Visiting the largest science museum in the western hemisphere isn’t as formidable as it sounds. Although Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) has over 400,000-square-feet of exhibit space, you’ll find that the halls are organized well, and many docents are around to assist. Plus, there’s indoor parking attached to the museum, leading you right into the Entry Hall to start your adventure. Read on and let us help you navigate this local treasure.
Where to Start During a MSI Visit
Grab a museum map and make an action plan for what you’d like to see and do. MSI has more than 35,000 artifacts and several permanent and traveling exhibits—you’ll likely need to prioritize your interests. Exhibits that should top your list include:
Coal Mine – Still cool after all these years, is the museum’s first-ever exhibit, Coal Mine. Since 1933, this guest-favorite has given an insider look down the mineshaft, along the rails and through the walls of a true-to-life coal mine. The experience includes an engaging tour of mining methods and machinery, starting with a feels-real descent that’ll leave you wondering where to punch your time card.
Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle – Another oldie, but goodie is film actress Colleen Moore’s gorgeous dream home, in which she spared no expense on detail. But don’t expect a monster mansion, she thought small when coming up with her big idea. When developing her project, she assembled industry colleagues to craft this miniature home that toured the country during the Great Depression to raise funds for children’s charities.
Wired to Wear – The temporary exhibit showcases how digital technology is transforming clothes to enhance our lives. From making us healthier, stronger and safer to helping us see in the dark, express our emotions or even soar through the air at 32mph, you’ll see the merging of technology and the human body on display.
Genetics and Baby Chicks Hatchery – Gain a more in-depth understanding of the building blocks of life and watch as new life emerges covered in fuzzy cuteness in the form of baby chicks.
Science Storms – In one of the most visually stunning exhibits at the museum, kids can walk through a spinning vortex of water vapor, while also having some of the most thought-about weather-related science questions asked and answered.
U-505 Submarine – Wind your way to the bottom floor of the museum and get ready to stand in awe at the sheer size of the craft that cruised the waters of the Atlantic, before it was blown to the surface and captured on June 4, 1944. Get a peek at the cramped living quarters on an interactive walk through this giant piece of wartime history. Walking the outside of the submarine is free with general admission, but the optional on-board tour is an additional charge.
Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze – If you pay attention closely, you’ll notice that patterns surround us in nature. The veins on a leaf, the spots on an animal, patterns inspire us at both conscious and subconscious levels. Maybe you think math isn’t your thing, but Numbers in Nature may just be the key to unlocking a new love.
All Board the Silver Streak: Pioneer Zephyr – Take a sleek ride back to 1934 when a squeaky-clean new train named for the Greek god of wind began its dawn-til-dusk ride from Denver to Chicago. In just over 13 hours, it ushered its first passengers in a shiny Art Deco style that was soon to be mirrored in everyday items from transport to toasters.
Events and Experiences to Keep in Mind
Check the website for current happenings—there is always something new going on at MSI. From juried art exhibits and black creativity programming that celebrate Black History Month to thought-provoking films in the dome theater and flight simulators to guided behind-the-scenes tours or hands-on creative activities, MSI has it all. Some reoccurring events that are extra special:
Black Creativity Innovation Studio – During February’s Black History Month, unleash your creative genius and turn everyday materials into solutions for big challenges using design thinking and the innovation process, using the studio to design and test your own prototype. The Innovator Gallery showcases how African-American scientists, engineers, tech professionals and healthcare leaders are transforming our city.
Black Creativity: Juried Art – Established in 1970, the Juried Art Exhibition is the nation’s longest-running exhibition of African-American Art, presenting more than 100 works of art from emerging and established African American artists. This art exhibit can also be viewed during February’s Black History Month.
Dream It, Design It, Fab It – All the cool STEM input you receive walking around MSI might inspire you to try your hand at creating. The Wanger Family Fab Lab has all the materials you need to dream, design and make items that run the spectrum of practical to whimsical using cutting edge equipment.
Robot Block Party – In celebration of April’s National Robotics Week, check out the cool ‘bots designed by Chicago-area students and amateur teams, and interact with state-of-the-art robots.
U-505 Experience – For a deeper dive into the U-505, scope out this chance to experience the sub and the story of its thrilling capture on a two-hour, private group tour.
Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light – You’ll be tempted to sing “Oh, Christmas Tree” more than 50 times as you walk through the museum’s stunning display of ethnically diverse trees that celebrate cultures and traditions from China to Denmark. The biggest and brightest tree is their four-story centerpiece that stands tall in the domed Rotunda twinkling with more than 30,000 lights and ornaments. You’ll find this display when you visit during the holiday season.
Shops and Restaurants
Four shops are available in the museum, with the Museum Store at Entry Hall being the largest. You’ll find all sorts of gizmos and gadgets throughout MSI, or you can purchase items online. Professional photos can also be bought at the Museum Photo Studio. Also, for a special treat to take home, look out for the four Mold-A-Rama stations throughout the museum—choose from a steam train, submarine, space shuttle or a tractor.
Loads of dining options are available—check out The Brain Food Court, Museum Café and Finnigan’s Ice Cream Parlor or purchase snacks in one of the many vending machines.
Spend the Night: MSI Snoozeum
After museum hours for the public end, the real special-event fun begins. Surprise your kids (ages 6-12) with a museum sleepover. You’ll explore the exhibits without the normal daytime crowds, build and create science-focused objects, complete a scavenger hunt, interact with real scientists, and then, when the evening is over, you’ll snuggle deep in your sleeping bags in a special spot. Select sleepover dates are available throughout the year—reserve online or by calling the museum.
Parents Night Out
Adults, ages 21 and over, can attend MSI Afterhours. Each event includes adult beverages and new themed programming, while also giving access to the classic and newest exhibits after the daytime guests have gone home.
Halt that Summer Slide with Summer Brain Games
Summer Brain Games will be back for its 9th year in June! This program helps kids explore the connection between science and play, guiding them to make their own toys with science-based activities that are available for free on MSI’s website. Register online to receive emails with detailed instructions for each at-home activity that can be done with very little adult supervision, using easy-to-find supplies.
Tips and Tricks
Purchasing your admission tickets online from the comforts of home is rewarded with a discounted rate. If you’re planning on seeing an extra add-on exhibit or two, it would behoove you to purchase these tickets ahead of time as well. Not only will you have more jingle in your pocket, but it will also save you from waiting in line once you arrive.
Members of MSI enjoy free admission, coat check, stroller service, members-only events and access to the Members Lounge for tea and coffee. You’ll also receive discounted rates for exhibits, museum shops, restaurants, parking and for admission at other participating museums worldwide. Not to mention, your membership purchase can be claimed on taxes as a donation.
MSI offers free days to Illinois residents 52 days out of the year—check the website for specific dates—and free admission for active military, veterans, Chicago firefighters, police officers and Illinois teachers.
What About Nursing Moms?
Moms are free to breastfeed or bottle-feed their babies, with or without cover, in any public space of the Museum. However, if you’d like a quiet spot, there is a nursing space within the Idea Factory Exhibit.
Best Time to Visit
MSI is open every day, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., with extended hours on some days, so check their calendar prior to visiting. We recommend visiting early and during the week to avoid crowds. Keep in mind that a visit during a school break, over the weekend or on a free day for Illinois residents will likely result in more museum-goers.
How to Get There
MSI, open daily from 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., is located in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, between Lake Michigan and the University of Chicago. The museum parking garage, located at E. 57th Street and S. Cornell Avenue, is the most convenient way to access the museum (parking is free for family memberships).
Museum of Science and Industry
5700 S. Lake Shore Dr., Hyde Park