By Amy Tara Koch
August 13, 2015
Credit: Peter McCullough

It may not be the city’s largest museum, but the Museum of Contemporary Art is the kind of cultural powerhouse that keeps Chicago front and center of the international arts stage. It is the American institution that nabbed the David Bowie exhibition straight from London’s venerable V&A. It was the first museum to showcase “urban intervention” superstar Theaster Gates. An afternoon at the MCA blends the latest in contemporary art with some of the best that downtown Chicago has to offer. Here, how to make the most of it all.

What to See

The museum’s current show, The Freedom Principle, examines the massive influence of black avant-garde experimentalism in Chicago during the 1960s. Historic archival materials—brochures, civil rights banners, photographs, posters, sheet music, record covers—are displayed alongside contemporary art, sparking a dialogue about how art and music cross-pollinate one another. This show, like most, is about engagement and edge. Exhibits are designed with interactive elements: listening stations, installations, and video.

This dynamism is evident throughout the building. Many visitors don't know that the MCA has a performance space on the ground level, where you may enjoy a free lecture, film screening, poetry reading or concert the day you visit—just check the schedule before you go. Also, don’t miss the museum’s store, which has an impressive array of funky jewelry, creative toys for kids, high-design home wares, and modern objet.

Where to Eat

There’s also a sculpture garden in the back that opens onto a massive lakefront lawn. Once you’ve gotten your jolt of culture, you could eat on the terrace at the lovely café, which has fresh salads and sandwiches, and a dedicated kids’ menu. During the summer, there are free jazz concerts every Tuesday evening on the terrace at 5:30 p.m.

If you’d rather be on the lawn while you listen, head next door to Food Life, the Water Tower’s upscale food court, and grab some freshly made pasta, rotisserie chicken, or kebabs, along with some sides, and you’ll have the perfect picnic in minutes. From the lawn, you can stretch out, look up, and marvel at the architecturally divine skyline.

Nearby Diversions

After lunch, stroll over to Oak Street, Chicago’s answer to Madison Avenue (it’s got a Prada, Tom Ford, Barneys New York, Dolce & Gabbana, and Montcler), to ogle the designer duds. Then, cross Michigan Avenue and step onto Chicago’s crown jewel: the Lakefront. You can walk north or south, exploring green parks and boardwalks for miles, and even join a volleyball game or simply chill out by Lake Michigan.

From the lake, you have easy access to star attractions like the Lincoln Park Zoo and Navy Pier. Another way to explore the lake is with Divvy, Chicago’s bike-share program. The closest station is right outside the museum, at 150 East Pearson St.

If you’re in need of a pick-me-up, two of the city’s best outdoor decks are a quick walk from Oak Street Beach. Refuel with a boozy ice cream float at Deca at the Ritz-Carlton, or stop by NoMI Garden on the rooftop at the Park Hyatt, where crisp cocktails are served with a killer view of the cityscape.

Ready for dinner? Meander down Michigan Avenue to Eataly, Mario Batali’s 60,000-square-foot Italian food emporium on Grand Avenue. Head right up to the mozzarella bar and indulge in light-as-air cheese, next-level bread and charcuterie. Add a glass of a Sicilian red wine to the mix, and you can call it a day.

Amy Tara Koch is on the Chicago beat for Travel + Leisure. You can follow her on Twitter at @AmyTaraKoch and Instagram at @amytarakoch.