Years ago when I first visited Chicago, the Chicago River was more of a nuisance than anything. Something you had to cross to get from one side of the city to the other, something that was dirty and something that was a little bit scary. That’s not the case anymore. From the architecture cruises that go down it to the expanded and improved walkway to the renewed efforts to clean the water and keep the area safe, the river itself is a destination.
The key to it all is the Riverwalk. The project began in 2001 as a pedestrian walkway along the south shore of the Chicago River. It starts around Lake Shore Drive, and the first phase extended to Michigan Avenue. The most recent phase, completed last year, goes to the bend in the river, around Lake Street.
Riverwalk is now 1.25 vibrant miles of restaurants, bars, museums, boat and fishing docks, fountains, beer stands, tiki huts, floating gardens and more. You’ll see people running, walking their dogs, sitting on a bench and reading, having a meeting and more.
“The Riverwalk is just something really beautiful,” says Dan O’Connell, director of communications at the Chicago Architecture Center and champion of the riverfront. “You get a perspective on the buildings from down there, and when you can stroll it and enjoy it as well, that’s really exciting.
“The mayor, Rahm Emanuel, began this rediscovery of our second waterfront, of the river, several years ago, and just last year in 2017, we concluded the second stage of the buildout of the Riverwalk,” O’Connell says. “It’s designed so you can find your space to gather and explore and appreciate Chicago. The river is one of our calling cards that sets us apart. ... We’ve seen it become a jewel really for Chicago.”
The revamped Riverwalk has six zones: the Marina, the Cove, the River Theater, the Water Plaza, the Jetty and the Riverbank. Each has its own personality, but they flow effortlessly from one to the next.
Be sure to stop in at the City Winery, where adorable little domes provide respite from the chilly air. You can order wine and food, but you must reserve a dome in advance.
Many places along the Riverwalk are only open through December. Some, like the Island Party Hut, close after summer. (In summer, Riverwalk is a live-music party.)
We found Tiny Tapp still open, too. On our November visit, that area was covered with a heated tent. We stopped in to try a few beers (weird to be away from home and still drinking O’Fallon Pumpkin Beer) and have a bite. Nachos, pulled-pork sandwiches and the like are served. In the same space you’ll also find a coffee bar and ice cream shop. Even on a cold day, my kids got the ice cream.
The newest attraction along the Riverwalk is Art on theMART, a show of art projected on the facade of the building formerly known as the Merchandise Mart. It’s a spectacular light show — it’s the world’s largest digital art projection — but it’s more than that. It’s a re-creation of how an artist may create a certain piece. The works of Diana Thater, Zheng Chongbin, Jason Salavon and Jan Tichy appear on the building as if the artists were creating giant brushstrokes on a 2½-acre canvas.
There is no advertising or sponsorship —and no plans for any. This time of year, the show runs from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. If you stop somewhere between Wells and Lake Street on the Riverwalk, there are places to sit and take it in. It’s mesmerizing and beautiful. Go to artonthemart.com to hear music that perfectly accompanies what you see.
More to do on the Riverwalk
At Michigan Avenue, take the steps up to the street. You’ll find the Chicago Architecture Center, which opened in August, in perhaps the most perfect location, among the magnificent downtown buildings where the popular architecture tours take place (architecture.org/tours).
Pay the entry fee for the Chicago City Model Experience alone. More than 4,000 detailed models fill a large room and represent the buildings of Chicago. A smaller group of buildings had been used before, O’Connell says, but the new buildings allow the models to do so much more. Interactive elements let you re-create how the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 started, then see how it spread. A short film and light show tell about the growth of the city. You can also search for buildings by architect or architectural style.
The museum has other exhibits, including one that imagines the city in 2050, one with scale models of some of the world’s most important tall buildings, and one that explores Chicago’s neighborhoods and evolving architecture. For history lovers and architecture nuts, this is a must-see. ($12, architecture. org)
The McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, also along the Riverwalk, chronicles the history and inner workings of the city’s movable bridges and the Chicago River. The museum was closed for the season on our visit but will reopen, along with most of the Riverwalk, in spring.
And don’t miss the new Apple store, along the river on Michigan Avenue. It’s definitely the coolest, biggest Apple store I’ve been to. Stools, benches and lots of iPads make this a great stop to escape the cold and perhaps make a purchase or two.
Where to stay
The InterContinental is the only hotel in Chicago with a front door right on the Magnificent Mile, and it’s just a couple of blocks from the Riverwalk. It’s also a gorgeous hotel, built in 1929 as an athletic club; the lobby’s grand staircase has cast-bronze friezes along the handrail from the original Medinah Athletic Club. The large rooms are filled with every luxury imaginable. Grab a corner room if you can — we had views of the Chicago River on one side and of Lake Michigan on the other. Rooms start at $249. Valet parking (which you enter from the lower level) is $71 per night (icchicagohotel.com).
Where to eat
If you are in Chicago, you must eat Chicago-style pizza from Gino’s, Giordano’s or one of the other famous purveyors. Several are within walking distance of the Riverwalk.
There are plenty of other great places nearby, but for this visit we just stepped outside our hotel to the Purple Pig, just across the street on Michigan Avenue and a couple of blocks from the Riverwalk.
The restaurant opens for dinner at 5 p.m. By 5:10 on a Thursday, we got the last table, a communal one in the bustling main room of the restaurant, which is fairly small. We ordered several dishes meant for sharing. There was nothing we didn’t love, but especially perfect were the turkey leg confit with napa cabbage, agrodolce and crispy lentils ($20) and the shaved carrots with more layers of deliciousness than should be in something good for you (purplepigchicago.com). The restaurant’s Jimmy Bannos Jr. was named the James Beard rising star chef for 2014. The Purple Pig is also known for its extensive and adventurous beverage program. The wine list is extensive, but do yourself a favor and ask for one of the Spanish-style gin and tonics.