A Chicago architectural river cruise

Architecture. The city's landmarks are best viewed from the river.
Architecture. The city's landmarks are best viewed from the river. / SUR
  • Taking to the water is the best way to connect with this Midwest metropolis

It has one of the world's most extraordinary skylines; unsurprisingly, I suppose, since Chicago has been at the nexus of urban architectural innovation since the 1880s with the construction of the world's first skyscraper. However, the Home Insurance Building, at a modest 10 storeys, are well and truly overshadowed by today's towers that climb hundreds of metres towards the heavens.

Chicago has always been enamoured with building supertall structures. For many decades, from the 60s through to the 80s, the city was home to the world's tallest buildings, first with the 1969 John Hancock Center, and then the 1973 Willis Tower. Half a century later and these remarkable buildings look as innovative and striking as the day they were built.

Architects and engineers from Chicago are the talent behind some of the most celebrated towers on the planet, from Dubai's Burj Khalifa to New York City's One World Trade Centre.

Sightseeing cruise

As such, the city has emerged as a tourist attraction not only for its arts and music scene and cosmopolitan food culture, but also for its varied architecture. The latest trend for enjoying the city sights is to take to the water on an Architectural River Cruise, exploring the different branches of the urban river, and ending with a sunset voyage along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, one of North America's great lakes. This expanse of water is so huge, it's evocative of an ocean. Little wonder that in summer this inland city has a vibrant beach vibe.

From the deck of the tour boat you are afforded some of the best views of Chicago's most iconic buildings, each part of the city's journey to becoming a world city. It's a captivating perspective and brought to life by commentary from the architectural specialist onboard, giving fascinating insights on almost 50 structures including the landmark DuSable Bridge. Dating from the 1920s this Michigan Avenue bridge enabled the city's grand avenue to join the south and north sides of the city.

The Chicago panorama is widely recognised.


The Chicago panorama is widely recognised. / SUR

Around this bridge are four of the finest buildings of the downtown historic district, dating from the roaring twenties. First look out for the stone cupola atop the 22nd storey of the Alfred Alschuler London Guarantee & Accident Building. It's now part of the roof terrace of a swanky hotel that has breathed new life into this beaux arts tower.

Then look up to make out the intricate limestone detail of the 1922 Tribune Tower. It's a cathedral to journalism and best viewed from the river.

The Chicago Tribune newspaper headquarters was the result on an international design competition, looking for the "most beautiful office building in the world". The winning gothic revival design is evocative of European medieval towers, yet also has a distinctly Chicago grandeur.

Opposite is the unmistakable Wrigley Building. This sparkling white tower was designed and built for William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum magnate. It was modelled on the Giralda tower of Seville's cathedral.

One can also catch sight of 333 North Michigan Avenue, a slender 1928 Art Deco landmark, home to the Tavern Club that counted Frank Lloyd Wright as a customer.

Of course, the good times don't last for ever and Chicago, like so many cities across the west, suffered during the post-war years with urban issues, as residents left to the growing suburbs that promised less crime and more space.

Chicago was among the first cities to address the exodus of city residents. In the 1960s, the iconic Marina City residential and retail complex was built, the tallest residential towers of the time. Homes were being brought back into the heart of downtown. As one cruises past these buildings, one witnesses the pioneering spirit of Chicago and the renaissance in urban living.

An architectural tour by boat is a memorable experience that offers an original way to understand the history of the destination. It's also indicative of how Chicago is once again living in harmony with its river. Much of the downtown waterway and its riverside areas have now been reclaimed for residents and visitors.

Emerald river

So, in two weeks' time the Chicago river will be dyed. Yes, that's right, in celebration of Saint Patrick's Day and the Emerald Isle, the Windy City will make its urban waterway bright green! It's an annual celebration, when the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers add their secret (and non-toxic) powder dye to the waters that run through the city, making it the centre piece of the celebrations. Legend suggests these emerald waters will continue into the Illinois river, then the Mississippi that flows into the Gulf and the Atlantic where the emerald waters might just reach the shores of Ireland.

Much of the waterside has been reclaimed.


Much of the waterside has been reclaimed. / A. F.

Yet Chicago didn't always have respect for its river. During those early boom years in the nineteenth century, Chicago's river suffered contamination as the city grew rapidly. Matters got so bad that a vast project of canal building was undertaken. The engineers worked to change the rules of nature. They succeeded in altering the flow of the Chicago river - it was reversed. Instead of contaminating Lake Michigan, which was the city's source of fresh drinking water, the river was manipulated to flow into the continent's river systems and out to sea. What's more, the urban polluters were tackled head-on. The plumbers of the city used dye to identity where illegal dumping in the river was occurring. It was this use of dye that led to the discovery, and now tradition, of colouring the river for the Saint Patrick's Day Parade.


Walkways, terraces and gardens have been brought to the water's edge. Chicago's Riverwalk is now one of the city's most impressive attractions. Gone are remnants of a filthy shipping channel, and now street cafes, urban gardens and chic terrace restaurants reach out to the riverside paths, where joggers and walkers are in the very heart of the city's downtown 'Loop' area, yet away from traffic.

Each stretch of the Riverwalk has a distinct identity and purpose, from al-fresco dining, open-air performances, to sports like kayaking and fishing.

Water has been the means by which this city has flourished; it gave life to Chicago and connected it to the world. Now the city is giving back; and residents and visitors are thankful to have this urban artery in such good health.