Architecture and Chicago. It’s a pairing just as synonymous as peanut butter and jelly—and for good reason. Not only is the Windy City considered the birthplace of the American skyscraper, but Chicago structures also feature a range of genre-defining styles. The uniqueness of this metropolis’s architectural scene was brought to fruition by architects who came to the city after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. As part of the rebuilding efforts, these industry professionals became prominent names in the field—including none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. Innovation (along with beautification) was key to many creative endeavors, resulting in engineering advancements such as fireproofing and steel-frame construction. Because architecture is such a strong draw for visitors and locals to the region—and as Chicago resides on Lake Michigan—architecture cruises and boat tours are a very popular way to explore the city. But figuring out which one to choose, and what you want to see isn’t so easy. That’s why we compiled this guide to help you decide the best options for you.

Types of Chicago Architecture Cruises & Boat Tours

chicago speed boat architecture tour

When it comes to architectural river cruises, luckily, we have plenty of insight to provide—after all, it’s our specialty. The old adage that good things come in threes is particularly apropos for City Experiences. First up, we have the Chicago Seadog River & Lake Architecture Tour. On this 75-minute narrated experience, guests cruise the Chicago River and get up-close views of the city’s iconic skyline, featuring all of its signature architecture and celebrated landmarks.  In fact, US News and World Report lists the Seadog as a top Chicago River experience. Travel from the lakefront, through the Chicago Harbor Lock, and all along the Chicago River straight to the illustrious Willis Tower from either the boat’s climate-controlled interior or the open-air outdoor deck. The excursion also includes a short speedboat ride on Lake Michigan afterward, to provide guests with the opportunity to experience the best of both worlds, providing fun memorable times for family and friends. Dress is casual, and BYOB is permitted, just avoid the use of glass containers.

chicago architecture brunch cruise

Next up is the Premier Plus Architecture Lunch Cruise on the Chicago River. This journey encompasses breathtaking views of the river, a narrated architectural tour of the city and its landmarks (complete with an ambient soundtrack to boot in between!), and an enticing lunch featuring a 3-course, chef-prepared, plated menu, creative cocktails, and exceptional service. Dine in style as you take in the skyline from the boat’s climate-controlled interior or the open-air outdoor deck. Kids under the age of 2 ride for free. Cocktail attire is recommended.

Finally, we have a cruise designed with brunch lovers in mind—Premier Plus Architectural Brunch Cruise on the Chicago River. Let’s start by being honest: Who doesn’t love a fun-filled, mid-morning meal? It’s hard to top that, but add to the experience picturesque views and a narrated architectural tour of the city (accompanied by ambient music in between landmarks), and we’re talking about a next-level event! When you combine bottomless mimosas (and other creative cocktails for those over 21 with a valid ID) with a 3-course, chef-prepared, plated menu, phenomenal service, and awesome skyline views, this 2-hour brunch cruise becomes beyond memorable. Whether you opt for a climate-controlled interior or the open-air outdoor deck, history comes alive right before your eyes. Departing from River Esplanade, kids aged 2 and under, ride for free. Cocktail attire is suggested.

Chicago architecture cruises


Insider Tips for Choosing the Perfect Chicago Architecture Cruise

view of the chicago shoreline on lake michigan

When determining the ideal Chicago architecture cruise for you, there are several factors to consider, including the best time of year, the best time of day, the duration, what to pack, your group size, and any accessibility/mobility issues. For the best time of the year, it’s important to consider what weather appeals to you most, and what’s within your budget. Summer is the city’s peak tourism season, and while the temperatures may be ideal…the budget for a visit may not be. The time of day depends on whether you are a morning or night person, and whether you crave daylight diversions or nighttime excursions. While some tours are under 90 minutes, others may last 3 hours or longer; and even though cruises run at a slower or average pace, speedboat tours really pump up the adrenaline rush. As for what to pack, a light jacket, comfortable shoes, and sunscreen definitely make great travel companions. How you prefer to cruise is up to you but take duration into consideration before you book. If you’re a couple, a couple of friends, or an entire family, it’s also important to take the number of people in your group into consideration before you board any boat—especially if you want to be guaranteed seats together. That may incur an additional cost to reserve, but it’s well worth it if that’s how you prefer to travel. As for accessibility and mobility considerations, cruise operators always do their best to be accommodating, so just make sure you are always clear about your limitations before booking and boarding.

What to Expect on a Chicago Architecture Cruise

aqua building in chicagoChicago architecture cruises will always strive to highlight the city’s iconic sites and landmarks because isn’t that why you booked a boat? That often includes everything from the Museum Campus, Magnificent Mile, and Grant Park to the Tribune Tower, Wrigley Building, and the Wilco Building. Of course, the diversity of architectural styles in Chicago is what often inspires awe for enthusiasts, experts, and amateurs alike. A few of these include the Chicago School (also known as Commercial Style denoted by steel-frame construction and showcased in structures such as the Heyworth Building); the Second Chicago School (more modern and signified by tube-frame structures such as the John Hancock Center); Prairie School (Midwestern in flavor, lying low and flat with an emphasis on horizontality such as the Robie House); Late Modernism (all about shape and pattern, made primarily of glass and steel such as the Willis Tower); Millennium Modern (gravitates toward building forms and the natural world such as the Jay Pritzker Pavilion); Art Deco (clean, streamline lines with bold ornamentation such as the Palmolive Building); Postmodernism (features unusual colors and creative use of them such as the James R. Thompson Center); and the International Style/Miesian Modern (rendered in steel and glass and all about having a massive impact on proportion and scale such as S.R. Crown Hall). Additionally, Bungalows, Two-Flats, and Graystones are also signature styles found throughout the city. Examples can be found on Logan Boulevard and Lawndale Avenue.

Architects of Chicago

skyscrapers in downtown chicagoThe key architects you’ll discover in Chicago who made the city what it is today, include a few of the names you probably already know including Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Jeanne Gang, Bertrand Goldberg, William Lebaron Jenney, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. According to Urban Matter, their influence helped define the Chicago skyline, and their work often expanded to other cities too. For example, Wright—who is hailed for the Robie House and the Rookery Building—also designed the acclaimed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. What’s unique about Chicago’s skyline is that it’s one of the tallest in the world. Home to four of the United States’ eight tallest buildings, it’s a magnificent sight to behold that also includes the world’s tallest woman-designed building—the St. Regis Chicago—designed by Jeanne Gang, as mentioned on Discover Walks. Gang actually bested herself with this structure, having first achieved that title with the Aqua Tower.

Diverse Architecture Styles

Chicago, often referred to as the “architectural birthplace of the skyscraper,” boasts a skyline that narrates a century of design evolution. Its architectural journey commenced with the pragmatic Chicago School in the late 19th century, pioneering the steel-frame structures that allowed buildings to soar to unprecedented heights. The Reliance Building stands as a hallmark of this era, with its expansive plate-glass windows reflecting the city’s industrial spirit. Transitioning into the 20th century, the Prairie School emerged, drawing inspiration from the Midwestern landscape. This style, championed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, embraced horizontal lines and indigenous materials, with the Robie House as its crown jewel.

By the time the Roaring Twenties rolled in, Chicago was ready to embrace the opulent Art Deco, a style that married luxury with geometry. Structures like the Chicago Board of Trade Building became symbols of this era, adorned with intricate motifs and crowned with classical statues. The aftermath of World War II saw a global tilt towards Modernism. Prioritizing function and simplicity, this movement produced stark, minimalist landmarks in Chicago, with Mies van der Rohe’s 860–880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments standing as a testament. The late 20th century, however, yearned for a return to ornamentation and color. Postmodernism answered this call, merging past and present styles in eclectic designs, with the Harold Washington Library serving as a vibrant example. Collectively, these architectural phases not only define Chicago’s cityscape but also chronicle its dynamic history and cultural shifts.

How to Prepare for Your Chicago Architecture Cruise

To prepare for your Chicago architecture cruise wear comfortable clothing and shoes, be sure to bring an extra jacket (light or heavy depending on the season), and a hat and sunscreen if you plan to catch some rays. Taking pictures is a must for those who wish to capture the moment (and we can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t!), so whether it’s for the Gram or your grandma, make sure you seek out a quick primer on your phone or camera for lighting tips and tricks that focus on daytime and/or evening adventures. While some cruises will permit you to BYOB and bring snacks, others offer both of those amenities on board. Check with your provider about what’s permitted and then plan accordingly for your experience. As with any major city, free parking is available in some areas (although it might be tricky…) and parking garage prices will vary. So public transportation can often be an easier way to navigate the area, and the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) offers both bus and train service in and around Chicago.

Combining Your Architecture Cruise with Other Chicago Attractions

chicago beanAn architecture cruise around Chicago is definitely a highlight for visitors (and some locals) to enjoy when in the region, and as mentioned on TimeOut, there are also plenty of attractions you can add to your itinerary. Whether it’s the Art Institute of Chicago or the Chicago Theatre to take in some culture, the Lincoln Park Zoo or Shedd Aquarium for a host of cool creatures, the Garfield Park Conservatory for all things plants – or Millennium Park to see the Bean, make the most of the outdoors, and check out the Frank Gehry–designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion. For baseball fans, it’s most likely historic Wrigley Field, and for outdoor enthusiasts, it’s Navy Pier or popular walking spots such as the Chicago Riverwalk and the Lakefront Trail.

Speaking of walking, architecture walking tours are available as well, and there are several museums and galleries that focus on that subject too (like the previously mentioned Chicago Architecture Center above). We’d be remiss not to tell you about a few of the special events and festivals related to architecture that take place in the city throughout the year. Two examples example are the Chicago Architecture Biennial beginning in September and Open House Chicago, which takes place in mid-October.

The Art of Architecture

Chicago is a city defined by its architecture and its stunning waterside location. The architecture defined this destination, and when you embark on cruises and boat tours, you get a firsthand look at how it all comes together, becoming fully immersed in everything it has to offer. Touring on the water provides a unique experience to appreciate all of Chicago’s architectural wonders and the inspiration such innovation can invoke. While our cruises aren’t your only choice in town, we certainly offer a wealth of advantages when you ride with us, and we’re always happy to provide any guidance you seek!

city cruises on the chicago river

FAQs – Chicago Architecture Cruises (2024)

Where’s a unique spot to experience architectural dining in Chicago?
A unique and exceptional experience of architectural dining can be savored with City Cruises aboard the Odyssey Chicago River.

What’s the duration of the architectural lunch cruise offered by City Cruises in Chicago?
The Chicago Architecture Lunch Cruise by City Cruises extends over a period of two hours.

Which renowned structures are visible on an architectural lunch cruise?
The architectural lunch voyage by City Cruises showcases a range of Chicago’s iconic buildings including the DuSable bridge, Merchandise Mart, Willis Tower, and the vintage Chicago Post Office.

Is bottomless mimosa available on the City Cruises architecture brunch cruise?
Indeed, our Chicago Architectural Brunch Cruises serve unlimited mimosas to our guests aged 21 and above.

What is the length of the architectural brunch cruise in Chicago?
Our Chicago Architectural Brunch Cruise spans over two hours.

Where can you have the best scenic brunch in Chicago?
City Cruises offer the finest architecture brunch cruise providing magnificent views of Chicago. Our climate-controlled vessel is furnished with glass enclosures, providing a delightful brunch and bottomless mimosas throughout the year.

Which iconic spots can be seen on an architectural brunch cruise on the Chicago River?
Our Brunch Cruise sails you down the Chicago River, passing by renowned landmarks like Merchandise Mart and Chinatown, before heading north towards the Bloomer Chocolate Factory and Navy Pier.

When are the most popular months for a Chicago architectural brunch?
The Architectural Brunch in Chicago offered by City Cruises is an all-year-round delight. The most preferred months are typically between May and October, owing to our climate-controlled vessels.

How long does the speed boat architectural boat tour in Chicago last?
The Speed Boat Architectural Boat Tour in Chicago lasts for a thrilling 75 minutes, offering detailed narration about the city’s distinctive architecture and iconic landmarks.

Can you consume beverages on the Chicago speed boat architecture tour?
Absolutely, you are allowed to bring your own beverages (no glass containers, please) onboard during the Chicago architecture tour. We also have a range of drinks and snacks offered by our concessions partner, Harry Caray’s. You can pre-order these online or purchase on the day of your cruise.

What makes Chicago architecture so renowned?
Chicago’s architecture is world-renowned due to its diverse styles reflecting the city’s rich history and multicultural heritage. The city boasts one of the most extensive and varied collections of skyscrapers globally, including the famous Willis Tower and Merchandise Mart.

Which is the most recommended Chicago architecture cruise?
The Seadog River & Lake Architectural Tour is the top-recommended Chicago architecture cruise. This tour offers a fun-filled experience for the entire family and even pets, with live narrations showcasing the city’s architectural marvels. Post-tour, enjoy a thrilling speedboat ride on the lake!

What attire is recommended for the Chicago architecture boat tour?
We recommend comfortable and casual attire for our Chicago architecture boat tour.

Where can I park my vehicle for the architecture tour?
Parking facilities are available at Navy Pier or its vicinity. Your cruise will be departing from Navy Pier, located at 600 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL.

What essentials should I carry for an architecture boat ride in Chicago?
For your architecture boat tour in Chicago, consider bringing along alcohol, your smartphone, and the City Experiences app, which enables you to listen to the tour in 44 different languages.

Are architectural cruises suitable for children?
They sure are! The architectural cruises are not only informative but also entertaining, making them perfect for family outings. Kids can enjoy the sights and the boat ride, while adults can immerse themselves in the architectural history.

Can I book a private architectural cruise for special occasions?
Certainly! We offer private charters for birthdays, anniversaries, corporate events, and more. Get in touch with our event coordinator for more details.

Do you offer evening or sunset architectural cruises?
Yes, we offer evening cruises that provide a unique perspective of Chicago’s skyline, illuminated against the backdrop of the setting sun. Check our schedule for timings and availability.

Is food available for purchase on the cruise?
While some of our cruises, like the lunch and brunch cruises, include food, others might have snacks and drinks available for purchase. Please check the specific cruise details in advance.

How early should I arrive for my cruise?
We recommend arriving at least 30 minutes before your scheduled departure to allow ample time for boarding.

What architectural styles are highlighted on the Chicago Architecture Cruises?
The Chicago Architecture Cruises highlight a diverse array of architectural styles, from the early Gothic and Classical revivals to modernist and contemporary designs. Notable styles include the Chicago School, Art Deco, Modern, and Postmodern architectures, offering a comprehensive overview of the city’s architectural evolution.

Can I learn about Chicago’s history on the architecture cruise?
Absolutely! The architecture cruises not only focus on the buildings themselves but also delve into the rich history of Chicago, including the Great Chicago Fire, the city’s rebuilding efforts, and how it became a hub for architectural innovation. The narrated tour provides insights into the stories and people behind the city’s most iconic structures.

Are there any photography tips for capturing Chicago’s architecture from the cruise?
Yes, to capture the best shots of Chicago’s architecture from the cruise, consider using a polarizing filter to reduce reflections on the water and enhance the sky’s blue. Aim for the golden hours (shortly after sunrise or before sunset) for softer lighting. Additionally, a wide-angle lens can help capture the full height and breadth of the skyscrapers from the unique vantage point of the river.

Why is City Cruises the best option for experiencing Chicago’s architecture?
City Cruises stands out as the best option for experiencing Chicago’s architecture due to its unique blend of comprehensive narration, exceptional hospitality, and unparalleled views. Their cruises are led by knowledgeable guides who provide insightful commentary on the city’s architectural marvels, history, and cultural significance. Additionally, City Cruises offers a comfortable and stylish setting aboard their vessels, ensuring a memorable experience as you glide along the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. The option to enjoy food and beverages on board adds to the convenience and enjoyment of your architectural exploration.

How does City Cruises enhance the architectural tour experience in Chicago?
City Cruises enhances the architectural tour experience in Chicago by offering a variety of cruise options tailored to different preferences, including speed boat tours for thrill-seekers and leisurely lunch or dinner cruises for those looking to combine sightseeing with dining. Their state-of-the-art vessels feature climate-controlled interiors and open decks, providing a comfortable year-round option for taking in the sights regardless of the weather. The unique perspective from the water offers an unrivaled view of the city’s skyline and architectural landmarks, making City Cruises a superior choice for both tourists and locals wanting to delve into the architectural beauty of Chicago.

Original Post Date: June 13, 2023