There’s no better place to learn about the city’s dynamic history and amazing architecture than at the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC). Though established in 1966, the nonprofit organization opened this new riverfront attraction in 2018, designed by leaders in the field to occupy the base of One Illinois Center, where Michigan Avenue meets the Chicago River. The Center features nearly 10,000 square feet of galleries filled with super-sized models — and views — of iconic skyscrapers built over the course of more than a century.
Once inside, you’ll discover exhibits and begin an array of tour options through downtown, letting you experience Chicago’s architecture in person with guidance from CAC docents. (Additional tours through neighborhoods citywide depart from other locations.) The CAC’s online programs and virtual tours, launched in April 2020, provide convenient access year-round to stories of the city from wherever you’re most comfortable.
The Center’s two floors of spacious galleries feature engaging temporary and permanent exhibits. A good place to start is the Chicago Gallery, where visitors learn how Chicago became a proving ground for design and engineering innovation, helping cement its reputation as a city continually updated with cutting-edge architecture. The Chicago Gallery’s star attraction is the animated Chicago City Model Experience that shows the city’s growth, from before the Great Chicago Fire to tomorrow’s stars of the skyline, through a vivid light show, video presentation, and more than 4,250 miniature buildings.
Building Tall, located in the Drake Family Skyscraper Gallery, features super-sized scale models of groundbreaking skyscrapers in Chicago and around the globe. Find positive visions of the future in the exhibit From Me to We: Imagining the City of 2050, in which Chicago architects and thought leaders suggest how we can meet global needs for urban housing, infrastructure, environmental sustainability, and more. Before departing the Center, browse the CAC Design Store to find great gifts for all ages.
After exploring the Center, pound the pavement on one of the CAC’s acclaimed tours. Dozens of options include Chicago Architecture: A Walk Through Time and Mid-Century Modern, with deep dives into the backstories and details of iconic buildings and public spaces.
For a more exclusive experience, knowledgeable CAC docents are available to lead My Social Circle private tours for up to six family members or friends along any existing tour route. CAC Education staff are also available for 45– to 60-minute walking tours for up to six people. With content curated specifically for youth ages 8 and up, the whole family will enjoy learning how Chicago grew and why it became a global capital for great architecture. Custom, private, and family-friendly tour bookings are available via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From April through November, set sail on the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady. Named Chicago’s #1 boat tour by TripAdvisor, these world-renowned, 90-minute cruises are narrated by expertly trained docents who share compelling stories behind more than 50 buildings along the Chicago River. Each docent brings a unique perspective to these river cruises by sharing their passion for history and design — as well as their favorite anecdotes. Tour guests leave inspired by the city’s wide variety of architectural styles including Art Deco, Neoclassicism, Mid-Century Modernism, and Postmodernism.
CAC Events and Programs
Offered regularly year-round and hosted via YouTube and Zoom, the CAC’s online programs, virtual tours, panel discussions, and more help you think differently about where we live, work, and play. Get behind-the-scenes access to architectural treasures and author-led overviews of new books. Absorb design thinking and new skills while you spend quality time with your family. Participate in expert-led discussions about the latest urban design issues and learn what’s on the minds of civic leaders. Browse the CAC’s online events calendar and bring the fascinating world of architecture and design to your television or desktop.
Center visitors, CAFC River Cruise guests, and walking tour attendees are prompted to acknowledge and accept the organization’s safety policies.