Chicago has always been a stellar summertime city, with popular neighborhood festivals, outdoor concerts and a bounty of al fresco dining. But while the amenities in the heart of the city have shone, activities along the waterfront have paled in comparison. Not so any longer: New additions, updates and in-the-works plans are making Chicago’s waterfront — both Lake Michigan and the Chicago River — the place to be this summer and beyond. Here, the four new reasons we’re crossing our fingers for an endless summer.
The rundown: This summer — the landmark’s centennial — Navy Pier sheds its for-tourists-only reputation with changes that will make it a destination for locals.
Check it out: Aesthetically, you can’t miss the results of this multi-year, $115 million renovation: The massive Polk Bros Park adds ample green space, the South Dock is less cluttered and the interiors are upgraded. The pièce de résistance, of course, is the new Ferris wheel, opening May 27. Dubbed the Centennial Wheel, it’s 50 feet taller than before, and has enclosed, temperature-controlled gondolas that seat 8-10 people, with comfy seats and multimedia features. An interactive fountain that doubles as an ice rink in the winter will open the same weekend, with more changes — including the addition of two performance stages — slated for next summer. In the future, look for a boutique hotel and expansion of Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Eat this: Our favorite update? Navy Pier now houses a more honest representation of Chicago’s exemplary dining scene, with restaurants like Lettuce Entertain You’s Big City Chicken, DMK’s Burger Bar and Fish Bar and the classically Chicagoan Original Rainbow Cone (pictured at left). Coming soon: Tiny Tavern, an outpost of Ravenswood’s Tiny Lounge, represents the pier’s first foray into the craft cocktail scene.
What to do: The Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series comes to Chicago June 10-12, making Lake Michigan the first freshwater body of water to host the event in its 164 years (Navypier.com/americas-cup-2016). Looking for something, well, boozier? Spirit of Chicago and Mystic Blue offer Bloody Mary cruises ($55.90 and up; Spiritcruises.com) and Craft Brew Cruises (select dates, $35.90 and up; Mysticbluecruises.com).
More info: Navypier.com/about-the-centennial-vision
The rundown: The city’s other major waterfront project is the Riverwalk — which spans six blocks along Wacker, from State Street to Lake Street — slated for completion this year. It’s made up of six distinct areas: The River Theater, The Cove and The Marina opened last summer; The Boardwalk, The Jetty and The Water Plaza, are this year’s additions.
Eat this: The Marina (State to Dearborn) is the heart of the action, with a handful of popular restaurant and bar outposts, including City Winery, Tiny Hatt and O’Brien’s. Further east, check out the Polynesian-themed Island Party Hut (355 Chicago Riverwalk).
Dive in: Looking to get out on the water? Head to The Cove (Dearborn to Clark) to rent a kayak at Urban Kayaks (71 W. Riverwalk South) for a solo mission, or play tourist with a Chicago history-themed tour. Expect to see a kids’ splash pad, a nature area for observing plant life and fish, and more green space by the project’s completion this fall.
More info: Riverwalkexpansion.com
The rundown: Envious of yacht owners who dock lakeside for the summer? Now you can do the same — without the exorbitant fees. Boatbound, a Seattle-based company that makes it easy to rent a fully-insured boat directly from the owners, recently named Chicago as the fastest growing boat-sharing market in the nation. The process is simple: You can select options like captain or no captain (for those with boating experience), sail or power and various other amenities. Prices range from around $200 for a four-person inflatable boat, to $10,000 a day for a top-of-the-line luxury yacht for 45 people.
Anchors up: There are 10 harbors along Lake Shore Drive, each with its own distinct merits. Diversey Harbor (2601 N. Cannon) is a quick boat ride away from the “Playpen,” Chicago’s unofficial on-the-water party scene just south of Oak Street Beach. Opt for a rental at Monroe Harbor (400 E. Monroe) if you’re looking to be among seasoned boaters — the Chicago and Columbia Yacht Clubs add to its nautical character.
More info: Boatbound.com
The rundown: One of the more elusive water-based projects is Breakwater, the brainchild of Chicago-based entrepreneur Beau D’Arcy, which will be a Las Vegas-style floating entertainment complex in the heart of Lake Michigan. Details are scarce as far as completion date, but the team promises they’re hard at work on a definitive timeline and final details that they hope to reveal in the not-too-distant future. Here’s what we know so far: The island will be accessed via boat or water taxi (in the winter months, it will be moored adjacent to the shore and covered with a clear dome). It will be about the length of a football field and 100 feet wide, and feature a very large pool area, multiple restaurants and sundecks, a spa, nightclub and more. Ecology is top of mind for the creators, as well: They’re making sure the energy-effecient island adheres to LEED standards wherever possible and helps to control nutrient levels in the water.
More info: Breakwaterchicago.com
Photo at top courtesy of Navy Pier, Inc.