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Chicago Archiecture Center boat tour
Photograph: Courtesy Chicago Architecture Foundation

The 11 best Chicago boat tours

Get on board and see the Chicago skyline from the river or the lake on the best boat tours in town

By Zach Long
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Chicago's skyline is stunning from every angle, whether you're on the sidewalk, in the back of a cab or cruising through the Loop on a train. But one of the coolest ways to take in all of the amazing architecture is through a boat tour on the river or Lake Michigan.

With Chicago in Phase 4 of its reopening plan, boats that take visitors on trips across the lake and river have been able to reopen at 50 percent of capacity, with a maximum of 100 people allowed onboard. Many companies have also instituted more frequent cleaning, new boarding procedures and face mask requirements for staff and guests.

While it's important to be mindful of social distancing, you can still cruise the Chicago River, learn about the city's vibrant history, or eat dinner and snap photos on Lake Michigan. Even if you've already visited the best Chicago attractions, you'll appreciate seeing them from a new point of view on some of the best boat tours in Chicago.

RECOMMENDED: Find more to explore with one of the best things to do in Chicago

As safety guidelines are updated and schedules shift, we've done our best to include boat tours that are currently operating. If you have any questions about a particular tour, we recommend calling ahead.

Best Chicago boat tours

Chicago Architecture Center boat tour
Photograph: Barry Butler

1. Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise

Certified Chicago Architecture Center guides point out more than 50 buildings on this comprehensive and entertaining 90-minute tour of the city's riverfront that departs throughout the day and in the evening. All tours leave from the Chicago First Lady Cruises dock on the south side of the Michigan Avenue Bridge and are a great entry point to learning about the city's history and architecture. Plus, for an extra $5 you can gain admission to all of the exhibitions on display at the Chicago Architecture Center.

Navy Pier
Photograph: Courtesy Navy Pier

2. Shoreline Sightseeing Classic Lake Tour

Want to see Chicago from the water but don't have much time to spare? You can peep the skyline in just 40 minutes on Shoreline's Classic Lake Tour, which departs from Navy Pier and boasts some of the best views you'll find on Lake Michigan. The commentary on the city's architecture and history is pre-recorded, so you won't miss out on any information because your guide ran out of time (and if you've heard it before, you can sit back and enjoy the sights).

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Seadog
Photograph: Courtesy Seadog

3. Seadog Lakefront Speedboat Tour

If you balk at the idea of traipsing around museums and galleries all day, this whistle-stop boat ride is the tour for you. See every worthy Chicago landmark in 30 minutes on Seadog’s speedboat, which can sometimes feel like a floating rollercoaster. Launching from Navy Pier, the captain will efficiently guide you (with a running commentary) around Lake Michigan, past Museum Campus, Magnificent Mile, Grant Park and more. Seadog's lakefront tour is BYOB, so feel free to grab a cocktail from a vendor along the pier to bring along with you.

Odyssey Chicago River
Photograph: Courtesy Entertainment Cruises

4. Odyssey Chicago River Dinner Cruise

Enjoy a leisurely dinner on the water in the Odyssey Chicago River, a glass-enclosed boat that offers sweeping views on the skyline surrounding you. Departing from the Chicago River Esplanade near the NBC Tower, this cruise includes a three-course plated dinner, allowing guests to choose from entrees like braised beef short rib and pan seared Pacific cod (vegetarian and vegan options are also available). The 2.5-hour ride takes you down every branch of the Chicago River, with a cash bar and a dancefloor to keep you entertained.

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5. Shoreline Sightseeing Architecture River Tour

Departing from Navy Pier's Polk Bros Park or the northeast corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, this 75-minute trip packs in all of the architectural sights that visitors want to see. Tour guides highlight more than 40 towering Chicago landmarks, including 875 North Michigan Avenue (the former John Hancock Center), the Wrigley Building and the Aon Center. And if you need some refreshements while you're floating along all three branches of the Chicago River, there's a cash bar on board.

sunset chicago
Photograph: Jordan Avery

6. Spirit of Chicago Sunset Dinner Cruise

Maybe you can't afford a luxury cruise to some exotic locale, but you can probably swing the cost of admission to Spirit of Chicago's Sunset Dinner Cruise. You'll get the full cruise ship experience spread across three decks, including an all-you-can-eat buffet, unlimited non-alcoholic beverages and tunes from a DJ. Tours depart from Navy Pier and last approximately three hours.

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chicago, skyline, lake shore drive, lake, lake michigan, waterfront, city, shutterstock
Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Odyssey Lunch Cruise

Why settle for lunch at a land-lubbing restaurant when you could eat your meal on Lake Michigan? The Odyssey's lunch cruise includes a three-course meal and all the coffee, hot tea, iced tea and water you can drink. Visit the cash bar to buy wine, beer and cocktails and enjoy the views on this two-hour tour.

Wendella
Photograph: Courtesy Wendella

8. Wendella Chicago's Original Architecture Tour

If you're weighing your options, Wendella's architecture tour (which it claims is Chicago's original) is another way to explore all of the beautiful structures that line the river. Over the course of the 90-minute tour, you'll navigate all three branches of the Chicago River, while your guide fills you in on the stories behind some of the skyline's most prominent edifices. This tour departs from the Wendella Dock, located at the northwest corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge at the foot of the Wrigley Building.

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Chicago Electric Boat Company
Photograph: Courtesy Chicago Electric Boat Company

9. Chicago Electric Boat Company Tour

Want to be the captain of your own Chicago River tour? The Chicago Electric Boat Company will let you steer the ship yourself—you just need a valid drivers license and the time to watch a 10-minute tutorial. With docks in Avondale, on the Chicago Riverwalk and at Marina City, you can select a time, rent a boat and decide if you'd like to hire a personal tour guide or a captain for your nautical journey. There are various boats available, each with different capacities, so find what works for you and personalize your river tour.

Photograph: Courtesy Seadog

10. Seadog River and Lake Architectural Tour

Those with a need for speed and sightseeing will be right at home on Seadog's Architectural Tour. First, you'll hop on a speedboat for a guided tour of the city's architectural wonders, including the Lyric Opera and Willis Tower, and an explanation of how the Chicago River was reversed. After you've seen the sights, this 75-minute tour ends with a thrilling ride across Lake Michigan, where you'll zoom past Museum Campus and Grant Park. The tour departs from the Seadog dock at Navy Pier throughout the summer.

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sunset chicago
Photograph: Jordan Avery

11. Wendella Chicago Sunset Cruise

How do you end the perfect day of sightseeing? With the perfect sunset, obvs. Setting off from Wendella Dock (at the northwest corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge at the foot of the Wrigley Building), this 90-minute cruise will breeze along Lake Michigan as the glint of the sun on Chicago's skyscrapers is replaced by twinkling city lights. Wine, beer and cocktails will be available onboard, too.

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