Visiting the Windy City? Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) should be high on your list. You probably know its famous Architecture River Cruise, considered one of the top tours in the United States. The USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards named it the #1 boat tour in the country. But the CAC offers so much more!
The CAC was started to save a single building
Founded in 1966, the CAC–formerly the Chicago Architecture Foundation–the original purpose was to save the scheduled demolition of Glessner House, built in 1886 during the Gilded Age. The architects prevailed and decided to continue to educate the public about the value of preservation. The Chicago Architecture Foundation expanded its mission to “inspire people to discover why design matters.”
The first group of 33 docents graduated in 1971, leading walking tours of the city. In 1983, the Chicago Architecture Center wisely launched the first river cruise. In 1992, CAC moved to the lovely Railway Exchange Building (across from the Art Institute), continued to expand tours, open one of the best gift shops in Chicago. Along the way, it outgrew its space. In late August 2018, it moved to a bigger and more beautiful space on the Chicago River (map and directions here) in August 2018.
Good, Better, and Best News about the Chicago Architecture Center
Good: Yes!! You should take the CAC River Cruise! For 1.5 hours, you will see the city from the river that it was founded on. Famous buildings from a different angle…with an expert docent to explain them. Do NOT fall for a cheap imitation. This is the only river cruise you should take. From March-November, with multiple times every day, including twilight tours. You’ll see 50 buildings and learn how Chicago was built–several times, including after Mrs. O’Leary’s cow (allegedly) started the Great Fire in 1871. To not take this tour would be like going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tour.
Better: With every tour, you get a week to visit the CAC’s new exhibits. (Cost without a tour: $12) The new space has room for permanent and temporary exhibits.
The original Chicago City Model Experience has been able to expand from the previous location. The model now has over 4,000 buildings from Chicago, with an interactive display. The model is constantly updated: when a new building is approved, CAC gets the design and adds it to the model. A film runs behind the model to explain how the city has grown. Grab a seat and watch the action.
I was dazzled by two exhibits: First, Building Tall, which has proportioned models of the world’s tallest structures, along with information about them, and their architects. Don’t miss the nearly 40-foot-tall model of Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower, which is expected to be the next world’s tallest building.
Second, a somewhat mind-boggling exhibit of the world in 2050. The planet is moving to urban settings. Chicago will have over 14 million people. New York City: 27 million. Mumbai: 44 million. How will they handle the influx? Where will people live? How will they get around? Where will food come from? The exhibit shows what will need to happen by then. Very thought-provoking.
Volunteers are on hand to answer questions and explain the exhibits. These folks are intensely trained and have to pass an examination before they can set foot on the floor. Ask them anything.
Best: Over 85 tours! After you “conquer” the river, dig a little deeper. This is where the good stuff is. Visit a neighborhood. Hop on the “L” to see more buildings. Learn about the artists and architects: Tiffany, Sullivan, Wright. Tour a single building. Walk Millennium Park. Taste the food that we still love from the 1893 Columbia Exposition.
CAC has never-ending stories about the sites and how they fit into the Chicago story. Don’t limit yourself to the river, as great as it is. Did you know there’s an underground five-mile Pedway? That Millennial Park is built on heavy-duty Styrofoam? That the Palmer House is the nation’s longest running hotel?
Don’t cheat yourself. If you’re coming to Chicago, check out the schedule. And if you live anywhere near Chicago, you should be a member. All the tours–well, most of them–are free!
When you go:
The COVID-10 pandemic turned the world on its head. Check the daily hours before you set out. Generally they are 10am-5pm.
Student (with ID): $10
Children ages 5 and younger: Free
Center admission is included in the price of all walking, bus and L tours.
Discounted CAC admission is available with the purchase of a River Cruise ticket.
Updated July 12, 2021