As the boat inched slowly along the blue-green canal and the unrelenting sun deepened my tan, I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for being such a tourist. These days, it feels almost taboo to visit a new place and not sniff out all the under-the-radar neighborhoods and local gems (you know the whole traveler vs. tourist debate), yet here I was on a boat tour of the Chicago River – one of several “must-see” activities my mom and I gladly did while in Chicago.
We spent four days there, staying mostly in River North and the Loop, Chicago’s downtown business district, ocassionally venturing further for food, as I do.
I’m sure there were lots of great things I didn’t get to see – and maybe I will on another trip – but I totally loved playing tourist in this perfect summer city. Allow me to share a few highlights:
To walk through Chicago’s Downtown area is to walk past a never-ending display of historic and innovative designs that have influenced American architecture. From the iconic Wrigley Building to newer structures like 333 West Wacker and even The Trump Tower, Chicago is all about its architectural history and every street is a visible reminder of that.
ABOVE // Views of the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower from Wacker Drive. SECOND PHOTO // The gold leaf and green facade on the Carbide and Carbon Building stands out among a cluster of buildings.
For $44 a ticket, the 90-minute architecture river cruise was a perfect way to spend an afternoon, while getting a detailed history lesson of more than 50 buildings visible from the water. If you are looking for things to do in Chicago, I highly recommend this!
The Chicago River
Speaking of the river, this was one of my absolute favorite things about the city. Considering its early beginnings as a literal dump for garbage and human waste, the almost artificial-looking river with it’s gleaming aqua color is now a major draw for visitors and locals alike. In 1900, they reversed the flow of the overly polluted river so that it would flow away from Lake Michigan, which served as the city’s water supply. That, plus other major sanitation improvements, helped make the river what is today. Its beautiful color apparently comes from the combination of the lake water, the clay bottom, and algae, and seems to change depending on the sun and weather conditions.
Blue-green glass facades on some of the more buildings along the river reflect the water’s color for a striking show during the day.
ABOVE // 333 West Wacker was designed to mimic the colors of the Chicago River and the glass exterior reflects the skyline.
A vibrant pedestrian walkway runs along part of the river, offering great views and entertainment in the summer. The waterfront is still being expanded, but currently features live music, kayak rentals and various restaurants (City Winery is a crowd favorite for riverfront views). You can walk along the waterfront all the way over to Navy Pier, which also has dining options, plus a movie theater and a Ferris wheel.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Millennium Park, home to the famous Cloud Gate or “The Bean” as it’s more colloquially known. There’s something oddly fascinating about the giant metallic sculpture which reflects the Chicago skyline and also blends in perfectly with its surroundings. Yes, it’s a total tourist trap, but if you go at odd times like early in the morning or toward the evening on a weekday, it’s much more enjoyable. Either way, be prepared to feel like a big kid as you take a million pictures and interact with the sculpture in various ways.
There’s more to the park than just the Bean, though. With its intricate steel arches extending above the trees, the Jay Pritzker Pavillion is likely one of the first things you’ll see as you approach the park from various directions. It has stadium-style seating and an open lawn for concerts, outdoor movies, picnics and the works.
The park actually has a rotating display of exhibitions and art installations throughout the year, so I’m sure it’s never boring. Either way, it’s nice just having a green oasis among all the concrete and steel that is Chicago.
See more of the city in my Chicago Travel Vlog on YouTube. While you’re there, don’t forget to subscribe for more travel videos!
(Jay Prtizker Pavillion photo. All other photos by Jhaneel Lockhart.)