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An Art Lover’s Guide to Chicago in 24 Hours

The Red Line station on 18th Street in Pilsen offers just a glimpse of the street art throughout the neighborhood | © Adam Jones, Ph.D. / WikiCommons
Picture of Sarah Ashley
Updated: 7 May 2018
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The art scene in Chicago is nothing if not diverse. Its world-class museums, vibrant galleries, and presentations of both classic works and experimental projects make it a perfect destination for art enthusiasts. Luckily, even with only 24 hours in the Windy City, it’s possible to soak up all it has to offer artistically—and still have time for dessert.

Must-visit museums

National Museum of Mexican Art

Art lovers beware: the Pilsen neighborhood has so much to offer that you might accidentally spend all day here. The National Museum of Mexican Art houses one of the most expansive collections of Mexican art in the country, with 10,000 works. Visitors can see paintings, sculptures, textile art, prints, photographs and much more. The Legacy of Manifest Destiny, a painting by Marcos Raya, an artist who fuses Mexican folklore with American pop culture in his work, is a must-see. If a trip to Chicago during the fall is possible, book it if only to catch the museum’s annual Day of the Dead exhibition, which starts in September and lasts through December.

Insider Tip: The National Museum of Mexican Art’s four galleries take just an hour to view, total. Get there right at 10 a.m. when the doors open to beat the crowd and launch into the day.

The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago is home to some of history’s greatest works. TripAdvisor rated it one of the top museums in the world five years in a row, which means skipping this gem is out of the question. Originally, the building itself emerged as part of the World’s Columbian Exhibition; the institute moved into the space permanently in 1893. Be sure to get a glimpse of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte and several Water Lily Pond paintings by Claude Monet, classic works on display in the main building. Then, visit the Modern Wing of the museum, devoted entirely to 20th- and 21st-century art.

Insider Tip: If you find yourself taking in the Chicago art scene on a Thursday, keep in mind that the Art Institute is open until 8 p.m. (as opposed to 5 p.m. on other weekdays). The busiest hours during the week are 12–1 p.m., so if evenings don’t work, aim for 2–3 p.m.

The Art Institute of Chicago is a top destination for art lovers everywhere

Museum of Contemporary Art

This art institution is the place to be for discussions and exploration surrounding contemporary art. The Museum of Contemporary Art’s mission is to facilitate a stronger relationship between artists and observers. Many of the works housed in this building respond to current social, cultural and political issues. Most of the artists featured are still living, which lends a more immediate impact to the pieces on view. The MCA also hosts dance, theater and performance art in its stage space. One fun fact: almost a quarter of all pieces at the MCA are listed as “Untitled.” Using the simple title gives viewers the power to interpret the artwork on an individual level, drawing meaning within the context of their own lives rather than just through the lens of the artist’s experiences.

Insider Tip: The busiest day to visit is Tuesday, as it’s free for Illinois residents. Wednesday and Thursday are the least packed days to pop into the MCA. Free, 45-minute tours are also offered at 1 p.m. during weekdays, and at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. on weekends.

An installation by Beat Streuli entitled, ‘Chicago Portraits July 99’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago

Cafés full of art

La Catrina Café

Aside from being a great place to kick-off a street art tour of Chicago, La Catrina Café in Pilsen is a delightful spot for breakfast or lunch. The front façade features a brightly colored, Mayan-inspired mural by artist Salvador Vega. There is also a room inside the café dedicated to the work of Gabriel Cisneros, a local artist and the son of the venue’s owners, who passed away in 2016. In addition to Cisneros’ and Vega’s work, patrons can peruse work by many other artists from the surrounding neighborhood and around the world as they sip on the café’s famous Dirty Abuelita, a Mexican hot chocolate with a shot of espresso. Full of personality, run by a local family and dedicated to improving the lives of Chicagoans through art and charity, La Catrina Café is a perfect breakfast spot to visit before heading to the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Japanese photographer Akito Tsuda at La Catrina Café in 2017 for his solo exhibition, “Pilsen Days”

Jupiter Outpost

Located in the up-and-coming Fulton Market stretch of the West Loop, Jupiter Outpost is a café full of delicious coffee, soup, salads, and sandwiches. The vibe is definitely hip and casual, made even more so by the artwork featured on its walls and the aquarium tank in the back. Artwork—primarily paintings and photographs by local artists—hangs throughout the space. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better (and less expensive) breakfast sandwich at an artisanal coffee shop like Jupiter. Tons of vegetarian options are available, as is homemade aioli, hummus, and salsa.

Insider Tip: Jupiter Outpost has a Grab & Go section for anyone in a rush or short on time. Patrons can also call ahead to have food ready for pick-up at a specific time. Both of these options can earn you extra time at a gallery or museum.

Must-visit galleries

Mars Gallery

Located next to Jupiter Outpost in the West Loop, Mars Gallery has been synonymous with cutting-edge artwork for more than 25 years. The gallery’s goal is to not only support artists in developing their voices but also support patrons in discovering their tastes. Framing services are offered to anyone purchasing a piece of work from the gallery. Possibly one of the most unique aspects of Mars Gallery is its “Vortex,” which is an area just behind the gallery, near the loading docks, where artists past and present have left marks. Spray paint, diamond dust, memorial tributes, and more decorate the space in homage to the energy surrounding Mars Gallery. (Parapsychologists state the gallery lives directly over one of the planet’s “energy vortex circles,” which accounts for the positive, booming energy felt in the space.) It’s clearly not a spot to miss.

Rhona Hoffman Gallery

The Rhona Hoffman Gallery meets all the criteria for an art lover’s dream destination. Established in 1976 as Young Hoffman Gallery by Rhona Hoffman and Donald Young, this space was one of the first to feature exhibitions by female artists. In 1983, Rhona Hoffman took over entirely, maintaining the gallery’s initial goals to give exposure to both well-known and unknown artists. Visitors can find international and Chicago-based works in a wide variety of media. Artists featured at Rhona Hoffman Gallery have gone on to win Guggenheim Fellowships, open exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, and put on solo shows at the Baltimore Museum of Art, to name a few.

Anne Wilson’s Dispersions (2013) on display at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art

If the Art Institute of Chicago sits at one end of a spectrum, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art is at the other. As a nonprofit organization, Intuit focuses attention on “outsider” and “intuitive” artwork by artists who are self-taught or have very little association with the “mainstream art world.” Many of the artists featured here created their final products with limited resources, both financially and materially. Since 1991, the museum has shone a light on those who otherwise would’ve been left in the dark, discriminated against or shoved aside, because of their differences. Intuit believes humanity needs art now more than ever, which is why this venue is an absolute must-visit for anyone who practices art or appreciates fellow human beings.

Insider Tip: The least busy time to visit is 5–6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Also, the museum store sells tons of elusive art books, and all proceeds go toward Intuit’s mission and exhibitions.

“Post Black Folk Art in America,” an exhibit at Intuit Gallery in 2016
© Cheri Eisenberg / Courtesy of Intuit Gallery

Walking Tour

Back in 2012, the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago Urban Art Society, and Pawn Works Gallery got together to transform run-down sections of Chicago into stunning works of art. The result was Art in Public Spaces, a campaign targeting beautification of the Pilsen neighborhood. Artists living right next door and as far away as Belgium participated in the project. The result? Brightly colored murals (some of which are optical illusions) lining the streets for blocks. Start at 18th Street and Damen, near the National Museum of Mexican Art, and head east. At Blue Island Avenue, take a left until 16th Street. Follow 16th Street east to Halsted. This walking tour takes about 40 minutes and is worth every step.

The Red Line station on 18th Street in Pilsen offers just a glimpse of the street art throughout the neighborhood

Beautiful restaurants

Marisol

If scheduling allows, end the day at the MCA’s Marisol restaurant and bar. Headed by Chicago chef Jason Hammel, owner of Logan Square favorite Lula Café, Marisol offers a menu full of fresh ingredients and an environment surrounded by art. Seared scallops, risotto, mussels, and quail are just a few options for diners. Chris Ofili is the British artist responsible for the impressive murals and featured artwork throughout Marisol. The MCA named the restaurant after Venezuelan-American artist Marisol, who gifted the museum its first sculpture, Six Women, in 1968. Named one of Chicago Reader’s Best New Restaurants after opening in 2017, this is an ideal dinner spot for the artistically inclined.

The MCA’s Marisol Restaurant and Bar offers diners delicious cuisine in an artistic environment

Bohemian House

Is there anything more poetic than ending a day full of art with a nod to the Bohemian lifestyle? Bohemian House provides just that: shareable dishes, exposed brick, rich conversation, and gorgeous presentation. Truly, the food served at Bohemian House is a work of art in itself, plated beautifully and full of fresh ingredients. The cuisine is inspired by European flavors, primarily from Austria and the Czech Republic. Indulge in a pretty (and delicious) reward after a long day ogling some of the country’s finest artwork.

Bohemian House offers patrons delicious—and gorgeous—plates to share
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