Hidden Gem Museums in Chicago

From world-renowned art institutions to beloved natural history museums, architectural treasure troves to popular aquariums and beyond, Chicago is widely acclaimed as a fantastic destination for museum lovers. Chicago is such a great museum city, in fact, that it’s the type of place where plenty of fabulous facilities are frequently overshadowed by more famous local attractions.

If you’re on the lookout for a unique Chicago destination—or you’ve already visited iconic attractions like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum and are in the mood to try something new—consider exploring one of Chicago’s best “hidden gem” museums. These attractions may not have the big reputations of other Chicago museums, but that doesn’t mean they’re still not well worth your time!

American Writers Museum

American Writers Museum

One of Chicago’s newer institutions, relatively speaking, the American Writers Museum opened along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile just two blocks north of Millennium Park a few years back and has proceeded in short order to make a name for itself as a fun place for visitors to learn all about the myriad ways America’s finest writers have shaped their country’s history, culture, and more. Interactive permanent exhibits here celebrate a diverse selection of writers from Chicago and beyond, while two temporary galleries rotate engaging shows spanning a wide range of topics on a regular basis.

National Museum of Mexican Art

Talk about a museum that deserves to receive more attention than it does: the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago’s vibrant Pilsen neighborhood is home to one of the largest Mexican art collections in the entire United States. In addition to its wonderful permanent collection, which numbers nearly 20,000 art works covering almost 4,000 years of civilization, the museum routinely stages special exhibits, sponsors live performances and guest lectures, and hosts special events. Here’s one more detail that’s almost hard to believe: admission to the National Museum of Mexican Art is always free!

International Museum of Surgical Science

Billing itself as “North America’s Only Museum Devoted to Surgery,” the International Museum of Surgical Science is a fascinating place. Situated within the Eleanor Robinson Countiss House—a century-old Gold Coast mansion modeled after a Versailles chateau—the International Museum of Surgical Science contains exhibits on anatomy, apothecaries, surgical technology, and more. It also features multiple art galleries and a rare book and manuscript collection. Better yet, the location of the IMSS is difficult to beat: once you’ve enjoyed yourself here, other major landmarks like the Chicago History Museum, Lincoln Park, and North Avenue Beach are mere steps away.


Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art is truly one of the most distinctive and inspiring art museums you’re liable to come across. For over 30 years now this West Town facility has showcased work by so-called “outsider artists”—meaning, in the institution’s usage, artists who took non-traditional paths and overcame tremendous odds to create their works. Intuit’s permanent collection numbers approximately 1,300 pieces, and the Milwaukee Avenue-based organization stages new shows by provocative contemporary artists throughout the year. It’s also home to the remarkable Henry Darger Room Collection. Intuit is free for those visitors under the age of 18 years old.

Heritage Museum of Asian Art

The Heritage Museum of Asian Art in Chicago’s bustling Chinatown neighborhood was established in 2014, and today its expansive collection includes a striking array of pottery, furniture, textiles, bronze sculptures, and a whole lot more. These artifacts are drawn from all across time and space, with the Heritage Museum’s collection encompassing numerous Asian cultures and historical time periods. Traveling exhibitions frequently stage shows here, and for what it’s worth, the museum is located about one mile due west of Guaranteed Rate Field, where the Chicago White Sox play their home games.

McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum

Along the revamped Chicago Riverwalk you’ll encounter the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, where you can climb up into a historic five-story bridgehouse while learning about the history of the Chicago River and its role in the lives of millions of local residents from a variety of exhibits. On certain specially scheduled days you can even watch a bridge lift take place in person. Be advised, though, the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum is a seasonal facility: it is traditionally only open between the months of May and October. Guided tours of the museum are offered on Fridays and Saturdays starting in June.

DuSable Black History Museum

DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center

The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center is the oldest independent institution in the United States devoted to African-American history, and frankly, isn’t to be missed. The DuSable’s permanent collection now stands at over 15,000 pieces, and includes historical artifacts, sculptures, paintings, memorabilia, and more. Papers once belonging to towering figures like W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes can be found here as well. Programming at the DuSable regularly involves artists’ talks, educational lectures, and live jazz concerts. The DuSable is located within Washington Park near the University of Chicago, the Smart Museum of Art, and the historic, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Frederick C. Robie House.

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

Though Jane Addams died in 1935 her shadow still looms large today, and visitors can learn more about her life and legacy as one of America’s greatest social reformers at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on South Halsted Street near the heart of the University of Illinois Chicago campus. The historic Hull-House was a “social settlement”—a place where activists could reside while organizing to improve conditions in impoverished local communities—and Jane Addams lived and worked in Hull-House for over 45 years. The house itself has been preserved and is on the National Register of Historic Places, and today contains a museum which features exhibitions that tell the story of this important place and the people who strove to make a difference.

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