Chicago’s Best Architecture River Cruise: Perfect for the First-Time Visitor
Anyone who has visited the Windy City knows full well that Chicago is home to a fascinating variety of architectural styles. It is what helps make Chicago one of the most interesting and diverse cities in America. And while you can certainly appreciate the vision and workmanship that went into each building while walking the city, there is a unique and much more entertaining way to learn about Chicago’s architectural history.
The Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise, aboard one of Chicago’s First Lady vessels, is the ideal way to see the city and hear the story behind each of these historic landmark buildings.
Chicago Architecture Center
The Chicago Architecture Center was formed in 1966 and began offering river cruises in 1983. In 2018 the center moved into its new home located at 111 E. Wacker Drive and continues its mission of promoting and preserving the architectural legacy of Chicago.
In 1993 Chicago’s First Lady fleet was born, and her boats have cruised the Chicago River to the delight of visitors for over 25 years now. Since that time hundreds of thousands of visitors have had the opportunity to experience the magic of Chicago from the comfort of the First Lady fleet. With a spacious open-air upper deck in addition to the enclosed climate-controlled lower deck, the boats can accommodate up to 250 passengers. There is also a full-service bar and restroom facilities to make this a comfortable experience.
Docents Make a Difference
What really separates this tour from other similar tours is the expert team of docents that have been assembled to lead the tours. For our cruise, we had the pleasure of having Kathleen educate us on everything that is Chicago. The docents are all volunteers, and they come from a variety of backgrounds and careers. What they all share is a love and passion for Chicago and its unique architecture.
Docents are carefully selected and trained to serve as educators and ambassadors for the city of Chicago. We found our docent, Kathleen, to be an amazing source of information on almost every building in the city, and her tone and pace during the tour were exceptional.
The Sunset Cruise
Cruises depart daily starting at 9:00 am with many departure times throughout the day. The Sunset Cruise departs each evening at 7:30 pm and all cruises last for about an hour and a half. Sunset cruises are only available from May 17th until October 14th.
I highly recommend the Sunset Cruise, as you get to see the city at twilight and then after sunset when the buildings are all lit up. The reflection of the lights on the river combined with the beautiful way that many of the buildings are illuminated at night makes for a stunning setting. Be sure to bring your camera as this tour will provide ample photo opportunities.
As your cruise departs, your docent will begin to tell you the history of the buildings surrounding you. Prominently displayed before you as the tour begins is the historic Wrigley Building. Constructed in 1920 as the headquarters of the Wrigley Chewing Gum Company, this is one of Chicago’s most striking and unique buildings. It was the first office building in Chicago to have air-conditioning and its unique clock tower was designed to resemble the famous Giralda Tower of Seville’s Cathedral in Spain. This was just the beginning of what turned out to be a fascinating 90-minute tour.
What to Expect
While I won’t get into the details of every building that we saw, I can tell you that you will have the opportunity to see and hear the story behind the most famous buildings that grace the Chicago skyline. The tour will include the Willis Tower (still Chicago’s tallest building), Navy Pier, the Tribune Tower, the Lyric Opera building, Marina City, the huge Merchandise Mart building, and virtually every other building of significance in the city.
It really was fascinating to learn about the many different architectural styles, and by the time your tour ends, you will have been educated on up to 50 of the most important buildings, bridges, and parks in Chicago. From the gravity-defying design of 150 North Riverside to the award-winning Aqua Tower, it was amazing to learn how Chicago has become one of the most innovative and architecturally progressive cities in the world. To be honest, prior to visiting Chicago I had no idea that some of the most famous architects in the world hail from the Windy City.
Be sure to keep your nose tuned for what will be a pleasant surprise during the cruise. If you love chocolate you’ll certainly pick up the scent from the Blommer Chocolate Company along the north branch of the Chicago River.
Of all the buildings that we saw during our river cruise, I think the Wrigley Building was easily my favorite. Between its history, the clock tower, its early 20th-century design, and the terra-cotta exterior, it really appealed to me. It stands out from the gleaming glass and metal exterior of many of the other more modern buildings, and its place right on the Chicago River is the perfect setting.
River Cruise Information
- Daytime river cruise: $44.48 plus tax
- Twilight cruise: $49.21 plus tax
- Duration: 90 minutes
- Departures start at 9 am and leave every 30 minutes throughout the day.
- Sunset cruise departs at 7:30 pm.
- Chicago’s First Lady fleet consists of six boats: the Little Lady, Fair Lady, First Lady, Leading Lady, Classic Lady, and the Lady Grebe.
- Tours are rain or shine.
- You can visit the CAC (Chicago Architecture Center) for just an extra $5. This saves $7 off the regular $12 admission price.
- All seating is general admission, but don’t worry as there is not a bad seat on the upper deck for viewing.
- Tours sell out often so advanced ticket purchase is highly recommended. You can buy tickets on the CAC website.
- Snacks and beverages are available on board for purchase. You can also bring your own snacks/food with you.
The departure point for the boat tour is along the River Walk at the Michigan Avenue Bridge (also known as the DuSable Bridge) at Wacker Drive. There is a blue awning that marks the entrance to a stairway that will take you down to the River Walk. You should plan on arriving about 30 minutes before your departure time as they start boarding 15 minutes prior to departing.
If you want to learn about the history of Chicago and have an interest in different architectural styles, then this is the perfect way to get an overview of the city. I think that this tour would be ideal for any first-time visitor to Chicago. While we have flown through Chicago numerous times, this was actually our first visit to the Windy City and this Sunset Cruise was definitely the highlight of our visit.
Questions & Answers
Are there any dinner cruises on the Chicago River?
Yes, there are a number of companies that offer both river and lake dinner cruises. The Chicago Architecture Center only offers architecture cruises, but a quick Google search will show many companies that offer dinner cruises. We noticed a number of them while on our cruise up the Chicago River.
© 2019 Bill De Giulio