Which Chicago River Boat Tour is Best?

This posts reviews and compares the best Chicago boat tours and cruises, including architecture cruises, sightseeing tours, speedboats, sailboats, kayaks, and water taxis.



Disclosure: We think you should consider our free tours, but we have also provided other options. While our recommendations are always unbiased, we may receive a small share of sales through some of the links below at no cost to you. See the full text.


The windy city is home to the world’s first skyscraper, so it’s a pretty popular destination for anyone interested in the history of architecture.

Thankfully, there are plenty of cruises devoted to exploring this subject in great detail.


Chicago River Boat Tours


Some of these boat tours are run with the help of guides who are experts in the field, allowing you to learn a lot of valuable information about how Chicago was built.

These excursions are typically more popular among adult audiences, but some of them are also excellent for families with somewhat older children.

Expect ticket prices between $35-$45 for each passenger.  

For more details about these services, please read our full post covering Chicago Architecture Tours.

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These services are all about discovering Chicago and learning about its history. Anyone looking for excellent photo ops will want to consider a sightseeing cruise.


Shoreline Sightseeing Cruises Chicago


Most of these boat tours offer some kind of narration describing the significant landmarks in the areas you will visit.

Some companies will focus more on providing information while others are all about having fun.

Thanks to its wide appeal, this type of cruise is especially popular among family audiences.

Ticket prices will range from $20-$35 on average for adults. 


This tour is included for free with the purchase of the Chicago Go Card.

Shoreline has been offering tours since 1939, and their experience shows. We highly recommend this guided, historic sightseeing tour on Lake Michigan.


Lake Cruise Shoreline Sightseeing Chicago


You can bet that your guide will have more than a few jokes as they describe Chicago history through the current landmarks along the waterfront.

Duration: 40 minutes



Classic Lake Michigan Tours depart from West Dock Navy Pier, 600 E Grand Ave, across from McDonald’s (map).



Take a guided tour of Lake Michigan while paddling your own single or tandem kayak!

Perfect for beginners, this leisurely sightseeing experience offers top quality tours that Yelp users applaud for customer service and easily accommodating last-minute walk-ups.


Kayak Chicago River


They even allow dogs! This tour includes an orientation to paddling.

Duration: 2.5 hours



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Anyone looking for fun and excitement on the Chicago River will want to consider a Speed Boat cruise. These trips are more like a roller coaster ride than they are a boat tour.

As you ride through Chi-town at top speeds, you’ll see some of the most important landmarks in the city. Guides will usually point out significant sights as you enjoy a thrilling experience.

This is a great activity for families in particular, but it’s pretty popular among all audiences.

Ticket prices are actually comparable to other cruises in the area at a price point of $22-$30 per person.


If you’re looking to have some moderate thrills as you do your sightseeing, and you don’t mind the wind in your hair, we recommend Seadog.  



Race through the water as you hear about the Windy City’s most famous landmarks along the shoreline. Light and humorous, reviewers have a hard time knowing if they like the speed or the speeches more!

Beware: We see a pattern in the reviews of guests who are unhappy with the will call ticket option due to long lines.

We recommend buying E-tickets in advance, which saves you from the long line and can help ensure you get a great seat by showing up about 20 minutes in advance.

Duration: 30 Minutes



Depart from South Navy Pier, 600 E Grand Ave. (map). Look for the red & white ticket booth just across from the Ferris Wheel.



Kicking it up a notch! There is nothing like the experience of racing across the Great Lake at 45mph!

Add full spins (360 degrees here we come!) and getting soaked, and you’ve got yourself a guaranteed thrill ride on Lake Michigan.

Like most attractions in Chicago, you want to book your tickets in advance and have them ready when you arrive to skip the long lines at the ticket booth. Seats are first to come, first serve, so show up early for the best seats.

Duration: 30 Minutes



Depart from South Navy Pier, 600 E Grand Ave (map). Look for the red & white ticket booth just across from the Ferris Wheel.


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If you don’t care about narration or tour guides, a water taxi might be the most affordable option on this list.

This cruise is more about transporting you from one location to the next, but you can typically enjoy a lot of wonderful views while on the boat.


Chicago Water Taxi


Anyone planning on taking a self-guided tour in Chicago will want to consider using this form of transportation to get around.

Ticket prices range from $5-$8 per trip and $10-$20 for an all-day pass.


For a fast and cheap cruise on the River, hopping on a water taxi can be a convenient way to travel for local commuters and travelers.

Many of Chicago’s popular attractions can be seen along these routes, and each of the station stops offer fantastic things to do, see, and eat.



While there are no guides on these boats, the sights are comparable to the ones on any of the sightseeing cruises listed above, and at a huge discount!

Duration: 15 to 30 minutes

Price Options:

Station Locations:

  • Ogilvie/Union Station (West Loop)
  • Michigan Avenue
  • LaSalle (River North)
  • Riverwalk Clark Street
  • North Avenue/Sheffield
  • Chinatown
  • Chicago Avenue



Another affordable taxiing service is Shoreline, which offers a route on the lake as well as the river.

We like this service for their unique lake route, which is the cheapest way to view the skyline while on Lake Michigan; notably the Museum campuses.



Duration: 15-40 minutes, depending on chosen route.


  • May through September
  • Taxis operate 10 am-6 pm, at least every 20 minutes

Price Options and Packages:

There are no reservations for Shoreline taxis, as they are a commuter service. Tickets can be bought on site.

Single Ride Extended River Route (Orange Line) | Lake Route (Green Line)

  • $8 – Adults 
  • $4 – Children

Single Ride River Route (Brown or Blue Line)

  • $6 – Adults
  • $3 – Children

Multi-Ride Pass (10 rides)

General $15

1-Day All Route Discount Pass

  • $23 – Adult
  • $11 – Children

2-Day All Route Discount Pass

  • $29 – Adult
  • $14 – Children

Station Locations:

  • Union Station/Willis Tower
  • Navy Pier

Museum Campus

  1. Michigan Avenue


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Like most metropolitan cities, Chicago looks entirely different after dark.

Several cruise companies offer services at night, allowing you to get a good look at the lights from the city while you’re drifting down the river.

Some of these opportunities are only offered during the summer months, but they often include fireworks.

Alternatively, you could enjoy a nice, quiet sail across the water. These cruises are popular among all types of crowds and ticket prices typically range from $25-$45 per person.



Enjoy impressive views of Chicago’s skyline from Lake Michigan, with an uninterrupted view of the weekly fireworks display.

Tour-goers love to watch the reflection of the lights on the water, as well as the buildings!



Reviewers say to arrive at least 15 minutes prior to the tour’s start time, and this is well worth the money!

For a few extra dollars, many reviewers recommend taking Shoreline’s nighttime architecture fireworks tour (see below) which includes a guided view of the river.


Seasonal, May-September only.  

  • Saturdays 9:30 pm
  • Wednesdays 9:00 pm  

Duration: 60 minutes



Departs from Navy Pier West Dock, 600 E Grand Ave (map)



Get all of the information on a daytime architecture tour, with an added grand finale: seeing fireworks on the lake!

Whether you depart from Navy Pier or Michigan Avenue, you’ll tour the main and south branch of the Chicago River before traveling out onto the Great Lake for the best view of the weekly fireworks display.

Pro tip: Don’t forget your camera! Even though it is nighttime, the lights of the city offer perfect photo opportunities. You’ll have your postcard-worthy photo in no time!


Seasonal, May-September only. 

  • Saturdays 9:00 pm
  • Wednesdays 8:15 pm  

Duration: 90 minutes



Depart from one of two locations:

  • Navy Pier Entrance, Polk Bros Park. GPS: 600 E Grand Ave
  • Michigan Avenue Bridge (NE corner). GPS: 401 Michigan Ave



Windy City Sailing has led private yacht tours for 18 years, and recently added fireworks and special event packages.

Pro tip: Once the yacht is out of the harbor, ask for a chance to drive!

Duration: Flexible, minimum of 3 hours


$230-350 Hourly Rates

  • The Nebula, a 40 foot sloop-rig Beneteau sailboat



Want to try something different with friends, or surprise your significant other? Why not charter a sailboat and watch the fireworks on the lake!

Pack a picnic basket full of romantic food (BYoB) and watch the skyline light up. Don’t forget your camera!

Pro tip: While it might be tempting to wear flip-flops, for comfort and safety consider wearing non-slip shoes.

Fireworks: Wednesday and Saturday evenings, May through September.

Duration: Flexible, minimum of 3 hours


$130-350 Hourly Rates based on vessel size and number of passengers:

  • Sporting (31’, 1-6 passengers)
  • Large (36’, up to 8 passengers)
  • Luxury (39’, up to 11 passengers )
  • Call 773-236-7245 for booking questions and special events.

Location: 400 W Belmont Harbor Dr


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In addition to the various night tours offered on Lake Michigan, you’ll also find a nice selection of dinner cruises as well.

Instead of focusing on the excitement of a fireworks show, this boat trip is all about enjoying a meal while you drift alongside the city and experience the skyline in style.

This is one of the most popular options for couples, but it’s also a pretty suitable experience for business partners and friends. Ticket prices range from $80-$130 on average.  

Each outfit also offers lunch and brunch cruises.


Odyssey Cruises

This is one of the most popular cruise companies in the United States. Their Chicago branch offers lunch, brunch, and dinner cruises.

The earlier the trip, the less you will pay for a ticket.



Most of their excursions include a three-course plated meal and wonderful music curated by an onboard DJ.

In comparison to their competition, this is definitely one of the more classy experiences you’ll have on Lake Michigan. Odyssey offers service pretty much year-round.

As one of the premiere cruise services in the Windy City, it shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise that they have earned a 4-star rating on TripAdvisor.

Although there are a few negative reviews, most customers were more than pleased with their trip. Unhappy customers typically complained of uncommon issues that don’t represent the typical experience with Odyssey Cruises.

A majority of reviews came from passengers who were very impressed with the quality of the cruise ship and the views at night in Chicago. This dinner cruise is very popular with couples.

Lunch Cruise

Ticket Price: $79 for Adults | $61 for Children

Duration: 2 hours

Schedule and more information

Brunch Cruise 

Ticket Price: $98 for Adults | $73 for Children

Duration: 2 hours

Schedule and more information

Dinner Cruise Pricing

Champagne Weekday Dinner Cruise: $109.90 for Adults and Children
Champagne Weekend Dinner Cruise: $129.90 for Adults and Children
Prix Fixe Weekday Dinner Cruise: $64.90 for Adults and Children
Prix Fixe Weekend Dinner Cruise: $72.90 for Adults | $43.95 for Children

Duration: 3 hours

Schedule and more information


Spirit Cruises

Although this cruise line is owned and operated by the same company as Odyssey, they actually offer a somewhat different experience.

Instead of a three-course plated meal, you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy a nice buffet while drifting along Lake Michigan. In addition, they also provide entertainment in the form of DJ music and interactive games.

Unlike their classy counterpart, this service is all about having fun with friends and family.

Spirit offers lunch, brunch, and dinner cruises fairly often. Ticket prices are typically more affordable for these excursions.

Despite the differences between Odyssey and Spirit Cruises, this company has also received a 4-star rating on TripAdvisor.

There aren’t many negative reviews to speak of, but it’s worth noting that some passengers were unhappy with either the food or the customer service. Thankfully, these comments do not represent the typical experience with their cruises.

An overwhelming majority of reviewers were very pleased with their trip, stating that the meal and entertainment they received were both excellent. 

Lunch Cruise 

Ticket Price: $52.90 for Adults | $31.95 for Children

Duration: 2 hours

Schedule and more information

Dinner Cruise Pricing

Weekday: $89.90 for Adults and Children
Saturday: $104.90 for Adults and Children
Sunday: $79.90 for Adults | $47.95 for Children

Duration: 2 ½ – 3 hours

Schedule and more information


Mystic Blue Cruises

This service is actually very similar to what you’ll find from Spirit Cruises.

Mystic Blue also offers a dinner buffet and DJ music on their excursions. After enjoying a meal, you can have fun on the dance floor with your friends or close ones.

Anyone looking for a more casual experience out on Lake Michigan will want to consider this option. Once again, you can expect them to provide lunch, brunch, and dinner cruises almost all year round.

Prices are on par with the other dining cruises offered in Chicago.

Unlike the services offered by their sister companies, Mystic Blue Cruises enjoys a slightly better rating of 4 ½ stars on TripAdvisor.

They have only received a couple of negative reviews, and the comments provided indicate that these customers were looking for a classier experience.

Those who were looking for a casual dinner cruise actually enjoyed themselves quite a bit, giving high praise to their staff and the entertainment provided.

This boat trip was especially well-rated by couples and guests with business partners.

Lunch Cruise 

Ticket Prices: $52.90 for Adults | $31.95 for Children

Duration: 2 hours

Brunch Cruise 

Ticket Prices: $57.90 for Adults | $34.95 for Children

Duration: 2 hours

Dinner Cruise 

Weekday: $84.90 for Adults and Children
Saturday: $104.90 for Adults and Children
Sunday: $79.90 for Adults | $47.95 for Children

Duration: 2 ½ – 3 hours


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When it comes to rest and relaxation, few boat tours are going to be as inviting as a sailboat. What better place to sail than the Windy City?

Enjoy the sights and sounds as you drift around the Chicago River in comfort.

The customer service provided by these companies is typically very highly rated.

Prices range from $30 for a public sailboat tour to $150-$300 for charters.


A true gem on the lake, Tall Ship Windy and its billowing sails has the all the allure of a pirate ship with modern conveniences to make your experience memorable.

Recent passengers say this is the most family-friendly experience they had on Navy Pier. Kids love the pirate ship, and adults love the full bar!

Pro tip: Don’t have the time or the budget to board Tall Ship Windy? While visiting Navy Pier you can get up close and personal to admire its beauty while it is docked between tours.

Navy Pier offers many free and cheap activities for families on a budget.

Tour Theme Options:

  • Lakeside Architecture Sail
  • Real Pirates of the Inland Seas
  • Sunset Skyline Sail
  • A Sailor’s Life for Me!
  • Spirit Ships and Haunted Harbor

Duration: 75 minutes (arrive 30 minutes prior for boarding)

Check the current schedule.


  • $30 – Adult
  • $10 – Child (under 13)

Location: Navy Pier, 600 E Grand Ave



Looking to set sail privately? Consider these sailboat rentals, complete with your own Captain! Highly rated for their customer service, your group can sail along our world-renowned shoreline knowing you are in good hands.

Pro tip: Don’t forget the cheese and wine! Charters allow snacks, including alcohol, onboard. Cups and ice provided.

Duration: Flexible, minimum of 3 hours

Price Range:

$130-350 Hourly Rates based on vessel size and number of passengers:



If you’re looking for a more unique trip down the Chicago River, it’s hard to beat a kayak tour! Renting a kayak will get you closer to the water than any other option on our list.

You’ll also get a good workout while traveling around the city and enjoying wonderful views.

Although we recommend this service for all audiences, it is worth noting that you will be required to do quite a bit of rowing.

Families tend to enjoy this experience more than other groups, but it’s a great choice for almost any audience.


Whether you want a guided tour of Lake Michigan, an Architectural tour on the Chicago River, or rent out a kayak (single or tandem!) for the day, Kayak Chicago is a company you can trust.

Pro tip: Choosing to ride tandem (two people, one kayak) saves you $10 off of the regular price of two kayaks, and allows one person to paddle while the other has their hands free to take photos!  

Prices for Rentals:

Price includes kayak, paddle, personal flotation device, brief instruction

  • Single $20/hr
  • Double $30 /hr or $80/day

No reservations needed. Questions? Call (312) 852-9258


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Sometimes the tour companies we write about offer discounts on combo packages which include their services.

We recommend taking a look at Chicago tourist passes if you don’t mind setting up an itinerary in order to get the most value out of your pass.

On average, you can save between 20-40% on a variety of attractions in the Windy City.



GO CHICAGO CARD – (All-Inclusive)

To get the most sightseeing between 1­-5 days, the Go Chicago Card can’t be beaten, and the price of admission is included for all card hold cardholders

Using this all­-inclusive pass gives you admission to as many attractions as you can fit into the number of days that your pass allows.  There are 29 attractions to choose from.

All Go Chicago Cards have a zero-risk refund policy. If you don’t activate your pass within 30 days of your purchase date, all your money will be refunded no questions asked.   

Click here to learn about ALL the discount packages offered in the city of Chicago.

Included Attractions On and Near the Water:

  • Tall Ship Windy
  • Chicago Architecture River Cruise (Shoreline)
  • Classic Lake Tour (Shoreline)
  • Navy Pier’s Centennial Wheel and Rides
  • Shedd Aquarium
  • Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier
  • Historic Chicago South Shore Tour
  • Bike and Roll Chicago (Navy Pier station)

Price Options (as of July 2019)

  • 1 Day: Adults $114  | Children (ages 3-12) $77
  • 2 Day: Adults $169 | Children $119
  • 3 Day: Adults $214 | Children $149
  • 5 Day: Adults $269 | Children $184

Before You Buy: While there are several more land attractions not included above to fill the time, cardholders may only do one of the major boat tours per day (Tall Ship Windy, Classic Lake Tour, Architecture River Cruise).


About the author

Manager | Chicago & Los Angeles

Mel loves to be a tourist in her own city. With a background in performing arts, tourism, and photography, giving tours and being a story-teller comes naturally to her. She loves traveling, food, and theatre. Mel splits her time between Chicago and Los Angeles (#theatrelife) and leads tours and manages both cities!