0.7 miles, Half day
Navy Pier has been through a lot since it opened in 1916 as an entertainment venue and Great Lakes cargo facility. During its life, the pier has housed soldiers, the Red Cross and civil defense units, served as a Naval training center and provided a home for the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois. Today it is the Midwest's premier tourist destination.
Built as Municipal Pier #2, Navy Pier was a part of the visionary Plan for Chicago developed by Daniel Burnham in the early part of the 20th century. That plan called for five piers, but this is the only one ever built. Construction took two years and cost $4.5 million. When it opened in 1916, the 3,300-foot-long (1,010 meters) Navy Pier was the largest pier in the world.
The pier was designed to serve shippers on Lake Michigan and provide a cool public gathering place for citizens in those pre-air-conditioning days. Although the proliferation of cars and trucks undercut the pier's role as a shipping facility, it thrived as an entertainment venue in the 1920s and '30s. At one point the pier had its own streetcar line, a theater and an emergency room. In 1927 it was officially renamed Navy Pier in honor of the Naval personnel who were stationed there during the war.
From 1965-1990, the pier languished. It was used for exhibits and special events—including ChicagoFest, the precursor to Taste of Chicago, the city's annual summer music and food festival—but it continued to deteriorate. In 1989 control of the pier was turned over to the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which oversaw its $200 million rejuvenation.
Navy Pier is open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas and there is rarely a time during the summer when it is not teeming with people. Hoping to bring in crowds during Chicago's frigid winters, when it can be bone-chillingly cold at the lakefront, Navy Pier also is home to Winter Wonderfest in December. During the summer, there are fireworks every Wednesday and Saturday night.
Bring a jacket if you want to stroll the outdoor promenade. There is rarely a day when the winds aren't blowing in off of Lake Michigan and unless it's a very hot day, it can get cool on the pier.
Set a budget before you go. While some things at the pier are free—the people watching, the strolling, some entertainment and a wonderful stained glass museum—most things at the pier cost money. If you don't arrive with a budget in mind, you could leave wondering how you managed to spend the kids' college fund in one day. Check the Navy Pier website for bundled deals that can save you a few bucks. If you're U.S. military, bring your ID for discounts.
There is plenty of parking at the pier, but it is tres expensive and it's a flat rate. So if you're going to drive, plan to spend the day to get your money's worth.
It's easy to get to the pier by public transit. Seven CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) bus lines stop at Navy Pier and during the summer, there's a free Navy Pier trolley that runs along Grand Avenue to the Red Line subway stop at Grand Avenue and State Street. Shoreline Sightseeing operates a water taxi between Navy Pier and the Museum Campus and between Navy Pier and Willis Tower via the Chicago River.