What are the best Chicago museums?

Answers from Our Experts (10)

Chicago Art Institute Modern Wing©iStock/benkrut

Lurking in the grand Stanley Field Hall that greets visitors at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History is Sue - at 42 feet long and 13 feet high at the hips, it is the most complete, best-preserved and largest Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever discovered. Unearthed in South Dakota in 1990, Sue (named after the woman who found her) is no plastic replica (though the T-Rex skull is so heavy the real thing is housed upstairs while a stand-in graces the actual body), and the skeleton's placement near the entry is a reminder of the museum's commitment to displaying authentic remnants from nature's past. Spread out more than 480,000 square feet, the museum holds popular exhibits on ancient Egypt as well as artifacts and wilderness scenes from all parts of the globe. The museum's recently renovated Grainger Hall of Gems features rare jewels, gold objects and designer creations, including a collection from Tiffany & Co.

If your tastes lean to art over history, check out the Art Institute of Chicago, best known for its vast stock of Impressionist works. Though with the 2009 opening of The Modern Wing, it now also houses collections of modern art, photography, and architecture and design. With this 264,000-square-foot addition, the Art Institute is now the second-largest U.S. art museum (after New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art). Among the museum's permanent collection of more than a quarter million pieces are iconic works such as American Gothic, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and Nighthawks.

Looking for the work of today's artists? Housed in a rather uninspired building between Lake Michigan and the Water Tower, the Museum of Contemporary Art is home to about 2,500 pieces in its permanent collection, including work by Dan Flavin and Lee Bontecou. The interior space can be daunting, with wide hallways and an unusual eyelid-shaped staircase with a fishpond at the bottom that is worth viewing on its own. But despite its size, the MCA won't take long to see (perhaps an hour or two to review the museum's first-rate contemporary experimental works) before you'll want to grab some lunch at the museum's café, operated by chef Wolfgang Puck of Spago fame.

No international city is complete without world-class museums, and Chicago does not fall short. In 1998, the city officially opened the Museum Campus, a 10-acre, lakefront park that surrounds three of the city’s most prestigious museums: The Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum of Natural History and the Shedd Aquarium. The Museum Campus is connected to the southern portion of Grant Park, which also includes the renowned Art Institute of Chicago and its impressive new Modern Wing. Also nearby is the Museum of Science and Industry — a great choice for families with inquisitive kids.

Other smaller, but equally impressive museums abound in Chicago. The University of Chicago Oriental Institute has an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern archaeological artifacts. The Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History, Museum of Contemporary Art, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Polish Museum of America and Museum of Broadcast Communications all also contribute to Chicago’s rich museum culture. Many of these museums offer extended hours through the summer months and have active programming that make them more interactive.

Michael D. Solis

There are many museums in Chicago, but our favorites are: The Field Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Science and Industry, The Adler Planetarium, and The Shedd Aquarium.

My all-time favorite is The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. It’s where the Indiana Jones movies were said to be inspired. My second favorite is The Art Institute of Chicago — go there specifically for the impressionist collection. The dinosaur [Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex] at The Field Museum is also just amazing to see.

The Field Museum, also the Art Institute. We travel quite a bit, and when we go to other cities, we try to go to museums, and it’s always extraordinary to think in the back of your head that the Art Institute is every bit as good as these world-class museums. It is a world-class museum.

My favorite is the Art Institute for absolutely great, world-class art. The Museum of Science and Industry is another one. And if you can get to the aquarium, I think it’s one of the best aquariums in the country. When I compare it to other aquariums I’ve seen, I think Chicago has a really good one.

Definitely our Museum of Contemporary Art here is phenomenal. The Art Institute goes without saying. It’s an amazing collection. There are also some smaller museums that I really like. At Loyola University downtown, they actually have a collection of art that’s connected with theology sort of that focus; but it’s a really incredible, interesting collection of stuff. It’s all about illumination.

There’s the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen that’s really interesting, featuring modern Mexican artists. I think they’re often marginalized in more conventional settings. And then for taxidermy, the Field Museum is unparalleled because people aren’t killing and stuffing animals anymore, and it’s got a ton of that stuff. So it’s really cool to look at.

I’m a big art guy — I like the Museum of Contemporary Art. I take my kids to the Field Museum and Museum of Science and Industry. Those are all great.

I love the Museum of Science and Industry because they have little hands-on, fun stuff that’s supposed to be for kids.

Lauren Viera

Hands down the city's best museum is the Art Institute of Chicago. For years, the Art Institute was heralded for its collections of classic and ancient art, and the go-to institution for modern works was the savvy Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. But thanks to the addition of the Art Institute's 264,000 square-foot, Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing, which opened in 2009, there are now two top institutions that foster visual arts made during the last century. If you decide to tackle the Art Institute, it's helpful to consult the museum's online wayfinding maps in advance. It's such a massive institution that even spending the entire day there doesn't guarantee you'll see everything.

On the near South Side, anchoring the city's lovely Museum Campus (punctuated by Adler Planetarium -- another stellar institution) is the Field Museum of Natural History. Great for families but with plenty of intellectual stimulation for adults, the Field is home to the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil yet discovered, nicknamed Sue after its discoverer, Sue Hendrickson.

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