Navy Pier: What to Do

You'll never run out of things to do at Navy Pier, Chicago's amazing lakeside attraction.

The Pacific and Atlantic coasts boast about their waterfront attractions, but Lake Michigan, Chicago's own inland sea, has an attraction that blows them both out of the water. Jutting 3,300 feet into Lake Michigan, Navy Pier opened as Municipal Pier in 1916, providing a shipping facility and a place for the public to gather and cool off in pre-a/c times. During World War I, it housed Naval personnel and was renamed in 1927 to honor their service. It later played host to the 1922 Pageant of Progress, the 1933 World’s Fair, WWII pilot training and the interim campus for the University of Illinois.

But the hot spot we know today was born after an overhaul in 1995. Since then, it's added the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows and, of course, the iconic 150-foot tall Ferris wheel offering views unattainable anywhere else in the city. As rich with history as it is with amusement, Chicago’s Navy Pier is the top tourist attraction in Illinois. In honor of its 2016 centennial year, a new large-scale re-imagining has given it a fresh face inside and out, including a Chicago-themed food lineup and a new boutique hotel.

With so many things to do and see, we thought we'd gather the highlights of Chicago’s greatest site for visitors and locals alike. If you’ve been before, it’s time to go again, and if you’ve never been, plan to spend an entire day enjoying this family-friendly, fun-filled peninsula.  

Family Fun

First stop: Chicago Children’s Museum, a three-story bonanza of big fun for little ones. Grab a raincoat and give them freedom to splash around in the WaterWays exhibit. Cheer them on as they scale the Kovler Family Climbing Schooner, with three stories of rigging to ascend. Or watch them dig up bones in the excavation pit of Dinosaur Expedition. When you've made it out of the museum—be forewarned, the lower-level exit takes you through the gift shop—head to the IMAX Theatre to catch the latest films on the awesome six-story screen with surround-sound that makes it feel that much more real. After, engage in some fast-paced fun and challenge yourself in Amazing Chicago’s Funhouse Maze. Navigate through the sensory system of tunnels and mazes with interactive games to find your way out and learn about Chicago’s history along the way. Or play Atomic Rush to catch your team color for points and Time Freak to win against the clock. Kids may also feel the pull of the Build-a-Bear Workshop, where stuffed animals "come to life."

Navy Pier Ferris wheel

The Great Outdoors  

With a setting like this, it’s hard not to soak up the amazing scenery around the pier. The Ferris wheel is the talk of the Pier, now with enclosed, climate-controlled compartments with padded seats and room for 10, nightly light shows and higher views than its predecessor—by almost 50 feet—for even better Instagrams of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan. But Pier Park isn’t just about the wheel. Essentially a mini amusement park in itself, it has the Links Mini Golf, an old-fashioned carousel and the light tower ride—you’ll be lifted 16 feet in the air and then bounced back down again. Then again, there’s nothing like taking things slow, with a relaxing stroll down the South Dock—2,000 feet of tree groves and native plantings to boost that loving-nature feel. Inside, the Crystal Gardens is a one-acre, botanical garden housed in a glass atrium with more than 80 live palm trees, lush greenery and leaping water fountains, which are entertaining for kids to try to "catch," but tricky to catch on camera.

Giordano's deep dish

Eat Up

With everything to do on the pier, you'll need refueling, which is why we love the dining options on Navy Pier, newly revamped in 2015 and 2016. For something quick and easy, head to the food court for grab-and-go options like a hot dog from America’s Dog, pretzels from Auntie Anne’s, and a tin of the sweet-salty Chicago Mix from Garrett Popcorn Shops—hard to resist that smell as you walk by. A rarity for ice-cream fans is the Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop, and some fast-casual food options including Porkchop BBQ for gourmet Southern, Goddess and the Baker, Big Bowl Chinese Express, and Frankie's Pizza by the Slice. For the older "Saturday Night Live" watchers among your group, a stop for a “cheezborger” from the famous Billy Goat Tavern (No Pepsi, Coke!). To really relax and kick back with a great meal, head to restaurant mainstays like Giordano’s for true Chicago deep dish, Harry Caray’s Tavern for American classics, DMK Burger and Fish Bar, and Riva Crab House for a white tablecloth seafood and steak experience.

Shoreline sightseeing

Come Sail Away

As amazing as all the attractions on the pier are, what’s the point of being along the water if you also can’t get on it? For sightseeing cruises, the Seadog takes a zippy ride up and down the shore; or Shoreline for beer and wine excursions and architectural tours. Embark at night for front-row fireworks viewing from the water. For a sightseeing sailing adventure, Tall Ship Windy allows you to board a 148-foot schooner to learn about the history of the Great Lakes. For dinner with a real waterfront view, Odyssey, Spirit of Chicago and Mystic Blue offer multiple decks of music and high-class dining experiences. If you need a break from the crowds, you can always charter your own private yacht from Navy Pier through Chicago Elite Private Yacht and Shoreline Charters—the ultimate luxury boating experience.

Cirque Shanghai 

Get Cultured

Navy Pier ups the ante on "something for everyone" with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, presenting favorites from the Bard like “Othello” and “The Tempest” along with other classic tales including “Sense and Sensibility” and a stage version of “The Little Mermaid.” Pose with sculptures throughout the pier like the U.S.S. Chicago Anchor, the Bob Newhart statue and the Captain On The Helm. For a stunning live performance, head to the Pepsi Skyline Stage for music, theater, comedy and acrobatics—the awe-inspiring, eye-popping, death-defying Cirque Shanghai is an annual tradition. The Richard H. Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass is a quiet interlude among the general liveliness of Navy Pier. It features 11 intricate and colorful windows from Tiffany Studios. And in 2017, Navy Pier will welcome the Chicago Blues Experience, an ode to the city's blues history and how we still feel its influence today in interactive museum form.  

Sarah Perkins
About the author

Even though she grew up in a small suburb north of Chicago, Sarah knew she was meant for somewhere bigger, more excit...