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Chicago has tours centered on food, gangsters, art, neighborhoods and more. One of the best tours? The Chicago Architectural Foundation’s boat tour. It’s not a boring lecture about architecture. It’s a beautiful slow boat ride through downtown Chicago, past the city’s iconic buildings and — most fun for kids, under many of its movable bridges. This architecture tour teaches you about history, politics, business, art and, yes, architecture. Plus, you’ll find Instagram-worthy photo ops at every turn.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers 90 different tours in Chicago – 90! – on foot, train, bus, boat or trolley. The tours cover everything from general skyline tours to niche interests, like Tiffany glass or the Bohemian National Cemetery. Whatever your interest, there is a tour for that.
If weather permits, opt for the foundation’s boat tour along the Chicago River. It’s fantastic. Not only is it a pleasant boat ride through downtown, but you’ll learn a lot about the city and its history.
Our 90-minute tour aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises slowly cruised past skyscrapers on the Chicago River (and along the crowds on the Chicago Riverwalk).
As lifelong Chicagoans, we’ve seen and walked past these famous landmarks hundreds of times. But to really LOOK at them, and learn about them, gave us a whole new appreciation. We got a whole new perspective on the city — from the river looking up. The architecture cruise left us in awe of just how beautiful the buildings are, and how much world-class architecture this city has.
The knowledgeable docent who led our tour mixed humor and a little celebrity name-dropping into her descriptions of the buildings. (Wisely, our tour guide avoided politics by not mentioning one of the first things you see: the absurdly large, 20-foot-high “TRUMP” letters that face the river on the Trump International Hotel & Tower. It’s a huge source of controversy among Chicago locals.)
4 Reasons to take the Chicago Architecture Boat Tour
Chicago’s architecture is stunning.
Gothic, contemporary, Art Deco, mid-century modern – that’s only a short list of the different architecture styles you’ll see and learn about on this river tour. You’ll see more than 50 Chicago buildings, including these iconic landmarks:
- Marina Towers, the circular riverfront “corn cobs” (seen in dozens of movies, including “The Blues Brothers,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “The Dark Knight.”)
- River City, the rounded residential units with rounded windows on the South Branch of the Chicago River.
- Willis Tower, the 110-story skyscaper (still called the Sears Tower by most Chicagoans) is one of the tallest buildings in the world
- The glass-walled Apple store, with a flat silver roof designed to look like a MacBook Air
- The Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue, with its famous white clock tower
- The Tribune Tower, another Michigan Avenue icon, that was once home to the venerable Chicago Tribune
- The Merchandise Mart, this Art Deco wonder is so big that it once had its own Zip code.
You’ll also see an ordinary Wacker Drive office building with a 400-foot-tall street map on the side, a curved glass skyscraper on Wacker Drive with reflective views of the skyline and river, and skyscrapers built over trains and highways, including the massive former Chicago Post Office.
While I don’t know much about architecture or design, I still found the tour really interesting because the docent explained everything in a way that “regular people” would understand.
Hearing the stories behind the buildings’ construction and design provided great insight into the city’s history. Our docent even described how engineers (somewhat miraculously) reversed the flow of the Chicago River to stop sewage from flowing into Lake Michigan. That made it possible for the river to become the tourist attraction and development hot-spot it is today.
It’s fun to ride a boat through downtown Chicago!
The architecture tour is done on a slow-moving boat on smooth water (so no need to worry about motion sickness). The river cruise cuts right through the heart of downtown, so there are skyscrapers on either side of you the entire ride.
Even if you tune out the speaker (which you shouldn’t!), it’s a lovely ride. It goes all the way from the edge of Lake Michigan, near Navy Pier, to the near west side of the city.
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TravelingMom Tip: The temperature can be significantly colder when you get near the lake. Bring a jacket, even if it’s a warm weather day. This is the Windy City, after all. (Fun fact: That nickname has nothing to do with the blustery winds that blow in off of Lake Michigan. Rather, the term was coined to describe Chicago’s “windy” politicians.)
You get a better view from the boat.
From the sidewalk, you can’t really see Chicago’s skyscrapers in their entirety. From the river, you can. It makes a world of difference. Plus, you see them at different angles as you slowly float past.
You’ll hear lots of names of famous people and businesses.
Donald Trump, Groupon, Apple, William Wrigley Jr., Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Oprah Winfrey, IBM, and Betrand Goldberg are just a few of the recognizable names you’ll hear during the tour.
About the Chicago Architectural Boat Tour
How Much Does the Chicago Architecture Boat Tour Cost?
Since the tours are seasonal, you can sit outside on the boat’s upper deck, or in the enclosed areas on cold or rainy days. Regardless of the weather, it’s important to buy tickets in advance. This is a popular tour that sells out quickly. Tickets are $47 for daytime cruises, and $51 for the 7:30 p.m. twilight cruises. Add $5 more to buy the combination ticket that includes admission to the Chicago Architecture Center, which showcases the history and future of the city’s architecture.
Where Can I Catch the Boat Tour?
Board the boat at the northeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. Look for the blue awning that marks the boat dock entrance stairs that lead down to the river. Or enter 112 E. Wacker Drive into your GPS.
Architecture Tour Tips
- Consider taking the sunset cruise at 7:30 on a Wednesday or Saturday and then end the evening with the Navy Pier fireworks show.
- I wouldn’t recommend this tour for young children, because they might be bored. It’s suitable for middle school age kids and older.
- This is a very popular tour and tickets do sell out. I recommend buying tickets online before you go. But note that tickets are non-refundable. So check the forecast before you go. All tours depart, rain or shine. I’ve done this tour in the sunshine and in the rain. Trust me, the sunshine is much, much better.
- Arrive 30 minutes prior to your cruise departure time. Allow extra time for traffic and parking in summer. You won’t get a refund if you miss your ticketed departure time.
- Seating is general admission, with seating inside the temperature-controlled room on the first level and open air seating on the top level. Choose a seat up top to get the best views of the towering skyscrapers and panoramic views of the Chicago River and the lakefront.
- There’s a full-service bar, snack bar and restrooms on the first level.
- There are other boat sightseeing companies that sell Chicago architectural tours. They aren’t as good as the official Chicago Architectural Boat Tour with its expert guides and in-depth, fact-checked information. But if you have teens with a need for speed, the Seadog speedboat that leaves from Navy Pier and zips along on a lake tour while blasting rock ‘n’ roll is always fun. You can also rent kayaks and paddle the river, stopping along the way to hear some history and architectural information, although I didn’t find it to be quite as factual. Shoreline Sightseeing and Wendella also offer river cruises that leave from spots downtown.