For many visitors to Chicago, the highlight of their trip is a boat ride along the breezy shores of Lake Michigan, that big blue “ocean” that serves as the city’s front yard. And the most popular spot to board a boat is Navy Pier.
Navy Pier, in fact, is Chicago’s—and the Midwest’s—most popular tourist attraction, drawing more than eight million people a year. The lakeside visitor magnet, best known for its giant Ferris wheel, offers more than 50 acres of parks, gardens, restaurants, shops, museums, theaters and exposition halls.
Originally opened in 1916 as a shipping and recreation facility and once a University of Illinois campus, Navy Pier, just east of downtown, is gearing up for its centennial with ambitious plans for redevelopment, including more green space. A key goal is to maintain the Pier’s family appeal while drawing more adults and year-round visitors with more dining and entertainment options and more public spaces that take full advantage of the Pier’s unique setting.
Despite all its attractions and activities, Navy Pier’s lure for many is the festive ambience along Dock Street, where vendors and street entertainers mix with pedestrians, skaters and surrey cycles. Visitors come to take in views of the boats, the skyline, the outdoor sculptures—and to just people-watch.
Shoreline Sightseeing this year offers new private tours aboard the Celebration. From spring through fall, groups of 30 to 70 can take a 90-minute breakfast cruise or two-hour lunch cruise. Shoreline also offers its popular one-hour Chicago River Architecture Cruise and 30-minute Skyline Lake Tour, with group rates for 20 or more.
For something less traditional, try Seadog Cruises’ speedboat tours. Its Extreme Thrill Ride, a 30-minute speedboat ride on Lake Michigan, provides roller coaster action at speeds up to 40 m.p.h. Everyone gets wet and windswept as the boat makes sharp turns and 360-degree spins.
Tall Ship Windy is Navy Pier’s resident 148-foot, four-masted schooner. Windy takes up to 150 passengers on 90-minute cruises and encourages landlubbers to help raise and trim her 11 sails. Theme cruises, educational adventures and private charters are available.
Dinner cruises, along with live entertainment or a DJ for dancing, are available on the yacht-like Odyssey, Spirit of Chicago and Mystic Blue, all part of Entertainment Cruises.
Student groups can choose from a wide range of other dining options at Navy Pier. Restaurants include Harry Caray’s Tavern, full of baseball and other sports memorabilia; Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Bar & Grill, for classic American and island-inspired cuisine, including the signature Cheeseburger in Paradise; and Billy Goat Tavern, made famous in Saturday Night Live skits starring the late John Belushi. Other choices: Capi’s Italian Kitchen, Riva Crab House, Haagen-Dazs Cafe and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. LandsharkBeerGarden, a summertime favorite, offers live entertainment.
Prepaid vouchers for fast-food outlets are priced at $6.50 per person for groups of 20 or more. Participating eateries include America’s Dog, Connie’s Pizza, McDonald’s and Greek Delight. For McDonald’s only, a $5 voucher is good for a Quarter Pounder, medium fries, cookie and 16-oz. soda.
Student group rates are also available for Navy Pier rides and amusements. Rates range from $4.50 for one ride to $12 for all four rides and the 18-hole miniature golf course. Navy Pier’s signature ride, the 15-story-high Ferris wheel, is modeled after the Ferris wheel built for Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. Other rides are the Carousel, Wave Swinger and Lighthouse drop tower.
Navy Pier offers top-notch entertainment year-round, from circus acts and Shakespeare to the 440-seat IMAX Theatre. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater, for example, is presenting the comedy A Midsummer’s Night Dream from Feb. 7-April 8.
From Feb. 17-26, Navy Pier hosts the Windy City Circus, a Chicago-themed Big Top show with aerial and trapeze artists, clowns, jugglers, and horse and dog acts. Cirque Shanghai, a troupe of Chinese acrobats, has been dazzling crowds for the past several summers.
The free Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows is a permanent display of 150 stained glass windows housed in an 800-ft.-long series of galleries along the lower level terraces of Navy Pier’s Festival Hall. The first museum in the United States dedicated solely to stained glass windows, it showcases both secular and religious windows and is divided by artistic theme into four categories: Victorian, Prairie, Modern and Contemporary. Dating from 1870 to the present, most were originally installed in Chicago-area residential, commercial and religious buildings. Thirteen windows highlight the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany and his workshop from 1890-1930.
The Chicago Children’s Museum, one of Navy Pier’s anchors, offers three level of fun for ages 10 and under.
Navy Pier also hosts a variety of expos. Reflecting the influence of high fashion on landscape design, the annual Chicago Flower & Garden Show will celebrate “Hort Couture” from March 10-18. Group rates and tours are available. The region’s only consumer show of its kind will feature an eye-candy array of floral and plant containers, horticultural and greening displays and stylized gardens, plus cooking demonstrations and celebrity appearances. More than 100 exhibitors of gardening, landscape and horticulture products and services will showcase sustainable and eco-friendly wares.