Chicago architecture cruises

We rate the city’s fleet of architecture river tours.

CAF River Cruise

An architecture tour along the Chicago River has become an essential item on any local or visitor’s bucket list. While a cruise can only scratch the surface of why the city is an architectural tourist mecca, it’s a great way to become more intimate with the skyline. Although the content of all the tour offerings is remarkably similar, there are subtle differences. On the days I went out, here’s what made some tours sink while others rose to the top.

Wendella; 75 minutes, $26, wendellaboats.com
The tour guide on the spartan Wendella exemplified one of the problems with the ultra-tight time frame. Like Ol’ Man himself, the river boat just keeps rollin’ along; unlike a land-based tour, there is no time to stop and absorb, and the tour guide barely takes a breath. Packing in facts and figures, names and dates, she kept it remarkably fresh and enthusiastic, even if she had a little trouble pronouncing some of the architects’ names (an architect might shorten Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum to HOK) and her explanation of what makes a building postmodern—just calling it “contextual”—was kind of befuddling.

Shoreline; 60 minutes, $24.70–$33, shorelinesightseeing.com
While all the tours featured practically identical scripts, the style and personality of the guides is key to the experience. My guide on Shoreline’s bare-bones Bright Star delivered a spiel that sounded more scripted and less extemporaneous than the competition. He exuded a kind of low-grade ironic hipster vibe. Amusing for a while, it eventually turned kind of smug (referring to the pride the city felt when the river’s water quality had been upgraded from “highly toxic” to merely “polluted” and that David Letterman had called the busts outside the Merchandise Mart “The Pez Hall of Fame”). It probably went over the heads of the group of eighth graders from Romeo, Michigan, onboard.

Chicago Architecture Foundation; 90 minutes, $35–$38, architecture.org
CAF began offering its river cruise in 1983. What really sets the oldest and longest-running cruise apart is the full 90-minute length, which allows time for some introductory background: about the river, the city and their place in architectural history. As such, my guide’s later references to names like Daniel Burnham and Mies van der Rohe, and concepts like air rights and the International style, had some context instead of feeling like disconnected sound bites. And not that it matters much on a short cruise, but the First Lady is a finer boat than the others: Its saloon is fully enclosed and has a complete HVAC system, and the restrooms are the nicest.

Chicago Line; 90 minutes, $40, chicagoline.com
Our guide had plenty of enthusiasm and personality—she gave us the full compendium of quirky factoids and covered all the appropriate bases. But of all the presentations, hers seemed the least polished and most in need of a more consistent narrative. She also gave some unfortunate misinformation—saying the Lyric Opera rents the theater space at the Civic Opera House that it actually owns. If you don’t mind being out of earshot of the tour, try free lemonade, coffee and cookies served below.

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