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".
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.
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
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!
A great way to see the city and learn about the history, architecture, and the Chicago River is to take a river cruise.
Chicago From The Lake offers a great 90 minute architectural cruise that departs from River East Plaza at North Pier. Cruises leave every day on the hour from 9 AM - 4 PM, from the end of April to the end of October.
Tickets are $25 for adults, $22 for seniors, $14 for children 7-18, and free for children under 6. It is wise to purchase them in advance.
The Chicago River is an engineering marvel, believe it or not. In the 1800's sewage and waste were dumped into the river, which flowed into Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan was and still is the major source of water for Chicago and surrounding areas.
With rainstorms, the river would backup and overflow into the lake, which polluted the drinking water. People started to die from diseases, so in 1900, a canal called the Sanitary and Ship Canal was finished and allowed for control of the flow of wastewater. It is controlled by locks at the mouth of the south branch of the river. This gave Chicago the first river in the world that flows backwards.
The river also gives Chicago more moveable bridges than any other city in the world, and a part of the river was actually straightened in the 1920's. Another interesting fact is that the river is dyed green every year on St. Patrick's Day, although we joke that it is green all the time.
Chicago River baths (divides) Chicago city. It is said that Chicago had 52 moveable bridges, making it the city with the highest number of that kind of bridges. Today, it "only" has 45 moveable bridges, but still it is considered to be the first in that rank. In St Patrick's Day the River is coloured green with some chemical products (apparently non damaging for the fishes who live in this River).
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
I am sure a lot of people think this is such a touristy thing to do. However l always take either a boat trip or a bus tour in a new city to get my bearings correct. I really enjoyed this trip. You got to see all the amazing buildings and got some good photo ops without anyone being in the way.
When in Chicago you must take one of the Architectural boat tours down the Chicago River. There are many different boat tours to choose from. Most of them launch from Navy Pier and follow similar routes along the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. I highly recommend taking the cruise that leave from North Pier (most of the boat tours leave from the tourist-y Navy Pier). What makes this tour different is that the docents are professors of Architecture from the University of Chicago - which makes for an extremely informative trip. The tours only run from April through November due to the weather. Make reservations in advance - especially if you're planning to go on a weekend or in the Summer. These boat tours are extremely popular and fill up fast when the weather is warm. All cruises are 90 minutes long and cost $26 for Adults, $14 for children 7-18 (Seniors are $24 and children under 6 are free).
After reading about different tours, we decided to go with Chicago Architecture Foundation 1.5 hours river cruise on Saturday.
I can`t say I loved it. First of all, with 77 buildings to mention and only 1.5 hours to do so, our tour guide (volunteer docent from Chicago Architecture Foundation) had to point and speak really fast using a lot of names, dates, architecture terms.. When I tried to follow her, my head started to spin and the joy of slow floating on the river was lost.
So I stopped listening and started to just randomly look at the buildings we were passing.. She did mention some interesting facts but most of the time it was just: 'This building was built in xxxx, by Xxxx, in xxxx style...'
- Dress a bit warmer, cause there is a pretty cold wind blowing and at the end of the tour many people were freezing.
- Unless you have a hearing problem, do not sit down next to the speakers (they are located on both sides of the boat, attached to the handrails and very close to people), because they are loud.
- Bring sunglasses - on a sunny day it`s not possible to look up at buildings without them.
PRICE: $28 per person on weekends and holidays but there are additional charges if you buy your tickets online via ticketmaster: convenience charge ($5.75 per ticket), order processing fee ($3.75 per order) and tax. Also, you may pay $2.50 and print out your tickets or choose a free Will Call and pick them up at the place.
Ended up paying $72 for two people.
This view of the river is looking west towards the area known as River North [near the Merchandise Mart].
The best way to see the river is from a boat -- I'd recommend the Chicago Architecture Foundation tours.
The Chicago River is 156 miles (251 km) long, and flows through downtown Chicago. Originally, the river flowed into Lake Michigan, which allowed sewage and other pollution into the clean-water source for Chicago. This contributed to several public health issues including a major cholera epidemic. In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago completely reversed the flow of the river using a series of canal locks and caused the river to flow into the newly completed Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
The Chicago River has 45 movable bridges spanning it. Every year on St. Patrick's Day, the river is dyed green.
A series of ceramic murals by artist Ellen Lanyon were installed on the SouthEast end of the riverwalk in Spring 2000. The $190,000 commission consists of 16 narrative panels and 12 decorative panels installed along parallel walls of the Riverwalk Gateway, a 170-foot trellised passageway connecting the lakefront with the South riverwalk.
The narrative panels trace the history of the Chicago river from the explorations of Marquette and Joliet, to the digging of the Sanitary and Ship Canal, the reversal of the river's flow, modern-day clean up efforts and important sites along the river and lakefront.
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.
Chicago has the most interesting architecture of any large American city. There are Chicago architecture cruises that you can take on the Chicago River. Otherwise get yourself to the river which is at the far north end of the loop or conversely at the south end of N. Michigan Ave. Walk around and look at the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower, the Merchandise Mart etc. The best thing you can do for free in the town.