Visiting Chicago’s Historic Navy Pier

Navy Pier Chicago Children's Museum

The last time Brian and I visited Chicago was in 2015 for the Grateful Dead 50th Anniversary Fare The Well tour. We arrived late July 2 and left early July 6, sandwiching the three concerts at Soldier Field in between. We didn’t do much sightseeing, but there was a bike rental station right across the street from our hotel, the Hilton Chicago, so one afternoon we rented bones and went exploring.

Unfortunately, unaware of the crowds that descend upon the Navy Pier for the 4th of July celebrations, we hopped on our bikes and rode toward the 3,300 foot long pier on the Chicago shoreline of Lake Michigan. It was a total and complete madhouse! From the streets and sidewalks to the bridges and parks, the closer we got to Navy Pier, the thicker the crowds got, until we couldn’t even ride our bikes! We ended up turning around, walking our bikes out of the mess, and riding in the opposite direction. We never made it to Navy Pier on that trip!

This summer we’re back in Chicago once again to see the two-night Dead & Company 2017 Summer Tour closing concerts at Wrigley Field, and because we have our kids with us, we were determined to make it to the Navy Pier — just not on July 4th!

Visiting Navy Pier

After visiting the Chicago History Museum, taking an Architectural Boat Tour on the Chicago River, and eating dinner at Dylan’s Candy Bar along the Magnificent Mile, we followed the signs for the Navy Pier and visited the iconic Chicago landmark just as the sun was beginning to set.

We entered Navy Pier through the Family Pavilion and were instantly greeted with several restaurants, stores, and kiosks selling souvenirs and kitschy items. As we walked through the pavilion, it soon turned into what resembles a mall food court and traditional mall stores like Build-A-Bear Workshop — which was sort of weird. I’m not sure what I expected to see at the Navy Pier, but I do know it definitely wasn’t the inside of a shopping mall!

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Navy Pier was to go to the Chicago Children’s Museum. It has three floors of interactive exhibits and daily programs about math, science, reading, the arts, and the city’s vibrant cultures — but I didn’t realize that it’s only for kids under age 10 and their families, so that family activity was out for us.

I’m slowly being forced to admit that I no longer have little kids.

As soon as we could, we made our way outside and relaxed as we walked along the water, checking out the gorgeous Chicago skyline between big tour boats docked on the pier, as the sun set. We picked up a few souvenirs, bought some hot candied nuts and pretzel bites, and wandered around, checking out the 100 foot tall Centennial Wheel and attractions like the mirror maze, carousel, swings, IMAX Theater, and more.

We also snapped several photos with the giant mouth/tongue sculptures placed all over Navy Pier to promote the Rolling Stones’ first ever major exhibit, Exhibitionism, which allows you to experience the incredible journey of the most influential rock ‘n’ roll band in the world from their early days living together in a tiny flat to headlining the biggest stages in the world. The immersive and interactive exhibition is the largest of its kind at nearly 18,000 square feet and includes over 500 rare items from the band’s private archive.

Chicago Navy Pier

Things To Do

In addition to the restaurants, food kiosks, and shops, Navy Pier offers visitors a variety of things to do, including tour boat cruises and tours, summer fireworks shows and outdoor movies, remote control boats, climbing walls, yoga classes, theater performances, and more.

Other Navy Pier attractions include:

  • IMAX Theater: This six-story screen, measuring 60 feet high and 80 feet wide, has seating for 440 guests and presents first-run movies and specially made IMAX films in 2D and 3D.
  • Beer Garden: From May through October, the Miller Lite Beer Garden on Navy Pier is Chicago’s go-to destination for free, live, outdoor music performances. During your visit, enjoy a large menu of beers, cocktails and frozen drinks, as well as beer-soaked brats, burgers, hand-tossed pizza and more. Best of all, there is no cover to enter, and all ages are welcome!
  • Navy Pier Park: Sitting outside on the second story of the historic Navy Pier, Navy Pier Park is a collection of rides, including the Centennial Wheel, a gorgeous carousel, and swings. The giant ferris wheel, air conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter, provides an unparalleled, 360-degree view of Chicago and Lake Michigan. The Carousel, designed exclusively for Navy Pier, is a whimsical work-of-art that recreates the Pier’s golden age of the 1920s when a similar attraction delighted another generation of visitors. The carousel’s 36 hand-painted animals represent the different styles found throughout the history of carousels.
  • Summer Fireworks: Navy Pier is Chicago’s bi-weekly destination for spectacular fireworks perfectly synchronized to music on Lake Michigan. Fireworks shows occur on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the summer, from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
  • Funhouse Maze: Amazing Chicago’s Funhouse Maze is Chicago’s only self-paced, full sensory maze experience where you navigate your way through 4,000 square feet of tunnels, mazes and fun.
  • Crystal Gardens: A beautiful indoor, one‐acre, botanical garden. This six‐story glass atrium, with a 50-foot arched ceiling, holds over 80 live palm trees, lush foliage, hanging twinkle lights, and dancing leapfrog fountains.

About Navy Pier

Located in the Streeterville neighborhood of the Near North Side community area, Navy Pier is among the most visited destinations in the world and one of the best boardwalks in America. Since its reopening in 1995, the Pier has welcomed over 180 million guests, including a record-breaking 9.3 million guests in 2016.

Originally designed for shipping and recreational purposes, the 100 year old Navy Pier has evolved into a premiere entertainment and exposition center. Watch the movie Navy Pier: A Century Of Reinvention or visit the site Navy Pier 100 Years to learn more about its rich history.

Some Navy Pier Fun Facts:

  • Navy Pier, originally named Municipal Pier, opened to the public on July 15, 1916. In 1927, the pier was renamed Navy Pier to honor the naval veterans who served in the First World War.
  • In 1941, during World War II the pier became a training center for the Navy. About 10,000 people worked, trained and resided there.
  • In 1946, as the Navy was winding down from its mission, the University of Illinois at Chicago held classes at the pier.
  • In 1976 the East End buildings were renovated and for a brief period the pier was alive again, home to summer events like ChicagoFest. But maintenance was not done and the pier went into decline.
  • On November 14, 1977, Navy Pier was designated as a Chicago Landmark.
  • On September 13, 1979, the pier was added to the US National Register of Historic Places.
  • In 1995, Navy Pier was redesigned and introduced to the public as a mixed-use venue incorporating retail, dining, entertainment, and cultural spaces.
  • From 2014 to 2016, Navy Pier underwent a redevelopment plan called The Centennial Vision, to give bring more evening and year-round entertainment to pier, as well as more compelling landscape and design features.

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