Recommended Chicago River Architecture Boat Tour
March 21, 2023 9:54 AM   Subscribe

I will be in Chicago at the end of June, where I will be meeting up with a group of about 10 to 20 people (still in flux). We'd like to purchase tickets for one of the river architecture boat tours. There seem to be several different companies selling tickets. Is there one you'd recommend? Also, we'd like to do a group dinner after. Are there any restaurants you'd recommend near the end of the boat tour that are under $40 per person? Thank you in advance!
posted by cursed to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: With inflation, may be better to ask for restaurants that have dishes in the $20 - $60 range and include vegetarian options. Thank you!
posted by cursed at 9:58 AM on March 21, 2023

Wendella is the classic for boat tours, for sure. And Purple Pig is a stone's throw from the end of that one (they end where they began basically) -- might be challenging if the group is closer to 20 than to 10, but they take reservations, and have a decent variety in prices and portions and options.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:08 AM on March 21, 2023

I was always told the one run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation is better, the guides have more knowledge and obviously are into the topic. And your money would support their cause, of course.

Wendella is a touring boat company that has run boats on the river for longer and thusly claim they were 'the first', but their primary business is not about architecture.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:33 AM on March 21, 2023 [21 favorites]

I'd recommend the Chicago Architecture Foundation boat tour. I have not comparison-shopped (the 2-3 major tours are all supposed to be great), but have thoroughly enjoyed the half dozen or so times I've gone with the Architecture Foundation.

As recommended above, The Purple Pig is fantastic, but the price can sneak up on you, as it's more geared toward sharing plates. I think it would still hit in your range, and is a place I've taken guests and friends for a great dinner. I don't remember them taking reservations, but they moved a block or so to a much larger space a few years ago, so that may make it easier for your group, too.

Otherwise, it depends on how much you want to walk. You're down in River North, with a wide variety of spots there. I've enjoyed Ramen-San, though that may be difficult with a party that large. Xoco has great Mexican food (and is the quicker-service, more affordable sibling to Frontera and Topolobampo), but would also likely be difficult to be seated together. If you want an affordable working Chicago classic, The Billy Goat is maybe the single closest restaurant to the tours, is on lower Michigan (so less commonly traveled, but I think really interesting infrastructure-wise and fun to experience), and plays up their reference from Belushi-era SNL. I've been there with 10-15 person groups, typically just fine, though its busy-ness can swell pretty well.
posted by BevosAngryGhost at 10:44 AM on March 21, 2023 [5 favorites]

Check Hub 51 for possible big group crowd pleaser. It’s a short walk from river.
posted by Mid at 11:24 AM on March 21, 2023

I'll reinforce that the Chicago Architecture Center's tours are the way to go.
posted by likedoomsday at 11:26 AM on March 21, 2023 [2 favorites]

Another vote for the Chicago Architecture Foundation's boat tour. We did it and it was excellent.
posted by urbanlenny at 11:27 AM on March 21, 2023 [2 favorites]

Nth vote for the Chicago Architecture tour.
posted by mrphancy at 11:31 AM on March 21, 2023

Adding a vote for the Chicago Architecture Foundation tour. For afterwards, check out Beatrix -- there are two locations about a half mile from the river. The food is always solidly good, and their prices are not bad.
posted by Sparky Buttons at 12:15 PM on March 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

I took the Chicago Architecture Foundation tour one day (awesome!) then the next day I took the other boat tour, in which we visit some of the canals but we also go through the locks then bob along in Lake Michigan for a good spell. I took lots of Chicago skyline photos during the second trip, as well as photos in the locks.

Don’t miss the Foundation tour, it’s fun, interesting, buildings are named, architects (and schools of architecture) are addressed. Great photo ops. It’s erudite but not too much, delightful for those willing to learn about Chicago’s architecture and admire beautiful canals and buildings.

The second tour is like a cruise in a boat with a friendly acquaintance - major buildings are named, but not a lot of voice-over otherwise. The captain knows you are also there to enjoy the sun, the fresh air, the beautiful views while sipping a cold beverage and taking a breather in a relaxed atmosphere.

Very different experiences and I’m glad I did both. The tours also informed my reasons to visit some buildings and leave others for another time.
posted by seawallrunner at 1:44 PM on March 21, 2023

+1 for the Architecture Foundation tour being the answer (and if you're a fan of Museum-Style Gift Shops, check out the one they have in their office's building located on Michigan & Wacker, right above their boarding areas.) As for dining options, I've had good experiences at both Avli on the Park and MingHin in Lakeshore East (a weird little mini-"neighborhood" tucked away a couple blocks south of the river heading toward the park/museums; MingHin also has a north of the river location in Streeterville if you're heading that way).
posted by Someone has just shot your horse! at 1:45 PM on March 21, 2023

About 8 years ago, I did two Chicago boat tours on 2 successive nights, specifically to compare them: the Wendella tour one night and the Chicago Architecture Foundation tour the other. (CAF is now known as the Chicago Architecture Center.)

The CAF tour was superior, for what I wanted:
  • the tour guide spoke in detail without notes (pretty impressive given the depth of the recital) and was more knowledgable when answering questions
  • the guide did not just tell us the history of individual things we saw around us, but put them into a narrative about the history of the city, including economic changes, waves of migration and settlement, architectural innovations, etc.
  • I recall getting a bit more time on the boat for the same price

posted by brainwane at 2:47 PM on March 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

My brother was a docent for the CAF for some years: they require a ton of training to run those tours, and it's certainly a labor of love. Recommended.
posted by suelac at 5:03 PM on March 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

I've done the CAF Tour twice. Four thumbs up.
posted by bendy at 10:58 PM on March 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

I tried to do the CAF tour but missed it by a few minutes and took the Shoreline Sightseeing tour that's across the river from them. The guide was an architecture major and gave a good experience, similar to what brainwane described. I'd probably try for the CAF the next time I go but I'd also say that Shoreline is worth considering if you can't make CAF happen.
posted by Candleman at 11:35 PM on March 21, 2023

Response by poster: Wow--thank you! CAF seems like the way to go--and we'll do that!

Appreciate the food recs as well!
posted by cursed at 1:48 PM on March 22, 2023 [1 favorite]

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