With an abundance of art galleries, museums, high-rises, parks, zoos and more, Chicago is a cultural hub that offers inspiring attractions. The city is famously known as the birthplace of the skyscraper and is home to the world’s largest dinosaur, as well as a botanical conservatory brimming with thousands of plants. Whether you’re a tourist or a resident looking for ideas on what to do in the Windy City, discover Culture Trip’s line-up of the area’s must-visit attractions.
Brush up on your artistic knowledge at the Art Institute of Chicago
No visit to Chicago is complete without a trip to the Art Institute, the crown jewel in the city’s cultural scene. The museum has more than 300,000 works in its permanent collection, spanning many different movements such as the Renaissance and Surrealism. Expect to see quintessential pieces by Edward Hopper, van Gogh, Picasso, Monet and Cézanne, plus a vast array of sculptures, ceramics and contemporary pieces. It also boasts a stellar selection of rotating exhibitions that are well worth checking into ahead of your trip to plan accordingly. Book a fast-pass ticket before arriving to skip the lines.
The Shedd Aquarium is home to approximately 32,000 animals, including sea otters, sharks, frogs, penguins and beluga whales, not to mention a multitude of different fish and coral species. The aquarium is divided into different geographical exhibits and offers a comprehensive daily schedule that includes spotlight sessions on various species, live dives and feedings, along with look-and-learn experiences. With so many activities and programming, this is easily a full-day excursion. Buying tickets in advance is strongly recommended.
Founded in 1967, the MCA Chicago is a pioneer of new and unexpected contemporary art and culture in all of its various mediums. With an innovative and interactive approach to its exhibitions, performances and programs, expect a diverse mix of static exhibits along with live arts, screenings, talks and workshops. Putting the MCA on the world’s cultural stage is one of its biggest shows to date, Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech. It also boasts an award-winning in-museum restaurant, Marisol, which is a perfect spot to sample the culinary arts.
As one of the largest science museums in the world, the Museum of Science and Industry meticulously curates every installation, exhibit and showcase to pique curiosity and inquiry. Housed in a building constructed during the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, this vast institution offers an immersive experience into history, technology and the natural world. Exhibits include Science Storms, U-505 Submarine: 75 Stories, Coal Mine, Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze and more. Check out the website to purchase tickets and find details on the seasonal programming and exhibits.
Steeped in history, the Field Museum opened in 1894 (then known as the Field Columbian Museum), with a collection that grew out of the 65,000 exhibits on display at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In its current location since 1921, this natural history museum shines a light on everything from ancient cultures to the newest scientific discoveries and offers an array of exhibits under its general admission, including SUE the T rex and Máximo the Titanosaur. Its traveling exhibitions and ticketed experiences may vary depending on the date of your visit.
One of the many things Chicago excels at is offering its visitors awe-inspiring 360-degree views of the city. For this reason alone, the Willis Tower’s renowned Skydeck is a must-visit. Located on the building’s 103rd floor 1,353 feet (412 meters) above the city, it’s the tallest spot to sightsee in Chicago – short of taking a helicopter ride. An ideal locale for an Instagram snap or two, the Skydeck provides views that are breathtaking from every angle – including down. As it’s hugely popular, expect long lines for this experience.
Journey through space and time with a trip to the popular Adler Planetarium. Explore a mix of museum exhibits, including Mission Moon, Our Solar System, Planet Explorers and more, and then take in a show or two, choosing from Welcome to the Universe, Imagine the Moon and Planet Nine. Seasonal events include pop-up shows, after-dark programming from May through August and even monthly yoga classes. Check the website for all scheduling, and where possible, purchase tickets online.
Dating back to 1897, the landmark Chicago Cultural Center – affectionately known as the ‘People’s Palace’ – remains a beloved cultural hotspot thanks to its impressive line-up of free public events. Boasting the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome, along with a second smaller but equally magnificent dome, the center showcases work from an array of local and national artists, performers and musicians, rotating the schedule regularly. Check the website for the latest exhibits or simply pop in and explore away.
Nestled in the heart of downtown, Millennium Park offers an eclectic mix of nature and the arts, combined with contemporary architectural detailing in its Jay Pritzker Pavilion. As it’s home to the iconic Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as ‘The Bean,’ no trip to Chicago is complete without posing for a selfie in front of it. In the summer, take a relaxing stroll through the Lurie Garden, and enjoy picnics and open-air concerts in the pavilion. In winter, go ice skating at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink. Travel through the park to get to neighboring Grant Park and Lake Michigan.
Brush up on your local history at the Chicago History Museum in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. With an extensive library of historical artefacts, the museum has signature exhibitions such as Chicago: Crossroads of America and Sensing Chicago, along with a variety of intriguing temporary displays. The museum is also home to a renowned historical costume and textiles collection, with more than 50,000 costumes and textiles from the 18th century to present day, including pieces by some of fashion’s biggest names (Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent, Versace and more) – access to this is by appointment only.
With its extensive line-up of activities and attractions, Chicago’s iconic Navy Pier makes for a fun-packed day out for the entire family. Its lakefront location offers exquisite panoramic views from the ground, but if being up high excites you, then the Centennial Ferris Wheel is a must. A prime spot for all manner of water-based activities, including speedboats rides and the Tall Ship Windy, the pier also has an array of sailing tours and cruises across the lake, with spectacular fireworks shows every Wednesday and Saturday evenings throughout the summer. And for indoor-based activities, Navy Pier is home to the Chicago Children’s Museum, AMC Navy Pier IMAX Theater and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. There’s always something to do at this cultural spot, come rain or shine.
This Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece was inspired by the expansive landscape of the Midwest and is considered one of the most important of his game-changing Prairie houses. Wright designed the home to give an impression of continuous color from the roof down to the brickwork. He also created the interior furnishings to provide a sense of unity between the exterior and interior. Entry to the property is by guided tour only, and due to its popularity, buying tickets online is highly recommended.
Taking an architecture boat tour is one of the most popular and fascinating things to do in the city that lays claim to inventing the skyscraper. With a variety of different tours along the Chicago River available, Shoreline Sightseeing is one of the best as the guides boast excellent architectural knowledge. Cruise down the river and discover the thrilling history of the city and its founder, and then marvel at the pure feats of engineering and architecture spanning Chicago’s many eras.
Peer out over Michigan Avenue at 360 Chicago, John Hancock Center
Thrill-seekers with a fondness for heights will not be disappointed with a trip to 360 Chicago. Sitting 1,000ft (305m) above ground in one of the city’s tallest buildings, the iconic John Hancock Center, the 360 Chicago observation deck offers panoramic views across the city and beyond. It’s also home to TILT – an enclosed moving platform that tilts you out over Michigan Avenue from the 94th floor. Purchase tickets online to ensure you have the full 360 experience.
See Chicago from a different perspective, down by the riverfront. The charming and unique Chicago Riverwalk offers a variety of activities, including strolls along its winding paths, a pit stop at City Winery or exploring local art along its banks. You can also take to the water via a water taxi, boat rental or guided tour. For the more intrepid explorer, Urban Kayaks offers an active way to traverse the river and blow off some steam.
The home of improv and the heart of the US comedy scene, The Second City Chicago has been a pioneering hilarity hub for over 50 years. With its very own special sauce of weird and wonderful Chicago-style sketch and improv comedy running every night of the week, there’s plenty of variety to keep you coming back for more. Book tickets online as they can sell out fast.
For the literature lover, a visit to the American Writers Museum is an absolute must. It’s one of the only museums in the country dedicated to American writers and their works, and its collection spans more than five centuries of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, journalism and more. Visit its website for the schedule of weekly events – for kids and adults alike – and discover its permanent and temporary collections, too.
One of the country’s biggest conservatories, this epic botanical experience nestled in Garfield Park is home to a vast collection of plants from around the world. Explore the Palm House, Fern Room and Desert House before venturing outdoors to the gardens, including one for children. Alongside the permanent display houses, seasonal dynamic exhibits and installations from local artists and community members are abundant. With free admission, enjoy the delights of the conservatory year-round.
Home to over 2,000 animals, Brookfield Zoo – also an accredited arboretum – is a stellar option if you’re looking for something fun to do with the kids while visiting Chicago. From butterflies to bears, wolves to orangutans, there’s an eclectic mix of weird and wonderful creatures. And for a more interactive experience, there are unique installations, along with a play zoo for children under the age of 11. Check out the website for details on feeding times and special events, such as safaris, summer night concerts and more.
If you’re looking for pure fun, you can’t go wrong with The Escape Game. In an immersive “choose your own adventure,” you will pick a challenge and work with your teammates to do your best sleuthing – uncovering clues, solving puzzles and unlocking the secret solution. It’s perfect for team-building work trips or family fun, and booking online is recommended.