Let’s be honest: If you’re a local, you’ll probably rarely step foot on Navy Pier. The only real reasons to do so are if you’re entertaining out-of-towners or going to the Shakespeare Theatre. Unless a random urge to ride a Ferris wheel strikes, most Chicagoans tend to avoid the excessive amount of tourists and children that flock to Navy Pier. That said, it is one of the city’s most-visited attractions, and a great way to spend an afternoon downtown, especially with the little ones.
Though today the Pier is mostly a tourist attraction, it has played a significant role in Chicago’s history since its construction in 1916. Originally called Municipal Pier, it was designed as a shipping port and entertainment area. It also served as a military port for a short time during WWI. Upon its construction, Municipal Pier was the largest in the world at 292 feet wide and 3,000 feet long.
Over the years the Pier has gone through phases of popularity and disrepair. In 1927, in an attempt to renew interest, the attraction was renamed Navy Pier in honor of WWI veterans. Ironically, during the second World War the pier actually became a navy training facility. By the end of WWII the pier’s purpose faltered, and it again began to diminish in popularity and importance. During the following years the Pier became home to the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, though the period was short-lived.
In 1976 the City set about renovating the Grand Ballroom, and in 1977 the Pier was named a designated Chicago landmark, but it still had a long way to go. For the next ten years the space was used mostly for events and conventions, though it held no real value or significance for the City. Noticing that this piece of land could be put to much better use, the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois created the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority in 1989, designating $150 million for the reconstruction and restoration of the pier as a recreational center.
Finally completed in 1994, the new design of the Pier has made it a useful — and lucrative — space just adjacent to Chicago’s downtown area. With 50 acres of parks and gardens and a huge array of attractions and restaurants, it’s no surprise that the Pier now sees over 8 million visitors a year.
Navy Pier is home to several attractions, making it somewhat of a permanent amusement park. The main event is, of course, the 148-foot Ferris wheel, which was modeled after the first Ferris wheel built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Other rides include a 44-foot high carousel with 36 hand-painted animals and a 40-foot high wave swinger. There’s also an 18-hole mini golf course, a fun-house maze, and an IMAX theater.
Among a multitude of dining options is an excellent beer garden. Located at the end of the Pier, it’s a great place to grab a cold one after all that walking. There’s also a large food court and several other restaurants on the Pier. Along the docks tourists can hop on a variety of different sightseeing boat tours, including speedboats, cruise ships, and architecture tour boats. Water taxis are also available to take you down the river into downtown, or over to the Museum Campus. If you’re a theater buff, you may want to check out the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, which moved to Navy Pier in 1995. The 525-seat theatre is arranged “in the round”, so there’s really no bad seat in the house. And on top of that, the acoustical structure of the theatre is 100% sound.
The two main buildings on the Pier are the Headhouse and the Auditorium, which have both survived since the pier’s original construction in 1916. The Headhouse is now home to one of the Pier’s two museums, the Chicago Children’s Museum. Also located on the Pier is the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, which opened in 2000 and holds more than 150 beautiful stained glass windows. The Auditorium holds the magnificent Grand Ballroom, complete with a 100-foot domed ceiling.
Some of the Pier’s areas are available for private rentals, including the English Garden Tent and the Crystal Gardens, a one-acre indoor glass atrium with more than 70 palm trees.
Address: 600 E. Grand Avenue, Streeterville, Downtown
Bus: 2, 29, 65, 66, 120, 121, 124 (Navy Pier Express)
Trolley: Services runs May 15 – Sept. 6
Boat: During Summer, Shoreline Sightseeing operates water taxi boats between Navy Pier and the Museum Campus. (link)
Driving: Lake Shore Drive to Grand Ave. or Illinois St. Exits
On-site parking available.
Admission Hours & Prices
Navy Pier is open year-round, but hours vary seasonally. For the latest hours, click here.
Entrance to the Pier is free, though attractions have various other fees.