Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feel miles from home. So leave your passport at home and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.
Ask most Chicagoans the last time they spent extended time on the Chicago Riverwalk and they likely may answer: never. But that’s all changing now that the city is in the final stages of completing a major project started by Mayor Richard M. Daley and being completed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Like the bridges that cross the mighty waterway, the project has straddled two administrations, but now gets to be enjoyed by all.
The Chicago River has served as a main source for transportation and commerce since explorer and trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable first built a home in 1790 and then Fort Dearborn became the first permanent settlement in 1803, both along the mouth of the river, near where Michigan Avenue now crosses the water. In the early 2000s, Mayor Daley envisioned the river as a second lakefront, with a public walkway stretching from Lake Shore Drive along the south bank of the river west to where the river splits at Wolf Point.
Spend a morning, afternoon, or evening strolling the Riverwalk and you may find yourself gasping at this new perspective of the city. We often only see the Chicago River from the nine bridges that span its main branch, but now you can get down on the river—and there are plenty of activities to keep you busy.
“It’s an architectural, natural, and recreational adventure all in one,” said Margaret Frisbie, Executive Director of Friends of the Chicago River, which was instrumental in helping get the Riverwalk executed. “You can have a full day: kayak, eat lunch, read a book, enjoy architecture. It’s a multifaceted experience and you would never have to leave the Riverwalk all day.”
To start, you can descend from Wacker Drive at numerous points, but to take it all in, walk down the multi-level staircase at Columbus Drive, across the street from the Hyatt Regency east of Michigan Avenue. The change in ambiance is immediate: cars, buses, and trucks rushing by on the street level quietly morph into joggers, people walking dogs, and boats gliding by.
Walk east toward the lake and through the Riverwalk Gateway, and you’ll see a 170-foot-long arched metal and concrete passageway below Lake Shore Drive featuring numerous mosaic murals created by artist Ellen Lanyon. These massive pieces of art depict important moments and places in Chicago’s history like the Great Chicago Fire and the World’s Fair.
While not officially part of the Riverwalk, the far eastern end where the river meets Lake Michigan is worth taking in. You hear seagulls, it smells like the ocean, and you almost expect to watch sea lions lollygagging in the water. But to return to reality, simply turn around to see Chicago’s architectural wonders—the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower are just two examples—soaring over the river. In the past, to take it all in you’d either have to stand in the middle of one of the bridges or take an architectural boat tour like Chicago’s First Lady or Wendella Boats. These days, you can actually get down at the water’s edge. “This is the first time people can get anywhere near the river when you’re by the Loop,” Frisbie said. “The key is to get people right down to the water.”
From the Riverwalk Gateway, stroll westward past the first section of the Riverwalk, which opened in 2009 with the help of the Friends of the Chicago River. The idyllic, tree-covered path opens up to businesses like Urban Kayaks, Wanderbikes, Bike and Roll, and Wheel Fun Rentals, where you can grab a bike or kayak for a few hours. Stop at Cyrano’s Café & Wine Bar for French fare (think: quiche, escargot, and Niçoise salad) and wine while relaxing on covered tables as boats go by and French music streams from outdoor speakers.
This brings you to the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. Set inside the Michigan Avenue bridge house below Wacker Drive and the site of Fort Dearborn, the five-floor vertical museum opened in 2006. It tells the story of the river from the city’s beginnings through today. It costs $5 (free on Sundays) and is a great way to understand Chicago’s history.
With the new push to complete the Riverwalk, the Emanuel administration opened the second phase in late spring of 2015. The new sections will see six distinct areas, divided naturally between the bridges. Currently open are the Marina (between State and Dearborn), The Cove (Dearborn to Clark) and The River Theater (Clark to LaSalle). Set to open by next summer are the Swimming Hole (LaSalle to Wells), The Jetty (Wells to Franklin), where an underwater habitat will exist for sea life, and The Boardwalk (Franklin to Lake).
Plenty of locals take advantage of the Riverwalk during Chicago’s warmer months, when it’s officially open. People come out for lunch or after-work drinks at places like O’Brien’s Riverwalk Café and the newly opened music venue The Hideout. People working across the street in the Loop take their lunch outside and sit on the terraced steps above the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza or on the steps of the River Theater
“It’s quiet and I like to people watch and watch the boats,” said Mike Onatolu, who comes out a few days a week to eat or simply take a breather from work. “This is a secluded area and feels like a bit of a getaway.”
Others like Jamie Matias have come out for years to fish below the Clark Street bridge. Matias said he has caught a variety of fish—there are about 70 types of fish in the river—from catfish and carp to bluegill and rock bass. “I’ve been coming out for years, even before this was done,” Matias said. “I do catch and release. I just love fishing and it’s a great way to de-stress and get out of the office.”
City Winery, which has its main venue in the West Loop, opened an outpost in June along the river next to Downtown Docks, where yachts and smaller boats can anchor. On a gorgeous sunny Wednesday in August, City Winery’s 100-seat patio on the river looking across at Marina City was packed during lunch with people sipping crisp rosé and white wine and while eating Mediterranean-inspired sandwiches and small plates, like creamy burrata with fresh basil, kale Caesar salad, and grilled porchetta.
“We’ve really been pleasantly surprised that there’s a lot of traffic with families, small events, and business meetings,” said City Winery general manager Nathan Holgate. “It’s elegant and relaxed and it’s unique to have boaters and kayakers tie off here.”
However you use the Riverwalk, it is an escape. Gianna Dingillo, who recently moved to the Rogers Park neighborhood on the city’s Far North Side, spent a day kayaking with friends who were visiting from the suburbs. “I’ve never seen the city like this,” she said.
While it can feel like you’re getting away and you’ll see plenty of unfamiliar faces, the Riverwalk does give locals a new way to look at the city—but it’s still the city.
“You can’t help but feel like you’re in Chicago,” said Laura Ellsworth, the director of the Alan Koppel Gallery in Chicago’s River North, who recently met out-of-town friends at City Winery. “You sit on the river, in the heart of the city and you’re surrounded by the architecture that makes our town unique.”