Chicago River Architectural Highlights

Posted on April 01, 2016

Summer is a beautiful time to take a boat tour in Chicago! The weather is ideal for a leisurely outing on Chicago's waterways and cruises are operating at full capacity with 90+ tours weekly for the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises — the official architecture river cruise in Chicago and the only tour given by certified CAF docents who undergo 100 hours of training to provide the best boat tour in Chicago.

Photo: cdelmoral

The architecture along the Chicago River is world famous and there’s no better, or more enjoyable, way to see the stunning skyscrapers than from Chicago’s First Lady Cruises – voted one of the Top 10 Tours in the U.S. by TripAdvisor in 2015. 

Marina City

Each building on the boat tour is significant but some stand out more than others. One of the most iconic Chicago buildings is Marina City. Often referred to as the “corn-cobs”, Marina City consists of two towers, each 65 stories high, and takes up an entire city block with a mix of commercial and residential tenants. It was completed in 1964 and is credited with initiating the residential renaissance of American inner cities as it was the first high-rise residential building build in the United States after World War II. Marina City will be familiar to many visitors as it has appeared in countless movies, as well as the opening credits of the The Bob Newhart Show and the closing credits of Good Times.

Photo: Julen Iturbe-Ormaetxe


Aqua Tower is another impressive building on the architecture tour, not just for its height - 82 stories - but also for its sculptural design. Designed by Jeanne Gang, of Studio Gang Architects, and completed in 2010, the Aqua has received international acclaim and was the first downtown building to combine condos, apartments and a hotel. Gang stretched the balconies by as much as 12 feet to allow residents the best views possible and to maximize solar shading. For further enjoyment, Aqua is topped by an 82,550 square foot terrace with gardens, pools, hot tubs, a fire pit and a running track. 

Photo: Kim Scarborough

The Merchandise Mart

The Merchandise Mart is an oldie but goodie. When it opened in 1930, it was the largest building in the world, and even had its own zip code until 2008. The Merchandise Mart was the brainchild of James Simpson, then president of Marshall Field & Co. His goal was to consolidate their wholesale warehouses that were scattered around the city by creating a central marketplace that allowed stocking retailers to buy all their wares under one roof. The Merchandise Mart is an Art Deco landmark and is still the world’s largest commercial building, at 25 stories spanning two city blocks. While The Mart is known for hosting many home and office design retailers, more recently, it has become a popular office location for many internet, advertising and technology companies. 

You’ll see all three of these impressive buildings, as well as many, many more on our award-winner Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises. Season runs through late November. View the full tour schedule and purchase tickets here.