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navy pier fountain
Photograph: Jordan Avery

The best things to do at Navy Pier Chicago

Find things to do at Navy Pier Chicago—from a children's museum to a top-notch theater

By Kris Vire and Zach Long

As one of the best attractions in Chicago, it's no surprise that there's an endless supply of things to do at Navy Pier. It's a miniature amusement park, a dock for Chicago boat tours, a massive food court and home to one of the best movie theaters in Chicago (a.k.a. the city's only real IMAX screen). It's worth it to wade through the cheesy souvenir shops and constant stream of tourists to explore the best things to do at Navy Pier. Hang out in a glass-enclosed garden, take a ride on a 200-foot Ferris wheel or just admire the skyline with some of the best things to do at Navy Pier Chicago.

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Things to do at Navy Pier
Photograph: Braden Nesin

1. Chicago Children's Museum

Museums Childhood Streeterville

Connect learning and playing through the engaging exhibits at the Chicago Children's Museum. Kids and parents can explore all three floors to encounter sensory experiences combined with literature, math, science and creative activities; dig up dinosaur bones; learn the ways of the CTA; send toy cars flying through a series of tracks; or show your creativity through arts and crafts.

Navy Pier
Photograph: Grace Allen

2. Navy Pier IMAX Theatre

Movie theaters IMAX Streeterville

Don't believe the misleading marketing being employed at theaters around the city—there's only one honest-to-god IMAX screen showing studio films in Chicago and it's on Navy Pier. Boasting a screen that measures 60 feet high and 86 feet wide, it's the most immersive way to watch a movie (especially if it's being screened in 3D).

Photograph: Steinkamp/Ballogg Chicago

3. Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Theater Streeterville

In less than 20 years, this unpretentious Bardic troupe moved from the back of a Lincoln Park pub to a mouthwatering, multimillion-dollar facility with a spectacular Lake Michigan view. (The main stage was modeled on Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre.) And in 2008, Chicago Shakes became the fourth Chicago institution to pick up the Tony Award for regional theater excellence. The main course here is Shakespeare, of course, but with detours into classics of every stripe, including the occasional musical. Some of the company’s best trimmings include the dynamic international programming presented under the World's Stage banner.

Photograph: Neal O'Bryan

4. Centennial Wheel

Attractions Towers and viewpoints Streeterville

Navy Pier’s Ferris wheel got a major upgrade for the pier’s 100th anniversary in 2016. The new wheel is nearly 200 feet tall and features enclosed, climate-controlled gondolas so it can operate year-round. If you've got the cash, you can rent the VIP gondola, which features a glass bottom and plush seating.

Photograph: Neal O'Bryan

5. Polk Bros Park

Attractions Parks and gardens Streeterville

Named for the family that owned one of Chicago's largest electronics and appliance stores, Polk Bros Park acts as the gateway to Navy Pier, providing plenty of sights to see before you join the masses queueing up for the Ferris wheel. The centerpiece of the park is the Polk Bros Fountain, where you'll find kids (and a few adults) cooling off amid the streams of water in the summer. When it's warm outside, the park also hosts a free jazz concert series and a lineup of outdoor film screenings.

Photograph: Courtesy of Xavier Vendrell Studio / Grimshaw Architects

6. Crystal Gardens

Things to do Streeterville

A six-story glass-enclosed atrium houses this botanical garden stocked with 80 palm trees, fountains that spit across a walkway and foliage. It’s available to rent for private events, but when it's not claimed, it's typically open to the public, making it a great place to relax in the sun with a book—even when the weather outside isn't so great.


7. Navy Pier, Festival Hall

Things to do Literary events

Navy Pier's massive exhibition hall spends much of the year playing host to conventions, but it’s also where you’ll find some of the best temporary and seasonal attractions, like the annual Chicago Flower and Garden Show and Winter WonderFest.

Amazing Chicago
Photograph: Courtesy Amazing Chicago

8. Amazing Chicago's Funhouse Maze

Attractions Arcades and amusements Streeterville

With a Ferris wheel, a carousel and plenty of fried foods on offer, Navy Pier has always seemed like a waterfront carnival of sorts, so it makes perfect sense that the attraction has its own funhouse. Amazing Chicago's Funhouse Maze can be found near the WBEZ studios, past the Shakespeare Theater and before the Riva Restaurant. Inside, guests will find a rainbow tunnel, a dark room filled with laser lights, a mirror maze and lots of black light art—there's no time limit, so feel free to take your time while you explore. Amazing Chicago's also offers two games called Time Freak and Atomic Rush, which challenge participants to enter a room full of buttons and hit them as they light up. It's good, old-fashioned fun (and cheaper than an IMAX movie).


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