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Tips For Taking Kids To 3 Of The Biggest Chicago Museums

Our family trips usually include a museum or two on our itinerary. On a recent holiday weekend trip to Chicago, there was so much we wanted to see, we had a lengthy list. So we narrowed it down and picked three Chicago museums to visit, two where we’d get free admission thanks to the ASTC reciprocity membership. As it happens, we pick three of the biggest museums in Chicago (and the world!).

Taking kids to Chicago? You'll probably want to go to at least one of these amazing museums! Here are some tips that will make your visits easier. #familytravel #Chicago #Illinois #tips

However, three museums in three days? I would’t recommend it now.  We went to Museum of Science & Industry, Art Institute of Chicago, and The Field Museum, and they are massive. Don’t make the mistake of trying to see them all in one trip, even if it sounds manageable. 

How big are the museums? The Museum of Science & Industry has 400,000 square feet of exhibit space. The Field Museum’s exhibition space is 480,000 square feet. And the Art Institute of Chicago? It has more than a million square feet of exhibition space.

However, let me share some tips for visiting them, should you want to choose one or two for your next visit.  

Before anyone leaves any hate comments, yes, there are WAY more than three museums to see in the city, as well as other types of cultural attractions and free things to do in Chicago. I know this. I agree. First time visitors, though, are probably going to be eyeing the ones the city is most known for.

Related post: Dining With Kids In Chicago

Tips for visiting Museum of Science & Industry

As it’s the largest science center in the Western Hemisphere, the Museum of Science & Industry is going to take you a whole day to visit, and even then, I doubt you’ll see and it all.

The Transportation Gallery at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago.

The museum is so large, we didn’t see all the permanent exhibits during our 5-hour visit. It was Thanksgiving Weekend, so the crowds may have been bigger than usual. But if you visit that time of year, you’re in for a treat: The museum has trees decorated to represent countries from around the world, plus there’s the massive Grand Tree as the centerpiece.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is decorated for Christmas each year and includes the Grand Tree as the centerpiece.
The four-story Grand Tree is located inside the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago.

Some of the places that were the biggest hits with our 7-and 9-year-olds included the mirror maze, the build-a-toy area, and the Idea Factory, which is essentially a one-room children’s museum.

The Idea Factory inside the Museum of Science and Industry is for children under the age of 10. This was just one corner of the room.

The maze and playground both required timed tickets to limit crowds, so if you know you’ll want to see them, I recommend getting your tickets first thing so you’re not stuck with a really late entry time.

The maze at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago
My daughter and I did the mirror maze at the Museum of Science & Industry easily, since my daughter seemed to have a knack for knowing where to turn.

Your general admission ticket gets you into plenty of exhibits, including ones exploring energy, transportation and robotics, as well as the U-505 Submarine. You can opt to purchase experiences or passes to temporary exhibits (there was a Pixar one there when we went).

Exterior of the U-505 Submarine at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago
The U-505 Submarine is included with regular admission to the Museum of Science & Industry.

We bought tickets to the Coal Mining Experience. It was pretty interesting, and included a little ride in a coal mining train, but for the price, I probably wouldn’t do it again with the kids. It was $40 for us.

Dining tip: There are three dining options inside the museum, including an ice cream parlor. We had lunch at the Brain Food Court, which is a large cafeteria-like food court with healthy options and then your expected grilled and pasta fare. The food was pricey, as is expected at any museum, but I was impressed with the variety.

Parking tip: There is a parking garage at the museum that is$22 for parking. I heard there are parking lots within walking distance in neighborhoods, but I can’t vouch for any. I recommend taking public transportation, taxi or an Uber to the museum.

Playing around with a light and color exhibit at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago.

Reciprocal membership alert: If you are a member of Omaha Children’s Museum or another science center that’s likely a member of ASTC, you receive admission for four to Museum of Science & Industry. This is a huge savings.

Tips for visiting Field Museum

The Field Museum is on par with the big museums of the world like the Smithsonian. So, it’s huge and it’s full of a ton of exhibits in botany, zoology, anthropology and geology. Keep your expectations in check: You’re not going to see it all in one day.

The cast of Máximo the titanosaur in the main floor hall of The Field Museum
My son in front of Máximo the titanosaur at The Field Museum. The titanosaur is the largest dinosaur to ever live. Since this is a cast of fossils, you can touch Máximo!

A docent recommended our family take the one-hour tour with the kids. It took us to several exhibits in the museum and gave us a ton of interesting information. One kid was totally into it, the other was not. So, maybe it’s a good idea for families?

Discovery Squad educator at The FIeld Museum showing how jaws work.
The Discovery Squad at The Field Museum help kids better understand science and natural history by letting kids see specimens up close. My daughter loved the experience.

The docent tour did take us to see SUE, the T. rex that the museum is famous for. The museum is outfitting a new room for the skeleton and you can get a peek at Sue before it’s unveiled soon. It’s out of the way, and we would’ve missed it had we not gone on the tour.

SUE the T.rex at The Field Museum i
When we visited The Field Museum in 2018, SUE the T.rex was in her new home upstairs, but the home itself wasn’t finished. At press time of this post, SUE’s new home is finished and open to the public.

The museum’s general admission gets you into a ton of exhibits that will appeal to kids, from mummies to extinct animals to anthropological exhibits of cultures around the world. In my limited experience, it’s not really worth it to buy tickets to the temporary exhibits (unless it’s a topic you really love). We bought tickets to one, and it was $50 for our family to see that one added exhibit. And, my kids just rushed through it, anyway.

Dining tip: There are two year-round restaurants at the museum, as well as a seasonal outdoor restaurants. We ended up walking to Giordano’s for some deep dish Chicago pizza, instead of trying one of the restaurants.

Reciprocal membership alert: If you are a member of Omaha Children’s Museum or another science center that’s likely a member of ASTC, you receive admission for four to Museum of Science & Industry. This is a huge savings.

Tips for visiting Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago is often rated the best art museum in the world. It’s huge, it’s full of incredible works of art, hundreds of thousands of pieces you can’t possibly see in one visit, and definitely not if you’re visiting with kids.

The best tip? Do the JourneyMaker experience with your kids. This free, customized itinerary maker for kids lets them pick a theme, then select artwork to include on the itinerary, and then they have to hunt for the art in the museum and complete small activities. Once they’re done, they get to choose a free art postcard.

My daughter used the JourneyMaker computer to create a customized itinerary for exploring the Art Institute of Chicago based on what interested her.

You’ll find the JourneyMaker computers in the Ryan Learning Center. You should probably plan on spending some time in the rooms of the learning center, as there are art-making activities, toys, and books there for kids.

Drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago for one of the activities in the JourneyMaker tour.
The JourneyMaker at Art Institute of Chicago lets kids create their own themed tour of the museum that includes activities for each stop and a prize to collect at the end.

Anyway, the massiveness of the art museum was almost going to be too much, but the JourneyMaker itinerary took us through many galleries, so I did get to see quite a bit. However, my daughter was so set on finishing it, we ended up breezing through some of my all-time favorite works of art, which was a little heartbreaking.

A lot of people told us to take the kids to the Thorne Miniatures Room, that they’d love the pretty scenes in the tiny rooms. Maybe your kids will. My daughter was mildly interested, but still just dead set on finishing the JourneyMaker so she didn’t want to look for long.

The lions in front of the Art Institute of Chicago are each adorned with a large wreath during the holiday season. When we did the JourneyMaker activity at the museum, my daughter chose the lions as one of our stops.

It took us about 2 hours to do the JourneyMaker itinerary, with stops to linger in the Impressionist gallery and a (very) brief stop to see the miniatures.

We didn’t have any sweet reciprocal discount, but the good news is that kids are admitted free.

Dining tip: There are three cafes in the museum.

What’s nearby: We paired a visit to Maggie Daley Park with a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. They’re within walking distance of each other. This park will spoil you for all other parks – it’s that amazing and fantastically designed.

Tips for taking kids to three of the biggest museums in Chicago - The Field Museum, Museum of Science & Industry, and Art Institute of Chicago. #familytravel #Chicago #Illinois #tips

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