Winding its way through the heart of the Windy City, the Chicago River flows past some of the city’s most notable architecture, including the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), Wrigley Building, and Navy Pier. The river also offers opportunities for exploration, such as river cruises, kayaking, and canoeing, along a revamped riverfront.
The most popular way to explore the Chicago River is on a cruise, in particular a Chicago architecture river cruise, which offers an overview of the city’s history and building architecture. You can combine your cruise with a Chicago city tour, food tour, South Side tour, speedboat ride along Lake Michigan, or VIP access to the Willis Tower. Kayak tours are also popular, including a nighttime ghosts and gangsters tour.
Things to Know Before You Go
- River cruises fill up fast in summer, so buy tickets or book a tour well in advance.
- River cruises depart rain or shine. As weather can change quickly in Chicago, be prepared for rain or temperature fluctuations.
- No experience is necessary to kayak on the Chicago River; tour guides provide a short lesson before each kayaking tour begins.
How to Get There
Running through the center of downtown Chicago and dividing the Loop from River North, the Chicago River is hard to miss. Most river cruises depart from below the DuSable Bridge at the corner of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue. If you’re coming via public transportation, take the El to State/Lake.
When to Get There
The Chicago River is best explored during late spring, summer, and early fall, as most river cruises don’t operate during winter. The Chicago River is famously dyed bright green for St. Patrick’s Day, an event that traditionally takes place on the Saturday before March 17. If you are visiting on a Wednesday or Saturday during summer, book a fireworks cruise to enjoy fireworks over Navy Pier.
Chicago Architecture Highlights
Exploring the Chicago River is largely about appreciating Chicago architecture. On the main branch of the river, look for the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, the corncob towers of Marina City, and the Merchandise Mart, once the largest building in the world. On the south branch, the highlight is the Willis Tower, which was the tallest building in the world when it was completed as the Sears Tower in 1973.