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.
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 –
Chicago Architecture boat tours
There are two types of boat tours you can opt from.
You can book a scenic boat trip along the Chicago River, or you can book a tour on Lake Michigan.
1. 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
2. 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
Chicago Architecture tour by speedboat
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 speedboat tour.
Besides the buildings, during this tour, you will also pass through the historic Chicago Locks and sail under numerous bridges on Chicago River.
Seadog Speedboat is an open-air vehicle.
Adults ticket (13+ years): 50 USD
Child ticket (2 to 12 years): 30 USD
Chicago Architecture tour by bus
This tour is offered by Chicago Architecture Center, the city’s leading authority on architecture.
During this three-and-a-half-hour tour, you will cover approximately 30 Miles (48 Kms) of the city.
Being a very special 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
Chicago Architecture walking tour
Many tourists prefer a walking tour to understand the architectural marvel of Chicago.
We have identified two of the best walking tours of Chicago.
1. Chicago Architecture Center’s walking tour
During this 90-minute tour, you will tour the lobbies of five opulent Art Deco skyscrapers on the banks of the Chicago River.
The guides are trained by Chicago Architecture Center, the city’s best authority on architecture. This ticket also gets you access to Chicago Architecture Center exhibits.
Adults ticket (12+ years): 26 USD
2. 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
Chicago architecture boat tours
When it comes to boat tours, 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.
In this section, we detail out the top five Chicago Architecture boat tour providers – Shoreline Sightseeing, Chicago Line Cruises, Wendella Sightseeing, Chicago Architecture Foundation and Seadog Cruises.
1. Shoreline Sightseeing – architecture tour for families
Shoreline Sightseeing has the city’s largest fleet – 11 boats and 6 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 tours 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.
Note: If you want to save money on Shoreline Sightseeing’s architecture tour of Chicago and other City attractions, check out Chicago Go Card
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 come from couples suggesting that the tour works out best for both 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.
2. Chicago Line Cruises – best architectural tours
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 Chicago Line likes to call ‘50 Cloud busters’ – the top 50 buildings of the city.
The Certified professional docent who host the tours ensure 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.
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.
3. Wendella Sightseeing – architecture tour Chicago
Wendella Sightseeing were the pioneers of Chicago’s architectural tours.
Wendella Sightseeing offers two flavors of the 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, 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.
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.
4. Chicago Architecture Center – boat tours
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.
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
5. Seadog Cruises – speedboat tours
Since Seadog Cruises specialise 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 if you are pregnant this tour isn’t for you.
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.
Chicago architecture tour hours
The architecture tours of Chicago usually start at 9 am and go on till 8 pm.
Depending on the tour you plan to book, their hours change.
The tour availability hours also depend on the season. For instance, during winters, the tours start late and end early.
Here is an operator wise information on their tour timings:
Shoreline Sightseeing’s boat tour hours
Shoreline Sightseeing’s tours start from two locations – 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.
In between these two slots, there are eight other timings you can choose from – each 90 minutes apart.
If you want a tour with a Spanish guide, you have only one option – the 9.30 am tour starting from Michigan Avenue.
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.
Wendella boat tour hours
During peak seasons Wendella Sightseeing’s river tours start as early as 10 am and go on till 9 pm.
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 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
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.
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.
Walking and bus tours
As a rule, these tours start between 9.30 to 5 pm.
Boat tour address
It is essential to know your Chicago architecture boat tour address.
With so many boat tour operators and so many different tours, it is easy to get confused.
We have provided below details of the docks (departure points) of the five best architecture boat tour operators in Chicago.
Note: You must reach the dock at least 30 minutes before the start of your tour.
1. 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.
Shoreline’s boat boarding line is at Navy Pier’s Polk Bros Park.
Their Navy Pier address is 600 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611.
Watch out for greeters in bright orange.
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.
Lookout for tour operator’s folks in bright orange.
2. 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.
It is a hidden branch of the Chicago River called the ‘Ogden Slip.’
3. Wendella Sightseeing 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 (also known as East 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.
Trump Dock (also known as West Dock)
Trump Dock is located at 401 N Wabash Avenue, at the west side of the Wrigley building on the Chicago River.
4. 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.
Watch out for the blue awning marking the stairway entrance.
5. 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.
Duration of Chicago architecture tours
There is no set duration for these architectural tours.
The duration of these Chicago architecture tours depends on many factors such as:
1. The mode of transport (regular boat or speedboat)
2. The route to be followed (number of buildings you will be seeing, stoppages, etc.)
3. The destinations (only river or the lake as well)
Having said that, the minimum duration of any architectural trip is usually one hour.
Most popular Chicago architecture tours by boat last one hour and thirty minutes.
Walking architectural tours usually last two hours.
Boat tours during rain
Usually, tours depart rain or shine.
Some boats are covered, and some aren’t.
If it’s a light 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.
In fact, 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 are parked in the dry docks by Thanksgiving.
There may be a few boats 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.
In all the attractions, you can skip the ticketing lines and thus save yourself a lot of time.