Whenever we have family or friends visiting us in Vancouver I always try to do two things: Get them up a mountain and then get them out on the water. From both vantage points they can immediately scope out the landscape, get their bearings, and get a unique introduction to the city. These were the reasons that I jumped at the chance to book an architecture tour in Chicago for my first visit.
Upon booking my first trip to Chicago (that would take me outside O’Hare International) I asked everyone what I should do and there was a consistent reply: Do the architecture tour! On social media, in person, and by text messages with family in the Midwest, it was the #1 most recommended activity so I had to give it a try. With the river cruise tour you get a fantastic introduction to the city’s neighbourhoods, its amenities, skyline, cultural and commercial history – exactly what I look to give my guests in my home city.
Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise
- Duration: 1.5 Hours
- Times: The tours run essentially all day, and in the afternoon there are tours every half-hour from 1:00-5:30pm
- Tickets: $44 Daytime; $46 all 7:30pm Twilight purchase online in advance
- Departing From: Southeast corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge at Wacker Dr. It was easy to spot the blue awning marking the stairway entrance.
I booked my sister, sister-in-law, and myself on the 3:00pm tour on Sunday. As we made our way to Dock 3 to board our river cruise, we passed Susan Pappas, the docent that would be leading our tour (we didn’t know that yet). She welcomed us warmly and asked from where we were visiting, then we joined the queue.
All of the CAF-certified volunteer docents who lead the 90-minute tours interpret more than 50 buildings.
My sister-in-law turned and said, “Should I ask her why this is the best tour?” of course I encouraged her as I was curious too. The lineup moved briskly and soon my sister-in-law returned with the answer: This is the only Chicago architecture river cruise tour that is officially hosted and presented by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It’s also focused on facts and history – not anecdotes and folklore – so you get the most accurate information about how Chicago went from being a small settlement into one of the world’s largest cities in less than 100 years.
We set sail, heading down the main branch of the Chicago river, following the Riverwalk that flanked the waterway.
“We treat our riverfront like our lakefront, making it free and open to all,” our Susan told us. Over the years the Riverwalk has expanded, through public and private partnerships, to offer a pedestrian waterfront path on the south bank of the Chicago River. Called the city’s ‘Second Lakefront’ it was recently expanded to 9 blocks, from Lake Shore Drive to Franklin Street.
Starting with Native American history, then moving onto French Canadian explorers and fur traders, and the first settlers, the Louisiana Purchase, Fort Dearborn, it was all covered. Passing under 24 different bridges along the way, we learned how the city became an invaluable port and railway hub, connecting the Atlantic Ocean through the Erie Canal to the Mississippi River.
Our attention was drawn to find context in the buildings in relation to their surroundings, floating past early warehouses, historic revivals, art deco designs, mid-century modern behemoths, post-modern and contemporary examples. How they were built around the river, how their features reflect the lakefront landscape, or how some are cleverly designed around the rail lines – which have priority in the city.
I learned about how the river flows backwards (and why), about the boom of the catalog retail/mail order business, how Goose Island beer got its name, what the term “Echo Deco” means, and how a woman and her cow were exonerated for starting the Chicago Fire back in 1871. The entire tour was completely captivating.
- We arrived at 2:45pm for our 3:00pm tour and didn’t have to wait to board as the line was moving. We were still were able to find great seats at the front of the boat (it’s all general admission) but it is recommended to arrive 30 minutes in advance. You can see from all locations on the boat though, since you spend most of your time looking up.
- Tours run rain or shine so come prepared for the weather. On a sunny day, I would bring a hat (I forgot mine back in Vancouver and our Cubs game isn’t for another few days). The towering edifices cast big shadows but when you’re in direct sunlight a visor/hat would help you see a bit better.
- Take photos! There are so many amazing photo opportunities and you’ll never have a vantage point like this again (unless you do the tour again, which is fine too).
- There are speakers everywhere so you can clearly hear your docent’s narration anywhere you go on the vessel. Move about freely to see all around you.
- There is a beverage and snack service in the bar area so you can grab a cold beer (or lemonade).
As the boat docked, Susan shared this appropriate quote from Mark Twain: “It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago — she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”
It’s evident that Chicago is a playground for architects, helping it continuously evolve and grow. The next time I visit, I look forward to another tour with Chicago’s Leading Lady to get reacquainted with this progressive city.