The 5 Best Chicago Architecture Boat Tours [2024 Reviews]

Welcome to the Windy City, where mob bosses once roamed, delicious food runs rampant, and architectural marvels rise along the beautiful Chicago River.

Without a doubt, the best way to enjoy the latter is from the water, the way that locals and tourists have been doing for hundreds of years. I’ve gone on quite a few, and I’m here to bring you a carefully-curated list of easily the top 5 currently out there.

These top Chicago architecture river boat tours will teach you all about the city’s architectural evolution from the late 19th century to the present, allowing you to marvel at the wide array of grandiose designs. I know you’re eager to get started, so let’s jump right in!

Best Chicago Architecture Boat Tours

Chicago River Architecture CruisePremier Chicago River Architectural Lunch CruiseChicago Architecture Center River Cruise Aboard Chicago's First Lady

Best Value Tour

Best Tour With Lunch

Best Locals Tour

editors choice
Departure:124 N Streeter Dr, Chicago455 N Cityfront Plaza Dr, Chicago112 E Wacker Dr, Chicago
Start:Between 10:00 AM to 9:15 PM12:30 PMBetween 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Duration:75 minutes2 hours1.5 hours
Includes:Architecture river cruise, Live commentary, skip the ticketLive commentary, lunch, coffee and/or teaLive commentary on board, local guide, river sightseeing cruise

Tour Information & Booking

Tour Information & Booking

Tour Information & Booking


Quick Answer: The 5 Best Rated Architecture Boat Tours in Chicago for 2024

  1. Chicago River Architecture Cruise
  2. Premier Chicago River Architectural Lunch Cruise
  3. Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise Aboard Chicago’s First Lady
  4. Chicago River Boat Architecture Tour
  5. Chicago Architecture Boat Tour

Chicago Architecture River Tour Reviews

1. Chicago River Architecture Cruise

Chicago River Architecture Cruise

Tour Highlights:

  • Duration: 75 minutes (60 minutes from November 1st to April 15th)
  • Departure: 124 N Streeter Dr, Chicago
  • Departure Time: Between 10:00 AM to 9:15 PM
  • Includes: Architecture river cruise, Live commentary, A barcoded ticket allowing you to skip the ticket office and proceed directly to the boarding line

If you have yourself in the bustling metropolis of Chicago, a city whose architectural designs have influenced skylines all over the globe, you have to try this first tour.

This state-of-the-art cruise guarantee a unique adventure led by experts who will share with you some of the most fascinating secrets this legendary city has to offer. If that sounds like fun to you, make sure to give the Chicago River Architecture Cruise a go!

Depending on which option you select, you’ll either depart from Michigan Ave or right from Navy Pier – both of which are convenient if you’re staying anywhere near the Loop.

Hop onboard the sleek vessel and set off on a voyage that covers all 3 branches of the Chicago River as your knowledgeable guide leads the way. Should you have any questions, they’re there to help!

You’ll sail past famous buildings such as the John Hancock building, Trump Tower, Marina City’s iconic corn cob-shaped dual towers, and of course, the mighty Willis Tower.

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Learn about the history behind each one, as well as some not-so-well-known facts and anecdotes you may not have known about. With a cash bar on board, you’ll have plenty of soft drinks and cocktails, beer, and wine to sip on as you enjoy the Chicago splendor.

If you have an hour or so free on the first day you get to the city, I highly recommend going on this tour. It offers so much character and insight into what makes it tick, as well as so many tales of triumph that you may just feel that positively contagious energy, too.

I had no prior knowledge of Chicago before this tour, and I can positively say that I had fallen in love with it within minutes of embarking!

 

Tour Information & Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience


2. Premier Chicago River Architectural Lunch Cruise

Premier Chicago River Architectural Lunch Cruise

Tour Highlights:

  • Duration: 2 hours
  • Departure: 455 N Cityfront Plaza Dr, Chicago
  • Departure Time: 12:30 PM
  • Includes: Lunch, coffee and/or tea

Next up, we have another fantastic river cruise that’s a bit more “intensive” than our first. The Premer Chicago River Architectural Lunch Cruise is the perfect way to spend an afternoon and a much better alternative to grabbing lunch at a regular restaurant.

This tour is perfect for any time of year, showcasing the beautiful city at its very best throughout the centuries accompanied by a delicious meal.

Meet your guide and the rest of your group in downtown Chicago, where you’ll hop on the “Odyssey” – a glass-enclosed boat perfect for exploring the city in rain or shine.

It’s not only one of the most beautiful boats out there, but is also one of the best for enjoying 360 views without any obstructions. I immediately noticed how clean the vessel was, and the tables were all spaced out so that we had enough space without feeling off by ourselves.

As you meander along the majestic waterway, you’ll experience all of the city’s best architectural sights on each side of the river as you enjoy a tasty 3-course lunch.

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I was a bit surprised at just how delicious it was, with a salad to start, and a choice of the chicken, salmon, pasta, or tender short ribs as the main dish. Oh my, the dessert of cheesecake was wonderfully creamy and decadent, but the sorbet looked very refreshing and nice for a hot summer day.

As you enjoy your perfectly-timed dishes, take in the looming skyscrapers like the Willis Tower or the Tribune Tower, along with the Merchandise Mart, Chicago Opera Theater, Union Station, and the legendary Navy Pier.

As you pass each landmark, the guides are there to recount their histories and important events that have taken place at each one. Whether you’re there for a romantic outing or want to bring the entire family along, this is the perfect excursion!

 

Tour Information & Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience


3. Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise Aboard Chicago’s First Lady

Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise Aboard Chicago's First Lady

Tour Highlights:

  • Duration: 1.5 hours
  • Departure: 112 E Wacker Dr, Chicago
  • Departure Time: Between 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
  • Includes: Live commentary on board, local guide, river sightseeing cruise

Our next voyage is one of the best for exploring the intricate designs influenced by the mighty Chicago River and the city’s dramatic history. The river and its architecture, themselves, have been witness to the ebb and flow of its industry, transportation, revitalization, and recreation.

If you really want to learn about its revolutionary stories of resilience and are on a budget, the Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise Aboard Chicago’s First Lady Tour is one of your best bets.

Your tour will kickstart with the Chicago Architecture Center, which is known for being a bastion of knowledge surrounding the celebration and promotion of the Windy City as a center of architectural innovation.

You will just see it from the water and hear about its story on this tour, but if you decide to go back to check out the interior, you’ll get a discounted admission of just $5 when you show your river cruise ticket.

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The Navy Pier was one of the highlights of the tour for me and hearing how it has been used as the obvious naval base and shipping hub, to a present-day hotspot for entertainment was quite fascinating.

Marina City was also quite interesting, and you’ll learn all about how it was used to bring back more middle-class inhabitants. The Trump International Hotel always commands attention with its shiny exterior that begs to have photos taken of it.

There are plenty of other fascinating landmarks you’ll see and learn about, but the Willis Tower was definitely one of the most interesting for me. If you’d like to see some aerial views of Chicago, make sure to check out the Skydeck located there.

This is such a fantastic way to get the lay of the land and learn about the important metropolis, that you have to add it to your list!

 

Tour Information & Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience


4. Chicago River Boat Architecture Tour

Chicago River Boat Architecture Tour

Tour Highlights:

  • Duration: 1.5 hours
  • Departure: 465 N McClurg Ct, Chicago
  • Departure Time: Between 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM
  • Includes: Local guide, port pickup and drop-off, bottled water, coffee and/or tea

Next up, we have yet another amazingly affordable excursion if you’d like to see some of the best CHI town has to offer. I’ve been on a ton of different types of Chicago tours, and river cruises like this one never fail to impress me or anyone else I’m with.

The Chicago River Boat Architecture Tour packs in a ton of fun, history, exciting tales, and beauty in just 1.5 hours so there’s no reason to miss it!

Please don’t wait until one of your last days in Chicago to do this tour! If you’re going to take any advice, please let it be that you need to take this on the first day you’re there.

The incredibly knowledgeable, creative, kind, funny guides will create a masterpiece of an experience for you, making anyone excited to be in the Windy City.

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Expanding on this aspect, the guides are all born-and-raised Chicagoans who are passionate about promoting their city and making everyone feel like family, which they do seemingly effortlessly.

Meet at the pier or get picked up at the port and hop onboard, where you’ll get to enjoy complimentary bottled water, coffee, and/or tea as you enjoy the amazing views of the city and river. If you’d like, there’s also a little bar on board for you to purchase beer, wine, and cocktails!

Here, you’ll learn all about the influential landmarks that line the river, including various skyscrapers, the lively Navy Pier, and the infamous “Bean”/Cloud Gate. I loved being able to see the 100-year-old Art Deco buildings which are simply timeless, along with various Neo-Classical and Gothic designs.

For any architecture or history buff, or anyone who can appreciate art, this is for you.

 

Tour Information & Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience


5. Chicago Architecture Boat Tour

Chicago Architecture Boat Tour

Tour Highlights:

  • Duration: 1.5 hours
  • Departure: 900 S Wells St, Chicago
  • Departure Time: Between 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
  • Includes: Restroom on board, Outside seating available, Seating is first come first serve basis, Guided architecture cruise of the historic Chicago River, Fully enclosed interior with air conditioning, seats, & windows

Whether you’re a seeker of architectural beauty or would simply like to learn more about Chicago’s wild history, you’re in the right place here. From old-school gems to modern-day marvels, you’ll dive right into the history of Chicago that’s carved into its skyline and the very fabric of the city, itself.

If you’re ready to be mesmerized and maybe even fall in love with it, then sign right up for the Chicago Architecture Boat Tour!

You’ll meet your guides right at the river, so you can hop on the boat and get situated for a fun time. You may know that while the Windy City was nicknamed such due to its locals being “full of hot air”, it’s no secret that the wind coming off of Lake Michigan is no joke.

With this tour, you get to ride in a boat that offers a fully-enclosed interior complete with climate control, seats, and windows so that no one is freezing while enjoying these picturesque views.

The live narration was simply impeccable, bringing to life each famous landmark’s intriguing history – many of which are lessons we’d never have learned in school!

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Cruise on by both modern-day and historic buildings such as the Civic Opera House, the Wrigley Building, and Willis Tower, with some of the best viewpoints possible.

I had a ton of fun with the guides as they offered trivia about the various structures, which also seemed to bring the entire group together nicely.

Luckily for me, it was perfect weather when we went, so we were also able to enjoy the unreal vistas from the uncovered deck. Passing by Navy Pier and being able to hear the happy voices and laughs of visitors as we passed by was pretty enjoyable, too.

Overall, this is a must-do on any visit to Chicago if you’re serious about learning more about its architectural significance throughout the centuries. 

Tour Information & Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience


FAQs About Chicago architecture boat tours

What are some examples of Chicago architecture I will see?

Willis Tower: AKA the Sears Tower, this 1,450-foot-tall building was the tallest building in the world for 25 years. It features a distinctive stepped design and a glass observation deck called the Skydeck that offers panoramic views of the city.

875 North Michigan Avenue: Also known by its former name, the John Hancock Center, this 1,128-foot-tall skyscraper is a striking example of structural expressionism, with its X-shaped braces and tapered shape. It has a 360-degree observation deck, a restaurant, and a lounge on the 94th to 96th floors.

Aon Center: This 1,136-foot-tall office tower is clad in white granite and has a minimalist appearance. It was originally covered in marble, but it had to be replaced due to safety issues. It is planning to add an observatory and a glass elevator on its south facade.

Wrigley Building: This elegant building consists of two towers connected by walkways and is inspired by the Giralda tower of Seville Cathedral. The clock tower and terra-cotta facade are lit up at night. It was ahead of its time being the first air-conditioned office building in Chicago.

The Rookery: It is one of the oldest standing skyscrapers in Chicago and a great example of design from the Chicago School of architecture. It has a load-bearing masonry exterior and a steel frame interior. It also has a stunning two-story lobby that was remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905.

Aqua Tower: This modern skyscraper is known for its undulating balconies that create a wave-like effect. It is designed by Jeanne Gang, one of Chicago’s most prominent architects. It is currently a mixed use building with a mixture of apartments, a hotel, offices and retail.

How much do the boat tours cost?

The cost of the boat tours depends on the length of the tour, time of the day and whether of not lunch or dinner are included. A 1.5 hour daytime cruise is about $50. If you opt for an evening cruise with dinner you can expect to pay about $100.

How long are the boat tours?

The boat tours are usually 90 minutes. If you do a tour that includes lunch or dinner they are about 2 to 2.5 hours long. Most of them cover more than 50 buildings along the Chicago River, from historic landmarks to modern skyscrapers.

What is the best Chicago architecture boat tour?

If you can afford the extra money and would like to enjoy lunch on your tour we recommend the Premier Chicago River Architectural Lunch Cruise. This tour offers a delicious buffet style lunch on a smaller boat so you can get up close and personal with the buildings you will be seeing.

What is the cheapest architecture boat tour in Chicago?

If you are on a strict budget but still want to see Chicago from the water we recommend the Chicago Architecture Boat Tour. This is a fairly standard 1.5 hour tour but its on a bigger boat so it’s not as personal as the smaller boats nor do you get lunch.

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The Chicago River Architecture Cruise is our Editors Choice for the best Chicago Architecture boat tour.

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Robert Baker

Robert is a content writer and editor at World Guides to Travel where he shares his love for the great outdoors. He also writes in-depth travel blogs for other websites around the world. Robert is passionate about the environment and uses his writing to educate people about the advantages and importance of sustainable living. Robert enjoys creative writing. In 2009, his children’s novel Sally Hemings & the Good Associates won the Children’s Fiction section of the You Write On Book of the Year Award.
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