What to know before your travel group plans a weekend or day trip to Navy Pier in Chicago for its attractions, activities and other fun things to do
Navy Pier, one of Chicago’s most scenic and exciting destinations for travel groups, boasts many activities and attractions that your group can experience year-round. Lake Michigan’s prized hotspot draws more than nine million guests per year because it offers a plethora of activities and attractions, shopping, theater, cruises, famed food and drink options, scenic views and more. Constructed in 1916 and jutting out more than 3,300 feet into the open water, Chicago visitors and natives alike reap the benefits of having this many things to do in one beautiful place. While it is certainly worth your while to spend time at Navy Pier seeing as much as possible, with over 20 different attractions and more than 30 places to eat, it can be hard to know where to start. Here is a cohesive guide to the top 20 things to do at Navy Pier if you are looking for the best group activities and eats.
Navy Pier’s Activities and Attractions
- Centennial Wheel – The Centennial Wheel is Navy Pier’s most famed attraction. Soar above the Chicago skyline for views that you can only experience from this destination. The ferris wheel goes nearly 200 feet into the sky, offering panoramic views of the lake and the city year-round. The enclosed gondolas make it so that no matter the weather, the views will remain accessible.
- Fireworks Shows – If anyone in your travel group is afraid of heights and the Centennial wheel might not be for them, then make sure to visit on a Wednesday or a Saturday anytime from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends or on a Saturday during the winter months. Navy Pier puts on spectacular fireworks shows, great for the whole group to enjoy. Get some snacks from The Municipal and get a spot outside or cozy up for dinner at Offshore Rooftop where you can enjoy the show from a temperature-controlled and enclosed space. Navy Pier also offers New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July fireworks, a staple for those visiting during these seasons.
- Carousel – Navy Pier’s iconic carousel is open on weekends for all to enjoy. The carousel, a replica of the famed attraction that graced the pier in the bustling 1920s, includes a variety of rotating animals to choose from and is painted to depict scenes of the historic events at Navy Pier.
- Lakeview Terrace – Lakeview Terrace is an open, scenic space within the Navy Pier plaza that provides a great location for your group events, both large and small. The terrace can accommodate groups of up to 1,000 and boasts large floor-to-ceiling windows that provide extensive views of the city for any receptions, exhibitions, reunions, corporate events or gatherings you may be planning. Even if you’re not planning an event, it can’t hurt to stop by and see the views that so many people enjoy every year.
Where to Shop at Navy Pier
- Chicago Sports & Novelty – For those of you who have group members more excited about seeing a Blackhawks or Bulls game than viewing the skyline, this novelty shop is a great place to pick up some sports memorabilia and merchandise. Browse through souvenirs depicting all of Chicago’s most recognized sports teams at your next trip to Navy Pier.
- The Neighborhood Urban Gift Shop – Close by to the entrance of the pier, The Neighborhood is a great spot to find gifts and mementos made entirely by Chicago natives. This shop is a celebration of Chicago-made art, gifts, home goods, apparel and more.
- Art-K-Texture – This unique gift shop is entirely inspired by Chicago’s famous architecture and design. This spot is great for finding gifts for your favorite architecture buff or just to remember your trip to Navy Pier in Chicago.
- Faces in Focus – Faces in Focus is open seven days a week, entertaining guests by specializing in live paintings, caricature art and face painting. They also offer airbrush tattoos, digital caricatures, Victorian silhouettes and more! Their services can also be booked ahead of time for special events.
Arts and Culture Within Navy Pier
- Chicago Children’s Museum – The Chicago Children’s Museum, conveniently located directly on Navy Pier, is fun for the whole family. Kids can dig for dinosaur bones, paint their very own artwork and more on the museum’s three floors of educational wonder. Make sure to check their official website https://www.chicagochildrensmuseum.org/hours-tickets-and-faq-2023 for special holiday hours. The museum also offers Winter Play Days in January for those looking to get out of the house during Chicago’s more chilly days. If you are a Chicago resident, check for free days in the summer as well as in the winter.
- Chicago Shakespeare Theater – The theater, open year-round, is great for group trips for your family, theater club or class. The inspirational stories told here will expose you to not only Shakespearean works, but also to international feats of drama and stage performance.
- Aon Grand Ballroom – See a concert or host an event at the jewel of Navy Pier, the Aon Grand Ballroom. The ballroom is an original piece of the pier, and includes over 18,000 square feet of elegant architecture and a domed ceiling. Experience one of Chicago’s favorite New Year’s Eve countdowns right here!
- PERSPECTIVE Art Exhibit – PERSPECTIVE, presented by Diasporal Rhythms, is an exciting cultural and artistic program that is open daily. It is located at the lower level of Festival Hall, featuring artwork by Paul Branton, George Crump, Susan Clinard, Max Sansing and more.
Navy Pier Boat Outings and Cruises
- Architecture & Sightseeing – Architecture-based cruises offered by Shoreline, Seadog and Tall Ship Windy are all offered directly from Navy Pier through the Chicago River. Shoreline also offers Spanish language versions of their famous 75 minute tours. Sailing on Tall Ship Windy is only available during summer months.
- Speedboat Tours – For those members of your group that don’t want an entirely educational, relaxing tour, crank up the music and get excited to learn about the city with Seadog Lakefront Speedboat Tours. This fast boat ride allows for infant and dog guests, but there are no guarantees that you won’t get splashed!
- Private Group Cruises – Up to 800 guests can be accommodated for special occasions on the Tall Ship Windy sailboat, Chicago Elite yacht, Seadog Groups boats and Mystic Blue Groups yachts among others. If you’re planning a family vacation or reunion, corporate gathering, wedding or reception of some kind, make sure to plan ahead of time to book slots for your group. You won’t want to miss all that Lake Michigan can offer–including views of Navy Pier you just can’t experience from the docks themselves.
- Brunch, Lunch & Dinner Cruises – Wine and dine your group at a floating restaurant as you cruise throughout Lake Michigan for a meal. Different cruise lines offer different meal packages, but there are options from brunch to sunset to a late-night dinner for those looking to celebrate world renowned chef-prepared menus and time with loved ones.
Where to Eat at Navy Pier
- Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Bar and Grill – The perfect place to enjoy your Chicago summers, the Margaritaville Bar and Grill at Navy Pier is open to the public in an indoor-outdoor setting right on Lake Michigan. The restaurant offers a tropical atmosphere while still providing views of the Chicago we all know and love. During the wintertime, this spot is the start of the famed Navy Pier Arbor Lights, a series of interactive holiday decorations that guests can control with their phones.
- Offshore Rooftop – The largest rooftop venue in all of America at 36,000 square feet, Offshore Rooftop provides yet another panoramic view of scenic Chicago. The rooftop restaurant and bar is open year-round, with cozy fire pits and enclosed spaces during the winter months. Join us for Happy Hour from 3 p.m.-5 p.m. on weekdays for those 21 years of age and older. After 9 p.m., the doors close to those under 21.
- Harry Caray’s Tavern – Barbecue, craft beer, sports memorabilia, and plant-based options are all available at Harry Caray’s Tavern. Visit during the winter holiday season to see Santa arrive via boat through Lake Michigan before eating brunch with all of the tavern’s patrons. Also during this season, a curling rink is offered on the patio for those in your group who don’t mind braving the lakefront cold to participate. Bring your dog to the patio in the summertime to include fun for the furry members of your family.
- The Municipal – If you don’t have time to sit down for a meal, make sure to stop by The Municipal, open seven days a week. This mini-mart offers snacks, drinks, over-the-counter medicine and personal care products for when your travel group is running low.
By Taylor Anderson–Chicago, Ill.