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Beat Kitchen Riverwalk
Photograph: Courtesy Beat Kitchen

The best things do to along the Chicago Riverwalk

Enjoy waterfront views, boat tours and top-notch eats at these Riverwalk destinations.

Lindsay Eanet
Written by
Time Out editors
&
Lindsay Eanet
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Ever since it was expanded in 2015, the Chicago Riverwalk has become a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. The waterfront attraction boasts cocktail bars, stunning views of the Chicago skyline and is close to some of Chicago's best waterfront dining. All four districts of the Riverwalk are open daily to visitors from 6am to 11pm, though restaurants and other vendors have their own hours. Some spots are just opening for season—so be sure to check the opening dates and whether or not you need a reservation. Without further ado, here are the best things to do along the Chicago Riverwalk.

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Top things to do along the Chicago Riverwalk

Floating Garden

Located in the Jetty portion of the Riverwalk (between Wells and Franklin Streets), the floating garden is made up of several half-submerged planters that contain wetland grasses and plants. The area is lined with benches and is usually much quieter than the sections of the Riverwalk to the east, making it an ideal spot to relax and enjoy a bit of nature in the middle of the city.

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  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours
  • Loop

This tour boat company, located near City Winery between the LaSalle Street and Wells Street bridges, offers rides on Chicago's first-ever cycleboat fleet (which, as you might have guessed, is powered by the pedaling of its passengers). Pedalers have a choice between a guided history, ghost or fireworks tour. The 90-minute or 120-minute cruise is BYOB, so don't forget to bring along along some beverages to imbibe while you pedal.

  • Restaurants
  • Ice cream parlors
  • Loop

One and one is two, six and two is eight, if you're looking for a snack on the Riverwalk, gelato tastes great! The Chicago River outpost of local chain Sweet Home Gelato offers countless flavors of the Italian dessert, which can be enjoyed in a cup, a waffle cone or as a float. Indulge in everything from bourbon butter pecan to chocolate raspberry to pumpkin pie. When the weather gets hot, don't hesitate to cool off in the Riverwalk's nearby splash pad after you've finished up your treat!

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The River Theater

When you see a photo of the Riverwalk, it's almost always of this tiered seating area (located between La Salle and Clark Streets), where you'll find visitors enjoying lunch, taking a phone call or gazing at the scenery. There's plenty of space to spread out, so find a spot under the shade of a tree and take a moment to relax while boat tours glide through the River in front of you. 

  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Loop

If you need a cocktail or a cup of coffee, you'll find both beverages on the menu at Tiny Tapp, a bar and café located in the Cove section of the Riverwalk (between Clark and Dearborn Streets). Grab a beer, order from the small food menu (which features a Chicago-style hot dog) and enjoy your meal—and sometimes live music—at one of the nearby tables.

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  • Mediterranean
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The Riverwalk outpost of City Winery is a condensed but faithful recreation of the Randolph Street restaurant and music venue, stocked with a great wine list and some of the best cuisine you'll find on the waterfront walkway. Guests can get in line for a table or order drinks and food from a walk-up window, with adjacent first-come, first-served seating. Throughout the summer, occasional live performances provide an opportunity to enjoy a scenic dinner and a show.

  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours
  • River North

The Chicago Electric Boat Company has multiple docks throughout the city (including one at nearby Marina City), but its Riverwalk location—located next to City Winery—is the only one that offers rides on the company's charming Retro Boat fleet. Constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, these small boats have been retrofitted with electric motors and can be driven by anyone with a valid driver's license, so long as you watch a short instructional video before setting off. 

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Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza

Dedicated in 2005 to honor those who gave their lives during the Vietnam War, this small fountain is surrounded by tiered seating and some patches of grass that form a peaceful oasis near the Wabash Avenue Bridge. Sit down and look across the river for some knockout views of the Marina City Towers.

  • Shopping
  • Markets and fairs
  • River North

Since 2019, a rotating cast of neighborhood vendors—including restaurants, artists and other small businesses—has populated the Community Marketplace on the Riverwalk, which aims to bring a taste of different local makers to a centralized downtown location. 

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  • Restaurants
  • American
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Beat Kitchen isn't the first Chicago music venue to open a satellite location on the Riverwalk—that distinction goes to Hideout, which launched a bare bones waterfront recreation of the historic club back when the Riverwalk opened in 2015. Following in the footsteps of its Roscoe Village namesake, Beat Kitchen Riverwalk serves a menu of burgers, tacos and pizzas in addition to hosting live music, including DJs and performers. It also boasts two tiers of seating along the Riverwalk and is always first come, first served, so don't worry about making a reservation.

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  • Streeterville

Wendella has had an outpost on the Chicago River since 1935, when it began offering the first architectural boat tour in the city. Nowadays, you can hop on a contemporary version of the same tour at the Wendella dock near Michigan Avenue, where you'll also find a host of other tour and cruise options. For a cheap ride, try the commuter- and sightseeing-friendly Chicago Water Taxi (located at Clark Street and Wacker Drive), which runs just $10 per ticket for a single-ride journey.  

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Ever wonder how the river's massive bridges move up and down for boat traffic? You'll find the answer to that question and much more at the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, housed on the Riverwalk within the historic 1920 Michigan Avenue bridgehouse. The five-story structure was converted into a museum by Friends of the Chicago River in 2006, displaying historic photos, maps and newspaper articles that illuminate the relationship between the city and the Chicago River. For an especially thrilling visit, stop by during bridge lift days during the fall and spring: You'll catch the museum's gear room churning away to lift the Michigan Avenue bridge.

Chicago’s First Lady Cruises

Just past Michigan Avenue, you'll find the ticketing booth and boarding docks for Chicago's First Lady Cruises, which offer tours of the river. The company's most popular attraction is the Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise that sends guests on a 90-minute trip across the water to learn all about the city's most famous buildings from a knowledgeable (and sometimes hilarious) docent.

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  • Bars
  • Gastropubs
  • Loop

The original North Center outpost of pioneering Chicago cider bar the Northman closed in early 2020, but the business's Riverwalk beer and cider garden is still pouring drinks. Sit down and enjoy an extensive selection of ciders and local craft beers, sausages, bar snacks like big, soft pub pretzels, and more. Located on the shaded eastern portion of the Riverwalk, the Northman is also dog and kid-friendly—we'll raise our glasses to that!

  • Bars
  • Caribbean
  • Loop

There are plenty of places to sip tasty tiki cocktails in Chicago, but there's only one bar that allows you to drink them next to a sizable body of water. You'll feel the tropical vibes once you see the fake bamboo trim and thatched roof of the Island Party Hut, where you can order a Mai Tai or an orange blossom blonde brew (in partnership with Moody Tongue). Want to get even closer to the water? Book a ride aboard one of the bar's double-decker Island Party Boats, which come outfitted with waterslides for swimming into the lake.

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  • Sports and fitness
  • Kayaking & canoeing
  • Loop

Take in the sights while paddling along the Chicago River by renting a kayak or embarking on a tour from this Riverwalk business. Urban Kayaks offers a variety of excursions, including tours that focus on the history of the city, a sunset jaunt and a short paddle for first-timers. Urban Kayaks also offers rentals that allow you to traverse the river on your own, as long as you're able to pass a basic skills assessment. Make a reservation online and show up ready to make use of your upper body strength.

Want to explore the local brewing scene but don't have a day to spare for taprooms and tours? Grab a table and relax under one of the Brewhouse's big red umbrellas and watch the world go by with more than a dozen local brews, the unsurprising star of the show at this spot. You'll find the big boys like Revolution and Half Acre, of course, but also more unique offerings from Forbidden Root, Funkytown and more. Chicago Brewhouse also salutes a selection of the city's many distinct neighborhoods on its food menu, with tourist-friendly street food-inspired munchies like an "Argyle Avenue Beef Bánh Mi," "Pilsen Street Tacos" or the "Lincoln Square Jumbo Pretzel."

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Take your time strolling the Riverwalk so you don't miss any of the stunning public art from local artists. They draw inspiration from Chicago, its people, its nature and its history, like Alberto Aguilar, who used CDOT traffic paint to create Echo Hecho Fresco, a large under-bridge mural echoing the flow of the current and the traffic along the river. 

Carolyn Ottmers' "Allium" sculpture pays tribute to the area's native plants (allium canadense is the scientific name of the wild onion that, according to local lore, gave Chicago its name). Popular street artist Dont Fret showcases the city through 55 distinct portraits, while Kate Lynn Lewis's The Radiance of Being is a colorful salute to art deco architecture. 

In the middle of the Riverwalk, near Michigan Avenue, you'll find Ojibwe artist Andrea Carlson's simple and powerful painted declaration, "You Are on Potawatomi Land," which she says is "a statement of fact. It is also a statement of perpetual belonging.”

  • Restaurants
  • American
  • Loop

Sit under a bright yellow umbrella, order from a menu of standard pub fare (burgers, wings, fried green beans) and sip a beer or cocktail at this riverside restaurant. O'Brien's hosts live jazz music throughout the summer, so make sure you get your name on the list for a table early if you happen to see a band tuning up.

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