Museum Hopping in Chicago

Content originally written for the Let’s Go: USA & Canada Guide by our researcher-writer, Daphne Thompson.

Art Institute of Chicago

111 S Michigan Ave.; (312) 443-3600;; open M-W 10:30am-5pm, Th 10:30am-5pm, F-Su 10:30am-5pm

Move over, Louvre: The Art Institute of Chicago was declared the “Best Art Museum in the World (2014-2017)” by TripAdvisor, a fact it proudly advertises on the entrance doors. It’s a little guache, but we’ll allow it, since the Art Institute does seem to be the rare art museum with something for everyone from the cargo-shorts tourist crowd to the all-black-wearing art students (it’s the middle of summer, guys!). You’ll find everything from Pre-Columbian textiles to Picasso, Jackson Pollock to Japanese screens, and Monet’s water lilies to medieval manuscripts in these sprawling, modern Millennium Park galleries. Plus, you can reenact your favorite scenes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (the greatest Chicago movie ever)—check out Cameron’s favorite, Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, in Gallery 240. Illinois residents get in free on Thursday evenings.

Admission $25, students $19; wheelchair accessible

Field Museum of Natural History

1400 S Lake Shore Dr.; (312) 922-9410;; open daily 9am-5pm

We like big dino bones and we cannot lie. The Field Museum houses its fossile friends in a marble temple that makes the Supreme Court look like a piddly shack, but Máximo the Titanosaur, the largest dinosaur ever discovered (now on view in the museum lobby), demands nothing less. It’s not cheap to visit Máximo and friends—$24 baseline for adults, and more for special exhibitions and 3D movies—but the Field is a museum you could easily spend a half day in, and not just because the layout is extremely confusing. The dinos, mummies, and top-quality taxidermy are the headliners, but some of the museum’s quieter rooms are just as captivating: the Hall of Gems is a great spot to fantasize about heists, and a temporary exhibition reconsidering the hecka problematic “Races of the World” sculptures (displayed, embarrassingly, in the museum for decades) is refreshingly honest and thought-provoking.  

Admission $24, students $21; last entry 4pm; wheelchair accessible

Lincoln Park Zoo

2001 N Clark St.; (312) 742-2000;; open M-F 10am-5pm, Sa-Su 10am-6:30pm

We’d like to have a word with anyone who says zoos are just for kids: adults can be broke and love looking at penguins, too. The main selling point of the Lincoln Park Zoo—located about three miles north of the Loop, and accessible most directly via the 151 bus—is that it’s completely free, and that’s not a small deal in a city of $40 museums (@Shedd Aquarium). At that price, we would’ve be satisfied with a few meerkats in a cage, but this 35-acre, 150-year-old park seriously exceeds expectations. You’ll find creatures big (lions, gorillas, polar bears) and small (kookaburras, otters, mongooses), plus a pair of unbelievably cute red pandas named Waveland and Sheffield. Sure, you’ll have to contend with every YMCA summer camp in the great Chicago area, but there’s more than enough penguins to go around.    

Free; wheelchair accessible

Museum of Contemporary Art

220 E Chicago Ave.; (312) 280-2660;; open Tu 10am-9pm, W-Th 10am-5pm, F 10am-9pm, Sa-Su 10am-5pm

Much like the city it’s in, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art is refreshingly unpretentious and down-to-earth, an attitude underlined by the dozens of soccer fans gathered to watch the World Cup in the museum’s Commons one summer afternoon. Shouts of “GOOOOOAL” echoed through the two nearby galleries, showcasing the work of a photographer (Kenneth Josephson) and a performance artist (Otobong Nkanga) with signage avoiding the typical art museum mumbo-jumbo. Things only started to get freaky on the fourth floor, where the MCA is showing an extensive exhibition on the Internet through October 14; with two VR experiences and a whole lot of surveillance paranoia, it’s as consuming and unsettling as the bowels of Reddit. Admission is nominally pay-what-you wish, but the desk guy won’t mention it, so be ready to fork over the full rate or be very awkward about it. Illinois residents get in free on Tuesdays, when the museum stays open late for live jazz and boozing on the terrace during the summer.  

Admission $15, students $8; tours Tu-F 1pm, Sa-Su 1pm and 2pm; wheelchair accessible

Shedd Aquarium

1200 S Lake Shore Dr.; (312) 939-2438;; open daily 9am-6pm

A whole roasted branzino at Devon Seafood Grill costs $37, $3 less than a ticket to the Shedd Aquarium—so think carefully about whether you’d be eating fish or looking at them during your trip to Chicago. If you do have two Jacksons to drop on a visit to a fish zoo, you’ll at least gain access to one of the world’s largest aquariums, housing pettable stingrays, undulating jellyfish, and some massively cute beluga whales (and for just $500, a ring-trained beluga can help you with your marriage proposal). Morally, this place probably falls somewhere between SeaWorld and a nature preserve; the creatures seem happy enough, even if the penguins are a little sluggish. Outside, don’t miss the world’s worst sculpture Man With Fish, an astonishing Shape of Water-esque testament to the love and passion that can exist between—yes!—a man and a fish. Bank of America cardholders get in free on first Sundays.    

Admission $40; wheelchair accessible

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