on the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven at the center of the park, where thousands of fluttering butterflies can surround you!

To get to the Peggie Notebaert Nature Museum, take a car, taxi, bus, or metro to Lincoln Park. Some days are “by suggested donation,” but this is for Illinois residents only. If you’re from out of state, you’ll need to pay admission fees. 

Location: Just off Fullerton Parkway on 2430 Cannon Drive

Opening Hours:

  • Daily: 10:00 am – 4:00 pm
Butterflies at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Image courtesy: Martha Nelson on Flickr

6. Adler Planetarium 

The Adler Planetarium was the first-ever planetarium in the western hemisphere, and it’s still one of the best attractions, popular for Chicagoans and visitors alike. 

The Grainger Sky Theatre uses multiple projectors to cover a 70-foot-diameter dome in images of planets and galaxies. If you want to see the real thing, the Adler Planetarium is also home to the Doane Observatory. Here, visitors can look through a massive telescope available for public viewing.

Take the opportunity to gaze at the galaxy’s awe-inspiring sights and ponder on our universe’s sheer immensity.

Location: 1300 S. DuSable Lake Shore Drive

Opening Hours:

  • Friday to Monday: 9:00 am – 4:00 pm
  • Wednesday: 4:00 pm – 10:00 pm*
  • Tuesday & Thursday: Closed

*If you’re an Illinois resident, admission on Wednesday is free!

Adler Planetarium aerial view
Image courtesy: Sea Cow on Flickr

5. Museum of Science and Industry

Inside a building that was originally used for the famous 1893 Columbian Exposition, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago continues to surprise and inspire. 

Want to walk inside a simulated tornado or see what a Chicago street looked like in 1910? Or want to see a reconstructed German U-boat? You won’t be bored in these exhibits, which bring the realities of science and technology to life right in front of you.

Experience the beginnings of the many innovations that have affected humanity’s path and pushed it forward a step. It’s quite a sight to see.

You can easily reach the Museum of Science and Industry located in Hyde Park by car, bus, bike, or by metro. 

Location: 5700 S. DuSable, Lake Shore Drive

Opening Hours:

  • Daily: 9:30 am – 5:30 pm
Cherry blossoms in front of Museum of Science and Industry
Image courtesy: Max Pixel

4. Museum of Contemporary Art

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago can hold its own against any museum in the world regarding art produced after the 1950s. Browse through exhibits that feature local and international artists pushing the boundaries and limits of what is possible in their work. 

The museum also hosts incredible moving exhibitions, if I do say so myself. In the past, it has featured works by Takashi Murakami, Virgil Abloh, and David Bowie! 

You can visit their website or call ahead for info on the latest exhibits available during your trip. The MCA’s admission is on a pay-what-you-can basis.

Location: 220 East Chicago Avenue

Opening Hours:

  • Tuesday: 10:00 am – 9:00 pm
  • Wednesday to Sunday: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
  • Monday: Closed
Museum of Contemporary Art entrance in Chicago
Image courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

3. The Field Museum

The Field Museum is your spot for dinosaurs. This world-class natural history museum can take you back in time to learn about what life was like millions of years ago. You’ll hardly believe your eyes as you walk through these engaging exhibits covering everything from gems and meteorites to Native Americans and ancient Egyptians.

But let’s be honest—you’re here for the T-Rex, right? You don’t want to miss seeing and photographing Sue, the resident Tyrannosaurus. 

Location: 1400 South DuSable Lake Shore Drive

Opening Hours:

  • Daily: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Dinosaur skeleton in The Field Museum Chicago
Image courtesy: Travis Wise on Flickr

2. Shedd Aquarium

A day at the Shedd Aquarium is like a voyage under the ocean. Until 2005, it was the largest indoor aquarium in the world, and the scale is still hard to explain unless you’ve been there. 

Although the Shedd Aquarium isn’t exactly a museum, it’s an exhibit of aquatic animals you have to see in Chicago. This gigantic aquarium is home to all kinds of marine species, from tropical fish and starfish to sharks and beluga whales! 

There’s so much to see here that it’s easy to spend a whole day wandering through the Shedd Aquarium. If that’s your thing, it can be fun to meander. If you want to see specific exhibits, make a list and check them off, or you could run out of time.

Location: 1200 S. DuSable Lake Shore Drive

Opening Hours:

  • Daily: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Dolphin show at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago
Image courtesy: Smart Destinations on Flickr

1. Art Institute of Chicago

The only problem with the Art Institute of Chicago is that there’s too much art for one day! 

With almost 300,000 pieces in its permanent collection and visiting exhibits you won’t want to miss, there’s so much to see here that you could probably spend weeks browsing. It helps to know in advance what you want to see. 

Fun fact: the director Wes Anderson loves the Thorne miniatures room. You’ll also find the famous “American Gothic” by Grant Wood displayed here, as well as the iconic painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat. 

To make sure you don’t miss out on the best and maximize your time, go on an exclusive guided tour of the extensive exhibits. You’ll find the Art Institute of Chicago in downtown, across from Millennium Park.

Location: Michigan Avenue Entrance, 111 South Michigan Avenue

Opening Hours:

  • Friday to Monday: 11:00 am – 5:00 pm
  • Thursday: 11:00 am – 8:00 pm
  • Tuesday to Wednesday: Closed
Interior of the Art Institute in Chicago
Image courtesy: Leon Petrosyan on Wikimedia Commons

Explore the Best Museums in the US!

I’ve got your back if you’re looking for more museum recommendations! Consider visiting these worthwhile museums in Las Vegas or some top Los Angeles museums if you’re traveling along the West. If you’re more on the East coast, have a look at these Philadelphia museums, and don’t miss out on these virtual museums if you won’t be traveling soon.

Enjoy the Best Chicago Museums With Pilot!

There’s so much to see in the windy city that it’s hard to make time for everything. Whether in town for weeks or just for Lollapalooza, you can find the Chicago museums and attractions that matter most to you by planning your trip with Pilot.

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Disclosure: Pilot is supported by our community. We may earn a small commission fee with affiliate links on our website. All reviews and recommendations are independent and do not reflect the official view of Pilot.

Justine White
Written by:
Justine White
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