My father is an architect and for several years he was working on a project in Chicago. For those three years he traveled to the job site every other week to supervise. On one of his trips my mother tagged along and over the weekend they went on the architecture boat tour. They absolutely loved it and when I told them I was planning a trip to Chicago, they insisted I make time to do it.
On a side note, when your dad is an architect you spend at least one afternoon of every family vacation on an architecture tour. Last summer we went on the Bauhaus architecture tour of Tel Aviv.
On my second day in Chicago we had tickets for the 1:30pm boat tour with Wendella Boats. We walked from my friend's apartment in River North, making our way down Michigan Avenue toward the dock. For those who haven't been to Chicago, Michigan Avenue is like 5th Avenue in New York City. It is home to all the high end stores (and unfortunately, many chain stores).
We got to the dock about 35 minutes early and it's a good thing we did because there was already a line about 30 people deep waiting to board the boat. To be sure we secured great seats we hopped in line too.
We wound up sitting on the far left side of the boat deck. Since we were on the end no one could block our photo taking view (my number one goal). While we waited for the rest of the passengers to board we snapped a quick selfie.
With everyone on board it was time to meet our captain (on the left) and our tour guide, Jack. I loved Jack's big smile and his Crocodile Dundee hat.
Once the tour started the first building Jack pointed out was the London House. It's a luxury hotel with a roof deck at the very top that overlooks all of Chicago.
As we floated along we passed the home of The Chicago Tribune.
One of the best things about Jack was that he knew he had to play to a varied audience. While he did provide a lot of information on the history of Chicago and specific styles of architecture, he also paused to point out the Aqua building (pictured at the rear) where Lady Gaga has an apartment. Her fiancé Taylor Kinney is on the TV show "Chicago Fire" so she is in town often.
After hearing that there was a possibility we could have a Lady Gaga sighting, we started to make our way further down the river toward Navy Pier.
My Chicago hostess had pointed out Navy Pier the previous afternoon as we sped down Lake Shore Drive in a cab. We wouldn't have time to go there on this particular weekend, so I was happy I got to see it up close on the boat. Jack used the Ferris wheel as an opportunity to teach us about the World's Fair. Have you read "Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson? It's on my reading list now after this visit.
After Navy Pier, our captain turned the boat around so that we were facing the entire city skyline. Jack encouraged us to take a photo of the unobstructed view and I have to say, it was really gorgeous.
As we started to head back towards downtown we learned about the Trump International Hotel and Tower. The building opened in 2009 and at the time it was the fourth tallest building in the United States.
Later we passed two scalloped towers called Marina City. I had never seen buildings shaped like this before. Jack told us that "The Bob Newhart Show" was filmed in these buildings. Apparently Marina City is often featured in wide shots of Chicago in TV shows and movies.
As we continued down the river I started to notice several waterfront bars and restaurants. I thought City Winery and Tiny Hatt looked particularly cute. Jack told us that the city of Chicago has made a major investment in developing a public walkway along the water (the riverwalk) so that locals and visitors can enjoy more of the city's waterfront. You can read more about that here.
Next we cruised by 333 West Wacker Drive, a building made largely of glass, that beautifully reflects the city skyline.
Later on the tour we went by that same building again and it was cool to see the different shapes reflected in the glass from that new angle.
All throughout the tour Jack would point out special landmarks or details. For example, he primed us for a brief 10 second window when we'd be able to see a roof top sculpture in between two huge buildings.
While we were on the boat we zipped by Montgomery Ward Park where my friend takes her pup to the dog park. She was very excited that Jack pointed out one of her favorite local spots.
I forgot to write down the name of this next building (forgive me!) but it had an amazing piece of artwork on the side that was meant to look like the city of Chicago, the river and one single boat (that red rectangle jutting out).
Directly opposite that artwork is a building made of glass, so when you look at the glass building you see both the reflection of the art and the water as one cohesive look and it creates the most amazing effect.
Jack pointed out another building (that was under construction) where you could see a reflection in the glass, though this time it was a reflection of us! Check out our boat on the left hand side of the building.
In the final 10 minutes of the tour I finally got to see Chicago's most famous building, the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower). When it was completed in 1973 it was the tallest building in the world. The world! That title now belongs to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
One of the last buildings we saw was the Hard Rock Hotel which was designed to look like a champagne bottle. Check out the gold topper!
The boat tour lasts 75 minutes and as Jack would proudly tell you, he narrates 72 of them. We both adored Jack's spirit, zest for life, casual report with the crowd and sense of humor. He did an excellent job pacing the tour, pointing out small, special details and giving us a great history lesson on the city of Chicago.
My friend had been on the tour before but said she was really glad she did it again. I think it's similar to how I feel about the Duck Tour in Boston. I'm always happy to go because it's lovely to be outside and a great way to see your own city.
The Wendella Boats architecture tour is $35 dollars per person and is worth every penny. Be sure to pack water and sun screen and leave yourself plenty of time to get in line before boarding, at least 30 minutes if you want a prime seat.
Even if you're not an architecture nerd, this is a beautiful way to see the city.