The city's award-winning Riverwalk transformed the Chicago's riverfront from an industrial area for shipping barges to a waterfront oasis that's one of the Loop's most popular attractions.
From floating tiki bars to fine dining, architecture tours to kayaking, here are 10 things Chicagoans and visitors love about the Chicago Riverwalk.
1. Party island style
Photo: Ross Buchanan Moore
Island Party Hut Tiki Bar & Grill brings the tropical vibes to the Riverwalk. Set along a serene stretch of the Riverwalk, you'll find an island-style bar hut, a stage with live music, string lights, and a ton of outdoor games — corn hole, bocce ball, and the Bimini island ring game.
The Island Party Hut bar menu features all your island favs, including margaritas on the rocks and Mai Tais, complemented with bar classics like burgers, brats, and slow-smoked pulled pork.
Up the tropical vibes by taking the party out of the water. Hop aboard the Island Party Boat, aka Floating Tiki Bar, that departs from Monroe Harbor and the Riverwalk. The Floating Bar takes you on a cruise along the Chicago River, with island tunes playing and tropical cocktails at the cash bar. Cruises last 75 minutes, with tickets costing $30. Both afternoon and evening cruises are available. 355 E. Riverwalk South
2. Kayak down the Chicago River
For a big city, Chicago has a surprising number of outdoor spaces and recreation options. You'll find both on the Chicago Riverwalk, where you can paddle on calm waters through a skyscraper canyon. Urban Kayaks offers a range of kayak tours and rentals right on the Riverwalk.
Choose from a variety of guided excursions with an experienced guide — there's historic tours of the city, sunset tours, fireworks tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays, a nighttime tour that stops at Art on theMART, and more. Or rent your own kayak to explore the Chicago River on your own. You'll paddle under historic bridges, past bustling riverfront patios, and in the shadow of some of Chicago's most iconic buildings.
3. Take an architecture boat tour
Hear about the fascinating storied behind some of the city’s most iconic buildings Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises. Ranked the #1 tour in the city based on TripAdvisor reviews, this is the only cruise to partner with the Chicago Architecture Center. That means you'll find highly trained and passionate docents who provide a detailed narrative of Chicago's various architectural styles and the stories of the people who designed and built the city.
The 90-minute daily tour, which features indoor and outdoor seating and a full-service bar, departs from the Chicago Riverwalk at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive at southeast corner of the DuSable/Michigan Avenue Bridge. Check out ticket options.
4. Dine with a view
Photo: Odyssey Chicago River Experience
Odyssey Chicago River Experience offers up an elegant and supremely unique experience on the Chicago River. The state-of-the-art, glass-enclosed vessel offers upscale meals with 360-degree city views all year long.
The ship is the first to offer dinner cruises on the Chicago River. Diners are treated to a three-course plated meal surrounded by soaring skyscrapers and historic architecture. There's also an onboard DJ and dance floor. Choose from brunch, lunch, dinner, and cocktail cruises that all depart from the Odyssey dock between Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive.
5. Sip wine on a riverfront patio
City Winery is one of the hottest spots on the Riverwalk. They offer house-made wines on tap, local beer and modern cocktails, and full menu of Mediterranean eats, like cheese plates, salads, paninis, and more — all served on their scenic and spacious waterfront patio.
It's a popular spot to grab dinner al fresco, enjoy a glass of wine at happy hour, and people watch in the sun when it's nice outside. When the weather cools, City Winery brings out their popular heated River Domes to keep the wine flowing all year-round.
This is City Winery’s second Chicago location. Its original location is in the West Loop, where you’ll find their restaurant and fully functioning urban winery that's also a beloved venue for intimate concerts.
The menu at the Riverwalk location features best-selling items from the winery’s West Loop restaurant, while wine is served through a unique tap system to showcase the company's commitment to sustainability.
6. Explore public art
A combination of rotating and permanent public art transforms the Riverwalk into an open-air gallery. Among the most notable works on display is Art on theMart, a permanent large-scale lighting installation that runs across nearly three acres of the building's facade. The ongoing series of ever-changing works is on display from March through December each year.
Take a stroll down the Riverwalk and you'll find an array of pop-up art installations. One upcoming art work will beWeather Station, by the Chicago-based of renowned conceptual artists. Scheduled to be completed in fall 2020, the large-scale installation will include an array of seven slender, stainless steel towers of varying heights – each culminating in a wind vane and anemometer – collectively rising from the river bank to a height of 117 feet.
The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Plaza is also worth a visit, near the State Street entrance to the Riverwalk. It’s one of the largest memorials in the nation outside of Washington, D.C. and commemorates the 58,000 men and women across America who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. The space also features a fountain with 14 water jets, a waterfall sculpture of the Vietnam Service medal and seating areas.
8. Climb to the top of the Bridgehouse Museum
Photo: Ranvestel Photography
The 5-story McCormick Bridgehouse Museum is a hidden gem. Celebrating Chicago’s world-famous moveable bridges, the museum is also your chance to explore a historic landmark bridgehouse.
At river level, visitors can view the massive gears that move Chicago’s famous bridges up and down. As they ascend, they learn all about the Chicago River. Once at the very top, visitors are treated to magnificent 360-degree views of the city. (Note: Only the first floor is handicap accessible.)
8. Get eye level with skyscrapers
The Chicago Architecture Center (CAC), which opened its doors on August 31, 2018 as the new home of the Chicago Architectural Center, is the Riverwalk’s jewel in the crown. Housed at One Illinois Center (111 E Wacker Dr), the building was designed by Modernist genius Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and is located above the dock for the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise Aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises.
One of the CAC’s premier exhibits is located in the Skyscraper Gallery on the second floor, in a dramatic space with 40-foot windows overlooking the Chicago River and the Michigan Avenue Bridge. The exhibit, Building Tall, will be filled with supersized scale models of famous skyscrapers from Chicago and around the world, including a nearly 40-foot model of Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower, which will be the world’s tallest building when construction is completed in 2020.
9. Go fish
You can fish for free at the Chicago Riverwalk. You'll just need an Illinois fishing license and your own gear. Cast your line from the Riverwalk's fishing-friendly areas: Lake Shore Drive near the Lake Street Bridge and the Jetty at Wacker Drive between Wells & Franklin. Both are scenic spots to kick back and wait for a bite.
10. Bird watch on The Jetty
Photo: Caroline Staublin
You can spot tons of different species all along the Riverwalk, including ducks, ring-billed and herring gulls, rock pigeons, American robins, European starlings, Peregrine Falcons, and more. The Jetty, a cove featuring a series of piers and floating wetland gardens, is a good spot to start.
Audubon Great Lakes offers a monthly birding walk along the river every first Friday at 8 a.m. from July through October. Meet on the Riverwalk just east of the bridge at State Street and Wacker Drive, and bring your binoculars!