Column: Visiting the Chicago River and the Navy Pier


Chicago has many excellent places to visit, any one of them justifying a trip to the nation’s third-most populous city. Today, we visit two of them – Navy Pier and the Chicago River for an architectural tour.

Navy Pier is Chicago’s second-most visited site (after Millennium Park), drawing about 9 million visitors each year. The pier, extending 3,300 feet into Lake Michigan, opened in 1916 as both a dock for ships carrying freight and passengers and a waterfront recreation site. Originally known as Municipal Pier, it became Navy Pier in 1927 in honor of Chicago’s World War I veterans. The name became literal during World War II, when the United States Navy used the pier as a training center, employing about 10,000 people on its 50 acres.

After the war, use of the pier for shipping declined and it was reimagined, opening to the public in 1995 as a place for dining, relaxation and entertainment. Among its most popular attractions today are the Chicago Children’s Museum, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a botanical garden, a large Ferris wheel and a drop tower. A variety of tour boats leave from Navy Pier, some offering dinner cruises.

The most popular cruises, departing from both Navy Pier and near the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, tour the Chicago River and explore the city’s history and unique architecture. Probably the most informative of these tours is run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The 90-minute tour includes a description of 50 landmark buildings visible from the river, including the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, Marina Towers, the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and the Montgomery Ward Complex.  Knowledgeable guides explain how the flow of the Chicago River was reversed to keep sewage from flowing into Lake Michigan and how some of the buildings along the river are perched above rail lines.