Touring Chicago by boat

July 27, 2023

Touring Chicago by boat

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor

MI Travelogue is presented to you by House of Flavors Restaurant of Ludington, celebrating 75 years. 

CHICAGO — The Windy City’s architecture has always fascinated me, and there is no better way to view the magnificent skyscrapers than by boat.

I took an architecture cruise on the 22-feet-deep Chicago River via Wendella Boat Tours during a visit to the city last weekend to see my daughter, Sydney. I have visited this glorious city countless times, and the boat tour is one of my favorite Chicago experiences. Definitely a “must do.”

Reflections of other skyscrapers enhance the beauty of the structures observed along the river.

Tickets for the 45-minute cruises are well worth the price of $27 per adult. Kids ages 4-12 are $12. There is a 90-minute tour, and tickets are $42 per adult and $19 for kids ages 4-12. Children 4 and under are free for both tours.

Riding in the smooth-sailing passenger boat offers fantastic views of some of Chicago’s most beautiful and iconic tall buildings. There is a climate-controlled lounge on the lower level where you can buy a beverage to sip while you listen to the tour guide. My daughter bought us each a mimosa at $12 apiece for our 11 a.m. journey. As the tour guide, Jeanine, made her way up the stairs to the top deck, she greeted us with a cheerful, “Alright, ladies!” as she observed our tasty cocktails. We toasted to her, and then she quickly made her way to the bow of the boat to begin her energetic narrative. A teacher for Chicago Public Schools, she provided a fun learning experience for all aboard, including tips about restaurants and bars along the river.

The captain of the boat speaks briefly at the beginning of the tour followed by the tour guide’s presentation.

Wendella is located at 400 N. Michigan Ave. at the historic Wrigley Building. It has four dock locations that extend west from Michigan Avenue at DuSable Bridge to Wabash Avenue. We procured our tickets ahead of time, and I recommend buying your tickets online to secure your spot at the time you prefer to tour. Tours currently run all day from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., occurring about every half hour. Boarding begins 15-30 minutes before departure, and you should arrive a half hour before your departure time.

There are restrooms on the boat on the lower level. For those with disabilities, Wendella has the following statement on its website: “There are currently no access regulations for small passenger vessels, but we have made a concerted effort and reasonable accommodations to make our docks and vessels accessible where practicable.”

They offer tours year round, but they are weather dependent. You can take a Wendella’s Saint Patrick’s Day cruise to watch the world-famous river dyeing. Ticket sales for that party open in the winter and sell out quickly.

The weather for our expedition last Saturday could not have been better with a mix of sun and clouds and a light, pleasant breeze. 

Some of the world-famous buildings you see along the tour are the 100-story Trump International Hotel and Tower completed in 2009; the iconic 110-story Willis Tower (originally the Sears Tower) that opened in 1973 as the world’s tallest building — a title that it held for nearly 25 years; The wavy 101-story St. Regis Chicago (formerly Wanda Vista Tower) completed in 2020; and the 65-story Marina City towers AKA the “Corncobs” that opened in 1963 — just to name a few. Designed by architect Jeanne Gang, St. Regis became the tallest structure in the world designed by a woman and is the third tallest building on Chicago’s famous skyline. 

The wavy St. Regis Chicago is the tallest building in the world designed by a woman.

An aspect of Chicago’s stunning architecture that I have always admired is the city’s intermingling of historical and modern structures. You will also get good views of the famous Wrigley Building. The two elaborate towers were built between 1920 and 1924 to house the corporate headquarters of the Wrigley Company, and its bright white facade is covered in terra cotta. You will also cruise past the historic Civic Opera House, also called Lyric Opera House, which is the second-largest opera auditorium in North America and an art deco marvel featuring over 70 gargoyles. It was the inspiration for the building featured in Orson Welles’s film, Citizen Kane. You will also catch a view of one of my favorite Chicago buildings, the Tribune Tower. It is a 463-feet-tall 36-floor neo-Gothic skyscraper built between 1923 and 1925. The building’s main tenant since it opened, the Chicago Tribune, moved out in 2018, for the building to be converted to condos.

A skyscraper by architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill is planned for construction next to the Tribune Tower and will become the second-tallest building in the city – just short of the Willis Tower. Smith designed the world’s tallest structure, the half-mile-high Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and the building projected to surpass it, the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia. He was the senior architect for the Trump tower in Chicago.

Not only do you get a great taste of Chicago’s intriguing history as you look at its gorgeous structures, but you also learn some interesting details of more architectural feats yet to come in this growing city.

The historic Wrigley Building on the left and the Tribune Tower towards the center.

Photos by Allison Scarbrough and Sydney Scarbrough

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Allison, at left, and Sydney Scarbrough

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The Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower, was once the world’s tallest building.

The Trump International Hotel and Tower

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