Small Museums in Chicago You Might Not Know About

Car from Cat and the Hat museums for kids in chicago Volo Museum
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Now that you’ve been to the Museum of Science and Industry and The Field so many times you could lead a tour, it’s time to earn a little extra credit. When you’re craving something new and culture’s on the menu, check out a super-secret museum that’s just a mini road trip away. We dug up goodies that are within an hour’s drive of Chicago. Scroll through to see them all, from a secret nature center to an auto museum with superhero appeal.

Transportation

Volo Auto Museum

Does your kid go crazy for cars? An hour northwest of Chicago, this wheel-tastic museum is a draw for car nuts of all ages. Famous movie cars from Fast & Furious 7, Batman Begins, Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises, National Lampoon’s Vacation and more. There are also plenty of coin kiddie rides for the youngest children in your group.

Open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; 27582 Volo Village Rd., Volo; Online: volocars.com

Illinois Railway Museum

America’s largest railway museum is right here in Illinois and goes way beyond your everyday Metra train. Ride on a one-of-a-kind mainline train, hop aboard an old-fashioned trolley coach or take a loop in a vintage streetcar. Feel like you’ve seen some of these sights before? That’s because the museum has been the set for numerous transportation scenes in commercials and movies, including A League of Their Own. Perhaps the biggest attraction is the annual Day Out With Thomas. On select days in July, kids chug along on a 20-minute ride on Thomas the Tank Engine and enjoy music, magicians, clowns and a meeting with Sir Topham Hatt. Consider taking a special trip for Halloween or Christmas when the museum features holiday-themed train rides.

7000 Olson Rd., Union; Online: irm.org

Nature

Trailside Museum of Natural History

Established in 1931, the Hal Tyrrell Trailside Museum of Natural History is a small museum located in a historic mid-1870′s Victorian mansion. Kids will have the chance to meet live native animals, including owls, frogs, turtles and even a fox. Hands-on activities complement learning, and even toddlers will enjoy the easy animal-themed puzzles. Natural-surfaced hiking trails through the surrounding Forest Preserve are perfect for little hikers and wind through beautiful oak woodlands and along the Des Plaines River.

730 Thatcher Ave., River Forest; Online: fpdcc.com

Knock Knolls Nature Center

Tucked in a quiet residential neighborhood, this slice of nature gives visitors the chance to discover what life was like at the convergence of the East and West Branches of the DuPage River in the 1800s. You’ll also get to know the local wildlife that call this corner of DuPage County home. Grab a treasure hunt sheet from the front desk and explore! The highlight is a 900-gallon freshwater fish tank filled with catfish, bass and other swimmers. You’ll also track replica fossils in the floor, marvel at a living wall of plants and learn how a rainwater collection cistern works. The building sits in a 224-acre park laced with winding, forested trails and sits adjacent to a nature playground. 

320 Knoch Knolls Rd., Naperville; Online: napervilleparks.org

Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum

The Tinker cottage, gardens and three-story Swiss-inspired barn was built by businessman Robert Tinker in 1865. Flash forward to today, when you can witness its beauty and get a dose of local history. The charming cottage and over-the-top gardens have become one of Rockford’s most popular attractions. The Victorian-era decor and unique architecture will satisfy the curiosity of the parents. As for the kids, they’ll have a blast romping through the iris, rose and prairie gardens as the weather warms.

411 Kent St., Rockford; Online: tinkercottage.com

History

Isle a la Cache Museum

Learn about Illinois in the 18th century when our state was home to French voyageurs and native Potawatomi. Operated by the Forest Preserve of Will County on an island in the Des Plaines River, this recently renovated museum features many interactive exhibits and a Native American longhouse. At a recent museum event, children participated in traditional French and Woodland Indian games and storytelling. If you visit the island in the summer, your family will want to take part in one of many nature activities like fishing, kayaking, hiking and more.

501 E. Romeo Rd. (135th Street), east of Route 53, Romeoville; Online: reconnectwithnature.org

DuPage Country Historical Museum

Housed in a building gifted by John Quincy Adams in 1891, the former Adams Memorial Library is now a museum that contains countless artifacts and materials that document DuPage County. The HO Gauge Model Train is operated by the DuPage Society of Model Engineers the 3rd and 5th Saturday every month.

102 E. Wesley St., Wheaton; Online: dupagemuseum.org

Graue Mill and Museum

Since 1852, the Graue Mill has been grinding cornmeal, its waterwheel turning at the edge of the picturesque Salt Creek. Today, the Graue Mill Museum is dedicated to bridging past and present through living-history programs that illustrate daily life of the past, including milling, spinning and weaving demonstrations. While the museum is closed in the winter, the grounds of the mill are picture-perfect year-round. Kids will love throwing pebbles into the Salt Creek and watching sticks make their way down the beautiful falls that make the mill’s gristmill go round.

3800 York Rd., Oakbrook; Online: grauemill.org

The Villa Park Historical Society Museum

This quaint historical museum, which shuts down for the winter, is a bona fide local gem. You’ll find it near the Illinois Prairie Path, North America’s first rails-to-trails conversion. It’s housed in a 1929 building, which was once the station for the electric Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad. Antique toys, historical photos and artifacts from the demolished Ovaltine factory will take you back in time and spark hot chocolate cravings.

220 S. Villa Ave., Villa Park; Online: vphistoricalsociety.com

Ukranian National Museum

We love doing arts and crafts, and sometimes we like a little inspiration. The Ukrainian National Museum highlights the traditional arts of Ukraine, with rows of beautiful ‘pysanky’ (decorated Easter eggs), richly embroidered costumes and other weavings and carved objects. Artifacts from the Ukraine and information about the current Ukrainian community in Chicago will help put together a mini-history lesson.

2249 W. Superior St., Ukrainian Village; Online: ukrainiannationalmuseum.org

Art

Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art

Surround your kids in a glittering array of jewels and precious stones at this gem of a museum. The museum houses the collection of Italian immigrant and businessman Joseph Lizzadro, a marvel of treasures big and small created from semi-precious and precious gems. Learn the science behind those gems and see amazing specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils from around the world. The gift shop has lots to start off your junior geologist’s own collection.

1220 Kensington Rd., Oak Brook; Online: lizzadromuseum.org

SMART Museum of Art at the University of Chicago

Wouldn’t it be nice to pop into an art museum for free, check out a few masterpieces, and then enjoy a snack? You can at this spot that packs the thrills and amenities of the big art museums, but on a smaller scale. We love the SMART for its temporary exhibitions and collections, which include modern art and design, and Asian and European art. 

5550 S. Greenwood Ave., Hyde Park; Online: smartmuseum.uchicago.edu

Government

The Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

There’s no better way to teach kids about saving money than taking them on a free visit to The Money Museum. Although the historical displays might be more suited to teens, taking a photo in front of a suitcase stuffed with one million dollars worth of hundred-dollar bills is worth the bragging rights for any age. Don’t forget to grab a souvenir bag of shredded currency for show-and-tell. Note: This museum is temporarily closed, but keep tabs on their website for opening information and online resources for families.

230 S. LaSalle St., The Loop; Online: chicagofed.org

Sports

The National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame

Mario Andretti’s Indy 500 racecar! Rocky Marciano’s first heavyweight championship belt! Swimmer Matt Biondi’s Olympic Gold Medals! Inspire your little athletes with a trip to the Tommy and Jo Lasorda exhibit galleries housed inside the larger Hall of Fame building. Even non-Italian-Americans will appreciate this up-close look at sports gear and memorabilia from sports celebs like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Joe Montana, Dan Marino and Mary Lou Retton.

1431 W. Taylor St., Little Italy; Online: niashf.org

— Amy Bizzarri & Maria Chambers

RELATED STORIES:
Best Museums for Chicago’s Curious Kids
The Best Museums for Kids in Every State

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