Things to do in Chicago

Top 10 Architecture Tours in Chicago: Discover Chicago Architecture

Learn about Chicago on an architectural tour — we cover popular tours in our Chicago guide.

Known as a hub for architectural innovation and vibrant cultural experiences, Chicago isn't afraid to be big and bold. It's the birthplace of skyscrapers and a thriving stage for a plethora of things to do in Chicago.

Let's take a closer look at the legacy behind Chicago architecture, its range of styles, and of its impressive architecture tours.

Chicago's Architectural Legacy

Chicago is now home to some of America's most groundbreaking buildings. But its history can be traced back to its humble beginnings in the early 19th century as a log fort near Lake Michigan. Its Midwestern location granted access to prized natural resources. These included timber, limestone, and brick.

By the mid-19th century, Chicago had grown into a bustling metropolis. Yet tragedy struck in October 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire swept through the city. This wildfire destroyed most of Chicago's architectural landscape in just 2 days.

To reverse the destruction, Chicago's resilient architects swiftly vowed to make the city bigger and grander than ever.

At the time, using steel as a building material was practically unheard of. But it became a defining feature of the Chicago School of Architecture, a style known for new technology and innovative artistry. The steel-frame skyscraper became the symbolic building of the 20th century. This design established Chicago as an influential architectural hub.

The Chicago Skyline: Iconic Buildings

The Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931 to make space for the Field Building, now known as the LaSalle Banking Building. But that doesn't mean Chicago is lacking in present-day architectural landmarks. Here are a few examples of the famous buildings in Chicago marking the breathtaking views and city skyline.

Willis Tower

As if inventing the skyscraper wasn't enough, Chicago was also the building ground for Willis Tower. Two thousand workers built this imposing structure, and it earned the title of tallest building in the world in 1973.

The Sears Tower began in 1970. The building gained several additions over the years, including its iconic broadcast antennae, ground-floor Wacker Drive Atrium, and Skydeck, an upper level where visitors can soak up panoramic views of Chicago's sprawling skyline.

In 2009, the building was renamed the Willis Tower. It underwent a total renovation, reimagined as a massive office space, with short-term work spaces, traditional office leases, a rooftop greenspace, and five levels of retail, dining, and entertainment destinations.

John Hancock Center

The John Hancock Center takes the traditional skyscraper to the next level. Originally envisioned as two buildings on a single site, the center was reimagined as one awe-inspiring structure after architect Bruce Graham couldn't convince the neighboring Casino Club to sell its lot.

This building is just one of the many that contribute to the list of the tallest skyscrapers in Chicago. Each has its own story and contribution to the city's famous skyline.

By embracing the trussed tube system, Graham and his team of builders designed the center as a tapered rectangular tube. To withstand unprecedented heights, the building wore giant trusses and an X-shaped pattern to resist wind loads.

Today, the building houses a mix of residential homes, office and retail spaces, and an observatory with panoramic skyline views. 

Photographer: Raoyang Yang

Aqua Tower 

The wavy Aqua Tower defies conformity. It provides personality and unique visual appeal to Chicago's already eclectic landscape. Jeanne Gang, who founded Studio Gang, designed the tower, born out of the need for a tall, functional building with a distinctive aesthetic.

At its core, the Aqua Tower is a standard, modern box. But its exterior, with rippling white concrete balconies, mirrors an elaborate sculpture found in a museum. Offering both hotel rooms and residential units, the tower embraces sustainability. Energy-efficient lighting, heat-resistant glass, and a rainwater collection system are all available.

The Influence of Famed Architects

From cathedrals and museums to cultural landmarks, Chicago offers an assortment of novel designs. Renowned artists fashioned this skilled artistry, as they weren't afraid to push boundaries.

Visionary Architectural Styles

It took a team of gifted visionaries to piece together the famous architecture in Chicago. These persevering individuals built a city with great historical and cultural significance. Many architects can be credited for Chicago's growth, but here are a few that come to mind.

  • Louis Sullivan: As a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright and founder of the Prairie School, Louis Sullivan spent his early professional years in Pittsburgh. He later transitioned to Chicago and designed legendary buildings. Some of his feats include the Carson, Pirie, Scott building in 1899, a majestic fortress still standing today.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright: A man of significant ambition, Frank Lloyd Wright’s speciality was mid-century modernism and prairie-style homes. From his arrival in Chicago in 1887, he built a broad, inspiring portfolio, which includes the Moore-Dugal house, Robie House, and other residential homes found throughout Chicago's quaint suburbs.  
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Known for his futuristic, open-spaced designs, Miles van der Rohe became a household name in 1929 after designing the Barcelona Pavilion in Spain. After moving to Chicago in 1939, he became the head of the architecture department at the Illinois Institute of Technology for nearly 20 years.

He incorporated mid-century modernism into several buildings. These include the IBM Plaza on North Wabash and IIT's very own S.R. Crown Hall.

How Different Architectural Currents Shaped Chicago's Neighborhoods

The Chicago School of Architecture gained prominence in the 1880s and 1890s, when a group of trailblazing architects, including Sullivan, promoted steel-frame construction techniques. This led to an influx of skyscrapers materializing throughout Chicago. The modern structures were made up of heavy bricks, stone, structural steel, and glass.

About 50 years later, the Second Chicago School emerged. Modernist architects embraced tube-frame structures. Both the Willis Tower, which is over 4.5 million square feet, and the John Hancock Center present this style.

Residential areas in Chicago exploded during this time. Architects pulled inspiration from the Prairie School and modernism. And many created apartment buildings with spacious interiors, plenty of natural light, and brick or stone facades.

When roaming the streets of Chicago today, you'll see geometric designs, open floor plans, and windows offering clear city views. Many modern architects focus on sustainable materials, disrupting the glass and steel city.

Think Millennium Park, an expansive green space that embraces nature, allowing residents to escape from the bustle and grind of city life without actually leaving Chicago borders. It's also the perfect venue for the various music festivals in Chicago. Here, architectural beauty combines with cultural vibrancy.

Top 10 Chicago Architecture Tours

Reading about Chicago's architectural history is fascinating. But nothing beats learning in-person what went into the city's construction. Luckily, Chicago architecture tours let you see the action up close.

From self-led walking tours to guided river cruises, Chicago architecture tours have become a staple of excitement and adventure for locals and visitors alike. So, what are you waiting for? Check out these top 10 architecture tours in Chicago. And get to know this eccentric city on an intimate level.

The Classic Chicago Architecture Tour

Get a glimpse of the Windy City from the Chicago River with a Chicago architecture boat tour. Throughout this 90-minute tour, your guide will point out over 50 notable skyscrapers, historical sites, and bascule bridges. They'll share stories about Chicago's growth from a small settlement to a city with the world’s largest buildings.

This tour offers comprehensive commentary on Chicago's most prominent landmarks. With a full-service bar of snacks, you can avoid fighting the crowds on congested streets.

Photographer: John Kershner

Chicago Architecture Center Walking Tours

Journey into Chicago's complicated architectural past with a Chicago Architecture Center Walking Tour. These walking tours cater to diverse interests. For example, The Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour offers an in-depth look into Chicago's underground Pedway system, secret shortcuts, and artistic gems, including the Chicago Cultural Center.

Learn more about how the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 led to change in Chicago. Or visit famous landmarks, such as Millennium Park and the Sullivan Center, with the Historic Treasures of Chicago's Golden Age. No matter which you choose, you'll walk away with more insights than some locals might have. To discover more Chicago walking tours, check out our curated list!

Frank Lloyd Wright Trust Tours

We're convinced you can't visit Chicago without exploring Frank Lloyd Wright's work. His skills and creative insights are ingrained in downtown Chicago and surrounding suburbs.

Head downtown to Chicago's financial district to peruse The Rookery, a multi-story office building that rose from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire. Or go to Hyde Park for a deep dive into the Frederick C. Robie House. This landmark is a quintessential example of Wright's revered prairie-style designs.

Art Deco Treasures: A Tour of the 1930s

History buffs and art enthusiasts can fulfill their most coveted interests by experiencing the glitz and glam of vintage art deco design with the Art Deco Skyscrapers: The Loop walking tour. Narrated by a professional guide, this tour highlights the elegant interiors and striking facades hidden throughout Chicago. 

The tour also brings you to the Chicago Board of Trade Building, a National Historic Landmark, One LaSalle Street, and the Chicago Architecture Center for a gallery viewing. You'll learn all about Chicago architecture during the Jazz Age and the most well-known architects during that time, gaining historical and artistic insight into an unforgettable time. 

The Modern Marvels: A Tour of Contemporary Chicago

Chicago's architecture is always evolving, introducing new landmark buildings to an ever-growing skyline. And these contemporary buildings deserve just as much love as the historic buildings.

Check out the Chicago Architecture Center What's New tour to explore the impact of modern construction on Chicago's environment. You can also tour contemporary gems, including the St. Regis and 465 N. Park.

Modern Architecture is another contemporary exploration you won't want to miss. From the Harold Washington Library to One South Dearborn, Chicago walking tours delve into the city's modern and postmodern architecture movements and how they continue to shape Chicago's innovative design practices.  

Photographer: dibrova

Chicago Neighborhood Gems: Self-Guided Tours

Wandering through Chicago's neighborhoods will give you a feel of the city. Experience these public spaces like a local. Embark on a self-guided walking tour to get a taste of authentic Chicago life.

Your first stop should be Wicker Park, a historic neighborhood with stately mansions and lush green lawns. While you're there, swing by the Luxor Baths. It now serves as residential condos. But this building used to house public baths frequented by local politicians and distinguished businessmen to exchange the latest economic gossip.

Lincoln Park is also a must-see neighborhood, with its majestic statues, flourishing gardens, and beloved zoo. Gaze in wonder at the famed William Shakespeare statue. Or explore mesmerizing architectural structures, including the Lincoln Park Conservatory and Cafe Brauer.

If you want to explore a neighborhood off the tourist trail, our honorable mention goes to Rogers Park, a lakefront location 10 miles north of Millennium Park with a bustling arts district and diverse dining options. 

Photographer: Nagel Photography

Thematic Tours: Beyond the Buildings

While our primary focus on Chicago's architecture has been the buildings, many other components create a thriving community. A themed tour can provide fresh perspectives on how buildings sparked life within the community.

Dive head-first into one of Chicago's most pivotal and riveting historical moments with White City Revisited. A 2-hour walking tour through Jackson Park, this site once saw the acclaimed 1893 World's Fair. You'll gain insights into the fair's architectural impact on the city and visit the Garden of the Phoenix and the Sky Landing sculpture by Yoko Ono.

The Walk Pilsen tour is also a catch, exploring the diverse Pilsen neighborhood transformed over time into an architectural and artistic mecca by immigrants. The tour highlights the Mexican and European influences that stitched together this unique, vibrant community.

The Haunted Chicago Architecture Tour

Are you ready to get a little kooky and weird? Every city has its ghosts, spirits, and scandals, and Chicago is no exception. Take a ride on the spooky side with the Chicago Seadog Haunted River Tour. A costumed docent will recite enchanting tales of infamous figures and paranormal sightings.

Cruise along darkened waters, and admire the view of Chicago's lit-up skyline at night. You can enjoy spine-tingling tales about local shipwrecks and notorious bygone mobsters. Your host will pair these eerie stories with the history of Chicago's stunning buildings.

Beyond the Loop: Exploring Chicago's Suburban Architecture

Venture outside Chicago's city center with a small-group tour of Chicago neighborhoods. The exploration will showcase the architectural delights of the North and South Sides. During these half-day tours, you'll explore dozens of neighborhoods, from Bronzeville to the Gold Coast. You'll visit idyllic streets with brickfront shops and the Pilgrim Baptist Church, an attraction dubbed the birthplace of gospel music.

Every neighborhood is unique, so you can make a day trip out of exploring Chicago's suburbs. We recommend adding these to your itinerary:

  • President Obama's old neighborhood in Hyde Park
  • The Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe
  • The Bahá'í House of Worship in Wilmette, one of only seven in the world
Photographer: Gregory Dixon

Preservation and Restoration Efforts

Sustaining a historic city is no easy feat. But Chicago's Historic Preservation Division works hard to keep its buildings well-maintained. The division identifies buildings worthy of landmark status. It also promotes their preservation through incentives, public outreach, and technical help.

The division's hardworking efforts have paid off time and time again. It has achieved landmark status for local favorites. These include the Little Village Arch and Hyde Park's Promontory Point. Chicago is an architectural haven. It has skyscrapers and monuments all vying to be seen for their beauty and charm. As challenging as it is to maintain this large city, Chicago's quirky history is well worth the effort.

Experience the Heart-Pounding Allure of Chicago Architecture

From original designs to their inventive architects, Chicago is meant to be admired. It took more than 2 centuries to piece together the Chicago we recognize today, and we get it.

Architectural empires aren't built overnight. Embark on a journey, by water or land, through the city's many architectural wonders. Explore how past and present structures unite to create a display of craftsmanship.

Learn more about our shows in Chicago. Our performers will whisk you away, lifting your imagination higher than any skyscraper.

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