Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Things to do in Chicago - Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise

A Chicago city tour with a difference!

Ok I'll admit I know absolutely nothing about architecture and usually wouldn't be the first in line for an architecture city tour on my travels. But when researching what I should do in the Windy City, my Marco Polo Guide book had this pegged as the top tour in the whole of Chicago and "not to be missed" - so I was very intrigued!

When I arrived in Chicago I fell in love with the skyline immediately. I could look at it all day, it's really something special. It's one of the prettiest skylines in the whole world and I think it's so cool how it's ever changing and growing. One thing's for sure water plays a big part of the Chicago landscape; from Lake Michigan reaching out as far as the eye can see to the vast river running right through the city centre, the combination of water and architecture really does make this one of Chicago's truly unmissable tours.

When visiting the River Walk in Chicago you will notice that there is a lot of competition for river cruises, but the Chicago Architecture Foundation is who you want to go to. They are a nonprofit organisation, their mission is to inspire people as to why design matters - and for me, a complete design novice - they certainly succeeded. The CAF don't just do architecture cruises, they provide tours, exhibitions and youth and adult education classes to pursue this mission and their commitment shows.

This will be the 24th season of  of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, so they are no newbies. The tour is led by experienced CAF-certified volunteers who after hundreds of hours of training carry out a staggering 2000 cruises per season - these guys know their stuff and it shows. We had volunteer Barbara Dixon leading our tour, who not only fascinated us with the city history, she was also really entertaining and brought the subject to life for us.

The CAF River Cruise is the perfect way to take in the city skyscape and each and every cruise describes the history of over 50 buildings. You'll see and hear about the famous 108-story Willis Tower, (formerly known as the Sears Tower), Marina City, Merchandise Mart, Civic Opera Building, Aqua Tower, and beautiful historic buildings such as the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower, (shown below).

It's a spectacular experience, to escape the hustle and bustle of the city streets and to serenely cruise down the beautiful river, taking in the sights, sounds and smells, (yes smells, in this case that's a good thing - the cruise takes you past a chocolate factory which is mouth wateringly good!) in the birthplace of the American skyscraper.


It's not only Marco Polo and the other guidebooks who have this down as the best tour in Chicago, TripAdvisor named the CAF River Cruise one of the “Top 10 Tours in the United States”  in 2015, and it boasts the much coveted 5 stars in their customer ratings. Everyone I have spoken to during my time in Chicago have said, "Have you done the river tour yet? You must!" and after spending a beautiful 90 minutes cruising in the sunshine I can see why.

The vessels are fantastic, there is comfortable open air seating on the main deck which even in the heat of the afternoon lets you feel the soft breeze from the river, with a choice of seating in the bow of the boat and even a temperature controlled bar in the inside cabin. The bar is well stocked with a good choice of snacks, soft drinks, beers, wine, cocktails so you can truly experience the cruise in style, and they take both cash and card payments, (which I always find good to know!). I opted for a Wisconsin Summer Shandy - a perfect accompaniment to the sunshine.

The First Lady cruise line is fourth generation family owned, a very special thing indeed. Together with their parent company Mercury, Chicago's Skyline Cruiseline they are celebrating their 81st season on the banks of the Chicago river, meaning they have seen some drastic changes to the landscape of the city. I love that they recognise the importance of thinking green, and make sure all the vessels are carbon neutral and energy and environmentally friendly.

I would highly reccomend the river cruise for the whole family, you get to see the city at it's best in comfort, at a gentle pace, no exertion required, (which is always a bonus in my book!), and you can come away with a whole bunch of stories to make you feel like you really know Chicago from the inside. I have family visiting Chicago next summer and I've already told them that this should be first on their list of things to do in the city.

For more on the CAF or First Lady Cruises you can visit them online or in person just check out the the info below. I'd love to hear if you've been on the river cruise, or if you are planning on visiting Chicago soon, comment below or get in touch on my social links!

CAF is located at 224 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60604. For further information, visit or call 1-312- 922-3432

 Chicago’s First Lady dockside ticket office is located on the Riverwalk at Michigan Ave. & Wacker Dr., look for the blue awnings!)
. For more information, visit


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