Stretching out from the middle of downtown Chicago, just north of the Chicago River’s outlet, you’ll find Navy Pier. It’s about 50% historical landmark, 50% tourist trap, offering several museums and exhibit halls, shopping and restaurant areas, and of course, a giant Ferris wheel.
From Lake Shore Drive (US 41), you can take in this view of the Navy Pier and Gateway Park. It’s just a short walk from the bridge over the Chicago River to the pier.
Even if you walk right past the IMAX theatre, the remarkably large McDonald’s restaurant, and the historically-recreated carousel, you’ll probably end up taking a ride on the 150 foot tall Ferris wheel. This ride, as well as that carousel and a giant spinning swing, are all sponsored by McDonalds, with a marketing campaign that’s impossible to miss.
You’ll be able to enjoy a great view of the Chicago skyline as you rise above the Navy Pier. This is the view looking northwest, over the swing ride, the Pier’s convention halls, and in the distance, the Magnificent Mile district and Hancock Tower.
Back on the ground, you can walk the rest of the way out to the end of the Navy Pier (it’s about 1.5 miles long). At the end you’ll enjoy another great view back towards the city…
… and a view out into Chicago Harbor, which is mostly surrounded by a seawall. A lighthouse stands guard over the opening to Lake Michigan.
During my visit to Navy Pier, I must admit I was a bit overwhelmed by the incredible crowds. Most of the people on the pier were Polish, since the Polish Constitution Day Parade was being held in town that weekend. No, I’m not setting up some kind of ethnically insensitive joke, I’m merely explaining that on any given weekend, a big event can pack the pier with huge crowds, and can take away some of the enjoyment.
There are several cruises offered by tour companies, which all leave from Navy Pier. One of the most popular (and most expensive) is an architectural cruise, which takes you up the Chicago River, as a guide points out many of Chicago’s masterfully-designed buildings. There’s also a couple of water taxi companies which will take you up the river on a faster, and less expensive trip. I chose to try the Skyline Cruise, which provides a great view of everything from the Hancock Tower in the north, to the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium in the south.
On a bright, sunny day, as the sun begins to set, this is about the best picture you may be able to take. It’s still dramatic, though, to see the shadows of skyscrapers, all lined up in a row.
The Sears Tower is still a good distance away, since it’s positioned on the opposite side of the Loop. Even though the Aon Center looks largest here, don’t be fooled, the Sears Tower is still the tallest building around.