Seven Off the Beaten Path Chicago Museums

Chicago has some massively impressive museums. TripAdvisor named the Art Institute of Chicago the world’s top museum. The world-renowned trifecta down on Museum Campus draws huge crowds. History nerds, like myself, also have the Chicago History Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry. Unfortunately, those museums tend to suck up all the attention from visitors and locals alike. So I’m shining a light on seven off the beaten path Chicago museums for you to explore.

off the beaten path Chicago museums Oriental Institute
The Oriental Institute’s stunning display of ancient artifacts makes it one of the best off the beaten path Chicago museums. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

1. The Oriental Institute

I’ll start with my favorite museum in the entire city. The Oriental Institute Museum, which is located on the University of Chicago campus, is dedicated to the ancient history of the Middle East. It contains thousands of artifacts from the ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia. The museum is worth a visit just to see the Yelda Khorsabad Court, which contains a nearly 3,000-year-old scultpture of a “16-foot tall, 40-ton, human-headed winged bull.” Admission is free (!), though the university does ask for a $10 donation.

2. Clarke House Museum

Of course, Chicago’s history only goes back about 200 years. The Clarke House Museum is dedicated to the history of those early years. It’s located in the oldest house in the city, down in the Prairie Avenue Historic District. The Neoclassical mansion was built in 1836, a year before the city was even incorporated. The museum showcases family life in the early 1800’s, when Chicago was just a trading post way out on the American frontier. Hard to imagine it today when we roll past on our Neighborhoods and Cultural Diversity Tour.

3. National Veterans Art Museum

Truthfully, I wasn’t aware of this museum until recently. All the art in the museum was created by veterans of America’s foreign wars. It began as a traveling exhibit by Vietnam vets. Former Mayor Richard J. Daley helped find a permanent home for it in Chicago. It’s been located in the Six Corners neighborhood since 2012. The museum is small and seems to often be short of operating funds, so it may be best to visit while you still can.

4. McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum

Despite its iconic location, inside the Michigan Ave. bridge, the McCormick Bridgehouse and River Museum still qualifies as one of the off the beaten path Chicago museums. Since the entrance is down the on Riverwalk, an untold number of passersby don’t even know it’s there. I often mention it to guests as we walk past during the Historic Chicago Walking Bar Tour. The museum is dedicated to the history, ecology, and engineering of the Chicago River and its famous bridges. We dedicated a whole blog post to this museum a few years back, so I’ll let that do most of the talking.

off-the-beaten-path-museums-in-chicago-McCormick-Bridgehouse

5. Polish Museum of America

Chicago’s Polish neighborhoods are a favorite topic of Chicago Detours, so I just had to mention the Polish Museum of America. It’s located in the old “Polish Downtown” in West Town, which we tour on our “Old Polonia and Wicker Park Tour with Food.” This off the beaten path Chicago museum has popped up twice before on the blog, so I’ll just refer you to those posts. Not many ethnicities can claim as large or proud a heritage as Chicago’s Poles.

6. A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum

The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum is located down on the South Side of Chicago in the new Pullman National Monument. As I wrote in a recent blog post, the Pullman Porter Museum focuses on the history of African-American workers and laborers. If you go down there, you could also make an excuse to swing by the Argus Brewery for a brewery tour and taste of the beer.

7. Leather Archives & Museum

The Leather Archives & Museum is an institution in Rogers Park dedicated to “the compilation, preservation, and maintenance of leather, kink, and fetish lifestyles.” The museum has been around since the 1990’s and includes exhibitions, archives, and a theater about the Leather subculture’s history. It is also the first museum I’ve encountered that has adults-only admission. It certainly seems worth a visit for those who are more than a little curious.

These off the beaten path Chicago museums show the diversity of history, art and cultures that exists in our metropolis. We are just sharing a few of these often overlooked Chicago museums–many more await you.
– Alex Bean, Office Manager and Tour Guide

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Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”
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Jen

Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”
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Elyse

Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”
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Sonny

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
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Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
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