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Chicago Navy Pier | 16 Top Things to Do

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This post is a guide to things to do and see at Chicago’s Navy Pier, including free things as well as boat tours that depart from the pier and bus tours that make stops here.

Be sure to check out our Chicago Visitors Guide, with budget advice, travel guides, and information about local Chicago attractions.

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INTRODUCTION

Chicago's Navy Pier, lovingly called the "People's Pier," has certainly come a long way since it was originally constructed in 1914 as the world’s largest pier at 292 feet wide and 3000 feet long (89m x 914m). 

Navy Pier (originally called Municipal Pier #2) was built for shipping and entertainment.

Today, it is a cultural hub for locals and visitors of Chicago to explore unique dining, free and paid arts and entertainment attractions, and popular cultural exhibits.

Here is our list of the top things to do while at Navy Pier.


TOP 7 MUST'S AT NAVY PIER

Updated January 2023 by Tour Guide Andy

One of the most popular stops for visitors to Chicago is the south dock of Navy Pier, a mile-long pedestrian boardwalk that stands as one of the best in the United States.

With entertainment venues, restaurants, and theme park rides, Navy Pier is open year-round for your enjoyment.

Check out their events calendar for seasonal shows and events.

Be sure to check out our full list of self-guided Chicago walking tours.  

And if you are planning on purchasing a tourist discount card, many attractions on the Navy Pier are included.

You may find our post Best Chicago Attraction Passes helpful in deciding if a tourist pass is right for you.


1) Centennial Wheel

When you buy your tickets to this 200 feet tall moving viewing deck, the whole family can get a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan and the Downtown Skyline.


2. Visit Chicago Children’s Museum

Geared for kids 10 and under, the Chicago Children’s Museum has three floors of exhibits and activities that might just be your child’s new favorite place in Chicago!

Chicago Children’s Museum

Dinosaur expeditions, tinkering labs, and a climbing jungle gym are just a few of the highlights found at this museum. 

Tip: Target Free Family Nights means free admission every Thursday from 5-8 pm!

See their website for hours, directions, prices, and more.


3. See a Show at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Go see a show! CST has been producing professional productions of William Shakespeare’s plays since 1986, and now offers 650 performances year-round. 

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

To see what’s playing, and to purchase tickets, visit their website.


4. Visit Pier Park

In addition to the Centennial Wheel, Pier Park also houses the Pepsi Wave Swinger and other fairground rides.

So, if you're looking for even more family fun after the wheel, make sure to look around this area!


5. Experience the Amazing Chicago’s Funhouse Maze

Have kids? They're going to love the Funhouse Maze - 4,000 square feet of tunnels, with interactive games and fun mirrors along the way.

This self-paced maze offers a sense of stimulation for a family-friendly good time. 

Open daily 10 am-8 pm, free for children 4 and under. Click here to find out more information.


6. Enjoy Garrett Popcorn

Get in line for this essential Chicago treat, and watch as they prepare the popcorn fresh in front of your eyes.

We recommend the Garrett’s Mix, caramel and cheese popcorn. Garrett’s also offers seasonal specials, so ask for a sample!

To find out more click here.


7. Try Chicago Deep Dish Pizza at Giordano’s

You can’t visit Chicago without eating deep-dish pizza, and the best deep-dish pizza is at Giordano’s.

For the absolute best way to end your tour, indulge with the Chicago Classic Stuffed Pizza.

Voted Chicago’s Best Pizza by NBC, CBS Chicago, the New York Times, and Chicago Magazine. See hours, directions and menus here.


8. Take Boat Tours that Depart from Navy Pier

There are several excellent boat tours that depart from Navy Pier. We have listed them below.

Chicago has many other boat tours and to learn about all the options check out our post The Best Chicago Boat Tours and Cruises. 

Tourist Cruises

  • Sea Dog is most well known in the city for their speedboat rides but they also offer an architecture tour that combines lake views with your river cruise for an inclusive look at Chicago’s skyline innovation and design.
  • Shoreline Sightseeing offers a guided boat tour of the Chicago River. Hear the story of Chicago’s most influential architects as you pass their completed works. Shoreline’s guides are professionals who use storytelling to give a unique insight into the creation of the Windy City. This tour is included for free with the purchase of the Chicago Go Card, a Chicago tourist attraction discount pass.
  • Tall Ship Windy is a true gem on the lake with its billowing sails it has all the allure of a pirate ship with modern conveniences to make your experience memorable. Kids love the pirate ship, and adults love the full bar.

Dinner Cruises

  • The Odyssey cruise is great for a date! They offer 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.
  • Spirit of Chicago is great for families to enjoy a nice buffet while drifting along Lake Michigan. They also provide entertainment in the form of DJ music and interactive games. This service is all about having fun with friends and family. Spirit offers lunch, brunch, and dinner cruises fairly often.
  • Mystic Blue 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.

9. Take Bus Tours that stop at Navy Pier

Most bus tours will have a stop at Navy Pier. Below are tours that we think are great.

There are so many bus tours in Chicago, see our post The Best Chicago Bus Tours to find out which tours are out there.

  • Big Bus Chicago is a double-decker bus tour that allows you to visit an extensive portion of Chicago’s most popular attractions at your own pace. Live commentary and convenient pick-up stops make Big Bus Tours a popular choice for Chicago tourists.  Learn more about their full line of Chicago tours.
  • City Sightseeing (previously Chicago Trolley) provides a year-round 2-hour adventure covering 13 different stops in Downtown and The Loop on their Red and Green Trolley or Red Double Decker bus. They also offer a variety of excursions and seasonal tours to Wrigley Field and The Museum of Science & Industry.  Read more about this tour.
  • Viator Pass Tour is a great option for tourists who are looking for a Chicago All-in-One option.  This pass has many top attractions including a bus tour that stops at Navy Pier.

FREE THINGS TO DO AT NAVY PIER

There are a bunch of fun activities to enjoy around the Navy Pier that won't cost a dime. Here are a few of our favorite things to do without worrying about money.


10. Take our Self Guided Tour of the Pier

There are a handful of notable attractions you absolutely need to see when visiting this location, and you can learn all about them using a self-guided tour of Navy Pier.


11. Walk to the East End Plaza

For gorgeous views of Lake Michigan, head to this plaza.

Once you're done looking out at the water, turn around for a great snapshot of the Chicago Skyline.


12. Enjoy the Seasonal Fireworks

On Wednesday and Saturday nights from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, there are fireworks shows at Navy Pier.

View the firework schedule.

This is one of the best free family activities to enjoy in Chicago during the summer months!


13. Enjoy a Free Event at Polk Bros Park

Located just steps away from the base of the pier, this park is one of the more popular places to meet up during the summer months, and they often host free events such as the summer film series.


14. Look for Public Art

The public art that can be found at the Pier is pretty awesome. Some of the art is rotating, but other pieces have become a special part of your pier experience. 

Look for the Bob Newhart Statue, Crack the Whip statue, and the Captain on the Helm Statue.


15. Enjoy the Breeze at the Beer Garden

This is a great place to visit during the summer months and simply relax while listening to the seasonal free concerts!

If you've got some money, obviously you might also want to consider grabbing a drink!


16. Spend a Day at the Ohio Street Beach

This beautiful beach is adjacent to Navy Pier, and it's one of the nicer places to hang out during the summer if you're trying to beat the heat.

Free Chicago Walking Tours

Brief History of Navy Pier

Between 1942-1945, pilot and navy training took place at the Pier and as many as 200 World War II planes still rest at the bottom of Lake Michigan as a result of accidents during training.

One of the pilots who trained there was George H. W. Bush who later became the president of the United States.

David Bjorgen, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1994, Navy Pier began its transformation into becoming Chicago’s Playground and continues to change today. 

In 2014, Navy Pier was renovated by New York architect James Corner. 

And then in 2016, a new Ferris wheel called the Centennial Wheel was built at 150 feet high that operates year-round. 


DIRECTIONS TO THE NAVY PIER

We highly recommend utilizing affordable and convenient public transportation to get to the Navy Pier.  

Take the Red Line to the Grand stop and walk 20 minutes east towards Lake Michigan (follow the Ferris Wheel in plain sight).

Take any of the following buses: #29, #65, #69, #124 Navy Pier, #2 Hyde Park

You can use this Google Map link for directions to the Navy Pier. 

Directions to Navy Pier Chicago

If you are considering purchasing a hop-on-hop-off bus ticket to transport you around Chicago, keep in mind that the Big Bus Company has a stop at the Navy Pier and a 2-day ticket to ride their double-decker buses is included with the Go Chicago Card.

If you must drive, you can find and reserve parking in advance by using Parking Panda.

About The Author

Stephen Pickhardt

Stephen is the CEO of Free Tours by Foot and has overseen the transformation of a local walking tour company into a global tour community and traveler’s advice platform. He has personally led thousands of group tours in the US and Europe, and is an expert in trip planning and sightseeing, with a focus on budget travelers. Stephen has been published and featured in dozens of publications including The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Yahoo, Washington.org, and more.
Updated: January 19th, 2023
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