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Why the Chicago Architectural Boat Tour is So Popular

By Alex Bean on August 16, 2017


Earlier this summer, TripAdvisor named the Chicago architectural boat tour the single most popular tour in America. That got me to wondering, what is it that makes it so popular?

Sometimes our walking tour guides are hired out to lead a Chicago River boat tour, often on a private yacht charter via Anita Dee Yacht Charters. But the tours from Chicago Detours are mostly either walking tours or cars by bus or sedan. They’re quite popular, but it’s fair to say we’re not number one in the whole country.

So, call it market research or just call it idle musing, but I wanted to think on what, besides discounted prices on Groupon, makes the boat tours so beloved.

chicago yacht charters river boat tour skyline chicago architectural boat tour

#1. The View from the River

The most obviously appealing part of Chicago architectural boat tour is the view. There are few other cities on Earth that can rival the density and size of our skyline. The city includes everything from long-famous landmarks like the Tribune Tower to brand-new wonders like 150 N. Riverside.  From down on the river, the skyscrapers soar hundreds, even thousands of feet into the sky. There’s a pure and simple pleasure in getting to sit back and enjoy such a sight, especially on a gorgeous summer evening.

I think being down on the water itself is part of what makes the view so magical. The streets and sidewalks of Chicago have been raised about 25-30 feet above the natural level of the ground and water. The buildings themselves hug close to the water in downtown. It looks for all the world like you’re passing through a gorge amidst massive mountains of steel, glass, and limestone when you travel down the river. So any spot along the river gives you a dramatic, low-angle view of these soaring, iconic structures clustered into artificial canyons. It’s easy to understand why that’s so popular.

#2. Boat Cruises are Relaxing

There’s a simple, tactile pleasure to feeling a boat steadily pull you along. I always find it very relaxing to step aboard a Chicago architectural boat tour and feel the slight bob and weave of the water. It returns me to the foundation of Chicago. 200 years ago, what would become this modern metropolis was just a swampy stretch of lakeshore with a small river weaving through. The river is one of our last remaining links to the landscape that Joliet, DuSable, Beaubien, or Lincoln would have known. In that slower, older state of mind, I can simply relax and passively watch the city go rolling past me when on a boat tour.

#3. Our World-Class Architectural Heritage

Not to be presumptuous, but I think the buildings themselves are a huge part of the appeal for a Chicago architectural boat tour. This city has become iconic for its architecture in the 146 years since the Great Chicago Fire. That disaster gave architects from all over the world a blank slate when it burned away the old core of Chicago. Into the breach have come some of the most famous names in 19th, 20th, and 21st century architecture: Daniel Burnham. Louis Sullivan. Holabird and Root. Mies van der Rohe. Fazlur Rahman Khan. Helmut Jahn. Jeanne Gang. The names go on and on.

Their physical legacy is the stunning array of buildings strung along the banks of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. The Chicago architectural boat tour lets you luxuriate in this architectural dreamscape. Oftentimes, the boat guides themselves don’t even need to impress anything onto the guests. The sights themselves do all the talking that’s needed. (It’s nice when you’re on a Chicago architectural boat tour during the fireworks, too). In fact, we notice when guiding tours with Tours and Boats that some of the guests don’t even understand English!

chicago architectural boat tour

#4. The Clever Engineering of Chicago Skyscrapers

That being said, a good Chicago architectural boat tour guide or docent will fill you in on a lot of cool details regarding how everything was built. Maybe it’s just because I’m an architecture nerd, but I love the engineering techniques that go into holding up a skyscraper. Take, for example, Khan’s ingenious design for the Sears Tower. According to the urban legend, he had been asked to design the building and took a smoke break to think about it. When he tapped the pack of cigarettes a bolt of inspiration struck him. Bundling discrete towers together like cigarettes in pack would make the building stronger, which enabled it to be taller. This “bundled tube” design enabled the construction of the landmark tower.

Facts like that fascinate and amuse me. They illustrate the inventiveness that’s required to create a world-class city like Chicago.

#5. What to Do After a Chicago Architectural Boat Tour

Join us for another tour, of course! We always like to say that our walking tours of Chicago are the perfect compliment to the boat tours. Our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour takes you into some of the city’s famous and overlooked highlights. Stepping into these buildings, and the also the underground Pedway system, after taking a boat tour gives you a more complete sense of the city. If your boat tour is finishing in the early evening, you can head straight to one of our evening bar tours. The Historic Chicago Walking Bar Tour and 1893 World’s Fair Tour with Bars each explore the city’s vibrant history and gorgeous architecture over drinks and games.

Or of course you can just grab a meal. River Roast is a great option with seating right along the river.

Here’s to seeing you on the water and streets of Chicago soon!

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


Chicago Detours offers guided walking and bus tours of architecture, history and culture to public and private groups. We are a passionate team of educators, historians, artists and storytellers, and are proud to be one of very few tour companies in Chicago that is rated five stars on both Google and TripAdvisor.


Call: 312.350.1131
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