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.
The Navy Pier has certainly come a long way since it was originally constructed in 1914 as the world’s largest Pier at 292 foot wide and 3000ft long (89m x 914m).
Navy Pier (originally called Municipal Pier #2) was built for shipping and entertainment. Folks enjoyed the cool breeze from the lake during the hot and humid summers. The Pier boasted its own theater, restaurant, streetcars, and emergency hospital.
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.
In 1994, Navy Pier began its transformation into becoming a 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.
We highly recommend utilizing public transportation to get to the Navy Pier. You can use this Google Map link for directions to the Navy Pier.
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.
FREE THINGS TO DO AT THEPIER
BOAT TOURS 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.
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 the 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.
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.
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 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.
SELF-GUIDED TOUR OF NAVY PIER
By Andy Meholick
One of the most popular stops for visitors to Chicago is the south dock of Navy Pier, a 2,000-foot 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. Take this self-guided walking tour to experience the best of the boardwalk! Designed to give you a full day of activities, we recommend you leave a few hours to see and experience everything the Pier has to offer. Check out their events calendar for seasonal shows, bands, the Haunted house, Winter Wonderfest, boating activities, and public invited conventions.
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.
Yes, that Bubba Gump! Located just inside the entrance of the Navy Pier entrance, this seafood-specialty, themed restaurant is just what Mama recommends! Speaking of recommending, the staff encourages you to try the Forrest’s Seafood Feast! Not hungry? Take a look at the full gift shop filled with memorabilia from the six-time academy award winning film Forrest Gump. See their website for information.
(B) IMAX Theatre
Across from Bubba Gump is the IMAX cinema, Chicago’s largest movie theater. Unlike most movie theatres, IMAX movies are presented in a crystal-clear picture on a screen measuring 60 feet tall and 80 feet wide!
Current film schedules and ticket purchases are available at their website or call 312-595-5629.
(C) Chicago Children’s Museum
Hop on the escalators and head upstairs to the 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! 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 5-8pm! See their website for hours, directions, prices and more.
The second-floor exit takes you to the beautiful, serene Crystal Gardens. This six-story glass atrium is free to the public and offers views of the Chicago Skyline, Lake Michigan, and the rest of Navy Pier. Enjoy the botanical garden, and when you’re ready, exit on the south side and step outside.
(E) Skyline, Ferris Wheel, and Rides
Now that you’re outside, you’ll have the best view of the Chicago Skyline. Look west to see the John Hancock Center, Water Tower Place, Lake Point, and Trump Tower. Just east you’ll find a beautiful carousel, swings, and Ferris wheel. Tickets can be purchased at the kiosk for all of these rides, as well as a mini-golf course, year round, weather permitting.
A brand new Ferris wheel began giving rides in Summer 2016, with the former 150-foot high wheel, modeled after the Chicago’s 1893 World Colombian Exposition wheel, gave its last ride on September 27th, 2015.
(F) 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. To see what’s playing, and to purchase tickets, visit their website.
(G) Miller Lite Beer Garden
At this point, you’re probably thirsty. Stop the Miller Lite Beer Garden to enjoy a drink next to Lake Michigan. Open seven days a week from May through October, this is the best place to rest your feet for a few minutes before heading to the end of the pier.
Live music is offered weekly between Memorial and Labor Day. See their website for more details.
(H) Oceanscape and Sculpture
The end of the Pier offers uninterrupted views of Lake Michigan and a view of the northern shore. There are plenty of photo opportunities here before we start walking back toward the entrance for some fun and two classic Chicago traditions.
(I) Amazing Chicago’s Funhouse Maze
Find the sculpture pictured here, and enter the Funhouse Maze — 4,000 square feet of tunnels, with interactive games and fun mirrors along the way. This self-paced maze offers sense 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.
(J) Garrett’s Popcorn
Work your way back toward the entrance of the enclosed Pier. You’ll pass several souvenir shops; go ahead and make those purchases now. On your left, as you pass Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, you’ll see and smell Garrett’s 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.
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, order the Chicago Classic Stuffed Pizza, and indulge. Voted Chicago’s Best Pizza by NBC, CBS Chicago, the New York Times, and Chicago Magazine. See hours, directions and menus here.