Chicago Architecture River Cruise Review – The Best Tour of the Windy City

The city of Chicago offers many tours that display this wonderful city. There are walking tours, bus tours, even Segway tours. An even greater way to explore the city is to take the Chicago Architecture River Cruise,  a boat tour that gives people an inside look along with commentary on little known facts about the history of Chicago, focusing on some of the Windy City’s most famous buildings and architects.


Chicago's First Lady Architecture Cruise


The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), a nonprofit organization, is dedicated to heightening people's awareness as to why design matters. The Chicago Architecture River Cruise is offered aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, the official cruiseline of CAF. These consist of five luxury vessels which are examined annually by the US Coast Guard, as well as piloted by a licensed captain and senior deckhand. The vessels are also green friendly since they use carbon neutral biodiesel fuel. CAF docent volunteers lead the tours, which last ninety minutes. Millions come from all over the world to experience the architecture tours.


On August 18th, 2015, I brought my mother with me to go on the Chicago Architecture River Cruise. It is an experience I had waited a long time in order to cross it off my Chicago bucket list. The cruise picked us up at dock 4 at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, along the gorgeous, newly renovated Chicago Riverwalk, which is a city gem all on its own complete with little eateries, wine, chairs, flowers, and amazing views of the river.


Cyrano's Wine Cafe on the Chicago Riverwalk


The Chicago Riverwalk


The new City Winery cafe


When we boarded the cruise, I liked the size of the vessel itself. It held a decent number of people comfortably, but was not too large. (My mom and I made sure we got front row seats!)


Boarding the cruise


Our docent guide, Constance Rojala, was an amazing "information center", full of inside facts and the history of Chicago as a city, the architecture, and the architects themselves. I learned how the river originally flowed into Lake Michigan, when the water was being polluted by garbage and waste. To improve Chicago’s health, the flow of the river was reversed.


Constance Rojala


I also learned how the Chicago River was not much to look at the turn of the 19th century. However, in 1970, the city began to take the river seriously and started to beautify the river and build the riverwalk. Landscapes, cafes, and parks, were constructed.  


Cruise viwers look around at the skyline


My mother and I saw many fascinating buildings, examples of striking architecture during the boat tour-some we had seen many times, others I had never noticed or paid much attention to. The first main building was the new Trump International Hotel and Tower, which is a beautiful, tall skyscraper unfortunately with his trademark name right smack on the front, which adds a rather tacky accent to the building’s visage. I felt the building did not need it.


Trump International Hotel and Tower


Trump letters


Other buildings seen from the river were the Merchandise Mart (one of my favorites), Marina City (those honeycomb parking garages), Aqua at Lakeshore East (looks like running water-simply breathtaking architecture), Willis Tower (I still call it Sears), and a map of the city on the side of a skyscraper.


Merchandise Mart Building


Marina City Towers


Chicago architecture


Chicago skyline




CHicago Map on TBA?


Modern 1980s apartment complex architecture


Another fun feature on the tour was something I do not think many people noticed. I loved peering up at the undersides of the bridges that spanned over the river. The beams that hold up the rails are very old and the intricate patterns were interesting to look at.  I wonder how much longer each will be able to hold up!


Onlookers under an old bridge


Century old steel beams holding up an old bridge


Century old steel beams holding up an old bridge


The Lake Street bridge


As the cruise took us to the mouth of Lake Michigan, where the Chicago River flows out, you can see Navy Pier. Constance told us to look around: Ahead of us was the most beautiful view of the city skyline-ranked as one of the top skyline views in the world. It was cloudy that day and the grey clouds created quite the dramatic effect against the buildings.


Navy Pier Ferris Wheel


A beauitful view of the skyline


A beauitful view of the skyline


The Chicago Architecture River Cruise was a fantastic way to see Chicago from a different point of view, versus walking or driving around. After this tour, I fully appreciate all over again how great this city really is.



Exiting the cruise dock on the riverwalk


For more information on the Chicago Architecture River Cruise, please visit their website, or call 312-922-3432.



All photos by Jennifer Lunz

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