Chicago’s pride and joy is a gargantuan and welcoming museum that’s surprisingly unstuffy (during the holidays, the famous lion sculptures that guard its entrance sport wreaths around their necks). Founded in 1879 as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, the institute contains one of the world’s great collections (more than 5,000 years’ worth) of antiquities, paintings, and sculptures. Its current Beaux Arts home was constructed as a conference venue for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The Modern Wing houses works by more contemporary masters. For a dramatic entrance, access it from the floating pedestrian bridge that begins in Millennium Park.
Art Institute Tips
Some tips for avoiding the rush hour: Many people don’t realize the museum is open on Monday; keep this secret to yourself and visit when the galleries are relatively subdued. Also, many visitors aren’t aware that the museum stays open late on Thursdays, so consider stopping by after an early dinner.
1. Impressionist Collection: This is one of the more renowned, and therefore highly trafficked, areas of the museum. It includes one of the world’s largest collections of Monet paintings (the museum’s Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare is a rare urban scene by the painter). Other artists represented include Renoir, van Gogh, Manet, and Degas. Among the many treasures here is Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Time: 45 min. Second floor.
2. Modern Wing: This stunning newer wing of the museum houses works by modern masters like Picasso, Matisse, de Kooning, and Pollock, as well as rotating exhibits of contemporary art. Confusingly, American modern art from before the 1950s is tucked into a separate gallery on the second floor of the main building, so head there to see two of the museum’s biggest draws, Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.
3. Marc Chagall’s America Windows: These rich, blue, stained-glass windows pay homage to artistic freedom of expression. It’s easy to lose yourself in the panels and their thought-provoking symbols, which are on the first floor of the museum. Time: 10 min. First floor.
4. Arthur Rubloff Collection of Paperweights: Don’t miss this quirky collection, donated to the museum by Chicago real estate magnate Arthur Rubloff (1902–83) in 1978. You’ll find nearly 1,400 of these charming and useful objects (most made of multicolored glass), which became popular in the mid–19th century, when the establishment of a mail service made letter writing, and letter-writing accessories, highly fashionable. Time: 15 min. Lower level.
5. Thorne Miniature Rooms: Particularly entrancing to children and dollhouse fanatics, this must-see gallery features 68 miniature rooms (the scale ranges from about 1 in. to 1 ft.) designed from 1937 to 1940 by Narcissa Ward Thorne, a miniaturist and the daughter-in-law of the founder of Montgomery Ward & Co. Each room is filled with tiny reproductions of furnished interiors from periods in European and American history. Styles run the gamut from the medieval 1300s to the modern 1930s. Especially noteworthy are the Louis XVI salon (inspired by Versailles’s Petit Trianon) and the Georgian English Drawing Room (the keys on that tiny harpsichord actually move). The level of detail and masterful craftsmanship is extraordinary. Time: 20 min. Lower level.
6. Artist’s Studio: Feeling inspired by American Gothic? Try your hand at your own painting. The Ryan Learning Center in the Modern Wing is home to an interactive studio where kids and their families can drop in and work on their own art projects. Open to all ages; children must be accompanied by an adult. Time: 30 min. Lower level of the Modern Wing.
7. Original Trading Floor of the Old Chicago Stock Exchange: This room, originally built between 1893 and 1894, was salvaged and then reconstructed here when the Stock Exchange building was demolished in 1972. The room’s elaborate stenciled decorations, molded plaster capitals, and art glass illustrate the work of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, two of Chicago’s most important early architects. Time: 15 min. First level.
8. The Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor: If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ll want to spend time in this gallery, which opened in 2017 and is home to an enormous collection of nearly 700 items from around the Middle Ages, dating back to 1200 to 1600. The space paints a colorful portrait of life in Medieval Europe, and houses an elaborate wooden altar, crucifixes, and art from that time. And then there’s the armor. Displays feature horse models in complete armor, and swords, daggers, maces, and more. Some of the full suits of armor are elaborate, shiny—and quite spooky. Time: 30 min.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.