Most people know a big city by its skyline, but in Chicago, despite its instantly recognizable silhouette, it’s all about the waterways.
At least that’s how our family sees it.
And we’re pretty sure most Chicagoans quietly agree. Chicago’s Municipal Device, a Y-symbol hidden in the design of most landmarks, has been used for decades to inspire civic pride. The Y represents the three branches of the Chicago River, which forms the letter at “Wolf Point” where the main branch splits into the north and south branches.
The Chicago River system covers over 156 miles, and one of the city’s claims to fame are its 180 bridges. The Windy City is thought to have the most movable bridges in the world.
So within the first hours of arriving in town we found ourselves in the heart of the city on a riverboat, exploring the city with an eye for architecture and history. Yep, that’s our boys sitting in the front row.
On the water
The Shoreline Architecture Tour offers a fisheye look at the city along all three branches of the Chicago River, including views of most of the iconic buildings in town.
And there are plenty.
From the Art Deco Merchandise Mart built in 1931, to the sleek facade of Willis Tower, currently the second tallest building in the US, this city loves its architecture. The story goes that after the Great Chicago fires in 1871 and 1874, architects were drawn to the area.
By the 1893 World’s Fair, hosted in Chicago, the foundations were laid for the City Beautiful movement, a reform philosophy of North American architecture and urban planning focused on beautification to create moral and civic virtue in the population.
The tradition continues.
Our docent-lead boat tour began at the docks below the Michigan Avenue bridge. In addition to the previously mentioned structures, riders gain a new perspective of the curvaceous Marina City, gorgeously neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, fabulously French renaissance Wrigley Building, the over-sized Old Post Office, and the stately Lyric Opera House.
The new Chicago Riverwalk
Riverwalk is an open pedestrian, waterfront park on the south bank of the Chicago River through downtown from Lake Shore Drive to Franklin Street. It’s being expanded another six block from State to Lake streets.
Also known as the city’s “Second Lakefront,” there are several dining and tour options as well as kayak, boat or bicycle rentals along the riverfront district. Each area is a distinct civic space including floating gardens, memorial, marina, cove and river theater.
A good place to learn more about the river system and bridges is the McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum, located in the Civic district between Dearborn St. and Michigan Ave. Don’t forget to check out the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza between State St. and Wabash.
You can also view many of Chicago’s landmark buildings from the walkway.
Bridges of Chicago
Chicago has one of the largest collections of historic bridges, with somewhere between 37 and 43 movable bridges, depending on who’s counting. They are best known for the trunnion bascule style developed in-state to meet the unique needs in connecting Chicago’s land masses. At least 20 of these are easy to spot in the downtown area. Each set of bridge towers has its own unique architectural design.
Trunnion bascule bridges have leaves that rotate on a shaft, or trunnion, located on the shore. A complex system of counterweights, gears and electric motors, operated by a bridge tender, raise the leaves upwards and away from the center of the river.
During Chicago’s boating season, between April 15 and November 15, over 52,000 boats will pass through the Chicago River. In that time the bridges are opened nearly 30,000 times yearly.
Whether you explore by land or sea, you can find the iconic Y symbol as part of the detail work on bridges, in the memorials and stonework throughout the city. Further proof that if you haven’t been on the water, you’re missing out on the heart of Chicago.