A visit to Chicago is not complete without an architectural tour; the only question is... which one? Bus tours, boat tours, Segway tours, bike tours, and walking tours are all excellent ways to explore the city, and each approach offers a totally unique city perspective.
Architectural boat cruises reign as the No. 1 most popular way to explore the city's architecture, at least during the summertime. It's generally accepted that visitors who want more comprehensive learning experience attend either Chicago's First Lady Cruises or Chicago Line Cruises. Those who want a more lively, entertainment driven tour can try Wendella Sightseeing Boats, Shoreline Sightseeing Company and Mercury, Chicago's Skyline Cruiseline.
Whichever boat cruise you pick, the experience of the tour will be primarily a visual one. The pace of the slow-moving boat is not unlike panning in a film. As you sit in your chair and slowly glide by the skyscrapers, it's like a 360-degree movie screen surrounds you. Guides will share quick tidbits about buildings in just enough time to move on to another spectacular view of light glimmering off glass, or a stone art deco tower stretching to the sky.
For a more active boat tour and a closer connection to the river, you'll venture into a kayak. Urban Kayaks, Kayak Chicago and Wateriders are your options for kayak tours. Because you're down much closer to the river, the buildings will seem even bigger and the slower pace will allow for more eye-candy time.
For another experience of architecture in the macro sense, with wide skyline views versus up-close details, try a Segway sightseeing tour by Absolutely Segway, City Segway Tours, Segway Experience of Chicago or Steve's Segway Tours. These tours are mostly about the fun of zipping around while standing up, and part of the fun is flying by giant buildings. Absolutely Segway Tours offers a weekend architectural tour through Grant Park, culminating with the grand skyline view from the Museum Campus.
Like Segway tours, bike tours can cover a good amount of space in a short amount of time, all with the lake wind blowing through your hair. In addition to getting up-close with the sights and sounds of the city, part of the allure of the bike tours is the opportunity to explore the architecture of magnificent homes, schools, churches and parks of Chicago neighborhoods. Bobby's Bike Hike has a Lakefront Neighborhoods Tour that ventures along the more residential side of the Mag Mile to ultimately reach the tiny side streets of the Old Town neighborhood. You even get to hop off your bike and see the nooks and crannies of the neighborhood, namely the historic church. For architecture at night, their "City Lights at Night Tour" rolls by Gold Coast Mansions to the aforementioned Museum Campus view.
Bus tours of the city by companies like Chicago Trolley & Double Decker allow you to get a general overview of the city - and also possibly a tan - while viewing the architecture from the unique perspective of elevated above street-level. The Chicago Architecture Foundation's Highlights by Bus Tour zips by 30 miles of several neighborhoods for a comprehensive tour. Bus tours are the quickest and most general way of experiencing Chicago architecture.
The slowest and most in-depth way to explore architecture is of course by foot. Walking affords you the time to soak in the beauty of architectural detail of building exteriors and the possibility to step into magnificent lobbies and contemporary interiors. Architecture Joyce Walks Chicago ventures into neighborhoods like Chinatown, where you can gaze upon the Chinatown Gate or contemporary Chinese condos. Chicago Savvy Tours has a Signature Architectural Tour which brings guests to view various styles of buildings, from the Chicago Style to Beaux-Arts. The Chicago Architecture Foundation has a multitude of docent-led walking tours that visit anywhere from the mansions of Astor Street to the Palmer House Hotel to Wicker Park. A totally free option is with Chicago Greeter, a year-round service that offers visitors the opportunity to explore Chicago with an insider leading the way.
By Looking Beyond the Surface
For in-depth perspectives on actively visually engaging with our surroundings and how to relate to architecture, try my company, Chicago Detours. On both our Inside the Loop and Good Times Historic Bar walking tours, we venture inside buildings to see the inner-workings of the city, and also to experience interior spaces. To many architectural educators and critics, to relate to architecture we must also step inside because architecture can be as much about the spaces we inhabit as the structures that surround us.
Ultimately, your Chicago architecture experience is whatever you want it to be. Each mode of transport provides a unique perspective and the city's buildings are so incredibly striking that you won't be disappointed. Good luck on your exploration.
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