There's a treasure trove of museums and galleries to see, writes Bill Fink.

Move over New York, Paris, Rome and London. The world's best museum town may in fact be America's Midwestern city of Chicago. If you combine the size, scope and significance of Chicago's major museum collections, with their easy accessibility, amazing architecture, and spectacular lakefront setting, then Chicago has a complete package that rivals or beats the offering of any city on earth.

Like just about every kid growing up in the Chicago area, I went on annual school field trips to the city's "Big Three" museums: The Art Institute, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Science and Industry (the "cool one" because you got to press lots of buttons). Sometimes we'd get the bonus of visiting the nearby Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium.

As a kid, I didn't realise how lucky I was to have these attractions in my home town. And that was even before the list of Chicago museums expanded to an astounding 128 (according to Trip Advisor), including 35 ethnic museums reflecting the city's diverse immigrant heritage.

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Much of Chicago's two main museum campuses was created on the shores of Lake Michigan as part of the 1893 World's Fair. The massive neoclassical structures maintain their sense of history while also investing in improvements and holding special exhibits that continue to give visitors the same sense of awe and wonder I felt getting off that big orange school bus and staring up at their towering marble columns for the first time.

Standing between the stunning Chicago skyline and the boats bobbing in the seemingly endless waters of Lake Michigan, the five major cultural attractions outlined below are not only essential to see in any visit to Chicago, but on their own, make Chicago an essential place to visit.

Live science show at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Photo / Choose Chicago
Live science show at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Photo / Choose Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago

The bronze lion statues guarding the entrance to the

Art Institute

signify the value of the priceless treasures inside, while the wide marble stairway and grand entrance speak to the breadth of the displays. The numbers are staggering:

1.6 million annual visitors come to see the 300,000 works of art exhibited in more than 90,000 square metres of space, the second largest art museum in the United States.

It's not just about the quantity, but the quality of works inside that make the museum a must-see. From Old Masters to Impressionists, Pop Art and Surrealists, the Art Institute's collection represents every major art movement in history with some of the best examples of every school of art, boasting an all-star lineup with favourites like Picasso's Old Guitarist, Monet's Water Lilies and Rembrandt's Old Man with Gold Chain along with more obscure surprises like rooms full or armour and miniatures.

Marvelling at the 6sq m of dots comprising George Seurat's pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is worth the Art Institute's $25 price of admission by itself.

You don't have to be an art scholar or history geek to enjoy the museum. Joining in free guided tours or renting the headphone audio guide will add background colour to the paintings, and make you feel like an art expert by the end of your visit. Kids can become artists themselves with free hands-on projects in the Artist's Studio, while even adults will enjoy the creative lessons in the Interactive Gallery.

The Field Museum of Natural History
Looking up at the Field Museum's massive columns and arches as a kid, I reckoned this building was big enough to house just about EVERYTHING in the world, so was only mildly surprised to find three-storey tall dinosaur and mastodon skeletons looming in the main hall, the largest of the 20 million historic specimens now on display there. The museum's current celebrity is SUE, at 12 metres long, the largest and most complete T-Rex skeleton ever discovered, and who, despite being 67 million years old, has her own popular Twitter feed (@>SUEtheTRex). To celebrate the museum's 125th anniversary, new exhibits include "Maximo" the 37-metre long titanosaur skeleton surrounded by a squadron of flying pteradons amid primeval hanging gardens.

Dinosaur exhibits are only the beginning of the Field Museum's seemingly endless tour through the history of earth and space and everything they contain. The Ancient Egypt realm of relics and mummies is a perennial favourite, now supplemented by high-tech movies in the museum's 3D theatre.

Continue marvelling through halls of meteorites, treasure troves of giant gems, artefacts from world cultures, and fascinating plant and animal exhibits, a lifetime's worth of education under one roof. Stop by the Grainger Science Hub for hands-on learning experiences, then refuel in one of two restaurants before going for another loop.

The Museum of Science and Industry
I remember as a kid in the Museum of Science and Industry, racing to beat my friends to press the button at the next display, activating machinery to reveal the inner workings of a steam engine or a rocket ship, lighting up a section of the massive model railroad diorama, or answering illustrated quizzes about food, energy or outer space.

We'd beg the teachers for a ticket to enter the Coal Mine attraction and special tour of an actual captured World War II German submarine, looming 76m long in the back gallery.

The MSI continues to dazzle kids and adults alike with all the old favourites, and new exhibits ranging from a hall of mirrors to a living tornado, a whisper gallery, the educational splash park playground of the Idea Factory, and updated halls of farming, energy, main street America, and transportation, with plenty of buttons still to press.

Except the newest generation of "buttons" includes the controls of a flight simulator, virtual reality tours of outer space, digital art, and computer modelling. You'll leave hardly even realising you've spent the day learning in one of the world's largest science classrooms — maybe with an urge to begin a new career as a railroad engineer or space
shuttle pilot.

The Art Institute of Chicago. Photo / Choose Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago. Photo / Choose Chicago

The Adler Planetarium

Built on a peninsula jutting into the lake, the

12-sided (for the signs of the Zodiac) Planetarium

features three separate theatres with star shows, including the huge domed Grainger Sky Theatre with immersive journeys into the night sky and galaxies beyond. Exhibits on planets, space travel, and star science make for an out-of-this-world experience. It's worth it just to walk to the Planetarium for a view of Chicago's skyline.

The Shedd Aquarium
The Shedd Aquarium (with nearly 2 million annual visitors) boasts 20,000 aquatic creatures on display in their native settings, everything from cute penguins and sea otters to creepy crustaceans and surly moray eels. With a view over Lake Michigan, the aquarium naturally has a large Great Lakes exhibit, along with Caribbean Reef and the stunning Wild Reef exhibit. The fan favourite, the regular "Aquatic Presentation," features educational and entertaining lineups of leaping dolphin shows, curious beluga whales, performing seals and sea lions.

FACT FILE
GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Chicago, with return flights from $1489.

HOT TIP
Get a Chicago City Pass. This discount coupon book offers admission fees and VIP entry to the museums (and a couple other spots), a $112 saving if you visit all the attractions.

DETAILS
visitheusa.com