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The 7 Best Chicago Boat Tours

These low-key tours offer unique views of a city famed for its skyline.

U.S. News & World Report

The 7 Best Chicago Boat Tours

Tall Ship Windy.

Tall Ship Windy offers several kinds of tours to suit visitors of all ages.(Courtesy of Tall Ship Windy)

Note: Some tour providers on this list may have limited or ceased operations due to COVID-19. Check with your tour operator about availability before you book.

If you're hoping to see as much of Chicago as you can in a short amount of time, you may want to sign up for a boat tour. During each tour, you'll learn the historical significance of the skyline's iconic buildings while enjoying breathtaking views of the city. Considering traveler reviews and expert opinion, U.S. News selected seven of Chicago's best boat tours, ranging from a thrilling speedboat ride on Lake Michigan to a leisurely kayaking trip on the Chicago River.

Tall Ship Windy - Lakeside Architectural Sail

Tall Ship Windy's Lakeside Architectural Sail introduces you to the beauty and splendor of Chicago's famous buildings aboard the company's four-masted schooner. On the 75-minute tour, you'll learn interesting facts about the history of this renowned waterfront and its skyline, as well as the people who built it. Travelers love the experience, describing the crew and the schooner as incredible. Tickets start at $37 for adults 13 and older and $14 for kids 12 and younger. Tours depart from Navy Pier daily during the spring, summer and fall at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tall Ship Windy also offers trips that tell the story of Lake Michigan's pirates as well as sunset sails.

Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise

Hop aboard the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise for a 90-minute tour of the Windy City's spectacular skyline. With one of the Chicago Architecture Center's volunteers guiding your trip, you'll learn the architectural and cultural history of more than 50 of Chicago's iconic buildings. Boats accommodate up to 250 cruisers and are equipped with open-air upper decks, climate-controlled lower cabins and full-service bars. Travelers say this tour is not to be missed and describe it as a cool experience with spectacular views. Tickets start at $45 (plus tax) per person for a daytime cruise. You can also opt for the popular twilight cruise, which starts at 7:30 p.m., for approximately $50 per person. For an additional $5, you can gain access to the Chicago Architecture Center (which saves you $7 on center admission).

Seadog Cruises - Lakefront Speedboat Tour

This speedboat tour from Seadog Cruises departs from popular Navy Pier, taking travelers on a fast-paced, 30-minute ride along Lake Michigan's shores. During the tour, you'll learn about the history of Chicago and the landmarks that created its landscape. An expert guide will offer stories of lakefront landmarks while you cruise the Magnificent Mile for photo-worthy views of Grant Park, Sears Tower and more. Reviewers rave about the tour, saying that the views are superb and the speedboat makes for a thrilling ride. Plus, it's BYOB, so you can pack a beer or other libation for the ride. Tickets start at $27.95 for adults; children 2 and younger can cruise for free with a paid adult. The tour, which operates from March through October, departs hourly every day from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m.

Urban Kayaks - Historic Chicago Tour

Travelers angling for an active way to see the Chicago River should book this guided kayak excursion with Urban Kayaks. You'll learn about Chicago's contemporary urban landscape – and the historical significance of many of its buildings – while you paddle alongside an expert guide for 90 minutes. Reviewers enjoy seeing the city from their kayaks and say you'll pass beautiful and romantic views along the way. What's more, the tour is suitable for novice and experienced kayakers alike. According to travelers, you should expect to get wet and will want to dress accordingly. Single kayak tours start at $70.85, but you can book a double kayak for two people for about $140. Departure times vary by day of the week. If you'd rather paddle the lake, consider signing up for Urban Kayaks' tour along the lakefront, which leaves from Monroe Harbor.

Shoreline Sightseeing - Classic Lake Tour

Sit back, relax and take in the dramatic scenery of the Chicago skyline with this classic tour of Lake Michigan. The narrated journey, led by a local guide, will help you learn about Chicago's most famous buildings and how they came to life. This tour lasts 40 minutes, which is just enough time to take in the views and enjoy a cocktail from the cash bar. Visitors love the tour for the views and history lesson. However, they advise future riders to bring a jacket because it gets cold on the water. Tickets cost approximately $25 for adults ages 13 and up and $10 for children ages 3 to 12. Infants 2 and younger ride for free. Shoreline Sightseeing also offers architecture tours and evening tours in the summer that end with the Navy Pier fireworks display.

Wendella Boats - Chicago River Architecture Tour

This architecture tour makes it easy to learn about the buildings that make up Chicago's skyline, proving once and for all that they're more than bricks and steel. A professionally trained architectural expert will guide you through all three branches of the Chicago River while you discover the architectural mastery and design behind many classic Chicago landmarks. This tour lasts 75 minutes and boasts climate-controlled seating areas, a full-service bar with cocktails and snacks, and plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the views. Travelers rave about the tour, applauding the knowledgeable guides. Wendella Boats also offers sunset cruises and trips that tour the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Tickets start at $39 for adults and $18 for children ages 4 to 12, and kids 3 and younger ride for free.

Mercury - Urban Adventure Cruise

The whole family will enjoy this lake and river-based cruise, which takes you up, down and around Chicago's stunning shores. This scenic 90-minute boat tour introduces you to the rich history behind Chicago and some its most famous buildings, including the Willis Tower, the John Hancock Building and the Aon Center. Depart any day of the week at 10:15 a.m. or 12:15, 4:15 or 6:15 p.m. from late April to mid-October. Tickets cost approximately $35 per adult and $15 per child ages 5 to 15. Kids 4 and younger cruise free. Travelers find the tour informative and fun, albeit slightly touristy. Also check out Mercury's nighttime, fireworks and canine cruises, which are perfect for four-legged family members.

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