Why the Chicago Architecture Boat Tour is the Best Way to See the Windy City

Chicago has some amazing architecture, and thanks to the Chicago River snaking through the city, you can see it all by taking an Architecture Boat Tour.

As an 8-year resident of Chicago, I always tell folks that the boat tour is truly the best way to get to know the city, especially for first-time visitors.

You’ll see all the famous buildings downtown, and hear informative commentary from your guide, who will provide fascinating factoids about the city and its history.

river apartments chicago

What will you see on a Chicago architecture boat tour? How much does it cost? What months does it operate? Keep reading for the details. And click here if you want to book it for yourself from our partners at Viator!

FAQs About Booking the Boat Tour: Cost, Length, Route

Which company runs the boat tours?

Multiple companies run these tours, so there are competing options. Wendella, Shoreline, and Chicago’s First Lady all run tours. That’s why you’ll often see different prices and times when you’re searching for a tour to book.

How long is a Chicago Architecture Boat Tour, and how much does it cost?

The boat tours range in price. Tickets are reasonably priced for a 90-minute river cruise. They typically run $40-50 for adults, and $20-30 for kids.

wrigley building - chicago architecture boat tour

There are some shorter tours like this one in the 45-minute range, which cost less than $30 for adults. But I highly recommend the longer tour. The time goes by fast when you’re on the river.

Does the Chicago Architecture Boat Tour operate in winter?

Some companies only run the tours during the warmer months of April to October. Other companies offer tours in that run in February, March and November as well.

But generally, there aren’t any tours in December and January. This tour appears on our list of Windy City winter activities.

What route does the boat tour take?

Most tours start near Michigan Avenue, not far from where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan at Navy Pier.

They proceed west down the Chicago River, turning south to go past Willis Tower. Eventually, they turn around and retrace the route back to the starting point.

Do they sell food and alcohol on architecture boat tours?

It depends on the tour, so check the details. Some of the river cruises do indeed have bars to sell wine and beer. So if the casual boat ride itself is not enough entertainment, go ahead and booze it up!

You can book the river cruise here from our partners at Viator.

Sights From the Chicago Architecture Boat Tour

trump tower

Most tours work their way into the heart of the city. The Trump International Hotel and Tower is one of the first skyscrapers visitors are likely to see as they sit back and relax on the boat.

This hotel used to be a cool sight, although now seeing the building raises a lot of hot-button political feelings associated with its namesake.

Finished in 2009, the Trump was originally planned to be the tallest building in the world but was later scaled back.

At one time, it was the second-tallest building in the U.S., behind only the Willis (Sears) Tower, but as new construction continues, it has slipped to 7th place.

The Wilco towers – the Marina City complex composed of dual cylindrical towers – are even more impressive when you look up at them from river level.

wilco towers - chicago river cruise

I like how the two American flags add some color and somewhat of a regal appearance to this building.

flag building

The Wrigley Building has been standing high in Chicago since the 1920s. The giant clock on the south tower is nearly 20 feet in diameter, large enough for people to see it from far away.

Cool fact: The Wrigley was the city’s first air-conditioned building.

Here comes my favorite piece of Chicago architecture, the one on the left. It’s called the Carbide & Carbon Building.

Constructed during prohibition, the building (according to legend) was nefariously designed to look like a wine bottle, with a greenish terra cotta exterior with a narrow top highlighted by gold accents, which represent the foil on the bottle. Cool!

chicago wine bottle building carbide

The boat tours pass under several of the Windy City’s drawbridges.

kinzie bridge

You can get some cool views looking up from directly underneath the bridges.

under chicago bridge

Eventually, the tours head south and approach the Willis Tower, which towers over its surrounding skyscraper neighbors, even if some odd angles don’t quite make it seem that way.

willis tower

Even residential complexes look cool from the river. Everything looks better on a boat tour!

History of the Chicago River

For the history buffs, here’s some info about the river itself. This is the type of knowledge the guides may share on a tour.

The Chicago River, which flows 156 miles through the heart of Illinois, has a rich and storied history. Over time its role has evolved from being a “working river” to more of a recreational one – although barges and tugboats do still operate on the river.

For centuries, Native Americans used the Chicago River for fishing and transportation, and in the 18th century it became an important commercial shipping route.

As the city of Chicago grew during the 19th century, the river became increasingly polluted. Local politicians addressed this problem by reversing the flow of the river in 1900 using a series of canals and locks, a feat that is still one of the great engineering achievements in history.

chicago river

Today, the Chicago River has been transformed into a vibrant ecosystem full of native fish and plants, making it an excellent spot for fishing and boating.

The city has invested heavily in revitalization efforts over the past few decades, and as a result the Chicago River serves as an oasis of green in an otherwise urban landscape.

The river is dyed green every year to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. That’s always one of the most fun river events of the year!

Do yourself a favor when you visit Chicago and see the river up close yourself!

Would you like to try the Chicago Architecture Boat Tour?