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From the largest and most complete T-Rex to masterpieces and modern art, Chicago has it all. No wonder it’s called the "City of Broad Horizons," as top-notch museums aim to enlighten, educate and inspire. Whether it’s the vast collections at the Art Institute or learning more about planet earth and the solar system at America’s first planetarium it’s all in Chicago. Here are the most iconic museum stops to include on your itinerary.
Art Institute of Chicago
Just as the aerial view of the Chicago cityscape from Skydeck Chicago takes your breath away, so will the art of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Within the walls of this grand museum are endless exhibits of both classic and contemporary artwork from around the nation and world. Inside the Art Institute is Gallery 144, an exhibit of replicas of famous Chicago structures, including one replica created by Picasso himself. This is just one of the ways the Art Institute of Chicago provides visitors with the full Chicago experience, and it’s also why they’re a treasured CityPASS partner.
Chicago may have arguably the best hot dogs in the world, but Chicago has another "best" that goes beyond taste bud satisfaction: the best art museum in the world. That's right. In 2014, TripAdvisor named The Art Institute of Chicago the best museum in the world. The Art Institute of Chicago is the second largest art museum in the United States and remains a global favorite and an iconic, can’t-miss stop for any visit to Chicago.
What to See
Explore over 550 works from 4,000 years of art in the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the most comprehensive collections in the world.
The impressionist art collection, the second biggest in the world, is one of the most popular, drawing regular crowds. You’ll get a first-hand look at the art of such masters as Monet, Degas, and Van Gogh. Also on display is contemporary work from Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko, jewelry and pottery from East Asia, and ancient art from Africa, India, and Asia. The Modern Wing of the museum holds the most beloved artwork for certain eager visitors, and a favorite has come to be the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Built on a scale of one inch to one foot, these replicas imitate the constructs of European interiors from the 13th century to the American interiors from the 17th century all the way through the 1930s and all in incredible detail.
Take a photo at the main entrance with two magnificent bronze lions. One stands "in an attitude of defiance" and the other is "on the prowl."
Know Before You Go
Wear comfortable shoes - the Art Institute of Chicago is an extremely large building, and the Modern Wing is separate from the rest of the collection with its own entrance next to Millennium Park. There are thousands of works of art to see and exploring the collections on your own can be a daunting task.
First-time visitors are recommended to take the audio tour. The audio tour not only gives insight into the importance and history of each work of art, but you get a focused tour through the museum so you can leave knowing you’ve seen the most renowned works of art. Best of all, audio tours are completely free with CityPASS!
Because the museum is so vast, it’s best to dedicate an entire day for exploration (or better yet – plan to come back!). But on Thursdays you can plan for a later start, as the museum stays open until 8:00pm. Like most museums, the Art Institute of Chicago is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Museum of Science & Industry
Chicago is a big city. But even within the big city are big museums that are so fascinating and inviting, it could take days to explore each one from corner to corner. The Museum of Science & Industry is no different. With 400,000 square feet of award-winning exhibits and 35,000 artifacts, there is simply no way to walk through this amazing and diverse museum in under an hour. Fortunately, with a Chicago CityPASS, you’ll zip past the lines and get right to the best exhibits with more time to explore.
The MSI has been open since 1933, when a parent was inspired by his curious child’s fascination with an interactive museum display. That moment of inspiration has morphed into the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere.
What to See
The MSI is considered one of the best science museums in the world because the constantly updated exhibits reflect the changing times and continual advancement of technology while still holding exhibits that explore the past at a detailed interactive level.
While other museums document the past, MSI is always looking forward, and the expectations for tomorrow reflect well in their state-of-the-art programs and exhibits. Many of those who have paid a visit to MSI have enjoyed the permanent exhibits like the fascinating interactive tour of the German submarine U-505 and the Science Storms, in which all forces of nature are contained in one room to be observed and manipulated by you, a scientist-in-training. Lightning, fire, tsunamis, and a 40-foot tornado you can control are sure to enthrall both children and adults.
One of the most popular exhibits at the Museum is the baby chick hatchery – you can see the chicks peck their way out of their shells and take their first steps. Another fun experience is the mirror maze, part of the Numbers in Nature exhibit. See if you can find the hidden mystery room and you might have to pull out some math skills!
Know Before You Go
With a CityPASS booklet, visitors can reserve a seat in a motion simulator ride in addition to one of the omnimax shows (the immersive dome theatre).
Normally, the U-505 Submarine exhibit comes at an additional cost, but with a CityPASS booklet, admission is free. The more time you have to explore MSI, the better. With so many exhibits and showings available through the omnimax it is best to dedicate one full day to MSI for a truly worthwhile experience.
The Field Museum
The Field Museum encapsulates a variety of exhibits that bring the pages of history to life through works of art, sculptures, artifacts, and interactive activities. The Field Museum is best known for the famous SUE the T. Rex, where she lives in all her fossilized glory. But there are other experiences you won’t find anywhere else.
Only at The Field Museum can you see SUE, the world’s most complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found, AND explore 5,000 year-old tombs from Ancient Egypt, complete with one of the largest collections of mummies in the US.
What to See
SUE is probably your first sight, because she welcomes visitors right in the center of the lobby. The Field Museum also shows a 3D movie about SUE called "Waking the T. Rex" where you can learn all about this celebrity dinosaur. A fun thing for kids to do is take a photo "running away" from SUE. This alone makes the Field Museum one of the most memorable in the world, but there’s also so much more to explore.
A temporary exhibit that will be featured until December of 2017 is the Underground Adventure. In this exhibit, visitors get to shrink down to 1/100th of their size to dive into the soil. You’ll explore worm tunnels and soil chambers, the diversity of life within the soil (meeting crayfish, wolf spiders, and mole crickets) and you’ll learn just how important soil really is. This exhibit requires an additional ticket.
Explore the gripping story of the man-eating Tsavo lions, who terrorized an African village in 1898, killing 135 people; the lion’s skulls and skins were used to create the life-like mounts you’ll see in the exhibit.
Know Before You Go
The Field Museum is open every day from 9am-5pm except on Christmas. However, last admission is at 4pm daily, and you would want more than an hour to explore anyway. With Chicago CityPASS, you can have your choice in seeing one digital 3D film in addition to 10% off Museum Store purchases of $25 or more. Upgrade your experience by purchasing tickets to temporary exhibits at a discount.
For a more virtual experience, download the Field Museum app to create your own tour, follow a pre-made one, and get access to extra app goodies like behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with scientists.
Everyone looks up at the stars at least once in a while. At the Adler Planetarium, you not only get to look at the stars, you get the chance to immerse yourself in the wonders of the cosmos with three full-size theatres, one of the largest and most significant collections of antique scientific instruments, and amazing space exhibitions.
The Adler Planetarium is America’s first planetarium, open since 1930. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. It sits right on Lake Michigan and has awesome views of the lake and the city skyline.
What to See
Just as the Museum of Science & Industry allows visitors to explore the wonders of this planet, the Adler Planetarium allows visitors to explore the unreachable.
In the Atwood Sphere exhibit, the night sky over Chicago in 1913 shows visitors the true color that paints the night sky without light pollution. It’s a stunning and immersive experience that will give you a whole new appreciation for darkness.
Adults love the Space Visualization Lab, where experts, scientists, educators, and even artists work together to bring space exploration to the masses through interactive exhibits and visualizations as well as live presentations from experts in astronomy and other fields.
Check out the actual Gemini 12 space capsule where astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell spent four days - it was tight quarters! You can also listen to the actual communications that took place between Mission Control and the crew of Apollo 13. In the Exploring Our Solar System exhibit, you can touch a piece of the Moon, Mars, Ceres, and Vesta, and talk with scientists.
A special once-a-month event that happens every third Thursday of the month from 6:00pm to 10:00pm is Adler After Dark, a 21+ event that brings date nights, cocktails, theatre sky shows, special guest lectures, and live entertainment together in one amazing and totally unique event. Plan your visit for the third Thursday of the month as it’s well worth checking out.
Know Before You Go
If you decide to participate in Adler After Dark, you can get $5 off ticket price with your Chicago CityPASS booklet in addition to a 10% discount at the Adler Store and Café Galileo.
Museum of Contemporary Art
The Museum of Contemporary Art is an architectural masterpiece containing some of the world’s most important creative gems. Post-World War II art of the likes of Frida Kahlo, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, and more showcase the styles of surrealism, minimalism, pop art, and postmodernism.
The Museum of Contemporary Art takes art adventure to a whole new level with live performances and indulgent programs that will teach and enlighten any mind curious about art.
The MCA has a long history of taking chances. After opening its doors for the first time 1967, emerging artists have had the chance to prove their worth on the walls of the MCA. In fact, it was the Museum of Contemporary Art that hosted Frida Kahlo’s debut exhibition, and now she is recognized as one of the greats. To this day, MCA holds true to their values.
What to See
The Museum of Contemporary Art is a Chicago must-see. Every trip to the MCA is different, and there are plenty of reasons to visit this unique museum over and over again.
The museum is run more like an art gallery with exhibits changing throughout the year, always bringing the most cutting-edge art to the public. The flux of contemporary work makes the MCA one of the most unique and beloved museums in Chicago and in the world.
There is one iconic work of art that’s guaranteed to be seen at all times, and that’s because it’s part of the museum itself: the main staircase. A dizzying architectural masterpiece, the staircase has become an attraction all on its own. In contrast with the blank walls of the gallery space, the staircase stands out with permanence.
The MCA does have permanent collections, which include more than 2,500 works of art, but no one piece is displayed constantly. Instead, various pieces from the permanent collection are displayed in rotating exhibits, making every MCA experience different from the last.
Bold is one word to describe the MCA, and beautiful follows close behind. One visit truly does not do this museum justice. Even the building itself is a work of modern art.
Know Before You Go
There are free tours available, so if you’re looking to indulge in the ultimate contemporary art experience, take the tour. Family Days allow little ones to create, tinker, and experiment with art.
National Museum of Mexican Art
Chicago is a cultured city, through and through. If you saw the world in the stars at the Chicago Adler Planetarium, you’ll see a vibrant and beautiful new world in the National Museum of Mexican Art. Here you’ll explore the intricacies of Mexican culture sin fronteras, or without borders, where artistic expression has no limits.
What was originally started by a group of Chicago schoolteachers with a budget of $900 has transformed into a vibrant museum that is now the host of the largest Day of the Dead celebration in the U.S. In 2015, over 10,000 visitors made their way to the National Museum of Mexican Art to celebrate the important Mexican holiday.
What to See
The National Museum of Mexican Art is one of the best Latino museums in the nation, and is the only one accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. This means that every exhibit must be of a certain artistic and cultural value, and every work is rich in history and artistic expression. Many glowing visitor reviews prove that the Dia de Los Muertos exhibit is by far the most popular. The National Museum of Mexican Art explores the roots of this spiritual holiday by exhibiting works by more than 50 Mexican artists from both Mexico and the United States. It is the largest annual exhibition of Dia de Los Muertos in the country.
Though the museum is much smaller than its big Chicago art neighbors, the National Museum of Mexican Art has become a mainstay of Chicago art culture thanks to collections that are unlike any other. There is a collection of folk art, comprised of a mixture of ceramics, masks, carved wood, and even papier mache from well-known Mexican artists.
The permanent exhibit Nuestra Historias: Highlighting the Mexican Identity displays what has been called by one of the museum’s curators "the best of the collection" and centers on the diverse stories of Mexican identity in North America. It includes Rubén Ortiz-Torres’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, a tricked-out low-rider lawnmower that pays homage to landscaping laborers, and Alejandro Díaz’s pink neon sign Make Tacos Not War.
In addition to the paintings and sculptures that are more of the traditional findings in a museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art holds a collection of vintage calendars, postcards, churches and local customs, and nearly 1,000 posters commemorating Chicano cultural events and movies.
Know Before You Go
The museum is free admission, so the only time you might spend money is at the museum’s gift shop—Tienda Tzintzuntzan or, Place of the Hummingbird. Within the gift shop are handcrafted gifts that can only be found in a museum dedicated to the artistic integrity of Mexican culture. All items are sourced from regions of Mexico by museum staff specifically for the gift shop.
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00am to 5:00pm and closed on Mondays. Most visitors are able to fully explore the museum within a couple of hours, making it the perfect stop for those who don’t have an entire day to devote to museums.
If you're looking to visit the best Chicago museums, use Chicago CityPASS. You'll save nearly half off combined entrance fees to some of the top museums and tourist attractions in Chicago. CityPASS holders also get to skip most ticket lines. Chicago CityPASS includes admission to Shedd Aquarium, The Field Museum, Skydeck Chicago, Adler Planetarium or the Art Institute of Chicago, and 360 CHICAGO or the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Some special exhibits are not included with the CityPASS and may require an extra fee.