The Milky Way galaxy is a disk about 120,000 light years across. That is huge! For perspective, if the Milky Way was as large as the continental United States, our entire solar system would be as big as the period at the end of this sentence.
The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy of the Local Group. Although the Milky Way is but one of billions of galaxies in the universe, the Galaxy has special significance to humanity as it is the home of the Solar System. The term "milky" originates from the hazy band of white light appearing across the celestial sphere visible from Earth, which is comprised of stars and other material lying within the galactic plane.
The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51a, or NGC 5194) is an interacting grand-design spiral galaxy that is estimated to be 23 ± 4 million light-years from the Milky Way in the constellation Canes Venatici. It is one of the most famous galaxies in the sky. The galaxy and its companion (NGC 5195) are easily observed by amateur astronomers, and the two galaxies may even be seen with binoculars.
We've never actually seen the Milky Way like this. We can’t take a picture of the Milky Way from above because we are inside the galactic disk, about 26,000 light years from the galactic center. This means that any pretty pictures you see of a spiral galaxy with elegant arms that is supposedly the Milky Way is either a picture of another spiral galaxy, or the rendering of a talented artist.