Chicago's Best Museums and Exhibits

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The museums in Chicago, Illinois are some of the top attractions for those living in the Midwest as this city is chock full of some of the best museums in the world.

If you live in or near "The Windy City," you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to take a day trip to each of these museums. However, if you're an out-of-towner, you will have to plan ahead.

You'll want to know about the museums the city has to offer so you can pick one you will enjoy. Whether you're interested in science, art, or history, Chicago has it all! Be careful when making plans to visit multiple museums in one day as each Chicago museum is chock full of sights that can fill an entire day (or more!)

This guide contains a list of the best museums and information about each so planning a trip will be fun and easy!

The Polar Play Zone is a kid-friend hands on exhibit at Shedd Aquarium.
The Polar Play Zone is a kid-friend hands on exhibit at Shedd Aquarium.

Shedd Aquarium

The Shedd Aquarium is one of the most popular destinations in Chicago as it is officially known as the most popular cultural attraction in the entire city. This huge aquarium is also one of the most visited aquariums in the entire US and was, at one time, the largest.

The Shedd Aquarium is located in a section of Grant Park called Museum Campus Chicago. Museum Campus Chicago also houses Adler Planetarium and The Field Museum.

There are many exhibits at Shedd Aquarium which include the Wild Reef exhibit, the Amazon River exhibit, and the Oceanarium.

The museum also features free days where they allow visitors access to the exhibits free of charge, so those planning ahead may want to see if their trip to Chicago will be on a free day. Many other museums of Chicago also offer free days so this is a good thing to keep an eye out for.

Paris Street; Rainy Day (also known as Paris: A Rainy Day,) an oil painting by Gustave Caillebotte, is one of the many Impressionist pieces that can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Paris Street; Rainy Day (also known as Paris: A Rainy Day,) an oil painting by Gustave Caillebotte, is one of the many Impressionist pieces that can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago, like the Shedd Aquarium, is located in Grant Park, but it actually is not a part of the Museum Campus section of the park. The Art Institute is actually located right in downtown Chicago on Michigan Avenue. Something very special about the Art Institute of Chicago is that it is not solely a museum, it is also an art school.

There is a wide range of exhibits here, but the Art Institute of Chicago is known for housing an impressive number of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pieces. Other exhibits include Native American art, European & American Decorative arts and Asian art. This huge museum is actually the second largest museum in the United States and houses over 260,000 pieces of art.

Some of the most notable pieces in the museum are six of Claude Monet's Haystacks paintings as well as several of his Water Lilies paintings. Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat, At the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris Street; Rainy Day by Caillebotte, and American Gothic by Grant Wood are all featured in the Art Institute of Chicago. Other artists in the collection include Van Gogh, Paul C├ęzanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas.

The Museum of Science & Industry offers a huge number of exhibits as well as its Omnimax theater where visitors can view amazing scientific movies in a five-story, domed, wrap-around theater.
The Museum of Science & Industry offers a huge number of exhibits as well as its Omnimax theater where visitors can view amazing scientific movies in a five-story, domed, wrap-around theater.

Museum of Science & Industry

The Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago is known for being the largest museum in the western hemisphere and is located in a building that was previously known as the Palace of Fine Arts.

This museum has a large number of exhibits including a coal mine, a real German submarine that was captured during WWII, a huge model railroad, the Pioneer Zephyr diesel train, and the spacecraft that NASA used for the Apollo 8 mission.

Some other popular exhibits at Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry include Yesterday's Mainstreet which is a mock up of what a city street in Chicago looked like in the early 1900s. This exhibit contains many old shops of Chicago where museum-goers can look into windows and see the types of goods that were for sale in this era. The cobblestone street that visitors go down are complete with fire hydrants and streetlights of the era. There is also both a working cinema at the exhibit and an ice cream parlor that visitors can enjoy while going through Yesterday's Mainstreet.

Another exhibit at the museum, Body Slices, is a hallway two human cadavers have been sliced and visitors can see the different parts of the body that are displayed. One of the newest exhibits is Science Storms which opened in March of 2010. This exhibit features a water vapor tornado, a tsunami tank, a Tesla coil, and more.

Adler Planetarium offers an age 21+ event every third Thursday where visitors can enjoy cocktails along with views of the Chicago skyline.
Adler Planetarium offers an age 21+ event every third Thursday where visitors can enjoy cocktails along with views of the Chicago skyline.

Adler Planetarium

The Adler Planetarium, built in 1930, is the first planetarium built in the Western Hemisphere. Those visiting multiple museums in Chicago in one day are in luck as Adler Planetarium is located on Museum Campus in Grant Park along with a handful of other popular Chicago museums.

This museum is located on Northerly Island in a gorgeous domed building whose design won the gold medal from the American Institute of Architects. The building was also later named a National Historic Landmark.

The planetarium houses three full-size theaters where museum-goers can experience beautiful sky shows. Other exhibits at the museum include Planet Explorers where children can get a hands-on experience on a journey through the universe. The Galaxy Wall exhibit features the largest, most complete view of the Milky Way galaxy. The Shoot for the Moon exhibit shares the stories of America's space exploration.

The "Evolving Planet" exhibit at the Field Museum takes visitors through a journey of 4 billion years of life of Earth.
The "Evolving Planet" exhibit at the Field Museum takes visitors through a journey of 4 billion years of life of Earth.

The Field Museum

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, located on Museum Campus in Grant Park, was first started in 1893 as the Columbian Museum of Chicago. The museum was also originally housed in the Columbian Exposition's Palace of Fine Arts (where the Museum of Science & Industry is housed today,) but was moved to its present location in 1921.

Perhaps the most famous exhibit here is Sue which is the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex that has been found.

The Field Museum is also known for its extensive human anthropology exhibits which include artifacts from ancient Egypt, Tibet, and the Pacific Northwest. The taxidermy exhibit is also highly popular which includes the man-eating Lions of Tsavo and a variety of other large animals including African elephants.

The Grainger Hall of Gems features a large collection of diamonds and gems from around the world and contains an exhibit of Chinese jade artifacts that date back over 8,000 years.

Another highly popular exhibit is Inside Ancient Egypt where 23 human mummies can be found as well as a tomb with hieroglyphs that date back over 5,000 years. The McDonald's Fossil Prep Lab is a great learning experience as visitors can watch paleontologists clean and prepare real fossils.

"The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present" exhibit at DuSable Museum of African American History highlights African culture in Mexico dating back over 500 years.
"The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present" exhibit at DuSable Museum of African American History highlights African culture in Mexico dating back over 500 years.

DuSable Museum of African American History

The DuSable Museum of African American History, founded in 1961, is the first museum of African American history, culture, and art.

When this museum first opened, it quickly became a popular cultural resource for African Americans in Chicago and became a major hub of black social activism as it was the host of many events including political fundraisers and festivals. In 1973, the Chicago Park District donated a building in Washington Park to house the growing museum.

Popular exhibits at the DuSable Museum of African American History include the African Presence in Mexico which highlights African contributions to Mexican culture; Tracing the Civil Rights Movement 1848 to 1968 which gives visitors a look into the history of the civil rights movement in America; Red, White, Blue & Black which highlights the history of African Americans in the Armed Services; and the Harold Washington Story which gives visitors a look into the life of Chicago's first African American mayor.

The Chicago History Museum showcases many important pieces of Chicago and US history.
The Chicago History Museum showcases many important pieces of Chicago and US history.

Quick Poll

Which Chicago Museum is Your Favorite?

  • Shedd Aquarium
  • Museum of Science & Industry
  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • Adler Planetarium
  • The Field Museum
  • DuSable Museum of African American History
  • Chicago History Museum
  • Polish Museum of America
  • Other
See results without voting
The Polish Museum of America is one of the oldest and largest ethnic museums in the United States.
The Polish Museum of America is one of the oldest and largest ethnic museums in the United States.

Chicago History Museum

The Chicago History Museum, known as the Chicago Historical Society until 2006, is located in Lincoln Park. The museum was founded in 1856, but sadly most of the museum's early collection was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. One important historical piece lost in the fire was the original Emancipation Proclamation that was signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Shortly after the fire, the Chicago Historical Society started collecting new pieces for its museum that were again lost in a fire in 1874. Thus, a fireproof building was built on the museum's original site, which opened in 1896. However, this new building was only used by the museum until 1932 when it moved to a new site so it could hold the massive collection the museum purchased from Charles Gunther.

Exhibits at the Chicago History Museum include the first passenger car to operate on Chicago's "L" system; Pioneer, which is the first locomotive ever operated in Chicago; and many pieces dedicated to Chicago history. Also, the museum is set to receive a postcard collection depicting Chicago's history from the Chicago Postcard Museum.

Polish Museum of America

The Polish Museum of America is located in West Town which is the historical Polish Downtown neighborhood. In the neighborhood surrounding the museum, visitors can peruse Polish delis and shops. The museum is one of the oldest ethnic museums in America and pays homage to the large number of Poles who call Chicago their home.

Poles make up one of the largest ethnic groups in Chicago and the city has over 185,000 Polish language speakers which are some of the reasons Chicago bills itself as the largest Polish city outside of Poland.

The museum houses many exhibits which include Polish artifacts, artwork, and folk costumes. Each year the Polish Museum of America hosts a number of events and special exhibitions with an aim to share Polish history and culture. These programs include lectures, movies, performances, and school meetings.

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Comments 17 comments

Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 21 months ago from The Beautiful South

Sounds like a great place to visit! I have an old friend there somewhere; hope she has seen all these!


Jason Matthews profile image

Jason Matthews 4 years ago from North Carolina

Excellent hub! The Field Museum is my personal favorite!


A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 4 years ago from Texas

I loved visiting the Field Museum in Chicago. My favorite exhibit were the killer lions from Tsavo: the ghost and the darkness. At the Museum of Science & Industry I enjoyed the tour of the Uboat. Awesome hub, thank you for sharing.


Kris Heeter profile image

Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana

Great review. I have family in Chicago. I've been to a few but not all of these. I'll have to add some to my "must see" list!


livewithrichard profile image

livewithrichard 4 years ago from Charleston, SC

Awesome hub Melbel. As a Chicagoan I feel fortunate to have so many great choices and museums to visit. Lucky too because as a resident of this city, I am afforded the luxury of being able to visit many of these great sites at no cost. City residents can go to any Chicago public library and check out a museum pass that will allow entry for up to 4 people in your party. The passes do not include the costs associated with special exhibitions that require an additional fee above the regular entry fee. Each library has a different set of passes so it would benefit a resident to call ahead to see which venues are still available.

For the record, my favorite is the Shedd Aquarium but since I work downtown, relatively close to Millennium Park, I have been visiting the Art Institute quite often.


cebutouristspot profile image

cebutouristspot 4 years ago from Cebu

Wow. Love the pictures :) Hope you can post more exhibit picture :) It is very informative. Voting up


tarajeyaram profile image

tarajeyaram 4 years ago from Wonderland

Wow! I can't wait to check these out when I am there. Thank you for posting this hub.

Voted up and Sharing.


World-Traveler profile image

World-Traveler 4 years ago from USA

A number of my foreign English language business students travel to Chicago for meetings at their company headquarters. Most have not been to Chicago before. This is a good guide for first timers travelling there. Informative. Rated UP and informative. Thanks.


GmaGoldie profile image

GmaGoldie 5 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

Adore Chicago - one of the best places in the entire world.

Museum Park has it all!

The lake front and the Chicago harbors are among the best in the world.

Note: I have heard good things about the Italian Museum also - they have some items from Matt Biondi - the Gold Metal Olympian swimmer.

Great subject, great hub!


Les Trois Chenes profile image

Les Trois Chenes 6 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

Lovely Hub and love your clean and simple lay-out. Along with LPSarr, liked map/Amazon. Congratulations.


melbel profile image

melbel 6 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan Author

I'm glad you liked that!


LPStarr profile image

LPStarr 6 years ago from near my computer :P

I liked how you did the map and Amazon together


melbel profile image

melbel 6 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan Author

Thank you so much, everyone, for all the wonderful feedback to the hub! I'm glad you found it enjoyable!


Purple Perl profile image

Purple Perl 6 years ago from Bangalore,India

Thanks for sharing! I loved visiting all the wonderful places thru' your hub! Congrats on your win too!


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

I love Chicago, and really need to visit again so I can see some of these amazing museums. The Field Museum is one of my favorites, but the rest are now added to my list of places to see. Great Hub!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

Chicago has so much to offer! Yeesh, if those are just some of the museums, I can only IMAGINE what the shopping, eating, and other attractions are like!


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

Thank you for the tour. The way describe them they sound really interesting.

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