As the largest city in the Midwest, Chicago has a lot to offer, including a wealth of historically and architecturally significant buildings. You can admire them from the sidewalk or from the Skydeck of the Willis Tower, but there’s a better — and more relaxing — way to see the city: an architecture river cruise!

Usually outshined by the neighboring Lake Michigan, the Chicago River is an integral part of downtown Chicago, threading its way through the city. It’s easy to simply drive over the river on one of the many movable bridges, but taking a river cruise will help you appreciate the view from below the bridges. Due to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city’s buildings aren’t as old as those of other cities, which simply means contemporary architects had more room to feature original designs.

The most popular architecture river cruises are run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and other companies such as Shoreline Sightseeing offer a similar experience. Regardless of which you choose, you’ll hear entertaining stories from enthusiastic guides, and hopefully learn something new.

There’s nothing quite like getting the full experience, but here’s a taste of what you’ll see on the tour!

1.) Marina City

Most memorable for its resemblance to giant cobs of corn, Marina City is just one of dozens of notable structures you’ll learn about on the tour. The identical towers were built in 1964 as an urban experiment to counteract Chicago’s white flight; they came complete with upscale amenities such as a theater, gym, bowling alley, stores and restaurants.

Greg K__ca/Shutterstock

Greg K__ca/Shutterstock

2.) River Bridges

The boats used in river tours are low enough to be able to pass under the Chicago River’s bridges without having to raise them, so whether you see the steel and concrete machinery in action is strictly up to chance. There are a total of 18 movable bridges in the downtown area, the most famous one being the DuSable Bridge, built in 1920 when Michigan Avenue was extended north across the river.

Pigprox/Shutterstock

Pigprox/Shutterstock

3.) Low Perspective

There’s something to be said for floating a few meters below everyone else at ground level. For one, it’s a much more serene experience than, say, weaving your way through crowds on a Segway tour. The riverbanks basically shield you from the din of the city. Plus, it’s not like you’ll be sailing by barges of garbage — the Chicago River is fully integrated into the design of the city, with polished public spaces lining the shores.

Paul Smith-Keitley/Shutterstock

Paul Smith-Keitley/Shutterstock

4.) Willis Tower

Chicago’s most iconic building may have new owners and a relatively new name, but it remains as imposing as it was the day it was built in 1973 and heralded as the tallest in the world at the time. Willis Towers’ stacked shape is due to its “bundled tube” structure, which helps the building withstand wind loads. Wouldn’t want the Windy City’s buildings blowing over!

yooperann/flickr

yooperann/flickr

5.) Wrigley Building

Unlike the Willis Tower, the Wrigley Building’s name can never be changed. Sitting on the corner of Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River, this dazzling white structure was built in 1924 as the new headquarters for the chewing gum company. Wrigley Building led the way for developers to start constructing office buildings north of the river, which was previously a gritty industrial landscape.

Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

 

6.) Sunset Rays

Book a twilight cruise for the chance to catch the sunset from the river. The stunning views are perfect for capping a romantic day, posting on Instagram, or simply reflecting on the natural and man-made beauty of Chicago. Plus, after the sun goes down, the city’s lights illuminate the river with their twinkling reflections.

Chris Smith/flickr

Chris Smith/flickr

There are many ways to explore Chicago, but taking a leisurely river cruise is top-ranking for us, and other tourists agree, praising guides and docents as knowledgeable and energetic. Tours generally run from spring to fall, though some companies remain open on seasonally mild days. Boats comprise two levels, so depending on the weather, you can catch some sun on the upper deck or take shelter on the first level.

What are your favorite ways to see the city? Let us know in the comments!

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