Best Boat Rides for Chicago Area Families

Enjoy the sights of Chicago on a Shoreline Sightseeing Cruise.
Enjoy the sights of Chicago on a Shoreline Sightseeing Cruise.

Ready to hit the water? Families can celebrate the season by boarding a variety of boats on Lake Michigan or the Chicago River. Some may even want to venture further west for an old-fashioned river boat ride on the Fox River in St. Charles or a kid-powered paddle boat ride along the Naperville Riverwalk. A wide variety of boat rides are available for enjoying the water even while COVID-19 restrictions remain in place.

Check out some of our favorite boat rides near downtown Chicago and beyond. Families who are interested in relaxing dinner cruises, adventurous sailing, or architecture are sure to find something here that floats their boat.

Wendella Sightseeing Co.  — Downtown

400 N. Michigan Avenue
Cruise Lake Michigan or the Chicago River, or both, in the same tour with this well-known Chicago boat touring company. Wendella offers daytime and sunset cruises, as well as themed rides with lessons on everything from architecture to beer and barbecue. During summer 2020, Wendella is requiring masks for all guests, including while outdoors, and reducing capacity on its boats.

Shoreline Sightseeing — Downtown

Five dock locations
From short 40-minute lake cruises to the 75-minute architecture boat tour, this sightseeing company caters to kids with different attention spans. Tours depart from five separate docks throughout downtown to show off the river on the way to Lake Michigan. Guests will be asked to sit in every other row of the boat to enforce social distancing requirements in 2020, and no groups larger than 10 can sit together.

Check out Seadog Cruises for a thrill ride. 

Seadog Cruises — Downtown

Navy Pier
Families can choose from an architecture river cruise, a skyline lake cruise, or the fast-paced Seadog Extreme power boat ride from this Navy Pier cruise line. The Extreme experience offers 360-degree spins and slalom runs across Lake Michigan, guaranteeing thrills as boat riders get splashed. Seadog's lake cruises are 30 minutes, while the river cruise spans 75 minutes.

Spirit of Chicago — Downtown

Navy Pier
This cruise ship sets sail for lunch, dinner, or weekend brunch from Navy Pier. Slightly more affordable than its sister ship, the Odyssey, the Spirit boat ride offers buffet meals with kid-friendly options as well as a DJ and dancing. Cruises range from two to three hours in length.

Tall Ship Windy — Downtown

Navy Pier
For a different type of boat ride, hop aboard one of these sailboats for a tour of Chicago's skyline along Lake Michigan. Families can learn about the centuries-old sport of sailing while viewing some of Chicago's best architecture. Special jazz-themed sails are also available for music-loving families.

Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise — Downtown

Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive
Among the many boat rides near Chicago, this miniature history and architecture lesson is a staple of school field trips. Adults can learn a lot, too! A volunteer tour guide explains the history of more than 50 structures along the Chicago River in the 90-minute tour. Families can select from a daytime or evening departure with full bar and snacks on board. A $5 ticket upgrade gets you entry in the Chicago Architecture Center before or after the boat tour.

Take a cruise on the same waterways where The Fred A. Busse boat once fought fires.

Chicago Fireboat Tours — Downtown

111 N. Lakeshore Drive
Climb aboard a piece of Chicago history, the Fred A. Busse Fireboat, which assisted the city of Chicago in fire emergencies from 1937 to 1980. The boat offers lake and river historical cruises, along with fun sunset boat rides. The boat is operating at 25% capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions for the 2020 season.

Chicago's First Lady — Downtown

112 E. Wacker Drive
This boat company provides the vessels for Chicago Architecture Center's architecture tours, but also offers a few interesting boat trips of its own. Board the Lady Grebe, a 48-foot vintage yacht, for a 90-minute tour with your group of 6 or less, or set sail on a 45-minute sunrise yoga cruise on Saturdays or Sundays.

More Boat Rides Near Chicago

Paddlewheel Riverboats — St. Charles 

8 North Avenue
Suburban families and American literature lovers may get a thrill out of riding these paddlewheel cruisers, which look like something straight out of a Mark Twain novel. The boats' 50-minute rides launch from Pottowatamie Park in far west suburban St. Charles. While the boats currently in operation were built in the 1980s, Paddlewheel Riverboats started amusing Chicago-area families in 1945.  Special boat rides this summer include a root beer float themed adventure and a birdwatching tour. 

Naperville Paddleboat Quarry — Naperville

Naperville Riverwalk
Have your kids do the work as you enjoy a boat ride in Naperville's Paddleboat Quarry along the west suburb's riverwalk. Paddleboats, paddleboards, and kayaks are available to appeal to kids of different ages, and life preservers are required. Families can choose to rent any of these watercraft for $10 for 20 minutes or $15 for 40 minutes.

All photos courtesy of the companies

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