Chicago’s mega museums draw millions of visitors each year to gape at the world’s largest dinosaur, the most impressionist paintings outside of France, and other superlatives.
They’re joined by several smaller venues with local, provocative and sometimes free collections that equally amaze.
Here are the city’s 10 best museums. Note that many places are closed on Monday, Tuesday and/or Wednesday.
Art Institute of Chicago: best for endless masterpieces
The second-largest art museum in the USA holds showstoppers aplenty. Edward Hopper's lonely Nighthawks and Grant Wood's American Gothic star in side-by-side galleries. A few halls away, Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte hangs near heaps of color-swirled Monets and Renoirs.
It takes a while to get through the impressionist paintings – there are more here than anywhere outside of France – but suits of armor, dollhouse-like miniature rooms and a modern wing of Warhols and Picassos await beyond.
Tickets must be booked in advance. Download the free app for DIY audio tours through the trove.
Museum of Science & Industry: best for inquisitive minds
The Museum of Science & Industry isn't kidding around with its acres of exhibits. There's a WWII German U-boat to climb aboard and feel its cramped quarters, and a mock tornado to conjure and experience its swirling fury.
The life-size coal mine shaft, Apollo 8 lunar module, a maze of mirrors, and infamous body slices (cadavers displayed in half-inch-thick pieces) also stimulate curious minds. It’s the largest science museum in the western hemisphere, so plan on having your brain bent for several hours.
Afterward, explore the historic grounds of surrounding Jackson Park.
DuSable Museum: best for Black history
The small, Smithsonian-affiliated DuSable Museum gets overlooked among Chicago’s collections, and that’s a shame because it has a powerful story to share. Learn about African Americans’ experiences from enslavement through to the Civil Rights movement and about race relations in the city.
Then see what high-tech visiting exhibits are here, such as a virtual reality immersion into the 1963 March on Washington. Advance reservations are required.
Outside the museum’s sculpture garden opens up into huge, willowy Washington Park.
National Museum of Mexican Art: best freebie
Located in the vibrant Pilsen neighborhood, the Museum of Mexican Art is the most prominent Latinx arts center in the country. And it’s 100% free. Wander through the collection to see skeleton-rich folk art, psychedelic paintings, colorful beadwork and politically charged pieces.
Then step outside to continue the visual blitz. Murals of praying virgins, Frida Kahlo, Aztec serpents and more burst over the community’s buildings, turning local streets into a makeshift outdoor gallery that’ll overload your eyeballs. It’s a great destination for those on a budget. Lots of modest taquerias in the neighborhood mean you can eat here for cheap, too.
Chicago History Museum: best for local knowledge
Did a cow really start the Great Fire? How did Al Capone make booze? Who invented the electric blues? The Chicago History Museum has the answers. It tells the city's tale via multimedia displays and peculiar artifacts, like the bell worn by Mrs. O'Leary's cow (the aforementioned suspected firestarter).
Major exhibits cover Chicago as a center for workers’ rights and public protest, and as the second home of Abraham Lincoln when he rose to power (don’t miss his deathbed).
If you arrive after hours, hop on the Jaffee History Trail. The short interpretive path behind the museum has eight stops that describe Chicago’s indigenous past and other topics.
Field Museum of Natural History: best for dinosaurs
Chicago's natural history hall is home to many marvels – mummies, gemstones, totem poles and 500-pound taxidermied lions, for starters. The world's largest dinosaur, a Titanosaur named Máximo, lives in the front hall. Feel free to pose for a selfie with him though you may have trouble fitting him in the frame.
Meanwhile, Sue the T. rex and her toothy companions menace the second-floor galleries, where sensing stations let you experience how the hulking creatures sounded and smelled. Cannibal forks and meteorites likewise get their due among the museum's 40 million artifacts.
Chicago Children’s Museum: best for kids
Young ones go wild in the buzzing, clanging, colorful Chicago Children’s Museum. Hands-on exhibits like Dinosaur Expedition (where kids excavate “bones”) prove irresistible to the age 10-and-under crowd. Cloud Buster’s 37-foot-tall structure of steel, wood and rope attracts climbing daredevils, while the Tinkering Lab’s real hammers, nails and other tools draw budding builders.
Bonus: the museum is located on Navy Pier, a half-mile-long wharf turned carnival with a Ferris wheel, carousel, funhouse maze and splash fountain among its many amusements, so you can make a day of it.
Museum of Contemporary Photography: best for a quick browse
It’s easy to swing into this tiny downtown museum, part of Columbia College Chicago, and check out what’s showing from the rotating permanent collection. You might see works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harry Callahan, Sally Mann, Ai Weiwei, Robert Capa or any of the other 1500 top contemporary photographers in the stash. Provocative exhibitions change quarterly and cover topics from democracy to gun violence to global migration. It’s free and takes about a half-hour to view.
Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio: best for genius design
For the first 20 years of his career, architect Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked in suburban Oak Park, a stone’s throw from downtown Chicago. The home and studio where he developed the Prairie style have been preserved, and fans from around the world come to tour the place and take in its dramatic horizontal lines, art glass windows and exquisite wood decor.
Wright also designed many of his neighbors’ houses, so you can amble around and admire more of his handiwork. Buy a map in the museum shop, or book one of the neighborhood walkabouts.
Chicago Architecture Center: best for skyscraper fans
Chicago is where the world’s first skyscraper popped up, and the Architecture Center has the lowdown. Galleries include a cool, interactive model of the city’s famous skyline, plus supersized models of tall buildings around the world and info on the technologies used to raise them.
The center’s popular boat tours depart from the docks right outside; book one and you also get discounted admission to the museum.