Built during World War I, this 3,000-foot-long pier served as a Navy training center for pilots during World War II. The military aura is long gone, and Navy Pier now thrives as a major tourist attraction, drawing more than 8 million visitors a year to the carnival rides, large food court, T-shirt shops, and boat rides. Whether or not you enjoy Navy Pier depends on your tolerance for crowds—especially in the summer. If you shy away from chain restaurants, high prices, and thick throngs of tourists, I recommend you skip Navy Pier and head to any of Chicago’s other beaches for beautiful lake and city views. Speaking from a local’s point of view, unless we’re heading to the Chicago Children’s Museum or Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, most of us make a point of avoiding Navy Pier.
But if you do go to the pier, here’s what you’ll see: Midway down the pier are the Crystal Gardens, a lovely, glass-enclosed atrium with 70 full-size palm trees, dancing fountains, and various flora; a carousel and kiddie carnival rides; and the Centennial Wheel, an almost 200-foot-tall, all-season Ferris wheel with enclosed gondolas. The pier is also home to the Chicago Children’s Museum ★★★, a 3D IMAX theater (tel. 312/595-5629), and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. The shops tend to be bland and touristy, but you won’t go hungry. Harry Caray’s Tavern, Billy Goat Tavern, and the seasonal Miller Lite Beer Garden are your best bets for casual local options (otherwise, you’re looking at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.), or for something more upscale, make a reservation at the white-tablecloth seafood restaurant Riva (www.rivanavypier.com; tel. 312/644-7482). Offshore Rooftop & Bar bills itself as the largest roof deck in the country, and there’s also a food court with hot dogs, pretzels, pizza, and, most importantly, Garrett Popcorn. Summer is one long party at the pier, with fireworks on Wednesday and Saturday evenings.
The quietest spot on Navy Pier is the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. It’s a bit dull for those of us who aren’t into decorative arts, but colored-glass lovers will enjoy the 150 windows on display, which include works by Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge. Although well trafficked, the dark gallery is a nice, cool reprieve on a hot summer day—plus it’s free.
When the noise and commercialism get overwhelming, take the half-mile stroll to the end of the pier, where you can enjoy the wind, the waves, and the city view, which is the real delight of a place like this. Or unwind in Olive Park, a small sylvan haven with a sliver of beach just north of Navy Pier.
You’ll find more than half a dozen sailing vessels moored at the south dock, including a couple of dinner-cruise ships, the pristine white-masted tall ship Windy, and the 70-foot speedboats Seadog I, II, and III. In the summer months, water taxis speed between Navy Pier and other Chicago sights. Allow 1 hour.