- Type: Architecture
NileGuide Expert Says:
If you are eager to learn more about the city, these tours are a pleasant and fun way to do so!
NileGuide Expert tip:
The boat tour is highly popular and fun, but for a more personal and slower experience, opt for a walking tour.
Chicago's architecture is world famous. Luckily, the Chicago Architecture Foundation offers first-rate guided tours to help visitors understand what makes this city's skyline so special. The foundation offers walking, bike, boat, and bus tours to more than 60 architectural sites and environments in and around Chicago, led by nearly 400 trained and enthusiastic docents (all volunteers). I highly recommend taking at least one CAF tour while you're in town -- they help you look at (and appreciate) the city in a new way. Tours are available year-round but are scheduled less frequently in winter.
One of the CAF's most popular tours is the 1 1/2-hour Architecture River Cruise, which glides along both the north and the south branches of the Chicago River. Although you can see the same 50 or so buildings by foot, traveling by water lets you enjoy the buildings from a unique perspective. The excellent docents also provide interesting historical details, as well as some fun facts (David Letterman once called the busts of the nation's retailing legends that face the Merchandise Mart the "Pez Hall of Fame"). The docents generally do a good job of making the cruise enjoyable for visitors with all levels of architectural knowledge. In addition to pointing out buildings -- Marina City, the Civic Opera House, the Sears Tower -- they approach the sites thematically, explaining, for example, how Chicagoans' use of and attitudes toward the river have changed over time.
Tours are $28 per person weekdays, $30 on weekends and holidays. In the summer (June-Sept), cruises run hourly from 10am to 3pm weekdays and from 9am to 5pm weekends (with more limited schedules in May, Oct, and Nov). The trips are extremely popular, so purchase tickets in advance through Ticketmaster (tel. 312/902-1500; www.ticketmaster.com), or avoid the service charge and buy tickets at one of the foundation's tour centers or from the boat launch on the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive.
If you want to squeeze a lot of sightseeing into a limited time, try Highlights by Bus, a 3 1/2-hour overview tour that covers the Loop, Hyde Park -- including a visit to the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House -- and the Gold Coast, plus several other historic districts. Tours start at 9:30am on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday April through November (Wed and Sat only Dec-Mar). Tickets are $40 per person.
A 4-hour bus tour of Frank Lloyd Wright sights in Oak Park ($40) is available on the first Saturday of the month from May to October. The tour includes walks through three neighborhoods and commentary on more than 25 houses -- but does not take visitors inside Wright's home and studio. A separate 4-hour bus tour ($52), on Tuesday at 9:30am (June-Oct), takes Wright fans inside the master's home and Oak Park's Unity Temple.
If you prefer exploring on your own, the CAF offers a variety of guided walking tours. For first-time visitors, I highly recommend two tours for an excellent introduction to the dramatic architecture of the Loop. Historic Skyscrapers (daily 10am) covers buildings built between 1880 and 1940, including the Rookery and the Chicago Board of Trade; Modern Skyscrapers (daily 1pm) includes modern masterpieces by Mies van der Rohe and postmodern works by contemporary architects. The 2-hour tours cost $15 each for adults and $12 each for seniors and students.
The CAF also offers more than 50 neighborhood tours, visiting the Gold Coast, River North, Grant Park, Old Town, the Jackson Boulevard Historic District, and even Lincoln Park Zoo. Most cost $10 and last a couple of hours.
The Wright Stuff in the Gold Coast -- Architecture junkies may want to visit the Charnley-Persky House, 1365 N. Astor St., in the Gold Coast (tel. 312/915-0105 or 312/573-1365; www.charnleyhouse.org), designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan in 1891. Free 45-minute tours of the interior are given on Wednesday at noon. A 90-minute tour of the home and the surrounding neighborhood is offered Saturdays at 10am year-round ($10); an additional tour is given at 1pm April through November. Reservations are not accepted.
- © Frommer's 2013
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Message from Chicago Architecture Foundation
Explore the outstanding architectural legacy of Chicago with the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF). Whether by boat, bus, bike, Segway, or on foot, CAF tours are led by highly-trained docents who share their passion for and extensive knowledge of our beloved city and its architecture. CAF offers more than 85 tours in and around Chicagoland 362 days a year. From the popular Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise to the bus tours which explore historic areas such as the neighborhood of President Barak Obama, CAF tours are a must for Chicagoans and tourists alike. Join us today and see Chicago like you never have!
- Architecture River Cruise
- More than 85 tours
- Free programs & exhibitions