Soaring skyscrapers, historic homes, magnificent churches, glamorous hotels—and that only scratches the surface of Chicago’s architectural treasures. Learn from the experts at the Chicago Architecture Foundation and discover the brilliant minds and incredible stories behind the city’s urban landscape.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the awareness and appreciation of Chicago’s outstanding architectural legacy, boasts a year-round calendar filled with tours, exhibits and programs.
Incredibly well-versed in the history and design of the city’s major landmarks, hidden gems and famed architects, the CAF docents will wow you with their extensive knowledge and interesting factoids. For example:
- Did you know the design of Willis Tower (nee Sears) was based on cigarettes?
- Or that there's an pedestrian tunnel system below ground called the Pedway?
- Or that the Monadnock building, located at 53 West Jackson Boulevard, was built with 100 different shapes of brick?
These “professors of architecture” are certified with hundreds of hours of training and will school you on all these fascinating tidbits and more. From the ever popular architecture river boat cruise and the Frank Lloyd Wright outings to the annual 2-day, citywide event Open House Chicago, you’ll walk away with an even greater appreciation for your surroundings.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation will inspire you to discover why design matters. On any given tour (they offer over 85 different ones!) you may traverse the underground Pedway, cross bridges covered in history, or rumble above and below the streets aboard the ‘L’ train.
They have all modes of transportation covered, so take your pick:
- Boat: In 1993, the Chicago Architecture Foundation began giving the Architecture River Cruise aboard the Chicago's First Lady fleet. Still running today, the river cruise is the #1 architecture tour in Chicago. The perspective from the famous Chicago riverfront is not only unique, but the experience is incredibly relaxing. It is definitely a must-do during the April to November tour boat season.
- Walking: Head out on foot and get up close and personal with Chicago’s iconic buildings. Pricing starts at just $10 and the offerings change daily so this is certainly one of the best ways to explore. Consider a walking tour of Tiffany Treasures in Chicago, the newest skyscrapers like Trump International Hotel & Tower (N. America’s tallest building) or the Art Deco Board of Trade building anchoring the “canyon” in the Loop’s financial district. The sampling goes from historic to modern, and when in season, you can even combine culture with cocktails on a weekday Happy Hour Tour.
- Bus/trolley: From the comforts of a climate-controlled ride, the all-season bus and trolley tours cruise to architectural hot-spots while you sit back and learn from the docents on board. Besides the fascinating, if not dark, Devil in the White City Companion Bus Tour that explores the serial murders during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, coach transportation makes it easy to head to River Forest and Oak Park for the Frank Lloyd Wright Neighborhoods Tour.
- ‘L’ train: Elevated over 20 feet above ground and with tracks that twist and turn between buildings, the Chicago ‘L’ system is a perfect mix of sightseeing and urban transit. Behind each train window is an architectural showcase with a constantly changing view. Look out and you may be passing gargoyles on buildings on the Elevated Architecture: Chicago's Loop by "L" Tour. Or perhaps it’s an office window or home with people looking back at you. On the Elevated Architecture: Chicago's South Side by "L" Tour, look down and spot the ethnic eateries and shops lining the streets of Chinatown.
- Bike: Take to the streets on two wheels. If you want to cover a lot of ground but prefer a more adventurous option over the standard motor coach, pedal at a leisurely pace with other biker/architecture enthusiasts. The 4- to 5-mile long bicycle tours ride to the lakefront or through the historic boulevard system known as Chicago’s “green necklace.”
- Segway: Zip through the beautiful lakefront parks with a CAF docent leading the way. The 2-wheeled Segway tour, available seasonally May to October, starts off with an orientation and training on the futuristic self-balancing ride with certified Segway Experience of Chicago staff. Then you’ll be guided past sites along historic Michigan Avenue, landmarks like Buckingham Fountain and scenic points near Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium.
Besides being a ticketing center, the CAF Shop & Tour Center at 224 S. Michigan Avenue has free exhibitions on thought-provoking facets of Chicago architecture on view year-round in three gallery spaces. You’ll find an eye-opening “miniature” Chicago—actually it’s the largest and most accurate scale model of the city ever made—at Chicago Model City, currently on exhibit in the Atrium Gallery.
PROGRAMS & EVENTS
CAF presents programs on design, preservation issues or time-honored architects and styles throughout the year, with some of the most popular including:
The major calendar event for Chicago Architecture Foundation is Open House Chicago, a behind-the-scenes building bonanza held in October. For design-o-philes and architecture geeks, having 48 hours and 150 places to explore for free equals heaven. Especially given that many of these sites are usually off limits to the public, such as the dramatic cupola atop the Jewelers Building, the Counselors Chambers in Chicago’s City Hall, and secret tunnels and rooms from Capone’s era hidden in a steakhouse restaurant.
In the CAF Shop & Tour Center, you'll find all things Chicago in the retail store, perfect for gifts and souvenirs. City skyline posters and prints? Check. Frank Lloyd Wright coasters? Check. Books and DVDs on Daniel Burnham? Check. How about a LEGO Willis Tower or a mousepad with Louis Sullivan designs? Yes, they have that too. Browse and buy online as well at caf.architecture.org/shop.
PLAN YOUR VISIT
Plan your visit with the Chicago Architecture Foundation and dig deeper into the city’s visually-stunning and ever-changing landscape. For the complete CAF tour schedule and program descriptions, visit architecture.org. Book your tour tickets online at tickets.architecture.org, in person at the CAF Shop & Tour Center or at Chicago's official Visitor Information Centers.