Why The Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise Is A Must-Do
I’ve developed a real soft spot for Chicago. Back before all this COVID stuff, I’d flown up there every 2-3 months for work, and loved getting to stay downtown, a morning run on the river, a coffee and pastry…I had a routine. And I found ways to play tourist on occasion. Over the past few years I’d checked everything off my list except the famous Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise.
This is the one “touristy” thing that all my Chicago native friends insist is a must-do, and something they love doing themselves. That oughta tell you something! I am the last person you’d typically expect to do tours (especially about architecture for that matter), but I was convinced.
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I immediately fell in love with Chicago’s beautiful and diverse buildings, but really only aesthetically. I’ve only fairly recently started to understand the amazing architectural history the city can lay claim to, and the Chicago architecture boat tour really helped further my appreciation!
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What to know before taking the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise
- I strongly recommend the official river cruise from the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center; it’s staffed by volunteer docents, and they will not even take tips
- Tickets cost between $46-51 plus Ticketmaster fees (yeah, it’s not cheap); the tour is 90 minutes. It is recommended to purchase tickets in advance, especially in peak tourism time. However…
- Weather makes a huge difference, and Chicago’s is quite capricious. The cruise will be canceled if the weather is bad, but likely may still run even if a sudden fog rolls in. Whether to purchase ahead and how far in advance is a bit of a gamble.
- We went in the dead of summer, and it was nice to get out on the water and get some breeze. Sunscreen is your friend, as well as sunglasses because the sun reflecting off the water and buildings can be brutal.
- But it can also be cooler out on the water, so think about a jacket if you’re going in spring or summer, and bundle up in winter (if they even are running)
- It is open seating and first-come, first-served
- There’s a bar on the boat that sells a pretty decent selection of drinks and some snacks as well
- When we visited in July they were requiring masks at all times on board (though as I was drinking cocktails the whole time I was able to have a respite), and social distancing
There are a lot of pretty pictures in this post and I’ll give you some teases of the actual architecture info, but also don’t want to spoil you for the tour!
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Our tour guide was Judith, and she was great. It was a little hard to hear at times, but I also chose to sit near the back for good photo opps. The tour guides for the Chicago Architecture Foundation cruises are all specially-trained docent volunteers. They’re super knowledgeable and won’t even accept tips!
One side note…I’m not sure how to get the boat that has the sweet bar upstairs with the umbrellas. We passed it and it was labeled the “First Lady”, but they directed us to the boat next door. Still a nice enough boat but those umbrellas and the bar upstairs were pretty baller.
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One of the cool things about the docent volunteer guides is that each will focus in slightly different areas, so every tour is unique. On this particular tour I didn’t get quite as much in-depth info as I’d have liked on the late 1800s architecture and Daniel Burnham in particular, but I’d totally take the tour again and definitely might hear a lot more on that.
Why did I want to hear about that?? I finally got around to reading Erik Larson’s “Devil in the White City”, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and both the serial killer at work there as well as the astounding architecture developments and architects that made it possible (with Burnham as a key figure). Super interesting and worth the read.
I’m a nerd who loves to know how things work and behind-the-scenes stuff, so I really enjoyed learning about how Chicago’s architects have innovated to overcome some of Mother Nature’s challenges.
This includes how they have to design in “wind bracing” and the fact that the soil is super swampy and squishy, so anchoring in skyscrapers far enough below to the bedrock seemed impossible.
My new favorite quote about the skyscraper foundation problem is from 1891 from an article I found: “WHO SHALL RESTRAIN THE GREAT LAYER OF JELLY IN CHICAGO’S CAKE?”
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Judith talked a lot about many buildings being (I think) “contextual”, meaning that they are specifically designed for exactly where they are.
As an example, one building I had somehow never noticed despite running past it many times was 333 W. Wacker Drive…this beautiful curved green building on the corner of the river, where the river splits and turns. It curves because the river curves and the blue-green glass was chosen to match the water’s color.
Similarly, my running path takes me right across the river from this building, one of my new favorites—and yet I’d never noticed it! It’s 150 Riverside, and often affectionately referred to as the “pencil”. Reading how they managed to build it is fascinating (you can read here if you’re interested).
They had such a specific set of hurdles to overcome that forced them into this type of shape, and then obviously to make it safe and comfortable. SO COOL.
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The tour takes you through the main (east-west), north, and south branches of the river. As you turn north, you’ll see the Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge, abandoned and now designated a Chicago landmark. You can see the counterweight block there which is used to lower and raise the bridge…and weighs a cool 50 tons.
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Judith told us about how U.S. Army Corps engineers amazingly managed to reverse the Chicago River’s flow to prevent sewage from flowing into Lake Michigan (which…was a major problem). Seriously gross. And opened the door for the river and downtown area to become the business and tourist hotspot it is today.
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This massive building (you can’t see how far it goes in the opposite direction) was once upon a time the Montgomery Ward warehouse. Somehow it seems fitting that the former retail giant’s building is now occupied by Groupon.
So then our Chicago architecture boat tour turned around and headed back south. I’d never seen the Civic Opera House, the second-largest opera auditorium in the country (after Lincoln Center). It manages to be both somewhat stark, and yet also has beautiful Art Deco ornamentation inside and out.
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I’m obsessed with the reflections and curves on this building.
This is the face of a girl who LOOOOOOVES to be out on the water!
This dark building in the middle is the famous Willis (previously Sears) Tower, once the tallest in the world.
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Now we head back down the main drag of the river. I love this building on the left from the outside, though avoid it like the PLAGUE inside due to how insanely busy it is. On the left here is the famous Merchandise Mart, an interesting Art Deco building that is so big that it once had its own zip code!
I learned that these are called Marina Towers, but they’ll forever be the “corn cob buildings” to me…
This lonely Lake Point Tower is alone for a reason…it managed to find a loophole (closed very quickly) in the laws that prevented building on the lake. So the views in that building are to-die-for.
And last but not least, the cool newer Aqua building (yes, one building with three off-set towers). It’s totally trippy and crazy tall.
Something I didn’t know?? The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers 90 different tours in Chicago! Seriously, 90. Some are walking tours, obviously boat, but also train, bus, and trolley. Some are fairly broad and all-encompassing (like the boat tour I was on), and others are super niche like Tiffany glass or the Rosewood Cemetery.
I definitely want to do one of the walking tours focused on Art Deco, as well as one on the 1890s architecture at some point. I’m obsessed with all the details you see everywhere, like this building!
So if you can’t tell, I loved my Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise! We lucked out with a gorgeous day, we avoided the worst of the heat with a 5:30pm tour time, and got to soak in and learn about some super cool historic buildings.
It’s not hard to see how this is a must-do even for Chicago natives, and I highly recommend it to anyone else.
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