When it comes to a city the size of Chicago, there’s no way to see it all in one trip. Trying will make you miserable. Making the best of your visit to Chicago means making choices. Are you a foodie? A musical fanatic? A history buff? No matter your interests, you’re likely to find plenty of activities to keep you busy. For those who love museums and exhibits, Chicago is your paradise, but be prepared to pace yourself.
Chicago is so thick with museums, there’s a whole section of the lakefront designated as “Museum Campus.” Located in the Michigan Avenue/Lakeshore Drive area, the campus is spread out over the beautiful Grant Park. The Art Institute of Chicago dominates the north end of the campus near Millennium Park, while the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium take up most of the campus on the south end near Northerly Island.
Starting at the north end, the Art Institute of Chicago is a massive building with a massive amount of exhibits. It is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the U.S. Founded in 1879, it has nearly 300,000 permanent works of art, covering a wide variety of styles, as well as various special collections. The AIC has everything from the Thorne Miniature Rooms and a furniture-as-art exhibit to exhibits on architecture and contemporary American classics from artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein. Visiting the AIC can easily be a full day event. However, if you have other plans for the afternoon, it’s easy to pick and choose the exhibits you’re most interested in and save the rest for another time. If you do stay at the museum all day, there are several moderately priced indoor and outdoor café options. Along with food, they also offer a variety of wines, microbrews, and a full bar.
General admission is free for children under 13, but ranges from $14-25 for teens and adults, with out of state visitors paying the highest price. Fast Pass admission is also free for children under 13, but ranges from $29-35 for adults. Or, if you plan to visit several attractions, the CityPASS offers discounted tickets to 5 venues for $82 and $98 (children and adults). The museum is open from 10:30 am to 5 pm, daily, except for Thursday’s when it stays open until 8 pm to accommodate the weekly free admission night for Illinois residents from 5-8 pm.
Heading south across Grant Park, is one of the most popular Museum Campus attractions, Shedd Aquarium. It’s best to plan your visit for the morning in order to avoid waiting in long ticket lines later in the day. The aquarium boasts a wide variety of fun and educational exhibits. During summer months, you can visit the outdoor Stingray Touch pool to pet stingrays, then escape the heat inside while you watch a 4-D movie. Choose between SpongeBob, Coastal Predators, and Prehistoric Sea Monsters to entertain younger visitors.
The amphibian exhibit has a wide variety of exotic frogs, newts, and salamanders, and though labeled as “special,” appears to be a permanent feature and is no more elaborate then the regular exhibits . The “Waters of the World” exhibit is divided into corridors of regional fish exhibits, while “Amazon Rising” is a coral reef habitat where you can watch divers feed and interact with the fish at scheduled times throughout the day. The “Wild Reef” is a 400,000 gallon tank filled with sharks, coral, and tropical fish, but the “Polar Play Zone” is where you can see the recently born baby dolphin and its mother, as well as several beluga whales. The last, largest exhibit is the full-scale “At Home on the Great Lakes” exhibit, which features local environments and fish, while teaching visitors about the ecosystem as they walk through the simulated Great Lakes area.
The aquarium is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5/6 p.m. Ticket prices for the “Total Experience” package range from $40-$55 for adults and $29-$46 for kids. This includes access to the regular exhibits, special amphibian exhibit, 4-D movie, and the Stingray touch pool. There are tickets available to only access the regular exhibits in the $20-25 range. Shedd Aquarium is also part of the CityPASS. If you end up at the aquarium for the whole day, which is definitely possible, they have a sit-down style restaurant as well as a small deli and cafeteria-style dining on the lower level.
A short walk from the aquarium is The Field Museum, one of the largest natural history museums in the world. Of all the Museum Campus attractions, The Field Museum practically requires a full day to enjoy. Whether you visit for half a day or the entire day, arriving early is a must. Long lines begin forming around lunch, so be there at 9 am when they open, and you might be able to see everything by the 5 pm closing time.
Why do you need so much time? The Field Museum houses three huge floors of exhibits, nearly 30 permanent and special exhibits, as well as 3D movies and interactive exhibits for younger children. Whether you want to see mummies, learn about indigenous cultures, study plant entomology, or see the Emperor’s Terracotta Warriors, you’ll have your pick of fascinating exhibits. The best way to approach this large museum is to start with what you are most interested in, rather than beginning at one specific spot and moving through systematically. The exhibits are so large and take so long to get through, you may end up missing out on others you want to see, otherwise.
The Field Museum is open every day of the year, except Christmas. Ticket prices range from $26 to $38 (children/adults) for the All-Access pass, which includes all regular and special exhibits, and one 3D movie. The Discovery pass does not include a movie, and ranges from $22-31. The Field Museum is also part of the CityPASS, and general admission is free to ASTC museum members. If you get hungry during your visit, stop by The Field Bistro for cafe-style lunch items.
Rounding out the attractions on Museum Campus is the Adler Planetarium. While Adler Planetarium is quite a bit smaller than the rest of the attractions in the area, it still offers an assortment of shows and exhibits. “Planet Nine” is their current featured movie, an discussion on the exploration for a new ninth planet, and is offered alongside a handful of classic planetarium “night sky” shows and short films. If you want a completely retro planetarium experience, Adler is home of the oldest planetarium, the Atwood Sphere, built in 1913 by Charles Atwood. The dome is a 15-foot metal sphere that rotates around 8 seated guests once the platform is raised inside. The tiny lightbulbs situated around the inside of the dome show the constellations, which haven’t changed since 1913 when it was built.
The rest of the planetarium exhibits showcase NASA programs and moon landings, astronomy, how the universe formed, and a large collection of modern and ancient telescopes. There are also several interactive exhibits, the “Community Design Lab” and “Planet Explorers”, both of which are geared toward younger children. While the range of exhibits and shows is impressive for a planetarium, this is typically only a half-day or less outing. If you want to finish off a morning visit with lunch, Café Galileo’s is onsite with soups, salads, sandwiches, and drinks.
Adler Planetarium is open from 9:30 am to 6 pm, and is also part of the CityPASS. Non CityPass Holders can purchase general admission (no shows included) for $8 and $12 for children/adults. The Basic Pass includes 1 show and all the regular exhibits for $20-25. If you want to try everything the planetarium has to offer, you’ll need the Anytime All Access pass for $30/35, which includes all regular exhibits, the Atwood Sphere, and unlimited shows. General admission is free for ASTC museum members, with the option to add on shows for a fee.
Chicago’s Museum Campus offers a little bit of everything when it comes to exhibits, entertainment, and education. For those who prefer not to eat at the attractions, head into Grant Park for a variety of food vendors, or back to one of many the Michigan Avenue restaurants. When you need a break from touring, stop and enjoy Buckingham Fountain in the heart of Grant Park, or the 12th Street Beach on Northerly Island. Wherever you choose to start or end your visit to Museum Campus, take your time and enjoy everything it has to offer.