The Chicago River is a winding, wonderful and wacky body of water. It flows backward, piercing the heart of Chicago, linking Lake Michigan to the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Not only does it get dyed bright green on St. Patrick’s Day, but it has its own incredible, iconic bridges that open and close to traffic, as well as its very own troupe of water taxis. Set out on an adventure and feel its magic. Here are kid-friendly ways to go explore (and tick some items off your Chicago-themed scavenger hunt while you are at it).
Go on a lightening-fast cruise
It's fast and furious aboard the 75-minute Seadog, which jets off from Navy Pier, speeds along the lakefront, then zips down the Chicago River. The fast-paced excitement makes it the most kid-friendly architectural cruise of all. Little ones love this bright red and yellow speedboat, which usually has dogs on board (bring your pet along!) and funny guides. Parents appreciate learning more about Chicago's most famous riverfront buildings, including the Tribune Building, Willis Tower, Lyric Opera and Merchandise Mart.
Tours depart from Navy Pier; 600 E. Grand Ave., Streeterville; Online: seadogcruises.com
Tour the city via fireboat
Ride Chicago's own Fred A. Busse fireboat for an educational and fun tour of the city. This ship once fought fires and provided emergency assistance and you can tour it from Lake Michigan, through the Chicago Locks and along the Chicago River. Historical and sunset tours are available.
Chicago Fireboat Tours; 111 N. Lakeshore Drive. Online: fireboattours.com
Bike (or Segway!) the Riverwalk
The Chicago Riverwalk is a pedestrian-friendly trail that runs along the river and is one of the best places to explore Chicago's magnificent architecture. You can walk as long as your legs will carry you, but our favorite way to see the sights is by bike. Bike and Roll Chicago has several bike rental facilities, where you can borrow a city cruiser and take off to explore the Loop's canyon of skyscrapers as you watch boats go by. If you're traveling with kids, rent a tagalong, wagon or kids' seat. Tandems and kids' bikes are available, too.
Bike and Roll Chicago; Online: bikechicago.com
River Park, located on the Chicago River, near Foster Avenue, is one of the best fishing spots in the city. You'll need an Illinois fishing license, which you can obtain online before you go. Cast your line and hope for salmon, trout, perch, bass and channel catfish. Brave families might consider cooking their catch for dinner, but catching, releasing and sharing your big fish catch story with the world is your best bet.
River Park; 5100 N. Francisco Ave.; Online: chicagoparkdistrict.com
Duck Inside a Chicago Drawbridge
The McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum takes you inside a Chicago drawbridge, where you’ll have the chance to see firsthand all the large and small gears that so elegantly lift our iconic bridges. This five-floor museum, located in a bridge tower, also features educational exhibits and Chicago’s one and only fish hotel. The hotel is a floating garden that provides rest and a safe harbor for sunfish, bluegills, carp and other finned friends that pass through the big city to spend the night. Climb to the top of the Bridgehouse, where a 360-degree bridge operator’s perspective of the heart of the city awaits.
McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum; 376 N. Michigan Ave., Loop; Online: bridgehousemuseum.org
Paddle a kayak
If you're looking for a truly unique perspective of Chicago, ease into a single or double kayak and paddle your way along the river with the help of an expert guide. Kayak Chicago offers rentals, as well as guided tours and individual and group instruction. Kids of all ages are welcome to ride along with an adult, but if they want to paddle a kayak of their own they need to be at least 12 years old. On the guided architectural tour, you’ll circle the loop, glide past the spot where the first settlers to Chicago set up their home base and discover the location of a former Capone-era hideout.
Kayak Chicago; Le Moyne & Magnolia; Online: kayakchicago.com
Enjoy a Family-Style Roast with Views at River Roast
There's so much to love about River Roast . . . where to start? The concept, if you can't guess by the name, is roasts. Not the type smothered in gravy . . . not that we'd turn our shoulder to that. Think more like a roasted chicken. There are meat, fish and veggie roasts that live on the menu every day and one rotating roast a month. The coolest part? They carve your dinner right at the table.
Some non-roast notables on the menu: Golden Gobbets, which are seasoned fried chicken strips served with an adorable Smurf-sized jar of honey that would make Pooh weep tears of joy, the carrot cake big enough to share, and for brunch, go with chilaquiles. But, bring a bus load of people with you as they are uber generous with their portions.
River Roast; 315 N. LaSalle St., River North; Online: riverroastchicago.com
Romp on a Chinatown playground
Ping Tom Memorial Park is a 12-acre park located in Chinatown, along the South Branch of the Chicago River, making for a stunning green space with outstanding river views. The Asian-inspired landscaping and structures make for a more interesting park experience and the playground is large and contains elements to keep all kids—from toddlers to tweens—amused.
Ping Tom Memorial Park; 300 W. 19th St.; Online: chicagoparkdistrict.com
Hail a water taxi
Shoreline Water Taxis are a cheap, convenient and fun mode of city transport, with tickets starting at just $9 for adults and $4 for kids. Travel via the Chicago River to Chinatown, Navy Pier the Museum Campus, Willis Tower, Michigan Avenue and Union Station while feeling the wind whipping through your hair. Shoreline Water Taxi service begins in April and runs through September, with additional service throughout the fall and for special events.
Chicago Ducky Derby
Watch as more than 50,000 yellow rubber duckies splash their way into the Chicago River from the Columbus Drive bridge, raising money for Special Olympics Illinois. Put a duck in the game by adopting your own for only $5. The day also includes activities for kids and appearances by several sports mascots. If your duck wins, you could go home with great prizes!
Aug. 4; 400 N. Michigan Ave., Near North Side; Online: duckrace.com
— Maria Chambers & Amy Bizzarri