2 Cities / 3 Days / 5 Museums

This summer my family enjoyed a museumpalooza—one day in Detroit and two in Chicago. Museums are one of my family’s favorite things (okay, maybe just my favorite thing, but I yield tremendous power). I offer the following unsolicited advice to help you love museums with your family or anyone—plan a little and play a lot.

Too much planning makes Jack a dull boy, but you can save time, money, and sanity with a little work up-front. The Detroit Institute of Art was an easy choice since my kids had never been, but Chicago was another story. Like any big city, there are just too many things to see and do. Don’t underestimate a Google search—I searched “visit Chicago for a day,” and scanned stamp-sized photos with five-word descriptions to narrow things down. Then, with the help of a map to choose walkable options, keywords like, ‘technology,’ ‘science,’ ‘nature,’ and ‘art’ helped further refine my options. We decided on the following: the Art Institute of Chicago, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Detroit Institute of Art.

My family’s trip was a huge success. Here are some tips to help your next museum visit go smoothly.

Do some research

Now it’s time to benefit from the experience of others: ask a friend, call your brother, and spend some time on TripAdvisor or other travel sites you like. Next, review the museums’ websites for details about hours, ticket prices, exhibits, accessibility, lockers, dinning options, and FAQs. The website should answer all of your basic questions and definitely pique your curiosity.

Set Expectations

Try not to be overwhelmed by the huge collections or giant floor plans. Accept the fact that you cannot see it all. Set your basic time frame and be flexible to problems and serendipities. Not everyone will be interested in the same things, so encourage patience with other people and your family members.

Now it’s time to play

Once you’re ready to visit in person, here’s how you can make of your experience.

Take photographs, when you can

Always check the website for the photo policy or ask a docent. Kids and teens have unique perspectives and often capture them on their phone. A photo can help you capture a moment or remember something to learn more about later. And it’s not a substitute for looking; it’s just a different way to look. Cut your kids some slack.

Teens taking a picture of things in an aquarium tank: a starfish and a green fish with a wide mouth

Don’t be afraid to act like a kid or a tourist

It’s exciting to see something that you’ve only seen in a book or movie, or you’ve never seen before. Seek out favorite exhibits and pieces of art and be open to finding something new. Talk about what you see. Read the notes. Take the quiz in the science museum or pick up the kid’s guide at the art museum. Watch the video inside the exhibit. You will get the most out of your visit if you seek opportunities to interact and learn.

Family playing with an interactive exhibit in the museum

Family picture reflected in Chicago's Cloud Gate sculpture

Don’t be afraid to act like an adult

It’s okay to teach some basic rules, museum etiquette, and social courtesy. Kids might not know that in art museums you don’t touch, unless it’s clearly stated that you may. In most science and children’s museums, do touch. If you are unsure, just ask. Explain that you should take your turn standing directly in front of an exhibit or artwork, hold the door open for someone, help someone use the map, and say ‘thank you’. Kids are not born with this stuff and we can all use the practice, especially in a busy museum when your feet are sore.
Teen looking at an orange Rothko painting


Audio tours are often available in the museum with a special device or on your phone, and they’re sometimes free. Check the museum’s event calendar for special talks or programs for the day of your visit. Free docent-led tours are options at most art museums, as are special presentations like animal feeding at an aquarium.
Mom and son listening to audio guide together

Enjoy lunch or a snack

Most museums respect their captive audience and many cater to the needs of families. We have had many great experiences with in-house cafeterias, cafes, and restaurants. Check the website in advance with questions about food allergies or sensitivities or whether you can bring your own food and drinks.

Visiting a new museum is your time to learn, see and explore. By taking a little time to plan, I hope that you have as much fun playing on your next museum outing as we did.