In Chicago, you can find a wide variety of cuisines, world-class museums, numerous green spaces, lots of hiking near the city, and a colorful mosaic of neighborhoods. The city especially comes to life at the slightest hint of warmth after the long winter months. And one thing that definitely needs to be on your list of Chicago outdoor activities? An architecture cruise along the Chicago River.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise on the ships owned by river cruise company Chicago’s First Lady (CFL) is a sought-after attraction. The cruise is the only one narrated by certified volunteer docents from the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC).

The experience is like boating through an open-air museum during an architecture lesson about the skyscrapers, historic structures, and vibrant riverwalk that border the sides of the Chicago River. By the time you leave, you’ll be well-versed in Art Deco, mid-century modern, and postmodern styles thanks to firsthand examples all around.

What the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise is like

the chicago architecture river cruise boat

Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise

The route covers all three branches of the Chicago River, namely the main stem, north branch, and south branch, punctuated by bascule bridges. It runs up to the mouth of the river in the east and Goose Island in the north.

The tour showcases thoughtful design and engineering nuances of more than 50 buildings, including the flying buttresses near the top of Tribune Tower, the river’s reflection on the curve of the Kohn Pederson Fox building, and the expansive exterior of theMart that once had its own zip code.

Volunteer docents bring the cruise alive with their passion and knowledge of the city. Why does the river flow in reverse? Where did the name Chicago come from? How is that skyscraper standing with such a narrow base? What happened in the Great Fire of 1871? Docents like television host and producer Geoffrey Baer and author Ellen Shubart answer these questions through stories about the events and people that shaped Chicago and its river.

It takes almost 100 hours of training to become a docent, and there’s a good chance that they’ll have an answer to any Chicago architecture question that you could think of.

“I love to be able to talk about all these different facets (Native Americans, railroads, wind, engineering, and architecture),” Judith Kaufman, a CAC docent of the class of 2010, says. “Everybody hears what they’re most interested in.”

Once you’re back at the dock, walk over to the architecture center or Millennium Park to continue your daytime excursions. After dark, head to the Riverwalk opposite theMart and watch the world’s largest permanent digital art projection called Art on theMart to top off another beautiful day in Chicago.

Onboard amenities

architecture river cruise on the chicago river

Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise

Once aboard, head upstairs to the open-air deck for a panoramic view of the river, lake, and architectural landmarks. The seating is not assigned, so try and arrive 20-to-30 minutes early to find a good spot along the periphery. The upper deck is where most of the action happens, so you’ll want to come equipped with caps, sunglasses, and sunscreen plus appropriate outerwear in the cooler months.

Every now and then, you can take a break from the sunny deck to relax in the climate-controlled salon on the main level. Head to the full-service bar for snacks and beverages, including local offerings. There’s beer on tap, cocktails, and wine alongside coffee and hot chocolate. A handful of sweet and savory snacks like cookies and trail mix are also on offer.

There’s no fear of missing out on the engaging commentary and views inside, as the cabin has large windows on three sides and a PA system to keep you in the loop. Environmentally conscious travelers will appreciate CFL’s sustainability initiatives like the low-flush toilets located on this level and the use of biodiesel fuel on its vessels.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise: options, prices, and schedules

buildings seen during the chicago architecture river cruise

Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise

This year’s first cruise embarked on April 1st and will run until Indigenous Peoples’ Day in September or Veterans Day in November, weather permitting. Two-to-three cruises leave every hour starting at 9:00 AM with the final departure at 8:00 PM every night.

Tickets for the regular daytime cruise start at $51.96, while evening cruises start at $55.74 for adults or children aged four and above. Infants three years and under cruise for $23.62 at all times. Golden hour cruises are worth the extra bucks for stunning visuals of the river and its reflective surroundings in the soft, waning light.

A special 9:00 AM Saturday departure is catered to the needs of photographers for the usual daytime price. This cruise allows a freer movement of passengers and stops three times for added photo opportunities.

Visitors with accessibility needs can choose from specific times on vessels with wheelchair accessibility on the open-air bow deck, salon, and restrooms.

For an extra $5, you can add an entry to the Chicago Architecture Center right across the street, regularly priced at $14 for adults. It houses a striking 3D model of the city featuring more than 4,200 buildings with interactive audio-visual elements, among other changing exhibits.

Cruise tickets can be purchased online, at the dock, or at CAC. Online ticket purchase ensures a guaranteed departure and no line for ticket purchase but comes with additional fees of up to $14.41 per ticket (depending on the number and type of tickets). A portion of all ticket sales goes towards the architecture center’s STEM educational programs for children and teens.

Where the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise is located

There’s no better way to get around the heart of Chicago than boarding a bus or L train. The dock is down a flight of stairs on the southeast corner of DuSable Bridge at 112 E. Wacker Dr. Bus stops along Michigan Avenue or Wacker Dr. and train stations at State/Lake or Millenium Station are just a short walk away. Taxis and rideshare services will also drop you off at the upper level by the bridge.

From there, take the stairs with a blue CFL awning to arrive at the Riverwalk where ticket windows and docks are located.

If you prefer to drive, the nearest public parking is at LAZ Parking Service Garage (111 E. Wacker Dr.) right next to the Architecture Center. Parking validation at the CFL ticket office or with a bartender will get you a discounted rate of $14 for up to three hours and $15 for up to four hours.

An accessible ramp to the Riverwalk is located at Wacker Dr. and State St. There is also an accessibility drop-off on Lower Wacker Dr. on the same level as the dock.