The skyscrapers and buildings of Chicago have helped shape American architecture.
Legendary architects from different periods have contributed to building the iconic skyline of the Windy City.
There are many ways to explore and learn about the architecture of Chicago.
In this article, we explain everything you need to know before booking your Chicago architecture tour.
Table of contents
- Best Chicago architecture tours
- Architecture tours by boat
- Walking tours
- Speedboat architecture tour
- Chicago Architecture Center’s bus tour
- Best Chicago architecture tour companies
- Shoreline Sightseeing
- Chicago Line Cruises
- Wendella Sightseeing
- Chicago Architecture Center
- Seadog Cruises
- Duration of Chicago architecture tours
- Boat tours during rain
- Boat tours in winter
- Chicago Explorer Pass architecture tour
Best Chicago architecture tours
Depending on your tastes and preferences, you have the option of booking a Chicago architecture tour on a boat, bus, speedboat, Segway, etc.
Or if you love walking, you can explore the city on foot as well.
We explain all the different types of Chicago Architecture tours available –
Architecture tours by boat
Tourists can choose from two types of Chicago Architecture boat tours.
You can book a scenic boat trip along the Chicago River or book a Lake Michigan tour.
Chicago River Architecture tour
This is a 75-minute boat tour best for those who want to understand the city’s architecture.
You will cruise along the Chicago River to discover architectural gems among the city’s renowned landmarks.
A local guide shares stories and anecdotes, keeping the atmosphere lively.
The boat passes more than forty buildings and sails under historic bridges.
The tour is available in English and Spanish.
Adults ticket (13+ years): 44 USD
Child ticket (3 to 12 years): 22 USD
Chicago Architecture tour on Michigan Lake
If you want more of a joy ride with a little bit of Chicago’s architecture thrown in, you must book this tour.
During this 40-minute classic tour of Michigan Lake, you get to see Chicago’s shoreline and its iconic landmarks.
Adults ticket (13+ years): 26 USD
Child ticket (3 to 12 years): 9 USD
Many tourists prefer a Chicago Architecture walking tour to understand the architectural marvel of Chicago.
We have identified two of the best walking tours of Chicago.
Chicago Architecture Center’s walking tour
During this 90-minute tour, you will explore the lobbies of five opulent Art Deco skyscrapers on the banks of the Chicago River.
Chicago Architecture Center, the city’s best authority on architecture, trains these guides.
This ticket also gets you access to the Chicago Architecture Center exhibits.
Adults ticket (12+ years): 26 USD
Loop Interior Architecture Walking tour
This tour happens within a loop created by elevated train lines and their station platforms.
The Loop contains the largest concentration of skyscrapers in Chicago, including the second tallest building in the United States – Wills Tower.
On the 2-hour walking tour, you get to understand the architecture of Chicago – from both inside and outside.
You also get to share iPads with never-seen-before drawings, maps, photos, and video clips of Chicago’s buildings.
Adult ticket (19+ years): 28 USD
Child ticket (6 to 18 years): 18 USD
Infant ticket (1 to 5 years): Free entry
Speedboat architecture tour
If you want to cruise on both the Chicago River and Lake Michigan and explore the architectural marvel of Chicago, look no further than the Chicago Architecture tour by speedboat.
Besides the buildings, you will also pass through the historic Chicago Locks and sail under numerous bridges on the Chicago River during this tour.
Seadog Speedboat is an open-air vehicle.
Adults ticket (13+ years): 50 USD
Child ticket (2 to 12 years): 30 USD
Chicago Architecture Center’s bus tour
Chicago Architecture Center, the city’s leading authority on architecture, offers the Chicago Architecture tour by bus.
During this three-and-a-half-hour tour, you will cover approximately 48 km (30 miles) of the city.
Being an extraordinary architecture tour, it is available only on Saturdays.
This tour also includes access to the Chicago Architecture Center.
Adults ticket (12+ years): 55 USD
Child ticket (0 to 11 years): Free entry
Best Chicago architecture tour companies
Some tourists prefer to know about the architecture tour operator before booking their trip.
They have heard or read positive reviews about a tour operator and want to book their tour.
Shoreline Sightseeing has the city’s largest fleet – 11 boats and six water taxis, and dozens of architectural guides, making it one of the most popular tour operators.
According to TripAdvisor, Shoreline Sightseeing’s architectural boat tours are usually the most booked in the whole of America.
With their state-of-the-art tour boats and well-trained guides, Shoreline Sightseeing presents the story of Chicago’s architecture in the best possible way.
If you are traveling with your family or want a laid-back excursion, look no further than Shoreline.
Shoreline Sightseeing’s tour timings
Shoreline Sightseeing’s tours start from Navy Pier and Michigan Avenue, and both have the same timings.
The first tour sets sail by 10 am, and the last tour sets off at 5.45 pm.
There are eight other timings you can choose from – each 90 minutes apart in between these two slots.
If you want a tour with a Spanish guide, you have only one option – the 9.30 am tour starting from Michigan Avenue.
Shoreline Sightseeing departures
Shoreline Sightseeing’s boats depart from two places – the Navy Pier and Michigan Avenue.
While booking your ticket, you can decide where you want to start their architecture tour.
Navy Pier: Shoreline’s boat boarding line is at Navy Pier’s Polk Bros Park. Their Navy Pier’s address is 600 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611.
Watch out for greeters in bright orange.
Michigan Avenue: This boarding line is by the Chicago River at 401 N. Michigan Ave. Chicago IL 60611. Head towards East of du Sable Bridge (Michigan Ave. Bridge) and on the North Shore of the Chicago River.
Look out for tour operator’s folks in bright orange.
Review of Shoreline Sightseeing
Shoreline Sightseeing has a high rating of almost 5 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor and 4.8 out of 5 on GetYourGuide.
Even though Shoreline Sightseeing offers a family-friendly atmosphere, a good chunk of reviews comes from couples suggesting that the tour works out best for families and couples.
Most of the reviewers felt the tour offered was either ‘Excellent’ or ‘Very Good.’
Many of the reviews contained the terms ‘great tour’ and ‘highly recommend this tour’ to describe their experience.
Note: If you want to save money on Shoreline Sightseeing’s architecture tour of Chicago and other City attractions, check out Chicago Go Card
Chicago Line Cruises
If the focus of your tour is to learn as much as possible about Chicago’s architecture, Chicago Line’s tours are your best bet.
The tour is on the Chicago River, and you get to hear stories about what the Chicago Line likes to call ‘50 Cloud busters’ – the top 50 buildings of the city.
The Certified professional docent who hosts the tours ensures you get stunning views of the buildings and gain a deeper appreciation for architectural design.
Complimentary refreshments and snacks, including Starbucks coffee and cookies, are available on all boats.
Hours of Chicago Line Cruises
Chicago Line’s Architecture tours start operating from 10 am and go on till 8.30 pm.
However, their most popular cruise is the one that sets sail at 2 pm.
Chicago Line departures
Many tourists think that Chicago Line is based at Navy Pier, but that’s not right.
Boats of Chicago Line depart from Illinois and McClurg, 465 N. McClurg Ct., and return to the same location. Directions
It is a hidden branch of the Chicago River called the ‘Ogden Slip.’
Review of Chicago Line Cruises
Chicago Line comes highly recommended by folks in the travel business.
Chicago Sun-Times called it “without question, the best architectural tour available in the city of Chicago. It is witty, informative, and engaging.”
And TimeOut Chicago labeled it the “Most engaging tour of the bunch.”
Chicago Line has a high rating of 4.5 on Tripadvisor.
This Chicago’s architecture tour operator received positive reviews from all travel groups – families, couples, and friends.
Many of the reviews contained the terms ‘great tour,’ ‘perfect duration’ and ‘great overview’ to describe their experience.
Wendella Sightseeing was the pioneer of Chicago’s architectural tours.
Wendella Sightseeing offers two flavors of architecture tours – the river-only tour and the river & lake tour.
This operator takes you through the heart of the city on all three branches of the Chicago River, even as the expert local guide enthralls you stories on 130 years of design innovation.
Their ships are all climate-controlled boats, and you won’t have to worry about rain or wind.
The best part is the full-service bar which serves snacks and a selection of beers, wines, cocktails, and soft drinks.
Wendella boat tour hours
Wendella Sightseeing’s river tours start as early as 10 am and go on till 9 pm during peak seasons.
The most popular Wendella boat tour is the one at 12.15 pm. Because both indoor and outdoor seating is available, tourists don’t mind the overhead sun.
The other favorite time slots are 3 pm, 4 pm, and 5.45 pm.
If you want to book a Wendella Sightseeing boat tour on both the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, your options are 10.15 am (most popular), 1 pm, 2 pm, and 4.45 pm. Book Chicago River & Michigan Lake tour
Wendella Sightseeing’s departures
Wendella Sightseeing boats set sail from their Michigan Avenue Docks located in the heart of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
They have two docks (look at your voucher to know where your boat will take off from).
Main Dock: The Main Dock is located at 400 North Michigan Avenue at the NorthWest corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, which is now called the DuSable Bridge.
This dock is on the Chicago River, at the base of the Wrigley Building, made of white marble. It is also known as the East Dock. Directions
Trump Dock: Trump Dock is at 401 N Wabash Avenue, on the west side of the Wrigley building on the Chicago River. It is also known as the West Dock. Directions
Review of Wendella Sightseeing
On Tripadvisor, Wendella Sightseeing has a high rating of 4.5 out of 5.
Even though the tour operator doesn’t differentiate, more couples seem to be booking this tour, followed by families and groups of friends.
Many of the reviewers used the terms ‘great tour,’ ‘great boat’ and ‘guide was very knowledgeable’ to describe their experience.
The guides also came in for praise for the interesting facts they shared about the Chicago buildings.
Chicago Architecture Center
Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) was earlier known as the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF).
This is why the architecture tours offered by Chicago Architecture Center are also often referred to as ‘CAF tours.’
Since this organization has tied up with Chicago First Lady Cruises for their boats, they are also known as ‘Chicago First Lady Architecture tours.’
Besides boat tours, they also offer walking and bus tours.
Chicago Architecture Center’s tour timings
The first Chicago Architecture Center’s riverboat tour starts at 10 am.
After that, every hour a boat sets sail – the last one at 5 pm.
After a two and half hour break, the Twilight cruise (the last architecture tour of the day) sets sail at 7.30 pm.
CAC tour departures
Chicago Architecture Center’s tours depart from Chicago’s First Lady dock at the Southeast corner of Michigan Avenue Bridge at Wacker Dr. Get Directions
Watch out for the blue awning marking the stairway entrance.
Review of CAF tours
Even though it is one of the most expensive architecture boat tours around, people rate it positively on Tripadvisor (almost a 5-star rating).
Most of the tourists who took this tour agreed that the CAC’s architectural boat tour was worth the price.
However, if you aren’t much into architecture or history, there is a high chance that you may find the guide’s discourse boring. Find out More
Since Seadog Cruises specialize in thrill rides, their architectural tours in Chicago come with a twist – they happen on speedboats.
The speedboats make it an exciting learning experience for all age groups.
However, if you are elderly with back or neck problems or pregnant, this tour isn’t for you.
Seadog architectural tour hours
The Seadog Speedboat architectural tour has morning and afternoon options.
If you prefer a pre-lunch tour, you can book the 11.15 am or the 1.15 pm architectural tours.
If you prefer afternoons or evenings, there are three timings you can opt from – 3.15 pm, 5.15 pm or 7.15 pm.
Seadog speedboat departures
SeaDog boat tours sail from Navy Pier’s Dock Street, located at 600 E. Grand Avenue, Chicago IL, 60611.
You can’t miss Seadog’s speedboats just below the Ferris Wheel and across from the Grand Staircase. Get Directions
Review of Seadog Cruises
Seadog Cruises is rated 4.5 out of 5 on Tripadvisor.
Families, couples, and groups of friends reviewed Seadog river and lake architectural tours highly.
Many of the reviewers used the terms ‘extreme thrill ride,’ ‘a lot of fun’ and ‘super fun’ to describe their experience.
If you would prefer a quiet and informative architectural tour, this isn’t for you.
Duration of Chicago architecture tours
Most popular Chicago architecture boat tours last 90 minutes, and walking architectural tours usually last two hours.
The duration of Chicago architecture tours depends on many factors such as – the mode of transport (regular boat, speedboat, walking, etc.), the route to be followed, the number of buildings in the itinerary, stoppages, is it the river cruise or lake cruise or both, etc.
The minimum duration of any architectural trip is usually one hour.
Boat tours during rain
Usually, tours depart rain or shine.
Some boats are covered, and some aren’t.
If it’s a drizzle, you may have to brave it and continue with the tour.
However, in cases of severe weather, the captain’s word is final.
If he/she says that it is unsafe to continue and cancels the tour, all guests are refunded.
TripAdvisor is full of reviews of tourists who enjoyed their architectural boat ride (or walking tour) even though it was raining.
Boat tours in winter
Even though winter is a great time to travel in Chicago (no crowd, lower prices, etc.), it is not the best time for architecture boat tours of Chicago.
The river freezes over every winter with a sheet of ice on it, making it dangerous for the boats to venture out.
This is why most tour boats get parked in the dry docks by Thanksgiving.
A few boats are listed as all-season tours, but we don’t recommend that because the weather won’t be conducive to being on the water.
If you are in Chicago during winter, the best option is the Loop Interior Architecture walking tour.
Our second best will be the three and half hour Chicago’s architectural highlights by bus.
Chicago Explorer Pass architecture tour
Did you know that with the Chicago Explorer Pass, you can book a Chicago architecture tour for free?
Chicago Explorer Pass is a discount card, which can get you around 40% discount on top Chicago attractions, including Shoreline Architecture River Cruise, 360 CHICAGO, Skydeck Chicago, Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus, and 20 other attractions.
Since the card has a validity of 30 days, you can pace your sightseeing.
You can skip the ticketing lines in all the attractions and thus save yourself a lot of time.
Popular attractions in Chicago