Afloat and looking up in Chicago

by deehuff

Seeing Chicago, Illinois, from the river is completely different from seeing it at street level. You get a clearer picture of the city and the architectural tour displays its past through buildings

“The Chicago Opera House has been called Insull’s Throne. It’s said that Samuel Insull’s wife applied for a place with the New York Opera House, and was turned down. So he built an Opera House in Chicago and made it in the shape of an armchair, but facing west, so that he could symbolically turn his back on the New York Opera House.”

The tour guide paused for effect as the boat churned its way past the huge riverside façade of the Opera House, conjuring a spectral image of a giant seated on the stone armchair, fingertips curling over the edges and feet sinking into the river.

I was on a Shoreline Architecture Cruise of Chicago ( I bought my ticket at the Navy Pier kiosk and paid $24, but you can get cheaper tickets if you buy them online beforehand. As you board the boat a photographer takes your picture, and at the end of the tour one large and two small prints are available to buy for $20.

The tour guide, fellow tourists and the riverside scenery drifting past our boat reminded me of a scene from The Break-up where Gary Grobowsky (played by Vince Vaughn) finally achieves part of his dream by owning and operating a riverboat tour.

But back to reality: Our tour began at Navy Pier. The boat took us up to the south branch of the Chicago River, and then along the north branch. The buildings we passed ranged in style from the heavy brooding of the Old Post Office to the reflective lightness and brightness of steel and glass structures, with anything in between. ‘Corn Cob’ towers, stylish Art Deco, stone, brick and concrete structures with sharply-squared edges to fluid shapes that hinted at Gaudi.

The one-hour tour gave me a good overall picture of Chicago’s architecture and history. Seeing Chicago from the river is a completely different experience to seeing it at street level. For a start there’s the calm that comes from floating on the water, away from the bustle and racket of traffic. I found that I got a much clearer picture of the city without the visual obstructions that inevitably come from passing vehicles. There were also fewer distractions, meaning that I could focus more on my surroundings and on what the tour guide was saying.

Most people know Chicago by the nickname ‘Windy City’, but there is another nickname: ‘Second City’. This term was originally used in a derogatory way, but Chicagoans have adopted it with pride as an accolade for rebuilding their city after the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871.

During the Great Fire the entire business district of Chicago was razed to the ground. Out of the ashes the work began almost immediately, making use of steel and glass, and building high. It’s been claimed that the Montauk Building (built in 1882-1883) was the first building to be called a skyscraper.

Chicago once laid claim to the world’s tallest building, the Sears Tower, a record which is now held by Burj Dubai in the UAE. The Sears Tower has been renamed the Willis Tower, but the new name hasn’t really stuck yet.

It’s a modern and cultural city, and a great place to spend some time. As if to illustrate my thoughts, the tour guide ended the tour by pulling a harmonica out of his pocket and singing a ballad about Chicago. He managed to cram a great many civic achievements into the song, stressing Chicago’s ‘can-do’ attitude to problems. It’s a city that doesn’t give up, and if there’s a problem, then they fix it.

He sang of the Great Fire, the rebuilding of Chicago, and the river that runs backwards. Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention that the Chicago River runs backwards. But that’s another story.

Places to Eat

Navy Pier is a hub with shops and restaurants within themed areas, and tour boats parked alongside the whole length of the pier. There’s something here for almost everyone.

A good choice for lunch is Capi’s Italian Kitchen (, which is one of the first restaurants you see as you arrive at the pier. There’s a good selection of pastas for under $15, and pizzas for under $10. The food is freshly prepared and tasty.

Back on Michigan Avenue, a good place to eat is The Cheesecake Factory ( Located at the bottom of the John Hancock Center, this popular restaurant serves more than just cheesecake. A burger or pizza followed by a slice of cheesecake would set you back at least $18, but the food is delicious and the portions are large. After eating you could get a $15 ticket for the Hancock Observatory and look down on Chicago.

Places to Stay

Just around the corner from the John Hancock Center is the Ritz Carlton Hotel at Water Tower Place, a five star hotel with easy access to Michigan Avenue with its glittering array of shops. They offer a variety of packages, including ‘girls will be girls’, which promises a makeover, a gift bag, cocktail and a movie with popcorn.

Another excellent hotel just off Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile of is The Drake Hotel. This luxury hotel also offers package deals, notably one called ‘shop till you drop’.