Navy Pier is Illinois’ most visited tourist attraction. This is because it has so many things to do.
So what are these things to do that makes Navy Pier one of Chicago’s best tourist attractions?
The family friendly atmosphere. Navy Pier can be very busy but it is always a well behaved crowd and safety is never an issue. It is a great place to people watch. Anyone from 1 to 100 can find something to do.
Fireworks. During the summer Navy Pier has fireworks on Wednesday Nights at 9:30 and Saturday Nights at 10:15. They usually extended them through the end of October, but only on Saturday at 9:00. They are surprisingly good, on par with most suburban 4th of July displays. The backdrop of the lake and the Chicago Skyline makes them spectacular.
Rides. One of the highlights of Navy Pier is the 15 story tall Ferris wheel. It offers one of the best views in Chicago. There is also a carousel, small parachute ride and flying swing.
Activities. Boat rides are a very popular thing to do in Chicago and Navy Pier has several different cruises. There are large speed boats that whip you around the lakefront, tour boats that give you a peaceful tour of the lake or upscale yachts that offer dinner cruises. Under the Ferris wheel is a good quality putt-putt course, there is a house of mirrors and bikes can rented that you can ride on the lakefront.
Shopping. Navy Pier has an ever changing array of stores. There are of course lots of souvenir shops. There are also kiosks offering a wide range of goods. There are hats, sports memorabilia, jewelry, photos, magic and Garret’s Popcorn. The Children’s Museum Store is a great place to shop for children.
Food and drinks. Navy Pier has several pubs, most of which have both inside and outside seating. There are drink kiosks and you are allowed to walk around with a drink. There are also stands selling edible treats like churros, ice cream, cinnamon nuts and fudge. The food options range from an upscale seafood spot, Riva, to chain, sit-down restaurants like Harry Caray’s, to a decent food court. They almost all offer outdoor seating and often have a wait.
Entertainment. There is a large outdoor theater which annually hosts the very entertaining Shanghai Circus. They also book various music acts. The indoor Shakespeare Theater puts on plays year round. There is an IMAX theater that shows the latest movies. In the summer there are small beer gardens that often have live music.
Views. Jutting out almost a mile into the lake and being set in the middle of the city gives Navy Pier one of Chicago’s best vantage points to see the skyline. The skyline is particularly beautiful when viewed from over the water whether it is during the day or night.
Drinks. There are a lot of places to get a drink on Navy Pier. Most restaurant have bars and nice outdoor patios. At the end of the pier is an outdoor beer garden with live music at night. All along the outside are beer and cocktail kiosks. You are allowed to drink anywhere on the pier. The prices at the kiosks vary by a surprising amount. The Billy Goat has the best prices and you should avoid the first few stops or the beer garden at the end.
While Navy Pier is a great attraction with a lot of things to do, it can, if you are not careful be a frustrating place to go. The crowds can be overwhelming and you can sit in traffic just for the chance to spend a small fortune on parking, if there is even any available. Our top tip is to not drive. Parking is $24 Friday-Sunday, $20 on other days. On busy days the lots fill up. The alternatives are to walk, just remember the pier is ¾ of a mile long so you will be doing a lot of walking after you get there. There is a free trolley that runs down Illinois with stops starting at State. There are also several CTA bus lines that end at Navy Pier.
Avoiding the Crowds. The hordes of tourists and visitors make avoiding the crowds hard to do. Going in the off season helps a lot. October through March is not too bad, although Halloween and Christmas do bring in lots of visitors. The weekends are of course the busiest times but even weekdays during the summer can be packed. Saturday Nights with its fireworks are very crowded. The earlier in the day you go the fewer visitors there will be.
Watching the fireworks. The farther out on Navy Pier you go the better the vantage point. From the end you get to see them over the water with Chicago’s skyline as a backdrop. It is one of the country’s best places to go see fireworks. Those who want to see the fireworks but not get caught up in the mass exodus can go to the front of Navy Pier or even leave and watch them from the park on Illinois just west of Lake Shore Drive. Another great way to see the fireworks is to take a boat tour. You will need to book ahead because they fill up fast.