Chicago: Navy Pier & Skyline Cruise


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.

Navy Pier is located at the eastern end of Illinois Street.  Quite a few CTA bus routes provide stops at the end of the pier.  Consider hopping off the “T” at State Street and transferring to a #29 bus.

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.

Navy Pier was originally called the Municipal Pier when it first opened to the public in 1916.  It wasn’t originally built for Navy use, but rather, was given that name in 1927 in honor of those who served in World War I.  The Pier was used by the military during World War II, for pilot training–pilots which included the future 41st president, George Bush.

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.

Tickets for any single ride will cost $5, or you can save some money when you buy several tickets at once.  Details on the rides, prices, and many other facts about the Navy Pier are available here.

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.

Whether planning to take in the skyline from the Ferris Wheel, or aboard a skyline cruise (below), you’d be well advised to arrive in the morning hours.  By late afternoon, the sun sets behind the buildings, making photos less spectacular.

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.

In addition to the other attractions I’ve listed here, Navy Pier is also home to several other noteworthy attractions, such as the Chicago Children’s Museum, Shakespeare Theatre, and the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows (the world’s only museum devoted entirely to stained glass windows!)

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.

Skyline Cruise

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.

Shoreline boats (and other cruise companies) depart from the south side of the Navy Pier, near the mainland.  A warning, though, if you’re considering catching one of their water taxis at their Sears Tower dock: the exact location of the dock can be very difficult to find–there are very few signs.  Also, the taxi service only runs from May to August (and even though I visited at the beginning of May, they weren’t yet running).  

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