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Wendella’s Architectural Tour

June 13, 2013

When asking and Yelp-ing around about what to do during our mother-daughter weekend in Chicago (previous recaps here, here and here), the far and away most highly recommended activity was an architectural boat tour of the city.  Never one to turn up my nose at a recommendation (or a boat ride), I couldn’t wait for the tour we scheduled for the beautiful Monday afternoon of our visit.

Our sightseeing boat seen from across the river before our tour.

Our sightseeing boat seen from across the river before our tour.

After a little research, Wendella Sightseeing emerged as the clear favorite as a tour company, so our group of four booked their Combined Lake and River Tour.  For $28 per person (before the small discount for booking online), we got a 90-minute boat tour through the Chicago River for up-close views of the city’s architecture, then out onto Lake Michigan to see the gorgeous skyline from afar.  We all loved this tour.

Wendella's Tour

The Yelp reviews I’d read recommended arriving at least 20-30 minutes prior to the tour to snag seats on the top deck of the boat, but I’m guessing those reviewers took their tours on weekends or holidays.  We actually ran ahead of schedule and showed up around 1:55 p.m., while we weren’t scheduled until the 3 p.m. tour.  They let us jump on the 2 p.m. tour right before it set sail and we had no problems scoring seats up top, but again it was a Monday afternoon.  Our guide was friendly and informative – not hilarious like I’ve heard some of the Wendella’s guides can be, but certainly enjoyable.

Did I mention that there’s also a bar on board?  I sipped a refreshing Goose Island 312 as we cruised down the river and it paired perfectly with the architecture.

Goose Island Architecture

As we passed by the buildings it was interesting to learn facts about their place in the city’s history.  For instance, the Civic Opera Building was built because some rich Chicago dude (I listened pretty well, ok) had a mistress who was an opera singer.  She auditioned for the Met in New York and was rejected.  To make her feel better, he built her this colossal opera house.

Chicago Opera House

You can’t quite tell from that photo, but the building is in the shape of a chair, and guess what direction it is facing.  That’s right – the chair’s high back is turned on New York.  Quite a statement, no?

Chicago Architecture Tour

We cruised by the buildings at a pretty good clip, so you really had to pay attention if you wanted to keep up with the narrative.

Chicago Architecture Tour

I was in the middle of reading a book set in Chicago, so I was pretty interested to see buildings referenced in the plot.  This was one of them but now I don’t remember which.  Anyone recognize it?

Chicago Arcitecture Tour

It was also cool to view the same skyscrapers we’d seen from the top of the John Hancock Building earlier that day.  For instance, I quickly recognized the building in the center of the photo above with the gold top, designed to resemble a champagne bottle.  (Funny how some descriptions stick with you, huh?)

From there it was time to go through the Chicago Lock and out to Lake Michigan. 

Chicago Lock

I had never been through a canal lock before and found it pretty interesting.  I started typing up an explanation of what the Chicago Lock is, then decided to give you this Wikipedia link explaining canal locks instead, because most of you probably either already know what they are or aren’t interested anyway.  While we waited to get through we took pictures.

Architecture tour

Posing in the Chicago Lock

Once we got out on Lake Michigan the temperature dropped significantly, so definitely bring layers if you take this tour.

Chicago from the Lake

Our tour guide continued to reference specific buildings and give us a history of Chicago and its neighborhoods with more of a broad view from the lake.  As you can see, the vistas were spectacular.

Chicago Skyline

It was cool to hear about the city’s past – politics, corruption, the great fire, the evolution of a great city – and its present – mostly the race to build the tallest building and the many luxurious places where Oprah has lived.

One thing that I really appreciated was that after a little while, our guide told us he would be quiet for a bit to allow us some time to take it in, take our own photos and talk amongst ourselves. 

Chicago Skyline Wendellas

He also offered to take group photos and we quickly took him up on his offer.

Group Shot on Wendella's Tour

Then things got silly.

Wendellas Skyline

Wendellas Handstand

Following that last photo we got a strange look from our tour guide.  “Sorry, is there no gymnastics allowed on the boat?” we asked.  “Well,” he replied, looking a little dumbfounded,  “I’ve never gotten that question before.”

Probably looking to stop us before things escalated, he picked his schpiel back up and we took our seats to keep looking and learning.

Lake Michigan Lighthouse

Sailboat and Chicago Skyline

On such a clear and sunny day, it was phenomenal to see the city by boat. 

Chicago Skyline Wendellas

Does it get any more beautiful than that?

The 90-minute tour was perfect.  I could have easily stayed on the lake and river longer, but didn’t feel cheated when returning to the dock either.  Wind-swept and sun-baked, we all disembarked with smiles on our faces.  I thought this was an excellent way to experience Chicago and highly recommend adding Wendella’s to your Windy City itinerary.

Wendella's tour

Tips if you to go:  Try to wait for good weather, buy tickets online, wear and bring sunscreen, bring an extra layer and don’t forget your camera.  And have fun!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2013 3:11 pm

    Its the Merchandise mart, great exhibits in there for all types of merchandise….I used to work across the street from the Carbon & Carbide building (Champagne bottle looking one) the bar there has excellent martinis…I miss and dream of them often! I love this tour and have done it a few times myself…Booze cruises are big on hot Friday nights in Chicago! You really had perfect weather!

    • June 14, 2013 3:49 pm

      That’s what it was! (lightbulb goes on) Thank you! I wish I would have known about the martinis inside the champagne bottle… how’s that for a combination? 🙂 Chicago turned out to be the perfect halfway point to meet my East Coast mom for a girls weekend so I’m anticipating return trips – I might have to hit you up for more suggestions before the next one!


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