Chicago is the home of some iconic architectural styles: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School, Mies van der Rohe’s modernism, and a whole mix of vernacular architecture like greystones and workers cottages. Want to get to know them all? There are countless city tours detailing the city’s history and architecture, but here are a few of our favorites.
Even though these tours are seasonal—who wants to be freezing on the river in January, right?—we had to include them. Especially, the Chicago Architecture Center’s river cruise. It’s unrivaled. Unlike a walking tour, the distance between the water and the skyscrapers provides a whole-scale perspective. The collection of buildings along the riverfront detail the city’s architectural history from the Art Deco Merchandise Mart, to Mies van der Rohe’s IBM building, and Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina Towers.
In short, Will Quam is obsessed with Chicago common brick. What’s so special about the material? After the Great Fire in 1871, the city was rebuilt with it. Whole neighborhoods were remade with it. Workers dug up clay from the Chicago River to make bricks that take on a range of colors from yellow to pink and red. Learn more about the unique brick, and how to spot it, on of Quam’s tours in neighborhoods like West Loop, Rogers Park and Noble Square.
Have you wondered about the Pedway? This CAC tour explores the miles of underground pathways that connect the L, government offices, Loop high-rises, and hotels. It’s much more than just a tunnel—there are restaurants, a gallery, and an installation of art glass windows. It’s the ideal architecture tour, especially in winter, because your protected from the low temperatures. You’ll get to learn about the design of the Pedway and climb up to visit some of the city’s best interiors, too. Here’s a primer before you dive into the “city below the city.”
The L started running in 1892 and since then has grown into a vital part of Chicago’s built environment. In the Loop, trains cross the city’s well-known bascule bridge and tracks curve closely between high-rises. As you ride the L on this tour, you’ll get to see the details of significant buildings in a new way and see how the transit system shaped development. Plus, you’ll learn about the design of the newest L station, Washington/Wabash created by EXP.
If you’ve been to the theater for a show, you know how spectacular it is. The chunky, rough cut stone exterior contrasts the highly detailed, gold stenciled interior. The landmark building feels enormous yet intimate—and on this tour you’ll learn the architectural techniques employed to create that experience. Guides will show off Louis Sullivan’s 24-karat gold-leafed ceilings, endless wall mosaics, and murals painted by Charles Holloway and Albert Fleury.
Stewards of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust offer special tours homes that the Prairie School architect and his proteges designed. Wright settled in Oak Park, which is why there are so many of his designs there and in River Forest. This tour is unique because homeowners open their restored residences to the public one day every year. Tickets are on sale now for the all-day event on May 16.
Chicago is a city with a strong bike culture, so why not learn about architectural oddities on two wheels? Steve Casteel moved to Chicago over a decade ago, and shares his love of love of history, geography, architecture, and public art. This tour starts in Ukrainian Village and rolls through the Polish Triangle, Wicker Park, Fulton market, Pilsen, Bridgeport, and it ends back on the West Side. Everything is customizable depending on the group—want to stop at a brewery in a former industrial building? You got it.