Breathtaking lakefront views, unmatched entertainment, and cool breezes — welcome to Navy Pier, a slice of heaven for tourists and locals alike in Chicago. It’s hands down the most sought-after attraction in Chicago and the entire Midwestern region, with a charm that will simply knock your boots off. The allure of Navy Pier lies behind its stunning street views particularly from the high-rising Ferris wheel, as well as humongous boats, splash fountains, extravaganza, great restaurants, art scene, and much more.
In this comprehensive guide, we are going to walk you through everything you need to know about the fabulous Navy Pier, Chicago. First things first; let’s take a closer look at the basics of Navy Pier.
Where is Navy Pier Located?
Stretching 3,300 feet, Navy Pier is a waterfront on Lake Michigan’s shoreline in Chicago. It’s nestled in the vibrant neighborhood of Streeterville of the Near North, skirting over 14 hectares of lush gardens, parks, performance spots, plazas, and lots of family-friendly attractions. Every year, more than 9 million visitors flock to Navy Pier.
Navy Pier at a Glance
- When was it opened – 1916
- Address – 600 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611, US.
- Admission – It’s free to enter Navy Pier, however, some organized events and specific attractions charge an admission fee.
- Official website – www.navypier.org
Guest Services at Navy Pier
If it’s your first time visiting Navy Pier, you might want to make a first stop at their Guest Services desk. The biggest, fully staffed customer service desk is located right at the entrance of the pier between Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Giordano’s. Whether you need directions, recommendations or whatever question/concern you might have, Guest Services should be your go-to at Navy Pier.
Apart from the main guest services desk at the front of the pier, there are two additional kiosks for your convenience. There’s one located near West Garage Parking Door #5, while the other is just close to West Garage Parking Door #1 (near Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville). The good thing is that you can’t miss the guest services staff; they are usually adorned in their khaki pants and appropriately navy blue shirts.
If for some reason you can’t find a guest services employee, you can call 1-312-595-PIER (7437) during working hours. Besides, there is always someone on the other end of Navy Pier’s hotline number, 1-312-595-5155.
Does Navy Pier have an Age Restriction?
At its heart, Navy Pier is a family-focused attraction, which means that visitors of all ages can grace the place. There are a few exceptions, though. During specific age-sensitive events and after 5 pm on Sundays, Saturdays, and Fridays, children under the age of 18 are required to be in the company of a legal guardian or a parent at all times. During this period, everyone must present a legal ID which will be checked before getting into all of the grounds, facilities, and events at Pier Navy.
Navy Pier Hours of Operation
The exact hours of operation for the Navy Pier often boil down to the particular holiday and season. Here’s a breakdown of typical hours for the Navy Pier:
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day
- Friday & Saturday – 10 am to Midnight
- Sunday through Thursday – 10 am to 10 pm
Between Labor Day and Halloween
- Friday & Saturday – 10 am to 10 pm
- Sunday through Thursday – 10 am to 8 pm
Between November 1 and Memorial Day
- Friday & Saturday – 10 am to 10 pm
- Sunday – 10 am to 7 pm
- Monday through Thursday – 10 am to 8 pm
Pier Hours during Holidays
- July 4th – 10 am to 10 pm
- Thanksgiving Day – The Pier is Closed
- December 24th – 10 am to 5 pm
- Christmas Day (December 25th) – the Pier is Closed
- December 31st – 10 am to Midnight
- New Year’s (January 1st) – 10 am to 10 pm
Please Note: It is crucial that you inquire about the working hours with specific facilities or events that you plan on visiting during your visit.
Parking at Navy Pier
There are several different ways to get to Navy Pier. Perhaps the best way to get to and around the pier is to take advantage of the free trolley service, but you can also rent a Divvy bike, travel on the CTA, or take the Shoreline Water Taxi. If these transport options don’t sound like your cup of tea, and you’d rather drive, you will be glad to know that there’s plenty of off-site parking and within the pier.
If you are driving, parking at Navy Pier is a convenient, easy, and hassle-free way to access and enjoy a diversity of attractions, shops, entertainment spots, restaurants, and other goodies the pier has to offer. There are two high capacity garages found within Navy Pier, namely East Garage and West Garage. Both parking garages boast a capacity of up to 1500 cars.
If you are driving a van or an oversized truck, you are recommended to park it in the 7’9” height clearance East Garage. If it can pass the 6’3” height clearance, you can park your vehicle in the West Garage. It’s crucial that you note that all vehicles entering these parking lots are subjected to mandatory search.
Motorcycles, motorcoaches, and buses aren’t allowed to park in these two parking garages. Motorbikes are permitted to park in the Navy Pier’s dedicated parking area for motorcycles by the Riva Valet in Entrance #1.
On-Site Parking Rates at Navy Pier
(a) Self-Parking Rates
The following rates are applicable to 24-hour self-parking at Navy Pier:
- Motorcycle – $15 per 24 hours at the dedicated parking area by the Riva Valet
- Standard Vehicles – $30 per 24 hours
- Trailer vehicles – the rate depends on the size of the trailer. Go ahead to East Garage and ask for assistance with the exact parking fee.
(b) Valet Parking Rates
Valet parking is also available at Navy Pier, only available at Entrance #1. You can ask for the valet staff to provide you with a parking ticket. As you might expect, valet parking rates don’t count for cars that you self-park at the West Garage or East Garage. You must spend at least $25 at Riva Crab House and/or Harry Caray’s Tavern to qualify for valet parking validation. Once your parking has been validated, the rates go as follow:
From Monday through Thursdays, validated vehicles parked for fewer than 6 hours pay $15 for valet, while those that exceed the 6-hour limit will shell out $35. The same goes for non-validated parking – you will have to pay the valet $35.
From Friday through Sunday, the valet parking rate goes up to $20 for validated vehicles parked for less than 6 hours. Non-validated tickets and those that exceed 6 hours, will have to part with $40 for valet parking.
(c) Alternative and Off-Site Parking at Navy Pier
If you are looking for discounted parking outside of Navy Pier, you are in for a special treat. The pier has agreed with a number of off-site parking lots to offer to park at a discounted rate of $15 per day if you get validation. These garages include Grand Plaza Park (540 N. State), Ogden Plaza Self Park (300 E. North Water Street) and Millennium Park Garage (5 S. Columbus Dr.). The good news is that all the parking garages are located just a stone throw away from the pier, and are connected by the Navy Pier free trolley service.
Public Restrooms and Accessibility at Navy Pier
Navy Pier has gone above and beyond to ensure that all areas within the pier, including its many gardens, shops, attractions, and restaurants are accessible to everyone. Here are a few highlights of accessibility at Navy Pier:
- Service animals are allowed within the pier as dictated by the Americans with Disabilities Act
- There are all kinds of wheelchairs you can get from the guest services desks and kiosks
- All levels of the pier are accessible via elevators
- Paratransit pick-up and drop-off locations are conveniently located at entrances #1 & #2, as well as at the Family Pavilion entrance. They are also equipped with modern ramps.
- All cruises serving the Navy Pier provide wheelchair accessibility, including Spirit of Chicago, Shoreline Sightseeing, Seadog, Odyssey, and Mystic Blue. however, you might want to inquire with the cruise operator to ensure accessibility
- All parking floors in the West Garage are accessible, and the East Garage features a high ceiling clearance to make it easy for large trucks and vans with accessibility functionality to park.
- All the performances at the most popular entertainment spot at the pier, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, are audio described and interpreted in ASL.
Talking of restrooms, they are found aplenty within the confine of the pier. The main public restrooms are found just across from McDonald’s and to the left of Faces in Focus. Other establishments with accessible bathrooms include Aon Grand Ballroom, Billy Goat, Riva Restaurant, Navy Pier Park, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and Goddess & the Baker. Don’t forget that you can ask any Guest Services staff to point you towards the next public restroom.
Now, let’s get to the good stuff – the reasons why you’d want to visit Navy Pier, Chicago.
The Fascinating History of Navy Pier
Initially called the Municipal Pier, Navy Pier swung its doors open for the first time on July 5, 1916, but its fascinating history goes beyond this date. While the construction of the pier is credited to the famous architect Charles Sumner Frost, the design concept was based on the so-called Plan of Chicago (1909), a brainchild of Edward H. Bennett and Daniel Burnham.
According to this original concept, the pier was originally designed to be a dock for passenger traffic, freight, as well as a platform for outdoor & indoor recreation. Interestingly, the two designers intended to build a total of 5 piers on Chicago’s shoreline of Lake Michigan, but only one pier was eventually constructed: Navy Pier.
Of course, Navy Pier has gone through an array of changes, revamps, and whatnot over the years. Here’s the timeline of the key historical highlights of Navy Pier since opening in 1916:
In 1917, the Pier became a naval hub at the onset of WWI, with recruits, soldiers, home defense units, and Red Cross outfits taking over. The following year, the US Navy turned the pier into a fully-fledged jail for draft dodgers.
In the 1920s, the pier remained a busy dock for freighters and occasional passenger traffic. But as the decade progressed, it turned into a hot entertainment spot. Motorboat races, airplane shows, fireworks displays, kids’ activities, art collections & exhibitions, theaters, plays, and live music concerts were the norm at the pier. In fact, the so-called “Pageants of Progress” was held at the Pier in 1922, bringing together throngs of locals and tourists from far and wide who came to witness pirate shows, motorboat racing, skydiving stunts, and so forth. The 1920s was truly the heydays of the Navy Pier.
It was not until 1927, however, that the pier was christened Navy Pier in appreciation of the sacrifice the naval veterans made for our beloved country in WWI.
There wasn’t much going on at the pier in the early and even late 1930s, as the economic turmoil of the Great Depression was felt across the county. Nonetheless, the pier continued to be an entertainment hub, as well as hosting a plethora of auto, gardening, and trade shows.
The 1940s & 50s
In 1941, WWII broke out, and Navy Pier reverted to being a navy training and logistics facility. In fact, by the end of WWII, more than 60000 navy soldiers and marines had gone through training at the pier. After the end of the war, in 1946, the University of Illinois took over the pier.
1960 – 1990
The University of Illinois left Navy Pier for its current ground in the southwestern part of Chicago in 1965. In the next two decades, the pier fell into neglect, suffering serious damage to its structure and integrity. In 1977, it was declared a Chicago Landmark by the City Hall. There were a few renovations done to the pier, but it was still in a sorry state.
The Rebirth of Navy Pier
Source: WTTW: Navy Pier, A Century of Reinvention
In the early 1990s, the City of Chicago in conjunction with Urban Land Institute started reviving Navy Pier. They soon created the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the agency that was behind the redesign and the reopening of the pier in 1995 as a mix-use recreational facility. It was then that the iconic Ferris Wheel was erected, as well as other major attractions on the pier.
The Growth and Success
Between 1996 and 2011, Navy Pier experienced unprecedented growth in terms of development. As an attraction, the pier started pulling in millions of visitors from all over the country and beyond. Soon, cruise tours, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, trade shows firework shows, live bands, and other events joined the scene.
In 2011, Navy Pier was declared a non-profit capitalizing on the success of the last one and a half decades to become the best attraction in the Midwest. In 2017, the pier achieved its Centennial Vision, ushering in a new era with more local restaurants, revamped promenades, and of course the new Centennial Wheel.
Top attractions at Navy Pier
As the leading attraction in the Chicago area and the entire US Midwest, Navy Pier is teeming with top-notch attractions. And, boy, there’s plenty to see and do, both on and off the pier. Here are the top must-visit attractions at Navy Pier:
(1) Chicago Children’s Museum
Website: www.chicagochildrensmuseum.org, Tel: (312) 527-1000)
Kids (and their parents) will absolutely fall in love with the Chicago Children’s Museum. Founded in 1982, there’s a ton that kids can do and see at the museum.
- Scale the 3-story schooner
- Have a blast in the water playground
- Enjoy a dinosaur expedition where they can dig for dino bones
- Visit the art studio to test their artsy side
- Play “firefighter”
- Try their hands at the DIY maker space
The list of exciting and educative activities goes on and on. Chicago Children’s Museum is truly a 3-floor haven of fun for children ages 10 and younger, and their families.
Hours: Monday through Wednesday, it’s open from 10 am to 5 pm; Thursday, 10 am to 8 pm; and Friday through Sunday, 10 am through 5 pm.
Pricing: Kids under 1 year & members enter free, seniors older than 60 pay $13.95, while the general admission is $14.95 per child/adult.
(2) Centennial Wheel
The Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier is an iconic landmark beautifying the skyline of Chicago. This cultural heritage soars a dizzying height of close to 200ft, providing visitors with unmatched, 360-degree stunning views of Lake Michigan, streets, and the entire Chicago area. No matter what attracted you to the Navy Pier, riding the Centennial Wheel is a no-brainer if you want to have an unforgettable memory of the visit.
Hours: the Wheel is open to the public during the Pier’s normal hours of operation.
Pricing: Tickets to the wheel can be bought on-site at the pier’s box office. Kids under 3 enjoy a free ride, while general adult tickets cost $18 per person, while children aged between 3 and 11 will have to path with $15 each. Illinois residents can purchase tickets at discounted rates: $14 for an adult, $12 for a child, and $12 for a military resident. If you are not from within but you can produce a military ID, you can get a ticket to the wheel for 15 bucks.
Important Tip: if you’re an Illinois resident, you might want to visit the Centennial Wheel on any day between Tuesday and Thursday from Nov. 1 through March 31st to enjoy the greatly discounted seasonal pricing.
(3) Crystal Garden
Website: www.crystalgardenscatering.com, Tel.: 1-312-595-5436 (Kerry Bowler), Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your visit to Navy Pier can never be complete without at least a peek at the magnificent Crystal Garden. It is an award-winning botanical garden that sits on a one-acre parcel within the Navy Pier. It is enclosed by a 6-story glass atrium complete with 50 feet of arched ceiling. The Crystal Gardens is home to more than 80 palm trees, dancing leapfrog fountains, hanging twinkle lights, and exuberant foliage that will certainly arouse your innermost and basest feelings for nature.
From the gardens, you will enjoy breathtaking views of the Chicago skyline, lakefront, streets, and the Centennial Wheel. It is currently under the management of Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants. Crystal Gardens is also a private events venue which can comfortably hold groups of between 100 and 1500 people.
Hours: Check with Kerry Bowler for exact hours of operation, but it usually open to the public during normal Navy Pier hours.
Pricing: It’s Free to All
(4) Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Website: www.chicagoshakes.com, Box Office Tel.: 1-312-595-5600, Email: email@example.com
The 500-seat Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) holds more than 650 performances throughout the year. It attracts thousands of audience members, most of whom are surprisingly teens and young adults. The internationally recognized theater company nestled right at the heart of Navy Pier produces new works, classics, family programming, as well as the run of the mill Shakespeare pieces geared towards visitors, students, and educators alike. It is one of the most popular attractions at Navy Pier, and one that you don’t want to miss.
Hours: Check their website for up to date CST programming
Pricing: The price varies from performance to performance, however, the rate starts from as little as $20.
(5) AMC IMAX Theater
Website: AMC Theaters Chicago; Tel.: +1 312-281-7095
AMC IMAX Theater at Navy Pier is film theater entertainment at its best. Here, you can catch the latest blockbusters formatted to show you up to 26 percent more picture than standard theaters for an outstanding immersive experience. The crystal-clear pictures, combined with sterling digital audio, IMAX custom theater geometry, offer the audience a unique movie experience like no other.
Hours: Open during normal operating hours of the pier
Pricing: It starts from $19.59 for an adult per film
(6) Polk Bros Fountain and Plaza
This small yet lush park located at the entrance to the pier, featuring a beautiful promenade, large fountain, and rolling elegant lawn. It is a perfect spot for the entire family, friends, and coworkers to have fun and hang out. The 12,500-square foot fountain is the main attraction within the park, boasting of 150 programmable water jets that will take your mind off the hustles and bustles of everyday life. During winter time, the fountain is converted into a fantastic ice rink. The well-kept lawn includes performance spaces that act as host grounds for cultural events, live arts, music events, and other outdoor activities with Lake Michigan in the background.
“ The Polk Bros Park is named in honor of the Polk Family, who generously provided a gift of $20 million in 2014 for the complete re-imagination of the 13-acre park at the Pier’s west entrance, “ states official Navy Pier website.
Tours & Attractions at Navy Pier
Tours/expeditions is the name of the game when it comes to having a fun experience at and around Navy Pier. Yes, visitors can get amazing views from the pier, especially from its tall Ferris Wheel, but aboard a boat tour, you will be treated to stunning views of Chicago skyline, elegant buildings, and lots more.
That’s right; most of the amazing attractions in Chicago are best viewed from Lake Michigan. Here are top Navy Pier and Chicago boat tours you might want to check out:
(1) Sea Dog
Sea Dog is a boat tour company is popular in the Navy Pier scene. It offers wildly adventurous speed boat rides as well as Chicago architecture tours. If you are after a tour that’ll rev up your adrenaline and provide you with great views, Sea Dog is your go-to.
(2) Mystic Blue Chicago Boathouse Cruise
This boat tour leaves from the Navy Pier Sunday through Friday. It is a perfect tour for hosting your birthday party, engagement, etc. The boat features a dance floor, DJ booth, games, and lots of food and drinks.
(3) Tall Ship Windy
Partake on a tour aboard a pirate ship-like boat complete with billowing sails. It’s a family-friendly boat tour that gives you a chance to witness Chicago waterfront in all its glory.
(4) Shoreline Sightseeing Classic Lake Tour
This boat tour is for visitors who are short on time. It allows you to see all the aesthetics of Chicago shoreline in a matter of 40 minutes, including tour narration.
(5) Shoreline Sightseeing Architecture River Tour
Like the previous tour, this boat tour departs from Navy Pier, but it lasts around 1 hour and 15 minutes. It highlights over 40 landmarks in Chicago, from Aon Center to Wrigley Building and many other architectural sightings in between.
(6) Spirit of Chicago Sunset Dinner Cruise with Buffet
This 3-hour cruise tour on L. Michigan is full of fun, sightseeing, dancing, and a ton of food/drinks. It offers you a glimpse of Chicago shoreline, including Navy Pier. There’s a DJ on board.
(7) Odyssey Lunch Cruise
It’s a lunch cruise tour that departs from Navy Pier. It includes a 3-course meal, views, and other exciting activities you can squeeze into two hours.
Other Tourist, Walking, Bus, and Helicopter Tours
Photo credit: Sven Brogren
On top of boat tours, you can also enjoy a diversity of walking tours, bus tours, helicopter tour, and even segway tours. The self-guided walking tour includes the following attractions: IMAX Theater, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Oceanscape and Sculpture, Miller Lite Beer Garden, Chicago Children’s Museum, Giordano’s, and Garrett’s Popcorn.
Where to Eat or Drink at Navy Pier
(1) Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Bar & Grill
What makes this restaurant stand out from the rest here at Navy Pier is its outdoor seating. It is a great way to take a sip while enjoying the cool breezes. There’s also indoor seating for someone who likes a little privacy. Tequila at the Tiki Bar is to die for.
Well, you already know what you are going to order from any McDs, so go ahead. At the pier, McDonald’s has an outdoor seating so you can take in the amazing shoreline views.
(3) Ben & Jerry’s
Make sure to order banana splits or smoothies – they know how to make ’em at Navy Pier’s Ben & Jerry. Sometimes you want a scoop by the pint on a waffle cone.
(4) Xurro / Churro Factory
Wife & husband duo has been serving up Churros at their seasonal location by the Pier’s dock-side. They taste heavenly.
(5) Big City Chicken
The classic fried chicken and fries combo are a must have at Big City Chicken. The chicken pieces are available either as original or spicy. It’s all down to your choice. How about an original crispy chicken sandwich with a little mayo, lettuce, and pickles?
(6) Tiny Tavern
If you are out with a couple of your homies, don’t skip Tiny Tavern. It’s the best place on the pier to treat your drinking taste buds to craft cocktails. It is a hot spot for tourists and locals as well.
(7) DMK Burger Bar and Fish Bar
If you have been craving some finger-licking burgers, try DMK signature burgers. They are juicy and you can customize them as you like. There’s also a Fish Bar as well as cocktails, craft beers, and more.
(8) Riva Crab House
If you want a restaurant with amazing views at Navy Pier, Riva Crab House is worth checking out. They serve all kinds of seafood, including Alaskan red king crab legs, Atlantic salmon, shrimp, lobster, etc. Or, you can go light with sandwiches and salads – they aren’t too shabby.
If you can’t cheat on your diet even for one day, here’s a restaurant that will tickle your fancy. Healthy-food focused Canadian chain offers fresh salads, bowls, wraps, smoothies, juices, and lots of kale, all to your wellness.
Deep dish pizza, anyone? The best Chicago-style pizza is at this restaurant. Their classic stuffed pizza will certainly take your taste buds for a ride.
If you like your meal with plenty of meat, Porkchop is should be your preferred restaurant at the pier. Their pulled pork sandwiches are meatier, tastier, and more filling. With soda and a side of fries, you’re set for a busy afternoon touring the rest of Chicago.
(12) Jamba Juice
Jamba Juice is another restaurant geared towards healthy meal options, including juice blends, fruit smoothies, etc. But if you are hungering for a heartier meal, they also have sandwiches and flatbreads.
Things to do around Navy Pier
There’s a lot of other attractions within walking distance of Navy Pier you should be aware of:
(1) Cite restaurant with 360 views (3 minute walk)
Cite is a high-end restaurant that is found along North Lake Shore Drive. While the food isn’t exactly worth writing home about, the restaurant has gorgeous sweeping views of Lake Michigan and the sprawling city. It has a French touch in its menu, especially desserts and decor. You will absolutely love their cocktails and a selection of fine wine, including sherries, Bordeaux, burgundies, and merlots.
The biggest draw is that Cite is only a 3-minute walk from Navy Pier.
(2) Lakefront Trail (5 minute walk)
If you are up for a walk, hiking or biking, Lakefront Trail is a must try. It is approximately 22 miles of biking trail, stretching from Evanston all the way down to Indiana border. If you are an avid hiker or biker, the route provides you with plenty of challenging trails and awesome environment. It passes through several parks including Grant Park, Lincoln Park, Jackson Park, and Millennium Park, as well as a chance to traverse University of Chicago, Museum Campus, and Buckingham Fountain. You can rent a Divvy bike near Navy Pier.
(3) City Mini Golf at Maggie Daley Park (15 minute walk)
Photo Credit: CBS Chicago
The City Mini Golf at Maggie Daley Park is just 10-15 minute walk from Navy Pier. It is a perfect end to Navy Pier tour for any miniature golf enthusiast. Located on the south end of the BP Bridge, this 18-hole mini golf course offers stunning views of the famous Chicago skyline throughout the whole gameplay. The holes are exciting and filled with whim and pizzazz.
(4) Magnificent Mile (15 minute walk)
Michigan Avenue with all the shops and restaurants is only 10 minutes-walk away. After half or full day at the pier, you can head over to Magnificent Mile to get some shopping done. After all, the Mile is teeming with luxe fashion, boutique as well as upscale shops. With stylish hotels, finesse restaurants, and nearby landmarks, Magnificent Mile has plenty to offer.
(5) Ohio Street Beach (15 minute walk)
Small yet vibrant and cool, Ohio Street Beach is a lovely beach that is nestled just 10 minutes from the loop and Navy Pier. Its shallow waters and closeness to Navy Pier makes it an excellent place for open water swimming. There are also a series of hotels, pubs, and taverns close to the beach, with the latest addition being Caffé Oliva.