Self Guided Chicago Architecture Tours
If youd rather take matters into your own hands, you can always try out one of our many self-guided walking tours in Chicago.
Alternatively, you can combine these self-guided adventures with some of the other activities we have already mentioned above in order to make the best use of your time without spending too much money.
No schedule is necessary for these excursions, and you are free to explore at your own leisure.
Many of our self-guided walking tours focus at least some attention on architectural history, making them a perfect complement to any vacation focused on learning about Chicagos architecture.
We offer the following self-guided touring options:
- Navy Pier
- Wicker Park
- Downtown Theater District
In addition to these choices, you can also discover a lot of unique architecture by visiting locations such as Chinatown and Little Italy on one of our self-guided food tours.
To learn more about all of these wonderful activities, visit our list of self-guided Chicago walking tours.
Chicago Architecture Walking Tours
Whether you want to save some money or youd prefer to get some exercise on your trip, you might want to consider a walking tour of Chicagos architecture.
Stroll by some of the most notable buildings in the city and learn all about the history of their construction.
There are both free and paid walking tours in Chi-town, and most of them are very highly rated.
Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise Aboard Chicagos First Lady
#1 boat tour in Chicago according to TripAdvisor user reviews!
For more than 25 years, the Chicago Architecture Centers expertly trained docent volunteers have led the river cruise, sharing fascinating stories behind more than 50 buildings along the Chicago River. Hear how Chicago grew from a small settlement into one of the worlds largest cities in less than 100 years. In just 90 minutes, youll get the best overview of Chicagos architecture and its history.
Chicagos First Lady is committed to taking the proper precautions to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its river cruise guests and team, including ensuring that boats are cleaned and sanitized throughout the day and their service. Chicagos First Lady offers restrooms on board each vessel with running water and plenty of soap. Chicagos First Lady continues to follow the recommendations of public health officials and is monitoring the evolving situation.
Tickets start at $48.18 for daytime river cruise Tickets start at $52.91 for evening cruise
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Top Chicago Architecture Bus Tours
One of the best ways to see Chicago is to take a bus tour. There are several services that will drive you around the most architecturally significant areas of the city.
As you travel around Chi-town by bus, a tour guide will point out historically important buildings and tell you the story of their construction.
These architecture tours may be better for anyone visiting during the winter because they wont require you to be outside for very long, if at all.
Due to the fact that great and interesting architecture is everywhere, just about every bus tour in the city is at least partially an architecture tour.
If youre going on a trip with your family, it may be a better idea to consider one of these general excursions over an experience devoted to learning about how this city was built.
Below are some of the more notable.
Be sure to read our post which compares the best Chicago bus tours.
Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise
If youre looking for a well-informed tour, you cant get much closer to the source than the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
In partnership with Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, they offer a 90-minute guided trip down the Chicago River, providing detailed explanations of the construction and history of over 50 significant buildings.
History buffs, locals, and first-time visitors will love hearing how the Second City rose from the ashes to the major city that it is today from volunteer docents demonstrating enthusiastic knowledge and love for their city.
Many visitors recommend taking the Twilight Tour. For a few extra dollars, you will get to see the buildings lit up.
CAF also offers a special tour just for photographers, with three stops and assistance from volunteers to help you best capture the architectural achievements.
Duration: 90 minutes
- Tour Departure Times vary check the calendar here.
- CAF requires ALL passengers to have a ticket this includes infants and children.
- Missed tours may not be subject to refunds or exchanges on tickets.
- Tours take place rain or shine, but there are climate-controlled, covered areas of the boats lower level.
- Full bar and restrooms available on the boat.
- Boarding begins 15 minutes prior to departure time, and seating is general admission.
Location: GPS: 112 E. Wacker Drive
Conveniently located along Wacker Drive, look for the blue awning at the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue Bridge.
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Illinois Department Of Natural Resources
Are you an angler looking for a downtown spot to cast a line? Fishing is allowed on the Chicago Riverwalk and licensed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Please be sure to visit their website to get your license and view current information on fishing rules and regulations in the 2016 Illinois Fishing Information guide. Please make sure your gear and equipment do not obstruct the Riverwalk path for other users.
Chicago Architecture Foundation Bus Tour
In addition to their boat tour, CAF also provides an extensive architecture bus tour.
Clocking in at over 3 hours in length, you can rest assured that you will learn a lot about Chicago while on this adventure.
Over the course of this excursion, youll cover more than 30 miles of architectural history in the windy city.
If youre looking for a more educational experience, this is probably your best bet.
- $37 CAF members
Tour Length: 3 ½ hours
Availability: This tour is typically available at least once a week. Check their tour calendar for more information.
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About Our Boat Partner
Were proud to partner with Chicagos First Lady Cruises, operator of Chicagos finest fleet of cruising vessels. Its boats hold up to 250 passengers and feature open-air upper decks, full-service bars, climate-controlled lower cabins and upscale marble and granite restrooms. Being onboard is sure to be an experience you’ll never forget.
Why The Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise Is A Must
Ive developed a real soft spot for Chicago. Back before all this COVID stuff, Id flown up there every 2-3 months for work, and loved getting to stay downtown, a morning run on the river, a coffee and pastryI had a routine. And I found ways to play tourist on occasion. Over the past few years Id checked everything off my list except the famous Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise.
This is the one touristy thing that all my Chicago native friends insist is a must-do, and something they love doing themselves. That oughta tell you something! I am the last person youd typically expect to do tours , but I was convinced.
Other tips for your Chicago adventures:
I immediately fell in love with Chicagos beautiful and diverse buildings, but really only aesthetically. Ive only fairly recently started to understand the amazing architectural history the city can lay claim to, and the Chicago architecture boat tour really helped further my appreciation!
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Seadog River And Lake Architectural Tour
While Seadog is most well known in the city for their thrill rides , they also offer an architecture tour that combines lake views with your river cruise for an inclusive look at Chicagos skyline innovation and design.
Experienced Seadog patrons encourage you to arrive early with a pre-purchased e-ticket so that you are first in line to sit in the front half of the boat.
Remember to bring sunscreen, and always take the complimentary water offered!
Duration: 75+ minutes
Labor Day On The Mile
As summer comes to a close, check off those last minute bucket list items, and head to The Magnificent Mile! There is no shortage of dining, experiences, or things to do during your three-day weekend. Whether you are visiting for the weekend or live locally, we have rounded up Labor…Read more
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Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise Aboard Chicago’s First Lady
- Tickets start at $48.18 for daytime river cruiseTickets start at $52.91 for evening cruiseVISIT THE CAC FOR JUST $5 EXTRA!
- Northeast corner of Michigan Ave. and E. Wacker Dr. Look for the blue awning marking the stairway entrance, 112 E. Wacker Dr.
Chicagos First Lady is committed to taking the proper precautions to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its river cruise guests and team, including ensuring that boats are cleaned and sanitized throughout the day and their service. Chicagos First Lady offers restrooms on board each vessel with running water and plenty of soap. Chicagos First Lady continues to follow the recommendations of public health officials and is monitoring the evolving situation. Learn more about the CAC’s Covid-19 safety policies.
#1 boat tour in North America according to USA Today Readers’ Choice 2021 Awards! Looking for the ultimate Chicago architecture experience? Buy a combo ticket for the river cruise AND visit the Chicago Architecture Centeryou’ll save $10!
For more than 25 years, the CAC’s expertly trained docent volunteers have led the river cruise, sharing fascinating stories behind more than 50 buildings along the Chicago River. Hear how Chicago grew from a small settlement into one of the world’s largest cities in less than 100 years. In just 90 minutes, you’ll get the best overview of Chicagos architecture and its history.
Architecture Foundation Center Cruise
The architecture Foundation river cruise was fantastic. An amazing volunteer tour guide who was passionate and so knowledgeable. The stories and details about the stunning buildings made the whole experience meaningful and enjoyable.
In general, the river is a pleasant place to walk and sit . However, there are lotss of places to sit and watch. There are places to eat and drink or just to admire the skyline. The river itself is an interesting colour which make for exceellent photos!
The river has a walkway, kayak rentals, ferry boats and some really great places to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer out in the sun. Good restaurants along the river walk too!
This is a must to do go on the Chicago Riverwalk to explore downtown Chicago Skylines and bridges and restaurant.
We really enjoyed this tour, it was a lovely sunny afternoon with perfect weather. Our guide kept us entertained, gave us lots of history lessons and how many of the sites on the tour are tied into the citys heritage. Chicago is very beautiful and it was a great way to learn about the city. Highly recommend doing this tour led by a great crew.
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Chicago First Lady Cruises
Experience the official Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady, voted the #1 Boat Tour in North America by USA Today readers and the only cruise led by the Chicago Architecture Centers expertly trained volunteer docents. The 90-minute cruise reveals fascinating stories behind Chicagos majestic buildings in a way no other tour can. Each boat features open-air upper decks, interior climate-controlled salons and a fully stocked bar.
Cruising daily April November. Tickets available at dockside box office or in advance at ticketmaster.com/rivercruise. Private evening charters also available for groups of 2-250, please inquire.
Chicago Trolley & Upper Decker Company Tour
Much like the Big Bus Tour, this company also focuses its efforts primarily on providing a hop-on-hop-off service.
They dont have any tours specifically devoted to architecture, but youll have an opportunity to jump off at several different landmarks and explore the windy city for yourself.
Enjoy stops at Skydeck Chicago, The John Hancock Center, Millennium Park, The Magnificent Mile, and Michigan Avenue Bridge. Learn the history from hands-on experience at each specific location on this bus tour.
During the summer, they also have a tour package which will take you to Wrigley Field, Skydeck Chicago, The Chicago History Museum and the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Availability: Much like the other hop-on-hop-off bus tours, Chicago Trolley & Upper Deck Company provides services on almost every day of the year.
Click here to learn more about their tours and prices.
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% Off Chicago Architecture Center River Cruises
50% off Chicago Architecture Center River Cruises
3/16/2021 update: The Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise aboard Chicagos First Lady is expected to resume near the middle of April, exact date still to be announced. Chicago Architecture Center reopening I do not know if any of the following deals will be available then.
The Chicago Architecture Center River Cruises are excellent, extremely popular and quite expensive. If you buy tickets online from the CAC , depending on the day and time of the cruise prices are $63-$68 including fees for everyone except infants. Infants are $32. There are several ways to save money on tickets.
Island Party Hut Docks & Charters
Book a charter aboard Island Party Boats and enjoy the City from the water. Our entire Tiki Boat fleet has upper decks and water slides for swimming in the Lake. We also have 75 minute floating Tiki Bar Cruises that will take you on an Island Party through Chicago. You can also visit us by water and tie up your boat at our transient dock.
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What To Know Before Taking The Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise
- I strongly recommend the official river cruise from the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center its staffed by volunteer docents, and they will not even take tips
- Tickets cost between $46-51 plus Ticketmaster fees the tour is 90 minutes. It is recommended to purchase tickets in advance, especially in peak tourism time. However
- Weather makes a huge difference, and Chicagos is quite capricious. The cruise will be canceled if the weather is bad, but likely may still run even if a sudden fog rolls in. Whether to purchase ahead and how far in advance is a bit of a gamble.
- We went in the dead of summer, and it was nice to get out on the water and get some breeze. Sunscreen is your friend, as well as sunglasses because the sun reflecting off the water and buildings can be brutal.
- But it can also be cooler out on the water, so think about a jacket if youre going in spring or summer, and bundle up in winter
- It is open seating and first-come, first-served
- Theres a bar on the boat that sells a pretty decent selection of drinks and some snacks as well
- When we visited in July they were requiring masks at all times on board , and social distancing
There are a lot of pretty pictures in this post and Ill give you some teases of the actual architecture info, but also dont want to spoil you for the tour!
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