Chicago Navy Pier Walking Tour, Chicago

Chicago Navy Pier Walking Tour (Self Guided), Chicago

Additional to scenic views of the lake, the boats, and the city skyline, the Navy Pier offers a variety of attractions on the waterfront – for kids as well as adults – that draw nearly ten million people annually, making this Chicago's most visited spot. Yes, some may see it as a “tourist trap”, but it is worth the time and money to spend some time here, so take this self-guided walk to make your visit easier to navigate.

Significant permanent attractions include the convenient and spacious Family Pavilion – home to the world-class Children’s Museum as well as the spectacular Crystal Gardens with their water features and gigantic plants under a dome; the ride up the Centennial Wheel with unbelievable views from above; seeing a play at the Shakespeare Theater (check to see what’s on!) or going through the Funhouse Maze (fun for most ages – even the ‘big’ kids will embrace it).

From May through October, the Miller Lite Beer Garden is Chicago's go-to destination for free, live, outdoor music performances. Couple this with free fireworks on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and you have a perfect free evening!

As an added treat, the Navy Pier Auditorium affords beautiful views over the lake in one direction and the Chicago skyline in the other – best taken in from the bright and airy Offshore Rooftop and Bar atop the Festival Hall.

Pick a day with good weather and join us on our tour around the Pier to make the most of your experience.
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Chicago Navy Pier Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Chicago Navy Pier Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » Chicago (See other walking tours in Chicago)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 7
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.0 Km or 0.6 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Family Pavilion / Chicago Children's Museum
  • Navy Pier Illuminarium
  • Centennial Wheel
  • Chicago Shakespeare Theater
  • Amazing Chicago's Funhouse Maze
  • Miller Lite Beer Garden
  • Navy Pier Auditorium
Family Pavilion / Chicago Children's Museum

1) Family Pavilion / Chicago Children's Museum

One of Navy Pier's main areas, the Family Pavilion is home to the popular Children's Museum, the Crystal Gardens indoor botanical haven, and a plethora of dining and shopping options. To add some extra flair, you might catch a lively troupe of actors donning pirate outfits or other whimsical costumes, delighting kids with entertaining skits throughout the day (check the posted schedule or go online for details).

The Chicago Children's Museum reigns as one of Navy Pier's top family attractions. After a significant makeover, it boasts a fresh, more spacious design while retaining its hallmark interactivity, age-appropriate exhibits, and boundless fun. With so many play areas and a jam-packed schedule of events and workshops, it's virtually impossible to explore everything in one visit. Highlights include the fire station zone (always a big hit!), the creative art studio (where kids craft their costumes to take home), the building station for architectural wonders, and everything in between: from climbing and scavenger hunts to sound-making and more. Maintaining a 1:1 adult-to-kid ratio is crucial here, given the multiple levels and the diverse exhibits catering to various age groups.

The nearby restaurant, Chef Art Smith's Reunion, offers an truly laid-back ambiance, and what's truly fascinating are the booth seats on the interior – they're crafted from denim, complete with authentic pockets. Moreover, the cuisine serves up genuine down-home cooking, offering delectable soul food that hits all the right notes.
Navy Pier Illuminarium

2) Navy Pier Illuminarium

A thrilling new addition is on the horizon for Navy Pier, courtesy of Illuminarium Experiences, set to transform the vast area that was previously occupied by the Crystal Gardens. By 2023 or 2024, a completely different realm will await beneath the six-story glass atrium.

This expansive 32,000-square-foot immersive entertainment venture will showcase cutting-edge technology designed to transport visitors to far-flung destinations. Featuring high-resolution interactive laser projection, 3D immersive audio, in-floor haptics, vibrations, and various scents, it promises a mind-boggling level of immersion that's truly unparalleled.

The first exhibit, "Wild: A Safari Experience", which has already made its debut in Atlanta, will bring guests face-to-face with some of the world's most exotic animals, allowing them to witness these creatures in their natural habitats. The next adventure, "Spacewalk", will guide visitors on a celestial journey through the solar system, offering breathtaking views of lunar landscapes and the surfaces of Mars. The space will also house a bar that mirrors the immersive audio and visual experience, whisking patrons away to various real and imagined locations across the globe.

Construction for Navy Pier's Illuminarium experience is currently underway, and the venue aims to open its doors in the near future.
Centennial Wheel

3) Centennial Wheel

One of the Navy Pier's biggest draws, the new and improved Centennial Wheel has become an iconic part of Chicago’s skyline and a treasured piece of the city’s cultural heritage. A Ferris wheel experience like no other, this remarkable wheel elevates you to approximately 200 feet above the pier, offering amazing views of the skyline and Lake Michigan in utmost comfort.

Debuting in 2016 to celebrate Navy Pier's 100th birthday, the Centennial Wheel features enclosed gondolas – two-sided cars in blue and white, with robust structures and safety glass designed to withstand winds of up to 115 mph. Inside, guests are pampered with amenities such as TV screens, speakers, plush seating, air-conditioning, and uninterrupted 360-degree vistas. Each ride lasts for a delightful 12 minutes, completing three rotations, allowing ample time to admire the scenery and capture fantastic citywide photos. For those seeking expedited access, a fast pass ($25) will whisk you to the front of the line.

Nearby attractions – the Wave Swinger, the Light Tower, and the Carousel – operate late spring through early fall, weather permitting.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater

4) Chicago Shakespeare Theater

For top-shelf professional entertainment in a beautiful venue, make your way to the Shakespeare Theater, a consistent host to world-class troupes that deliver unparalleled performances. Despite its somewhat incongruous location amidst hot dog vendors and cruise ship docks, the theater excels in presenting captivating dramas by the Bard and other esteemed playwrights, earning recognition as the best regional theater in the country with a Tony Award in 2008.

Housed in a visually striking building, it features two cozy theatres accommodating 200 and 500 guests respectively. The structure's multi-level glass corridors envelop the main performance space, shielding it from external noise and offering patrons splendid vistas. With dynamic scenes, exceptional actors, and acclaimed directors like Barbara Gaines at the helm, the Shakespeare Theater ensures an engaging experience for audiences of all backgrounds. The intimate setting even features a thrust stage that extends into the audience, surrounded on three sides by seating – guaranteeing excellent views from every spot, aside from a few located along the sides (best to avoid the balcony) and those extremely close to the front of the stage. Tickets are reasonably priced but tend to sell out quickly.

This theater may offer a Shakespearean experience that veers away from tradition, so expect modern scenery and costumes, along with a diverse ensemble of actors whose resumes typically extend beyond regional theater to encompass television, film, and stage productions in other major cities. This unique blend often complements the play, but don't be surprised if it adds a touch of whimsy – just join in the laughter with fellow theatergoers!
Amazing Chicago's Funhouse Maze

5) Amazing Chicago's Funhouse Maze

This mirror-filled, Chicago-themed walking maze takes you on a hilariously disorienting, 15-to-20-minute escapade. Brace yourself for twirling lights, comically startling sound effects, an assortment of quirky sections to navigate, and fresh perspectives on the city's history and landmarks. It's the perfect rainy-day diversion, and the best part is you can linger for as long as you like. Plus, they've got a few escape routes if you ever feel overwhelmed and need a quick exit strategy.

Extend your hands out in front of you to avoid unexpected encounters with glass and remember that bringing along easily startled youngsters aged 10 and under might not be the wisest choice!
Miller Lite Beer Garden

6) Miller Lite Beer Garden

From May to October, the Miller Lite Beer Garden at Navy Pier emerges as Chicago's go-to destination for free, live, outdoor music shows. When you add in the bonus of free fireworks every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, you've got yourself the perfect cost-free evening!

The music often kicks off early with more than one band and there is plenty variety of beers, cocktails and summer snacks to match. Recent renovations in the area have also widened the walkway making it more comfortable to stroll by the docked boats, and there are many places for the picnic lunch you've planned, as well as great views from tables looking out over Lake Michigan, dotted with boats of every imaginable size.
Navy Pier Auditorium

7) Navy Pier Auditorium

Constructed in 1916 and strategically positioned near the water for extra added enjoyment, the Navy Pier Auditorium comprises the Festival Hall and the Aon Grand Ballroom. While the former is tailored for trade shows and exhibitions, the latter – with its sweeping 80-foot domed ceiling and elegant decor – capitalizes on timeless architecture. Reminiscent of New York City's Radio City Music Hall, this massive structure is a sight to behold! As an added treat, visitors are treated to beautiful views over the lake on one side and the iconic Chicago skyline on the other – best taken in from the bright and airy Offshore Rooftop and Bar, perched atop the Festival Hall.

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