The top Chicago attractions that you will find around the Chicago area attract millions of people each year and continue to shape Chicago to the great city it is today.
These attractions range from Chicago’s top zoos to fun and engaging museums to some of the best tours you'll find anywhere.
Chicago is a big city - the 3rd largest in the United States - and there is a lot to do and see. So for first-time visitors to Chicago, you need to know what museums are the most popular so you know the best places to visit in the time you have in Chicago.
Below, I have put together 15 of the top attractions and things to do in Chicago based on the attendance these attractions get each year.
You should also checkout my Favorite Chicago Attractions page as well where I list my favorite three attractions in the city to do. These attractions, I think, are the ones that you MUST do if you have the time to when you downtown.
Being Chicago's number one tourist attraction, Navy Pier has great food, attractions, things to do, and is the place to be on a nice summer day in Chicago.
Enjoy a day on the Lake Michigan with the many sightseeing tours and cruises that dock at Navy Pier, or checkout the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows and checkout the 150 pieces displayed there.
Got kids? The Children's Museum with its many exhibits and activities or a movie at the IMAX theater will keep your kids very entertained.
A trip to Navy Pier is not complete without a visit to the Pier Park where the famous Ferris Wheel can be found.
Located in Grant Park, this art museum gets the largest attendance a year than any other of the many art museums in Chicago.
It is hard to miss this museum when you are on 111 South Michigan Avenue with two bronze lion statues guarding the western entrance.
The Art Institute has a large permanent collection that includes Impressionists and Post-Impressionists art, American art, contemporary art, Asian art, and much more.
Many exhibits also are presented that showcase a variety of topics and history.
The Mag Mile is Chicago's largest shopping district, with a variety of mid to high-end shops, including many restaurants, museums, and hotels.
along the Mag Mile, you will also find a number of landmarks including the Chicago Water Tower and the Wrigley Building, not only that, but also many of the tallest buildings in the country, such as Trump Tower and the John Hancock Center.
Located at Michigan Avenue, running from Oak Street to the Chicago River, it has almost everything you need in a long mile and is a shopper’s paradise.
Part of the Museum Campus Chicago on Lake Shore Drive next to Lake Michigan, the museum has one of the biggest collections of objects and specimens in Chicago being over 21 million with only a very small portion of that ever being on display.
There are many great permanent exhibits such as the Grainger Hall of Gems, Inside Ancient Egypt, Evolving Planet, and many others. But among all these exhibits, the most famous exhibits would have to be Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil that is best-preserved fossil so far ever found.
There is a lot to see and explore.
The Shedd is Chicago's most popular cultural attraction and attracts over 2 million annual visitors
The aquarium houses over 25,000 fish and over 1,500 different species, making it one of the largest indoor aquariums in the world.
The main exhibits include Waters of the World, The Caribbean Reef, Wild Reef, Amazon Rising, Fantasea, the 4D Theater, and the Oceanarium.
Located on Northerly Island which is part of the Chicago Museum Campus, the Adler Planetarium is the place to be if you are interested with anything dealing with space and this universe.
They have many exhibits in the outside structures including Terraces, Doane Observatory, Zodiac Plaques, Copernicus Statue, and America's Courtyard.
On the Upper level you will find the Rainbow Lobby, Our Solar System, Grainger Sky Theater, and many other interesting exhibits.
And finally on the lower level, you'll find the Definiti Space Theater, the S.C. Johnson Star Theater, CyberSpace, Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass, and many others.
Located in Lincoln Park, this 35-acre zoo is one of the five zoos in the Chicago area, but definitely is the most popular getting over 3 million visitors each year.
You'll find a large variety of over 1,200 animals calling this zoo home including lions, tigers, bears, chimpanzees, rhinos, zebras, gorillas, snakes, crocodiles, and many more.
All of these animals and more can be found at the zoo's 16 exhibits: Regenstein African Journey, McCormick Bear Habitat, McCormick Bird House, Regenstein Birds of Prey, Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo, Helen Brach Primate House, Kovler Lion House, Kovler Sea Lion Pool, Pritzker Family Children's Zoo, Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House, Hope B. McCormick Swan Pond, Waterfowl Lagoon, Regenstein Center for African Apes, Antelope & Zebra Area, Farm-in-the Zoo, and Regenstein Macaque Forest.
Admissions is FREE
This zoo also known as the Chicago Zoological Park can be found in Brookfield, which is 13 miles west of downtown Chicago.
The zoo covers 216 acres and is known for their unique way of using moats and ditches to separate the animals from the visitors and other animals.
There are over 450 species of animals living at this zoo and their exhibits are some of the best in the world - including a fully indoor dolphin exhibit and a fully indoor simulation of a rain forest, which is one of the largest indoor zoo exhibits in the world.
There are also many special exhibits that come and go. Some past exhibits include Dinosaurs ALIVE! which was 24 animatronic dinosaurs, and Stingray Bay!, which was more than 20 cownose rays that you could interact with and touch.
This organization is located at 224 South Michigan Avenue, was named the #1 best thing to do in Chicago by U.S. News and World Report in 2012.
Their mission is to show how important architecture and design is to the world. They do this by offering over 85 different tours of the city all led by professional guides.
Some of the tours include the Marquette Building, Daniel Burnham, the Chicago Board of Trade, Trump Tower, and many others.
There are also exhibits about cities, architecture, design, and infrastructure.
This living plant museum is located at 1000 Lake Cook Road in Glencoe and spans over 385 acres.
The museums features 26 display gardens that are surrounded by four natural habitats which are McDonald Woods, Skokie River Corridor, Dixon Prairie, and Lakes and Shores.
With over 50,000 members, the Botanic Garden has the largest membership of any U.S. public garden and is Chicago's 7th largest cultural institution.
Admission is FREE, but visitors that are not members have to pay $25.00 for parking per car.
The Chicago Cultural Center is the city's official reception venue and is located at 78 E. Washington St. across Michigan Avenue from Millennium Park.
Being the first free municipal cultural center, it is one of the city's most visited attractions and features over 1,000 different exhibits, lectures, programs, performances, and a variety of arts.
The architecture alone is a reason to come and visit. Amazing stairways, Bedford Blue Limestone walls on a granite base, and an overall neoclassical style with Italian Renaissance themes.
If you enjoy classical music, then seeing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a must. They are one of the five American orchestras which are also known as the "Big Five"
They also play a summer season at the Ravinia Festival.
If you are planning on doing a bus tour in Chicago, then is very likely that the bus tour is owned by the Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Company or Chicago Trolley Co.
They are the largest tour operator in the Chicago area with over 45 double-decker buses and trolleys.
Located at 875 North Michigan Avenue, the John Hancock Center or Hancock Observatory is a 100-story, 1,127-foot tall building and is currently the fourth tallest building in Chicago.
The great thing about the Hancock Observatory and the reason it is a big tourist attraction is because when you go up, you can see a 360° view of the whole city and up to four states in the distance.
It is also the only place that has an open-air SkyWalk (like the SkyDeck at the Willis Tower)
which features a multimedia tour in six languages.
This museum can be found at E.57th Street and Lake Shore Drive in Jackson Park and is the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere.
Among a large variety of exhibits, the museum features the Apollo 8 spacecraft, a German submarine from World War II, the first diesel-powered streamlined passenger train, and many others.
With over 2,000 exhibits that are displayed in 75 large halls, there is a reason why this museum is the second largest cultural attraction in Chicago.