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Navy Pier in Chicago is the historic pier downtown. It’s one of the Midwest’s largest tourist attractions and a fun place for families to visit. There are lots of things to do with kids, from carnival rides to music concerts, and it’s one of the city’s most Instagrammable spots. Bring your camera because you’ll have gorgeous views of the lake and the Chicago skyline.
Things to Do at Navy Pier in Chicago
Navy Pier, the century-old landmark in downtown Chicago, is always loaded with tourists. People love to walk along the pier, stroll into shops and restaurants, and take boat rides. Mostly, though, they’ll sit on benches along the water and soak up the postcard-like views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline.
However, Navy Pier is more than just pretty views. It’s packed with things to do, including the Chicago Children’s Museum, the IMAX theater, the Chicago Shakespeare theater, carnival rides (such as the iconic Ferris wheel, Centennial Wheel), and free fireworks shows.
Read More: Chicago’s Hidden Gems
Years ago, Navy Pier had a tourist-trap, amusement park-like vibe. In recent years, Navy Pier has classed up its act. It added a new Polk Bros Park park area, with green space and trees. The park hosts free, family-friendly cultural and arts programs.
Additionally, art sculptures dot the area, with Shakespeare plays and live music concerts. There’s a happening vibe too, with live DJs playing music on Saturdays, and a new hotel and swanky rooftop bar opening this summer.
1. Polk Bros Park
The Chicago-based Polk Bros Foundation invested big money to create park space at the entrance to Navy Pier. As a result, it has more family-friendly and cultural activities – all free. The 13-acre green space, dotted with trees, includes a performance space with state-of-the-art lighting and sound. There is kid-friendly entertainment, including movies (some are water-themed, like “Jaws” or “Finding Dory,”) cultural dance concerts (everything from Latin to Native American), live music performances, free yoga and workout classes, stand-up comedy shows and more.
If you have little kids, I recommend seeing the Wiggleworms concerts. They’re creative, fun children’s music concerts put on by Chicago’s legendary Old Town School of Folk Music. I’m a big Old Town School of Folk Music fan – and I promise you any Old Town performance will be enjoyable.
2. Fireworks at Navy Pier
Head to Navy Pier on a Wednesday or Saturday in the summer and grab an outdoor seat along the pier (or if you’re sans kids, in one of the beer gardens) and wait for the free fireworks shows that are synced to music. Between Labor Day and Memorial Day, the shows are held every Wednesday and Saturday night from 9:30-9:40 p.m. Seeing fireworks with the Chicago skyline as a backdrop is truly special to witness!
Read More: Things to do in MIllennium Park with kids.
3. The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare
The Windy City has a world-class theater, and The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier is no exception. This super-cool, crescent-shaped, year-round, outdoor theater on Navy Pier can transform its space into different shapes and sizes. It puts on several shows, and can hold anywhere from 150-850 people. I’ve heard raves about Chicago Shakespeare’s “SIX,” a 90-minute show, which runs through June 30, 2019, about the six wives of Henry VIII.
4. Rides at Navy Pier
Crowds line up to ride the Centennial Wheel. The pier has several other carnival-like rides and games, plus a new Virtual Rush ride, where you virtually soar through the city of Chicago with 4-D effects. You collect artifacts and rack up points. In the end, you see the leaderboard showing who had the most. The 5-minute ride costs $9 per person.
5. Family-Friendly Tours
For teens, guided bicycle or Segway tours on Navy Pier are fun. They’re offered by Bike and Roll Chicago. To ride, kids have to be 12 or older and weigh more than 100 pounds.
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Boat rides are really popular at Navy Pier. You can go on rides to see the architecture, the nightly fireworks displays, or just sightseeing. Some include lunch or dinner. Seadog Chicago speed boats are more like a thrill ride than a tranquil cruise. Many tour operators, like Spirit of Chicago, Odyssey Cruises, Mystic Blue Cruises, Tall Ship Windy Chicago, Shoreline Sightseeing, and others offer a wide range of boat rides, from short sightseeing trips to fancy dinner cruises in glass-enclosed boats to old fashioned sailboats.
I recommend choosing a cruise that slowly winds through the downtown skyscrapers on the Chicago River. It’s simply gorgeous, especially on a nice-weather day or night. And going through the locks to get into the river and back out to Lake Michigan is fun for kids to watch.
I highly recommend any of the architecture tours by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, especially its Chicago River tour (read my review here.) The foundation offers a two-hour walking tour of Navy Pier and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, which would be interesting for families with older children.
6. Chicago Children’s Museum
This multi-level children’s museum is one of the best in the country. It has many of the same things you find in most children’s museums, like building and water play areas. One of the newest exhibits, The Sound Playground, lets kids make funny sounds by talking into fans and blowing into water bottles. Check the website for discount days.
7. Eating at Navy Pier
Navy Pier is lined with dozens of sit-down and fast-food restaurants serving Chicago’s famous foods, like hot dogs, deep dish pizza, rainbow cones, Italian beef sandwiches, and Garrett’s popcorn (a cheese and caramel mix).
If you can’t settle on one thing, take a food tour. A new one, by Chicago Food Planet, is the Navy Pier Signature Food Tour. It offers several tours per day, in groups of 12 or less. The two-hour tours are suitable for families and incorporate Navy Pier’s history along with food tastings.
Also, on Saturdays and Sundays, there’s American Walks’ Chicago Navy Pier Food Walk.
Food tours are a good option for people who live outside the United States and want to sample many types of famous “American food.”
One of the new restaurants at Navy Pier generating buzz this summer is DO, New York’s trendy raw cookie dough shop (where people wait in line for two hours), which is opening a new location at Navy Pier in the summer of 2019. Hopefully, the lines won’t be as long as they are in New York!
8. Places to Sit at Navy Pier
Benches facing Lake Michigan line the pier, of course. But there’s also a modern wall of concrete steps that’s a nice place to stare out at the skyline. You can also have a seat on the couch next to a bronze sculpture of Bob Newhart, the famous 70s TV actor, and comedian (and a Chicago native). Makes for a fun Chicago photo.
A Money-Saving Tip about Navy Pier
Doing everything that Navy Pier offers can make for an expensive day. But there’s one way to save: Do not drive and park at Navy Pier. It is ridiculously expensive. Instead, ride there on the bike-sharing Divvy bikes, or take a water taxi or a free trolley shuttle. Details of each transportation mode are here.
Finally, you can read more about why I love traveling by Chicago Water Taxi here.