From our window in the sky, the view below spread out like an immense watercolor. Turquoise Lake Michigan to one side, the slate gray Chicago skyline to the other and, below, a stream of color-clad people strolling a sun-splashed boardwalk. My eight-year-old son, Felix, tugged at my sleeve. "Are we at the top yet?" he asked. "Oh no," I responded with a smile. "We're only halfway up!"
The anticipation was natural: This was our maiden voyage on Centennial Wheel, Navy Pier's sparkling new Ferris wheel. With a final altitude of 200 feet, it definitely takes your breath away. But, then again, Navy Pier has always been great at creating family memories.
This visit, however, was special—the Pier is celebrating its 100th anniversary and has rolled out a lot of attractions and enhancements to honor the milestone. Our mission: to catch as many of the new sights and sounds as we could in one afternoon.
After devouring the incredible view from the Ferris wheel, it was time to move on to another main attraction: lunch. The Pier has recently upped its game with dining options, bringing in a slew of local restaurants, each with their own specialties and friendly vibe.
So many of them captured our attention. The sizzling grill at DMK Burger Bar and Fish Bar served up savory options like grass-fed beef burgers and red fish tacos. The dessert case at Goddess and the Baker prompted Felix to run up and point at colorful cupcakes, the "please, Mom" obvious in his eyes. And then there was the aroma of barbecue wafting from Pork Chop, where a Southern-inspired menu’s descriptions were mouthwatering.
Finally, we settled on juicy, crispy chicken sandwiches from Big City Chicken, with a mound of cheese fries on the side. It wasn't hard to find a table near floor-to-ceiling windows. From our perch, we watched the bustling boardwalk and the comings and goings of cruise boats on the lake.
With the Pier's new transformation, it's easier than ever to get great views and snap photos that are Instagram-worthy. Along the South Dock, which stretches a mile east to Lake Michigan, barriers at the water's edge have been removed for clear sightlines, and lakeside pavilions, tree groves and native plants have been added.
Felix and I strolled all the way to the end, where we looked out at the lighthouses and enjoyed the playful shift of the breeze. Before heading back, we took pictures in front of a giant anchor sculpture. The Pier does, after all, have maritime history and it's important to remember it. It opened in 1916 as a shipping and recreation facility, and was used as a dock for freights. Today, it's a pure leisure attraction welcoming more than eight million people a year, with plans in the works for a third onsite Chicago Shakespeare Theater and even a hotel.
Some of the best views, we discovered, were right there in front of us. The Pier's redesign has brought about a lot of new artful and architectural details, starting with the Wave Wall. This gorgeous, curving wall mirrors the rippling waters of Lake Michigan and is connected to a staircase that leads from the South Dock straight to Pier Park. You can't beat the easy access to Pier Park's Ferris wheel, carousel and swing chair ride. But by the wonder in Felix’s eyes, he was having just as much fun traipsing up and down the dramatic flight of stairs.
We passed the Chicago Children’s Museum on our stroll, and I made a mental note to bring Felix back. A gem like this needed plenty of time to learn and explore. As we made our way to the entrance of the Pier, we passed the new, 100-foot-long mural Pier People. Situated near the new dining area, it was hand-painted by local artist Pete Nawara and depicts a diverse array of people—many of them dancers in the Pier's Neighborhoods of the World performance series.
Some of the art is even interactive. Take the Polk Bros Fountain and Plaza, found at the entranceway: It's a multi-row geyser, of sorts, that shoots out water in different rhythms and patterns. The jets—150 of them—definitely made a splash with Felix, who dashed over and dodged the sprays as they moved up and down like frolicking fish.
Before we headed home, there was one more thing on our minds: getting our hands on a cool treat, and fast. Luckily, there are two new options at the Pier for frozen desserts. The first is Snow Dragon Shavery, a Taiwanese-inspired spot that dishes out shaved snow, macaroon sandwiches and bubble tea.
Tempting as it was, we opted for a Chicago classic: Original Rainbow Cone. With a walk-up window on the South Dock, it’s an all-new and easy way to access a favorite that's been famous on Chicago's South Side since 1926. The order was simple: "Two, please." And, with that, Felix and I both gobbled up a cone heaped with chocolate, strawberry, pistachio, Palmer House (a cherry-nut blend) and orange sherbet.
Reflecting on our outing, I’m not surprised that Navy Pier is such a must-see for Chicago visitors. It’s the most-visited tourism destination in the state for good reason—an iconic place for fun that’s being reimagined. No one should miss it. An afternoon for the memory books? Mission accomplished, again.