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Chicago River Tours – Best Boat/Architecture Tour On Chicago River

Architecture Tour On Chicago

Fast Facts:

CostIt depends on the tour and the tour company. I chose Wendella’s Signature Lake & River Tour which costs $35.50 for adults.
Credit Card AcceptedYes
Handicapped AccessibleWendella vessels are accessible. Docks may vary.
Parking AvailablePaid parking available near by
Changing RoomN/A
Lockers AvailableNo
Food AvailableDrinks and snacks available on the boat

Recommendations:

  1. Wendella Boat tours depart from two different docks: Main Dock (Wrigley Building Dock) and Trump Dock. Though both docks are located very close to each other, check on your tickets to avoid any last-minute confusion.
  2. If taking the tour in nice and warm weather, I recommend sitting on the upper deck of the boat which offers panoramic views of the Chicago skyline.
  3. If sitting on the upper deck, don’t forget to keep a hat, sunscreen, and water.
  4. Paid parking is available nearby. I was lucky to find cheap parking within walking distance from the main dock on SpotHero.
  5. While using SpotHero, use promo code WENDELLA at checkout for an additional $5 off.

Overview:

Chicago, also known as Windy City or Chi Town, is a city like no other in the world. It is unarguably one of my favorite cities in the world. Thanks to its awesome people, breathtaking downtown, and fun activities to do in and around Chicago,

My love affair with Chicago began way back in 2008 when I started pursuing an MS from Illinois State University in Normal, located just 120 miles south of Chicago.

Illinois State University’s close proximity to Chicago allowed me to travel to this amazing city almost every other weekend in quest of its delicious food and fun activities to do. Yes, traveling to and from Chicago downtown may stink because of the insane traffic. But every city has its own problems, and downtown traffic seems to be the most common problem among all the major cities in the United States.

Boat tours on the Chicago River:

When it comes to choosing the best tour on the Chicago River, you have plenty of options to choose from. Some of the major tour companies offering boat tours on the Chicago River are as follows:

Comparison of Chicago River Boat Tours

1. Lake Michigan Skyline Sightseeing Cruise:

  • Duration: Approximately 30 minutes
  • Special Features: Offers some of the best views of the Chicago skyline from Lake Michigan. It’s perfect for those with limited time.
  • Commentary: Pre-recorded insights into the city’s architecture and history
  • Departure Point: Navy Pier
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2. Seadog Speedboat Tour:

  • Duration: Approximately 30 minutes
  • Special Features: A fast-paced tour that covers significant landmarks around Lake Michigan. Ideal for those seeking a thrill.
  • Commentary: Live commentary from the captain, covering sites like Museum Campus, Magnificent Mile, Grant Park, and more.
  • Departure Point: Navy Pier

3. Wendella’s Chicago’s Original Architecture Tour:

  • Duration: Approximately 90 minutes
  • Special Features: A comprehensive tour that explores all three branches of the Chicago River, detailing the stories behind prominent buildings.
  • Commentary: Live guide providing architectural insights.
  • Departure Point: Wendella Dock, at the northwest corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge.

4. Tall Ship Windy Architecture & Skyline Sailing Tour:

  • Duration: Approximately 75 minutes
  • Special Features: A scenic route along the Lake Michigan shoreline on a classic four-masted ship. Offers special-themed cruises.
  • Commentary: Available on select tours.
  • Departure Point: Varies based on the tour.

5. Lake Michigan Gourmet Dinner Cruise:

  • Duration: 2.5 to 3 hours
  • Special Features: A leisurely dinner with breathtaking skyline views, including a buffet, DJ, and dance floor.
  • Commentary: Background music and casual insights.
  • Departure Point: Navy Pier

6. Guided Architecture River Cruise:

  • Duration: Approximately 60 minutes
  • Special Features: Covers over 40 significant Chicago landmarks with detailed architectural insights.
  • Commentary: Live guide detailing historical and architectural facts.
  • Departure Point: Navy Pier’s Polk Bros Park or the northeast corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge.

7. Seadog River and Lake Architectural Tour:

  • Duration: Approximately 75 minutes
  • Special Features: A combination of speed and sightseeing, this tour offers detailed architectural insights and a thrilling ride.
  • Commentary: Live commentary on Chicago’s architectural history.
  • Departure Point: Seadog’s dock at Navy Pier

8. Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise:

  • Duration: Approximately 90 minutes
  • Special Features: In-depth architectural insights on more than 50 buildings, offering a comprehensive history of the city.
  • Commentary: Live, expert commentary from the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
  • Departure Point: Chicago First Lady Cruises dock

Each of these tours offers a unique way to experience Chicago’s architectural wonders, from quick overviews to in-depth explorations, and from classic sightseeing to luxurious dining experiences. Visitors can choose based on their time availability, interest in architecture, and preference for a leisurely or thrilling ride.

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Wendella Boat Tours:

I chose to go on Chicago’s architecture tour on Wendella Boats after going through their amazing reviews online. When it comes to going on an architecture tour with Wendella Boat Tours, you have a couple of options to choose from:

Chicago’s Original Architecture Tour

Wendella’s Signature Lake & River Tour

Having done both of the above tours, I can easily recommend going for Wendella’s Signature Lake & River Tour. Here are the main reasons to prefer this tour over the original architecture tour:

  • Both Wendella’s Signature Lake & River Tour and Chicago’s Original Architecture Tour cost $35.50 for adults. However, Wendella’s Signature Lake & River Tour lasts 90 minutes, while Chicago’s Original Architecture Tour lasts only 75 minutes. Therefore, you get more value for your money by going on Wendella’s Signature Lake & River Tour if time is not a concern, of course.
  • Wendella’s Signature Lake & River Tour takes you to Lake Michigan, which offers expansive views of the Chicago skyline. On the other hand, Chicago’s Original Architecture Tour doesn’t venture into Lake Michigan and navigates just on the different branches of the Chicago River.
  • Since Wendella’s Signature Lake & River Tour takes you to Lake Michigan, you can see the locking system between the Chicago River and Lake Michigan from up close. It’s pretty cool.

Our time on the boat:

Wendella Boats docking station is located at 400 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611. On Michigan Avenue, you will notice signs for Wendella Boat Tours. Take the stairs down to the docking station. We didn’t have any trouble locating the dock.

Stairs to the Wendella Boats Dock 

Once you take the stairs down, you will notice a ticket window for any last-minute bookings. If you booked your tickets online, you can either bring a printout or show your tickets on your phone. There will be a person with a scanning device to scan the tickets.

There is little shade and chairs once you’re in the line. Make sure you have sunscreen, a hat, and water if traveling in hot weather. Though water, snacks, and booze are available on the boat, it’s priced a bit on the higher side.

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Once the boat arrived, we chose to sit on the upper deck of the boat. Usually, Wendella boats have 2 decks: upper and lower. The upper deck has no shade, but that’s where the guide sits. The lower deck is air-conditioned, and you can still listen to your guide since there are speakers all over the boat. We chose the upper deck to enjoy the panoramic views of Chicago downtown.

Now (in) famous Trump Tower 😉

Once on the boat, our captain chose to take the vessel to Lake Michigan first, which meant we had to go through the Chicago Harbor Lock between the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.

On our way to the lock, the guide gave us a lot of interesting and fun information about Chicago downtown and the Chicago River. Did you know the flow of the Chicago River was reversed in 1990, and since then it has been flowing in reverse? I bet you didn’t know this. Even we didn’t, and that’s why we were just stunned to hear about the rich history of Chicago from our very knowledgeable guide.

As for the lock, it was very interesting to see its functioning from the boat. Typically, the water level difference between the Chicago River and Lake Michigan is between two and five feet. Since Lake Michigan’s water level is higher than the water level of the Chicago River, the lock is controlled by gravity. It was a good learning experience to see the lock in action.

Chicago Harbor Lock as viewed from Lake Michigan side

Chicago downtown as viewed from Lake Michigan

Sears Tower (now called Willis Tower) as seen from the boat!

You will come across many beautiful buildings during your time on the boat. One such building

One of my favorite buildings I came across while going down the river on this tour


Verdict:

I would highly recommend taking a boat tour of the Chicago River on your next trip to Chicago. Though there are plenty of tour companies to choose from, I cannot comment on those tours as I’ve toured just on Wendella boats. I found Wendella Boat’s tour guide very informative and gave us a lot of information about the history of Chicago downtown/river, different architectural styles, and great fun facts. I recommend Wendella’s Signature Lake & River Tour because the Chicago skyline from Lake Michigan is just incredible.

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