Wendella Boats offers a narrated tour of architecture along the Chicago River. You will learn a lot about the historical significance about each building, big and small, and realize how much amazing history Chicago has. There is also a combined river and Lake Michigan tour, where the boat has to go through a lock to enter Lake Michigan. There you can get a breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline. The architecture tour is 60 minutes, and the river/lake tour is 90 minutes. Tickets can be bought on site.
2 for 1 or discount coupons for Monday-Thursday or Friday can be found at the Chicago Office of Tourism website
I can think of nothing nicer on a hot summer day than being out on the water. If you are into photography, you might consider one of the earlier cruises if you are venturing on the Lake so the sun will be behind you when you are trying to capture that perfect shot of the Chicago skyline.
Some people will tell you that the Chicago Architecture Foundation's Architectural River Cruise (see tip above) is the ONLY boat trip you should take it Chicago and while I thought it had the best narration for architecture buffs, if you just want a ride on the River or the Lake, the other options are just fine. I've been on the Mercury's River Exploration cruise that goes once a day at 3:30 and travels as far south as Chinatown (a few factual inacccuracies, not as much emphasis on architecture) and two Wendella river/lake cruises one of which encountered bad weather and the other where someone suffering from heat stroke cut it short.
We also tried the Spirit of Chicago's dinner cruise and thought it was overpriced as the food was just average and drinks were not included. If you are just interested in the view, eat before/after you get on a boat and do one of the ones without food.
My SIL loved the Windy, a tall ship sailboat, that was reasonably priced at $25 with no food or drink. I think she took the evening starlight cruise and was able to see the fireworks from Navy Pier (I think every Wed and Sat night, Memorial Day-Labor Day).
The attached website has a nice overview of all of the cruise options in Chicago
There are several companies in addition to the Chicago Architecture Foundation (Wendella, Mercury and Sea Dog are a few others) that offer tours on the Chicago River, I have tried two others (Mercury and Wendella) and I think the CAF has the best narration if architecture is one of your passions. If you are just looking for a nice boat ride and a little bit of Chicago history, you'll find better deals on some of the others during the week. Cruises are either on Chicago's First Lady or Chicago's Little Lady.
The guide from the Architecture Foundation provided a lot of information on the architectural signifigance of the buildings along the river, interesting even for someone who lives in Chicago.
**Updated for 2009 **Tickets are $28 (M-F) or $32 (Sat-Sun, holidays). The cruise lasts for 1 1/2 hours and travels the River south to River City, north to past the East Bank Club and out almost to Lake Michigan. The season runs from May 2-November 22, 2009, although there is some covered seating much of it is outdoors and that is where the best view is from so they don't run it in Chicago's brutally cold winter.
In my opinion, it's best to do a cruise just of the Chicago River or just of Lake Michigan. In order to do both on the same cruise, you have to go through the locks between the lake and river which can take 10 or so minutes each direction.
See my next tip for other options on seeing Chicago by boat
Chicago is known for it's bold architecture; the most famous being the early "skyscrapers" that grew up after the Great Chicago Fire.
Most examples of this early, innovative movement can be found along the Chicago River.
Following Michigan Avenue, south, one invariably falls upon these scenes of the river and the Wrigley Building, the new Trump Tower, et al.
You'll be able to enjoy the great, towering monoliths, but will have little reason to stick around. Sadly, there is not(yet) a cafe culture waterside.
We made a quick visit to Chicago last November 2008 and took the advice of another VT member to do the Chicago River tour for a quick overview of Chicago. Being a little late in the season, Wendella was running only 2 daily tours by then. After paying the $23/person ticket, we boarded the boat at the southwest corner of the Michigan Avenue bridge. The hardy ones braved the chilly weather on the open upper deck while others stayed below. First the boat went towards Lake Michigan and the tour guide started describing the main features immediately on the left (Wrigley Building, Chicago Tribune and the Navy Pier). The guide explained that the Chicago River and Lake Michigan are not on the same water level so the boat entered a lock where the water was either lowered or raised. From Lake Michigan, we were treated to a great view of the Chicago skyline with the Sears Tower very prominent on the south side and the John Hancock on the opposite north side. After the lake, the boat entered the lock again for the trip back to the Chicago river where it goes inland to the side of Wacker where you can literally look straight up at the Sears Tower. Certainly a very informative and quick look at Chicago if you don't have much time.
A great way to learn more about the city is to go on one of the Chicago Architecture Foundation's river cruises. These cruises depart from the southeastern corner of Michigan Avenue Bridge (just follow the blue signs that lead down the stairs). Reservations are highly recommended, or you should at least buy your ticket early in the day for an afternoon cruise. There are two 90-minute cruise options: one goes along the Chicago River and out on Lake Michigan, while the other one does a longer circuit along the Chicago River - I chose the latter option because I was mostly interested in learning more about all the fabulous buildings of downtown Chicago. A volunteer from the CAF narrated the cruise and gave us lots of information as we went down the north branch of the river and then backtracked to go on the south branch, to finally explore the eastern branch right up to Lake Michigan. She was both interesting and funny, and thanks to her great knowledge of architecture, she made even the most seemingly boring post-modern skyscrapers look unique and beautiful in their own way. She also gave us quite a bit of information about the river itself, proudly announcing that it had recently been upgraded from "toxic" to "highly polluted" (!). She also explained how the river actually contributed to the spread of the Great Fire of 1871 instead of stopping it because of all the junk that was in it at the time, and how authorities managed to solve that problem by reversing the flow of the river so that instead of flowing down to Lake Michigan, all that garbage would now float down towards St. Louis!
The river cruises are offered from the beginning of May until the end of November, and tickets cost $30 on the weekend and $28 on weekdays. I thought it was one of the best things to do on a sunny day in Chicago!
Although I had already taken the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise Tour a few years ago, Allan had not. He really wanted to tour the Chicago River, and I was more than "game" to take this incredible tour once again.
bOne of the finest activities that you can experience while visiting Chicago during the late spring, summer, or fall (end of April through late November), is to take this tour.
Do not wait to purchase tickets on the day you are touring because your chances of getting a ticket are slim. You may buy tickets at Ticketmaster (312-902-1500 or online), the Chicago ArchiCenter at 224 Michigan, Chicago Water Works Visitor Center at Pearson St. and Michigan Ave.
Seat location is based on "first come, first serve" so we made sure that we were there about 20 minutes in advance. We wanted to take photographs; thus, we made sure to be outside rather than inside. A docent who is trained will be your host. You will see more than 50 historic and architecturally significant sites on this wonderful tour.
As the Chicago Architecture Foundation literature states, "The Chicago River is the heart of its city...and the buildings along the banks of the Chicago River reveal stories of the city's growth and its architectural legacy." That is not hype but rather the truth.
This tour takes about one and a half hours, the best one and a half hours you'll ever spend!
#1 Marina City Towers were designed in the mid 1960s and were, and still are, quite innovative. Each tower is 60 stories high and have smicircular balconies. Within the structures are residences, parking, a marina, restaurants, shops, and a hotel.
#2 From the Michigan Avenue Bridge, I took a photo of the Architectural Tour Boat and the people standing in line to board it.
#3 The Merchandise Mart, which was originally conveived as a distribution center for Marshall Field & Company is MASSIVE, taking up two city blocks. It is an Art Deco style with pyramidal towers, set-backs, and bands of chevrons. There are pedestals along the riverfron with busts of famous merchants. At one time, the Kennedy family owned this building, but sold it about 20 years ago.
#4 Our guide said that 333 West Wacker Drive is an example of CONTEXTUALISM with its curved and shimmering green-tinted facade that follows the color of the river and the bend in the river at this location.
#5 The famed Sears Tower [which was the world's tallest building for 24 years] is most famous in architectural circles for its introduction to the innovative engineering concept known as "bundled tube construction".
We took the $25 Chicago Sunset Tour with Wendella Boats, this tour set off at 19:45 and lasted for about 2 hours. We bought tickets about 3 hours before the start. The boat was not overloaded, with sufficient space to walk around for better views. The boat also has a bar.
The boat set off from it's dock at Michigan Avenue Bridge, on the corner of Michigan and Wacker, and headed down the river towards Lake Michigan. This route afforded fabulous views of the river's neighbouring skyscrapers, most notably the new Trump Tower which is set to become the highest building in Chicago. The boat then passed through the lock and past Navy Pier out into the lake.
Our boat settled in a few locations for a few mintues before touring up and adown the coast of Chicago, during the trip the beautifully lit cityscape of chicago glistened in the crimson azure of the sunset.
Our boat then proceeded through the marina and past the Buckingham fountain, before returning through the lock and back up the river. This time the boat carried on up as far as River Bend.
All the time there was commentary from a tour guide, providing some local history and information on the more spectacular buildings. On this occasion the tour guide spoke clearly and was easily audible through the boat's speakers, but I have colleagues who complained on other occasions about the tour guide speaking too fast for them to understand.
A great tour, with beautiful views, but you do need luck with the weather.
The Chicago River has had an interesting history since the arrival of 'civilization'! As Chicago grew in size, the volume of pollutants and sewage dumped into it mounted and was continuousy emptied into Lake Michigan by the river. The problem was, Chicago had tunnelled out beneath the lake for two miles in order to secure fresh drinking water - and there was a concern that this would soon be mixed with sewage from the river. By 1900, civil engineers had solved the problem by completing the largest earth moving project in North America to that time. They had dug a shipping and water control canal through the ridge of land not far west of the city that separated the Great Lakes basin from the Mississippi River basin - allowing them to divert the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan and instead end up in the Gulf of Mexico!
Since then, the river has been significantly cleaned up and is now a major tourist draw in Chicago. Along with its many bridges, such as the 1930-built Wabush Avenue Bridge undergoing testing (Intro and 2nd photos), there are tourist cruises on low-profile boats that don't require the bridges to be raised. The 3rd photo shows a few of these at rest in front of the famous old Wrigley and Tribune Tower buildings. Late-April was too early in the season for these tours so I was content to just take in the activity along both sides of the river. The glass and concrete building undergoing construction at the right side of the Intro photo is the new Trump International Hotel and Tower, scheduled for completion in 2009 as the second tallest building in Chicago.
Here is an excellent chance to see and learn about this fascinating city--its architecture, history, and anything else that may interest you. The most remarkable thing about this river is that engineers reversed its course. It used to flow into Lake Michigan, but now it goes in the opposite direction. Hard to believe, but that's one of the things I learned on this tour.
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