The still-expanding Chicago Riverwalk brings an exciting new buzz to the river, both in and around it. Take a stroll, grab a meal, meet for drinks, hop a boat tour or just pick a spot and soak up the sun and the stellar people-watching. Find out where to join the action along the city's hottest warm-weather destination. Starting with the many restaurants.
Dining Along the River
By the looks of things now, you’d think Chicago has always had a vibrant riverfront, with bustling riverfront restaurants and bars. Nope. Although the late Hyatt CEO and civic supporter Donald J. DePorter envisioned a riverwalk back in 1989 when he opened a café there and in 1992 founded the Riverwalk Marketing Association in 1992, support waned after DePorter’s passing in 1996. Until about a decade ago when renewed enthusiasm grew for a revitalized riverfront—and now we’ve got it. Mayor Emanuel calls it the “next recreational frontier.” So, let’s recreate!
Starting with the tropical-themed Island Party Hut (355 Chicago Riverwalk, 312.600.0488, islandpartyhut.com), arguably the rowdiest of the river bars. It serves rum-laden drinks and attracts a tank top-wearing crowd that grooves to live island music most Thursday through Sunday nights. Rivaling that is Dick’s Last Resort, known for buckets of heart-stopping ribs and fried things, souvenir glasses for slushy cocktails, and joke-cracking servers. Longtime Old Town watering hole O’Brien’s (45 Chicago Riverwalk, 312.787.3131) has a riverfront outpost as well, serving up its solid burgers and beer menu.
Higher-end imbibing can be had at City Winery’s river spot (11 Chicago Riverwalk, 312.229.5593), offering six wines on tap. Smith & Wollensky boasts both indoor and patio river views for steaks and seafood. Or go for spot-on beet salad and tableside-carved roasts, along with a blues brunch, at River Roast.
River Recreation: Things to Do at the Chicago Riverwalk
Unlike Lake Michigan, no one expects to go swimming in the river, but the fairly calm waters make it great for river activities. Seadog Cruises is known for its high-speed, wind-in-your-hair, mist-in-your-eyes jaunts across the lake, and their River and Lake Chicago Architecture Tour includes that, plus a trek through the river locks and entertaining talk about the architecture. Or get some exercise by renting or taking a guided tour by kayak or stand-up paddle board from Kayak Chicago, which pushes off slightly northwest of downtown, meaning you see the skyline from afar before paddling through its architectural canyons. Or start in the hub of action with Urban Kayaks (312.965.0035, urbankayaks.com) whose tours like the Paddle & Pints Tour starts at the Riverwalk at Columbus Parkway. For a mere $10 ($8 weekday), an all-day pass for Wendella's bright yellow Water Taxi (312.337.1446, chicagowatertaxi.com) is a steal, floating you past sights along the river from Chinatown to North Avenue to the Magnificent Mile. The Chicago Electric Boat Company gives renters the captain seat in easy-to-steer vessels seating up to 12.
Secret River Museum
At the southwest corner of the Michigan Avenue bridge, there’s a museum that’s hiding in plain sight, and it's a must-see. It’s the McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum, opened in 2006 to highlight the long relationship between Chicago and its multi-branched river. The museum, open seasonally, is housed in the ornate, 1920s beaux-arts-style bridgehouse, one of four stone structures that flank the bridge joining north and south Michigan Avenue. It’s labeled, but also distinguished by the bas-relief sculpture “Defense,” symbolizing the 1812 Battle of Fort Dearborn, which took place nearby. Visitors enter the five-story museum at river level to see the gears that power the raising of the bridge. This incredible feat of engineering allows boats to pass under and takes place on scheduled days (check the website for the schedule). As visitors move through the floors, they learn about the river’s storied past and its influence on the city’s growth. Looking out from the top windows, views down to the river are mesmerizing. Tours are offered Fridays and Saturdays at 11 am. Admission $5; over 62 and children 6-12 $4; 5 and under free; free for all on Sundays (bridge-lift viewing and tours are extra).
River Fun Facts
- The Chicago River begins 40 miles north of downtown in Park City, Illinois.
- The entire Chicago River system measures 156 miles.
- 50,000 vessels pass through the lock each year.
- The change in elevation between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River varies from 1 feet to 4 feet.
- In the 1970s, pollution and habitat destruction knocked fish population down to 10 species. A focus on cleanup and habitat revival boosted that to now more than 70 species.
- In Chicago’s early days of European settlement, a ferry carried locals across the river; a wooden bridge was built in the 1860s.
- Veterans Memorial Park honors Chicago’s who served in the U.S. armed forces.
- Centennial Fountain commemorates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. During the summer, every hour on the hour, the fountain sprays an arc of water over the river.
- The Irv Kupcinet Bridge opened in 1930, paying tribute to the late Sun-Times journalist whose column ran in the paper for nearly 60 years.
- Pioneer Court was once the trading post and farm of Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, thought to be Chicago’s first non-native resident.
- Each Monday, the Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museums hosts free lunchtime speakers who discuss local issues (June 1-July 27).
- In 1803, the military Fort Dearborn was built along the Chicago River. It was rebuilt after the War of 1812, but destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871.