13 Unique And Unusual Museums In Chicago – My Personal Picks

by | Jun 4, 2024

Museums – The only places that can make old pottery and the physics of tornados absolutely fascinating.

Now, Chicago has some of the best museums in the world, like the Field Museum, the Art Institute, and MSI.

In this blog post, however, we’re not focusing on those.

Instead, we’re going to talk about unique and unusual museums in Chicago. 

Places that cater to niche interests and offbeat fields. 

Whether you’re a Chi-town native or tourist, consider checking out some of these hidden attractions on your day out.

Ready?

Let’s begin!

International Museum of Surgical Science

Medicine bottles like you can expect at this unique museum in Chicago.

Stock image.

Even today, surgery retains an aura of mystery and macabre.

This makes the International Museum of Surgical Science one of the oddities in Chicago.

It features more than 7000 artifacts spread out over 4 floors.

The bulk of the exhibits are historical, showcasing the progress of medicine from the days of witch doctors to the present day.

Some of the most interesting exhibits include skulls from ancient Peru, a cast of Napoleon’s death mask, and iron lungs.

They also have a library with old & rare books, and letters & journals of prominent figures like Florence Nightingale.

Whether you’re a layperson or an aspiring medic, you’ll find a visit here fascinating!

Pro tip: Check their website for available tours. You may be in for a treat like the Morbid Curiosities: Surgical History Tour, which was their 2023 Valentine’s Special!

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

Graue Mill & Museum

Whimsical day out in the Chicago suburbs - explore a water-powered grist mill!

Stock photo.

Have you been craving a peek into 19th-century rural America?

Then head for Graue Mill & Museum in Oak Brook.

Built around Illinois’ only water-powered grist mill, the museum still has original machinery from 1852.

Stick around for a live demonstration backed up with tales of local history.

Head to the second floor to check out the exhibits.

Got kids with you? Make sure you take them to the nearby waterfall; they’ll have loads of fun watching the frogs and fish.

Want to stretch your legs? Go for a walk along the Fullersburg Preserve trails or kayak up Salt Creek.

Overall, this museum in the Chicago suburbs makes for a great day out!

#DidYouKnow: Fred Graue hid slaves fleeing to freedom in Canada in this mill.

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum

Have you ever wondered how movable bridges across rivers work?

Visit the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum beside the DuSable Bridge to find out!

As a working bridgehouse, this is the best way to see the massive bridge gears and levers work.

All of that is on the first level (also called the river level).

Above that are four floors with exhibits on Chicago’s transformation from a swamp into a city.

And on the fifth floor, there’s an observation deck with stunning 360-degree views of downtown Chicago.

Thinking of visiting? Do it between May and October—the Museum is closed for the rest of the year.

A pretty cool museum that should make for a memorable hour on the Riverwalk!

Pro tip: There’s no elevator; the upper floors are accessible only by a stairwell.

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

Thorne Miniature Rooms (in the Art Institute)

Miniature crockery like at the offbeat displays in the Thorne Miniature Rooms

Stock photo.

Imagine watching a room built at the scale of 1 inch:1 foot. For reference, that’s like shrinking a footlong sub to the length of a paper clip.

Interested?

Then head for the Thorne Miniature Rooms in the  Art Institute.

Peer into painstakingly-crafted miniatures of famous European and American interiors from the 13th century to the 1940s.

Some of the most well-known exhibits are a Shakers Living Room, Tennessee Entrance Hall, and an English drawing room from 1770.

How’s that for curious oddities in Chicago?

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM)

Unique Chicago outing idea - enjoy the artwork of veterans.

Stock photo.

Think “veterans”, and what comes to mind? Tales of valor and images of grizzled warriors?

Maybe reports of chronic underfunding at the VA?

Now picture this – A museum that showcases our soldiers’ artistic side.

Paintings from veterans going as far back as World War II and all the way up to the War on Terror.

Take your time going through the 2,000+ works from over 250 veteran-artists.

Veteran or not, visiting this free museum should be on your list of offbeat activities in Chicago.

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

Museum of Ice Cream

A view inside the museum - well worth an afternoon outing in Chicago

You can see the sprinkle pool!

This is as close to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory as you’ll get in real life!

Located in the Tribune Tower, the Museum of Ice Cream features multi-sensory exhibits on the world of ice cream.

One of the best-known exhibits is a world-famous sprinkle pool.

Other activities include learning how to create edible slime and putt-putt.

This is probably one of Chicago’s best places for a unique outing with kids.

At 5 rooms long, this is one of the smaller museums in Chicago. But the free treat at the end of each room MORE than makes up for it!

Pro tip: Make sure you try their ice cream hot dogs!

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

Museum of Illusions (MoI)

 woman's head on a plate - certainly an outlandish idea for a Chicago outing!

Stock photo.

Ever wondered what it feels like to defy gravity? 

Nope, you don’t have to qualify for a NASA mission.

All you have to do is visit the Museum of Illusions.

Escape reality at the over 80 visual and sensory illusions. 

From “defying gravity” in the Anti-Gravity Room to “growing and shrinking” in the Ames Room, every exhibit will blow your mind.

The Infinity Room creates endless reflections, making for some truly mesmerizing photos (epic Insta shots, anyone?).

MoI is one of the quirkiest museums in downtown Chicago, perfect for families, friends, or a date.

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

Medieval Torture Museum

A thrilling but grim Chicago tour - exploring torture from the Middle Ages!

Stock photo.

Ever wondered how dark the Middle Ages could get? Brace yourself for the Medieval Torture Museum.

Explore macabre history with over 100 torture devices on display. 

Every exhibit tells a chilling tale of pain and punishment, from the infamous Iron Maiden to the gruesome Catherine Wheel. 

Life-sized wax figures, dramatic lighting, and background music bring it all alive.

You can even test some (harmless!) replicas on interactive exhibits.

Who will you take with you to visit this creepy Chicago museum?

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

Museum of Post Punk & Industrial Music

Post-punk and industrial music fans will find this one of the best museums in the Midwest.

Founded in 2021 by Martin Atkins from the supergroup Pigface, this is a treasure trove of set lists, lyrics, posters, photos, and even clothing from iconic musicians and bands.

One standout exhibit is a jacket worn by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. 

Want to get a real feel of the place? Get in touch with them about spending the night.

But be warned: it’s housed in a former funeral home.

Pro tip: You won’t find the museum’s address on its website or Google. They’re highly exclusive; entry is invitation-only. Visit their website to book a visit.

Website: Visit their website

Museum of Broadcast Communications

This is definitely one of the most underrated museums in Chicago. 

Here, you can relive iconic moments in broadcast history, from pivotal Presidential Debate moments to programs like the original “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and “I Love Lucy.” 

Don’t miss the National Radio Hall of Fame, which honors legends like Orson Welles and Howard Stern. 

Engineering nerds should check out their collection of retro TVs and radios.

Whether a media buff or not, the Museum of Broadcast Communications promises a fascinating outing in Chicago.

Note: The museum is temporarily closed till 2025 as they’re moving from their current River North location.

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

National Public Housing Museum

national public housing museum chicago

Stock photo.

In addition to being unique and niche, the National Public Housing Museum is a socially crucial Chicago venue.

The museum brings to life the stories of public housing residents through personal artifacts, photos, and other exhibits.

You’ll even find reconstructed apartments showcasing different eras of public housing.

One of their most interesting exhibits is the Oral Histories Project—former public housing residents recounting their stories. 

The museum is currently located at 625 N. Kingsbury St. 

It will open at its permanent location in the historic Jane Addams Homes (Chicago’s first federal housing project) sometime during the end of 2024.

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

In memory – Offbeat museums in Chicago that have shut down

Before we get to the two most outlandish and unusual museums in the Windy City, let’s take a look at some that closed down.

The Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows

The Smith Museum on Navy Pier showcased over 150 stunning stained glass windows. 

It featured pieces from renowned artists like Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge. There was even a stained glass portrait of Michael Jordan!

It started as an exhibition in 2000 and continued till 2014, when it was finally closed.

The Museum of Holography

The Museum of Holography in the West Loop had an extensive collection of holographic art. Visitors could explore over 250 holograms, including mesmerizing 3D portraits of famous figures like Abraham Lincoln and Salvador Dalí.

Sadly, despite efforts to revive it, the museum closed its doors in 2009 and hasn’t opened since.

Antique Fabricare Museum

This is as niche as it gets!

Pert Cleaners, one of Chicago’s best dry cleaners, set up a small museum on their premises.

Peeking through the collection of old-fashioned detergent, ironing boards, and steam machines was a uniquely refreshing experience.

However, the museum shuttered when Pert Cleaners closed in 2018.

Busy Beaver Button Museum

busy beaver button museum chicago

Stock photo.

Who needs U-boats or mummies when you could look through more than 30,000 pin-back buttons going back decades—am I right?

Welcome to the Busy Beaver Button Museum, one of Chicago’s most unusual and unique museums!

Located in Logan Square, this quirky museum chronicles the history and cultural impact of buttons. 

You’ll find everything from political campaign buttons to pop culture pins. 

Ever wondered what buttons were like during the suffragette movement or the civil rights era? You’ll find those here, too.

You can even design your own button and take it home as a souvenir. This is something kids particularly enjoy!

So, next time you’re in Chicago, why not button up your itinerary with a visit to this delightful museum? With the kids in tow.

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

American Toby Jug Museum

And now we come to the MOST unique, unusual, and unlikely museum in Chicagoland.

The American Toby Jug Museum in Evanston is dedicated entirely to Toby Jugs.

What are Toby Jugs? They’re ceramic jugs shaped like human figures. Jugs with faces, in short.

What this venue lacks in size (it’s one of Chicago’s smaller museums), it makes up for in novelty.

Think walking into a library or bookstore, only the shelves are stacked with creatively carved jugs.

Admire the over 8,000 jugs on display from around the world. You’ll find everything from Winston Churchill and Sherlock Holmes to Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain.

Whether you’re an avid collector or just curious, the American Toby Jug Museum is truly one-of-a-kind!

Website: Visit their website

Location: Check location / Plan route on Google Maps

Which offbeat Chicago museums are you thinking of visiting?

When planning a day out, swap the usual tourist spots for something a little more unconventional—you now have 13 options to choose from!

From the macabre halls of the Medieval Torture Museum to the quirky charm of the Busy Beaver Button Museum, these places showcase just how diverse and whimsical the Windy City’s cultural scene can be.

Which of these offbeat gems caught your eye? 

Or maybe you prefer other hidden treasures in Chicago? 

Let us know in the comments! We’re always looking for whimsical and fun things to do in Chicago!

Chicago's Finest Mom-and-Pop Pizza Joints!

Want the inside slice on Chicago’s pizza scene?

Local pizzerias are topping the charts with in-house sauces and unique toppings blends. 

Categories

Most Popular Posts