May 18, 2023

An Architectural Excursion via Riverboat

Riverboat on Charles 1000px

Photo courtesy of the Charles Riverboat Co.

Boston has been ranked second among the best walkable cities in the country, and for many, exploring the city by foot is a great way to discover Boston’s rich history. But those with less time to spare can opt for another way to explore the city—via the Charles Riverboat Company’s architecture cruise. “It’s a great way to see a large portion of the city in a small amount of time,” says Melissa Otis, the company’s director of sales.

The architecture cruise came to fruition approximately 10 years ago, after the founder of the company, Russell Cushman, had gone on an architecture-themed cruise in Chicago. Since then, the cruise—a collaboration with the Boston Society of Architecture (BSA) and Boston By Foot —has turned out to be one of Charles Riverboat’s most popular offerings.

An Expansive View of Boston Architecture

The cruise departs from Lechmere Canal Park next to the Cambridgeside Galleria and then makes its way through the Charles River locks. According to Otis, “It’s the only public tour in Boston whose boats fit through the lock system, showcasing both the Charles River and Boston Harbor.” Adds Lynn Smiledge, a historic preservation consultant and architecture cruise tour guide, “In my opinion, the locks are the most unique experience of the tour; people really enjoy going through them.”

A guide narrates the two-hour cruise, as tourists and locals alike take in stunning views of the city while learning of Boston’s architectural history and seeing its evolution play out before them—from buildings dating as far back as 1830 to the glass façades of the city’s more modern 20th- and 21st-century buildings. “The skyline has changed significantly,” Otis says, and tourists see the contrast between the older-style architecture in downtown and the newer development in the Seaport area. Says Smiledge: “It’s an evolution not only of the architecture but also the changing fortunes of the harbor, which have shifted dramatically since the 18th century.”

HL on River

A Bridge Designed for Fish Migration

In addition to the architectural highlights—the John Hancock tower, One Millennium Place, and Marriott Custom House, to name a few—the tour also includes many fun and interesting facts. Harriet Fink, communications coordinator at the BSA, went on the cruise after having just moved to Boston. “It was a great way to get a sense of the city,” she says. On the Zakim Bridge, for instance, are little diamond-shaped openings on the roadbed that allow light to pass through the bridge and reach the water below it. Why is that important? They are for the alewife fish that come in from the harbor to spawn in the Charles River. Fink learned on the cruise that the openings were added “so the fish going through the locks could see the light ahead and be encouraged to continue swimming.” Confirms Smiledge, “The alewife don’t like to swim through large expanses of dark water, so the openings are intentionally in place so the fish are more comfortable traveling under the bridge.”

HL in Locks 1000px

Boston’s Diverse Architectural Styles

Many of the guides have varying architectural backgrounds, and each runs his or her respective tour a little differently. On her cruise, Fink says, she also got a primer on architectural styles: “You can begin to recognize what types of buildings they are from the water.” Adds Smiledge, “Boston has probably one of the best collections in the nation of Brutalist architecture. The masterpiece is Boston City Hall—it’s our best example of a Brutalist building.” And then there “is the one building people are really excited about,” Smiledge says: the Boston University Center for Computing & Data Sciences by KPMB Architects, also known as the Jenga building because of its cantilevered design.

Smiledge also describes a color-coded system that helps passengers discern how old a late-20th-century building is. For example, buildings built in the 1960s and 1970s generally will be white or gray (made of stone and concrete); buildings built in the 1980s and 1990s will have shades of red granite; and buildings built in the 2000s will be made of blue and silver glass.

“The tour is something I encourage everyone to go on because you’re not going to feel the same way about Boston again; you’re just going to get a whole different look at the city and at the relationships between its buildings,” Smiledge says.

The architectural cruises run from May 26 to September 3, Fridays through Sundays, at 10:00 a.m. and from September 9 through October 22 on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:00 a.m. Reserve your tickets today!

Historic Compact Signing At the BSA Aims To Jumpstart DEI In Real Estate Development

Less than one percent of real estate developers in the U.S. are Black or Latino. The BSA is working to change that.

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Architecture cruises

Step off dry land and head out onto the water to experience Boston like never before!

  • Contact: Boston By Foot
  • Price: $27.50 Adults $22.50 Seniors/Students/Children under 12 $22.50 BSA Foundation and Boston By Foot Members
  • Neighborhood: Back Bay Beacon Hill Downtown South Boston
  • Event Type: Family friendly Learning and lectures Outdoor Preservation Month
  • Posted: 04/12/2017 - 2:34pm
  • Downloads: Learn more about the event

This tour offers spectacular views of historic and contemporary architecture along Boston Harbor, through the Charles River Locks, and the Charles River basin. The tour includes landmarks such as:

  • the Customs House
  • the Hancock tower
  • the Old North Church, and
  • cutting-edge contemporary design by today’s top architects.

These are simply the best waterfront views of Boston and Cambridge!

The tours start on May 28, and take place every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Tours depart from Cambridgeside Galleria Mall.

For more information, and to learn about fees, visit the Boston by Foot website .

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architecture boat tour boston

The AIA Trust offers insurance and financial programs of the highest possible value to AIA Members & Components – and serves as a free risk management resource!

AIANH Charter Boat Tour of Boston Architecture

AIANH Charter Boat Tour: Take to the seas and experience Boston’s unforgettable skylines from a whole new vantage point! Boston Architecture Cruises, brought to you by Boston By Foot, Cruise Boston and the BSA, is Boston’s first and only boat tour focused on the built environment of Boston’s waterfront. The tour chronicles the evolution of Boston’s built environment, telling the story through an architecture and neighborhood lens. We'll be chartering the boat for the evening and will supply great food and a cash bar, plus a bus to get us there from Manchester. Complete details and registration.

Sponsored by Tremco Commercial Sealants and Waterproofing

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architecture boat tour boston

Charles River Sightseeing Tours

Opening day for our 2024 season is may 24th.

Enjoy a 70-minute, fully-narrated sightseeing tour along the Charles River.

  • Full Bar Available
  • Handicap Accessible
  • $4.00 Parking

2024 Sightseeing Tours Schedule

May 24 – Sept 29

12:30 pm, 2:00 pm, & 3:30 pm

Ticket Rates

  • Adult $27.00
  • Senior / Student $24.00
  • Child Under 12 Years $18.00
  • Child Under 3 Years $5.00

*Excludes 5% MA Convention & Facilities Surcharge  

Charles Riverboat on river

Discover Incredible Views of Boston

Enjoy a 70-minute, fully-narrated sightseeing tour along the Charles River. Your captain and crew will both entertain and educate while pointing out the historic and cultural sights of Boston and Cambridge. Sights include Beacon Hill, Esplanade Park, the Back Bay, Boston University, M.I.T., Harvard and countless sailboats and rowers!

Sightseeing tours depart from Lechmere Canal, The ticket booth and boat departure is located outside the doors at the canal side of the CambridgeSide Mall.

architecture boat tour boston

Cambridgeside

CambridgeSide Mall 100 CambridgeSide Place Cambridge, MA 02141

Our boats board at the Lechmere Canal, which is directly outside the doors at the canal side of the CambridgeSide Mall. Park in the CambridgeSide Mall Parking Garage then proceed to the first floor and the ticket booth and boat can be found outside on the canal side of the mall.

From North of Boston

Take Interstate 93 exit 26 for Storrow Drive / North Station Keep right at the fork, follow signs for 28 North / Leverett Circle / North Station Slight right at Nashua St Turn left onto Nashua St Take the 1st right onto MA-28 North / Monsignor O’Brien Highway At the next light turn left onto Edwin H Land Boulevard At the next light turn right onto CambridgeSide Place Park in the CambridgeSide Mall Parking Garage. Our boats board at the Lechmere Canal, which is directly outside the doors at the canal side of the CambridgeSide Mall

From South of Boston

Take Interstate 93 exit 26 toward Storrow Drive / North Station Keep left at the fork, follow signs for MA-28 North / Leverett Circle / North Station Slight right at Nashua St Turn left onto Nashua St Take the 1st right onto MA-28 North / Monsignor O’Brien Highway At the next light turn left onto Edwin H Land Boulevard At the next light turn right onto CambridgeSide Place Park in the CambridgeSide Mall Parking Garage. Our boats board at the Lechmere Canal, which is directly outside the doors at the canal side of the CambridgeSide Mall

From West of Boston:

Take Route 90 – Mass Pike Exit Left at Cambridge/Allston Tolls – follow signs to Cambridge Proceed through lights and over River Street Bridge (Charles River) Immediately turn right at other end of bridge and travel East on Memorial Drive Stay on Memorial Drive – The CambridgeSide mall is approximately 3 miles on the left across from the Sonesta Hotel

Park in the CambridgeSide Mall Parking Garage. Our boats board at the Lechmere Canal, which is directly outside the doors at the canal side of the CambridgeSide Mall

From The MBTA (Public Transit)

Take the Green Line “E” train to Lechmere Station Exit the train, cross Mcgrath highway and Cambridge St. After crossing Cambridge St., walk down First Street St. Take a left at Canal Park and this will take you into the Lechmere Canal  Follow the footpath to the right, the docks are located outside the canal side doors at the CambridgeSide Mall.

Ticketed Tours & Cruises

Events & charters.

Client Area

Arrowstreet associates set sail for boston architecture tour.

architecture boat tour boston

A beautiful early summer morning set the stage for this year’s Associates’ Social Event, as the group of Arrowstreet associates boarded a riverboat for their Charles River Architecture Cruise. The two-hour cruise began by sailing through the Charles River dam locks, under Zakim Bridge, and into Boston Harbor for a view of the Boston skyline from the water. The tour-guide pointed out notable examples of both historic and contemporary architecture, including the Custom Tower, Rowes Wharf, and the Moakley Courthouse, sharing the architecture styles of the various buildings, interesting facts about the buildings’ construction, and pointing out details often missed by the general public. The tour also covered buildings currently under construction and refurbishment, including Commonwealth Pier (previously The World Trade Center), a project the Arrowstreet Graphics Studio is currently designing the signage for, making for a fascinating journey through Boston’s architectural past, present, and future. Back under the Zakim Bridge and through the locks, the riverboat re-entered the Charles River and past the Liberty Hotel (former Charles Street Jail), Hancock Building, and Prudential Building for the grand finale of the tour.

For more information about The Charles Riverboat Company Architecture cruise, you can visit https://charlesriverboat.com/tours/architecture-cruises/

Topics: Associates , News , Culture

Sails & Cruises

Offered in partnership with the Charles River Boat Company and the Liberty Fleet of Tall Ships

Explore by Category

A sail through time, step aboard the liberty star schooner for a guided sailing adventure on boston harbor, architecture cruise, step off dry land and head out onto the water to experience boston like never before.

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Trip: Charles River Architecture Boat Tour

June 30, 2023 @ 9:00 am.

The  bus will depart  at  9:00 am  for an  Architectural Boat Tour of Boston . This 90-minute tour, hosted by Charles Riverboat Company, offers spectacular views of historic and contemporary architecture along Boston Harbor, the Charles River Locks, and the Charles River basin. The tour– narrated by a guide from Boston By Foot and co-sponsored by BSA Space, a center for architecture and design–includes landmarks such as Marriott’s Custom House, the Prudential Building, and the Hancock Tower, as well as cutting-edge contemporary design by today’s top architects. Approximate return: 1:00 pm.  Fee:  $54.00 for ticket and transportation. Click ‘Register’  to  sign up  for this event or request a  paper Trip Sign Up form  at the  Front Desk  and submit it to Front Desk staff. Deadline to sign up is Wednesday, June 14.

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architecture boat tour boston

Meet the Boston architects who designed the largest cruise ship in the world

Looking back, it seems like a small innovation and not a particularly exciting one: an ice rink on a cruise ship.

But when Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas debuted 25 years ago, an ice rink on a cruise ship had never been attempted. At the time of its 1999 launch, Voyager was the world’s largest cruise ship, with 3,600 passengers, and the company needed fresh entertainment options to set it apart.

The ice rink idea was pioneering but not without its issues. Chief among them was creating and preserving ice for the rink while at sea and then keeping it level when nothing on a ship stays level. A cruise ship is essentially rattled by a constant series of small earthquakes as waves batter it. The answer to the ice rink problem came from an unlikely source: a small architectural firm in Boston called Wilson Butler Architects , which had never worked on cruise ship design before.

Since that first ice rink, Wilson Butler can lay claim to a long list of innovative cruise ship firsts and superlatives. (One trick to the rink at sea , the firm determined, is making sure the ice temperature hovers at 32 degrees so it stays malleable.) From their office in Post Office Square, the architects went on to design the largest slide on a ship (10 stories high, to be exact), the largest glass dome on a ship (covering 32,000 square feet and weighing 360 tons), the first glass-blowing studio at sea, the first concert hall at sea, the first skydiving simulator at sea, and the largest, and only, urban park on a ship with more than 30,000 real plants.

Their most recent work can be seen on Royal Caribbean’s jaw-dropping Icon of the Seas , the largest ship in the world. The $2 billion ship holds 7,500 passengers and 2,000 crew members. For Icon, the firm created a 53-foot-diameter kinetic art installation called the Pearl that also serves as a structural support, a 700-seat aquatic theater where divers and acrobats entertain in the largest and deepest freshwater pool at sea, a 1,200-seat Broadway-caliber theater, and, staying true to its roots, the largest ice arena at sea. At first glance, the Icon, with its gallimaufry of multicolor slides, tubes, arches, decks, and domes, looks like a phantasmagoric city sprung from the mind of Dr. Seuss.

It’s an impressive achievement for an architectural firm that never set out to design cruise ships and had no background in the industry. When Wilson Butler Architects was formed in 1997, its specialty was theaters, not creating massive slides on megaships.

“Up until that point, the nature of our work had been designing and restoring theaters, like the Bushnell Theater in Hartford,” said Scott Butler, one of the firm’s founders. “So when Royal Caribbean asked if we’d be interested in designing a true theater on a ship, that seemed like a natural fit. It was probably a combination of naivete and overconfidence that led us to say yes. ”

The result of that request was a 1,350-seat theater inspired by grand 19th-century European opera halls. It looked different from anything else on a ship at the time and was revolutionary because the architects moved supports that had previously obstructed audience sightlines.

“They are by far the single most influential architectural partner we have,” said Kelly Gonzalez, senior vice president of architectural design for Royal Caribbean. “They have really gone far beyond to learn about our industry and understand its complexities. They are real partners to our company and real partners with the shipyards that we have them work with.”

Since its first project on Voyager of the Seas, the firm has designed an additional 50 ships for Royal Caribbean, plus Silversea Cruises and Celebrity Cruises , which are owned by Royal Caribbean. The architects and interior designers at Wilson Butler may have accumulated decades of experience designing cruise ships, but ironically, none of them refer to themselves as “cruise people.”

“It helps us that none of us are particularly in love with cruising,” said Rebecca Durante, an interior designer and principal at the firm. “It helps us see a lot of the negatives. We get where these people are coming from, so we’re always looking at how we can make it better for everyone, even the people who feel like they’re getting dragged along.”

Butler said the desire to offer more options for the cruise-hesitant and make the ship feel unique resulted in the Icon’s larger, monumental scale.

“We’re trying to take what people might see as getting on a tin can at sea, being rocked around, dumped on an island, and then herded like cattle back on board, and change the stereotype,” he said. “We’re looking to take that perception of a cruise ship and turn it into something that doesn’t feel the same, where there’s a richness of experiences, where foot traffic flows, where there are places to find solitude, even on a ship the size of the Icon.”

There are detractors — plenty of detractors — when it comes to the Icon of the Seas. The larger the ship, the bigger the hype, the easier the target. Its unique look led one writer from the Guardian to call it “what a human lasagna might look like.” In a piece for the Atlantic, author Gary Shteyngart wrote , “It looks like a hodgepodge of domes and minarets, tubes and canopies, like Istanbul had it been designed by idiots.”

Those opinions have not stopped brisk cabin sales (the first sailing of Icon was sold out months before it launched) and positive reviews , nor has it halted next summer’s launch of Royal Caribbean’s Star of the Seas , which will be larger than Icon. The Wilson Butler team designed Star of the Seas, and is working on a third sister ship, but details are hush-hush.

Wilson Butler does more than design megaships. Last year, the firm finished work on Silversea’s latest ship, the Silver Nova . The 728-passenger luxury ship prioritizes uninterrupted vistas and expansive windows so passengers can easily see the ocean and ports to connect with their surroundings. The firm has also been involved in the innovative Celebrity Edge series of ships, particularly with the futuristic, design-forward performance space called Eden.

Writer, maritime historian, and YouTuber Peter Knego confessed that he isn’t a fan of megaships but has become enamored of Wilson Butler’s designs over the years. He said he first became aware of the firm in 2016 when he sailed on the Celebrity Solstice and discovered the ship’s Lawn Club . It’s half an acre of live grass where guests can picnic, play lawn games, watch concerts, or relax.

“Solstice is probably my favorite of their work because, aesthetically speaking, it’s just magnificent,” Knego said. “You don’t even have to be on a ship to appreciate the atriums, the interiors, and the artwork. But Wilson Butler was also responsible for the Lawn Club, which sounded kind of ridiculous in concept. But when you experience it, and you’re actually sitting on a lawn 15 decks above the sea, it’s incredible.”

The architects at Wilson Butler continue to design and restore theaters and performance spaces, but they’ve seen their business come full circle. Where once Royal Caribbean was looking for a true theater at sea, theater companies are now looking to the firm to design their performance spaces with the efficiency of those on cruise ships.

“We’ve heard a few iterations of it,” Butler said. “When we did the Calderwood Pavilion at the Cyclorama, they said they hired us because they needed us to fit a theater in a very tight space, like a cruise ship. One of our recent clients, the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford, eventually revealed that they hired us because we do cruise ships and know how to move people in and out of a theater, which was one of their problems.”

“But we’ll truly know if it’s come full circle if the theater companies start asking for ice skating rinks,” Butler said with a laugh.

A view of the stern of Royal Caribbean's Icon of the Seas. The ship, which is the largest in the world, was designed by Wilson Butler Architects in Boston.

Providence River Boat Company

Providence Architecture Tour

Quick Details

  • Users Ages: Ages 10+
  • Clock Duration: 1.25 hours

Bringing architecture & history to life!

Experience 300 years of architectural history as you cruise the Providence waterways! This 75-minute boat tour, led by the Providence Preservation Society, highlights the stories, sight lines, and subtle details that define Providence. From the most eye-catching landmarks on the city skyline to hidden architectural gems, you’ll discover historic Providence from the best seat in town! A portion of all tickets sold will benefit the Providence Preservation Society.

Additional Information:

  • This tour is ages 10+ only.
  • ALL passengers must have a reservation to board. Our vessels are inspected by the United States Coast Guard and we cannot have more than (18) passengers aboard at one time, regardless of age.
  • Check-in is located inside  The Landing  at 101 Dyer Street in downtown Providence.
  • When checking in for your tour, feel free to explore  The Landing,  where you’ll find Rhode Island-themed gifts, t-shirts, and local art; local crafts, jewelry and giftware, and a full café & ice cream parlor. You are welcome to bring beverages or ice cream from The Landing aboard with you to enjoy during your boat ride.
  • Certified service dogs are permitted aboard, pets are not.
  • Because our boats were built specifically for us to be able to navigate under the bridges throughout downtown, they are not wheelchair accessible.

Enhance Your Boat Tour Experience!

We have partnered with a few of our favorite local small businesses to offer delicious charcuterie platters, and individual boxes; freshly baked dessert platters, cupcakes, chocolate confections and sugar cookies! Once your boat tour is booked, order directly through each vendor for delivery right to our doors.

  • The Perfect Parcel:  Charcuterie Boxes, Boards and Grazing Tables ( @the.perfectparcel ) Ask for a discount code once your seats are booked for 10% OFF and complimentary delivery!
  • Diva’s Dips & Gourmet Treats:  Handmade chocolates, cookies and sweets ( @divasdips )
  • The Cookie Hub RI:  Custom sugar cookies ( @thecookiehubri )

Parking Information:

  • There are several parking garages, outdoor parking lots and on-street metered parking spaces throughout our neighborhood.
  • The Freeway Parking Garage and Arcade Parking Garage, both located behind our building on Pine Street, offer very reasonable parking rates.
  • We also recommend taking your hotel shuttle, a Lyft or Uber, or walking from your hotel, if possible. We are centrally located in downtown and most hotels are within a 15 minute walk from us.

Tour Cancellation Policy:

  • Tour reservations are   non-refundable.   Please make sure you are booking the correct date/time.
  • Customers may reschedule their reservation or receive a credit for a future tour (subject to availability) with 72 hours advance notice only.
  • Requests to reschedule inside of 72 hours are not granted.
  • Same-day late arrivals and no-shows are not exchangeable or refundable. If you are late for your tour, or if you don’t arrive at all, you will forfeit your entire reservation fare.
  • We reserve the right to reschedule or cancel tours when less than 4 passengers have booked. It doesn’t happen often, but we will call you ASAP if it does.

Weather-Related Cancellation Policy:

  • The weather in New England changes often, and quickly. Because of this, we do not postpone or cancel boat tours until the day of the tour. If we were to cancel your tour, we would call you at the phone number provided on your reservation. Please do not call us questioning cancellations, we will reach out to you once we have made a decision. Thank you for your patience and understanding on this policy.
  • That being said, all of our tours typically run in a light mist and other moderate weather conditions. Our tours may launch a few minutes late if we are experiencing a passing shower, or weather-related event. We do not allow cancellations/refunds in this case, we simply ask that you are patient and wait it out with us.
  • If a tour runs as scheduled, same-day refunds, cancellations or reschedules are not permitted.
  • We reserve the right to cancel our tours in the event of severe or unsafe weather conditions. If we do cancel your tour due to inclement weather, you may reschedule, subject to availability, or receive a full refund.

A portion of all proceeds will benefit the Providence Preservation Society.

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architecture boat tour boston

Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise aboard Chicago's First Lady

architecture boat tour boston

Experience why we're the #1 rated boat cruise in Chicago, tickets are on sale now for the 2024 season!

Buy Tickets

Voted as one of the Top 10 Boat Tours in North America by USA Today readers for 3 years in a row and Chicago Reader's Best Tour for over 10 years ! Looking for the ultimate Chicago architecture experience? Buy a combo ticket for the river cruise AND visit the Chicago Architecture Center—you'll save $9!

For more than 25 years, the CAC's expertly trained docent volunteers have led the CAC River Cruise, sharing fascinating stories behind more than 50 buildings along the Chicago River. Hear how Chicago grew from a small settlement into one of the world's largest cities in less than 100 years. In just 90 minutes, you'll get the best overview of Chicago’s architecture and its history.

The CAC River Cruise is available in 4 languages: Continental French, Latin American Spanish, Japanese and Korean. To access these languages, please download the "Listen Everywhere" app in advance. Once you are on board the boat, the app will connect and allow you to listen in your selected language as the boat makes its way down the river.

*Continue your exploration with a visit to the CAC! Combo tickets include admission to the Center for just $5 (regular price $14). Admission is valid up to 7 days before or after your cruise.

*Please note that infant tickets must be purchased with a Priority or General Boarding Adult ticket. 

Evening River Cruise

The city's most popular tour is now offered in the evening. Serene and bathed in softer light, the city's architecture takes on a whole new life in the setting sun. Wind-down from the work-week by enjoying a cocktail with friends and family and experience Chicago's skyline on our luxury boats.

All departures lATER THAN 5:00 PM

  • CAC Members please call 312.922.8687 or come to the CAC Box Office at 111 E. Wacker Drive to redeem your BOGO benefit. 
  • You can buy a CAC membership over the phone and redeem your BOGO annual benefit at the time of your membership purchase.
  • Each person must have a ticket, including infants and children.
  • All tours depart rain or shine.
  • Arrive 30 minutes prior to your cruise departure time. Allow extra time for traffic and parking in summer.
  • Cruise guests board 15 minutes before departure time.
  • GENERAL ADMISSION SEATING
  • A full-service bar and snack bar are available onboard.
  • Tickets start at $54.00 for daytime cruises, $59.00 for evening cruises. Upgrade your ticket for $5 to include Chicago Architecture Center admission. Your visit must occur within 7 days before or after your tour.  View the CAC's hours .
  • Tickets may not be refunded or exchanged if you miss your boat. Allow extra time.
  • Find more information, including available parking, in our FAQs

Interested in a tour for a group of 20 or more? Please contact our group sales team at [email protected] . Private rentals are available.

Directions to Chicago’s First Lady boat dock

See a map here  or enter 112 E. Wacker Drive into your GPS. Located at the northeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, a black awning marks the boat dock entrance stairs that lead down to the river. If you have limited mobility, see these directions  for an alternative way to reach the dock.

About our Boat Partner

We’re proud to partner with Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, operator of Chicago’s finest fleet of cruising vessels. Its boats hold up to 250 passengers and feature open-air upper decks, full-service bars, climate-controlled lower cabins and upscale marble and granite restrooms. Being onboard is sure to be an experience you'll never forget. 

Photos From This Tour

architecture boat tour boston

Upcoming Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise aboard Chicago's First Lady Tours

Tuesday may 21.

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Wednesday May 22

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Saturday May 25

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Sunday May 26

Highlights of this tour.

architecture boat tour boston

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Meet the Boston architects who designed the largest cruise ship in the world

From a small office in post office square, wilson butler architects has been quietly changing the way people cruise for more than two decades.

A view of the stern of Royal Caribbean's Icon of the Seas. The ship, which is the largest in the world, was designed by Wilson Butler Architects in Boston.

L ooking back, it seems like a small innovation and not a particularly exciting one: an ice rink on a cruise ship.

But when Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas debuted 25 years ago, an ice rink on a cruise ship had never been attempted. At the time of its 1999 launch, Voyager was the world’s largest cruise ship, with 3,600 passengers, and the company needed fresh entertainment options to set it apart.

The ice rink idea was pioneering but not without its issues. Chief among them was creating and preserving ice for the rink while at sea and then keeping it level when nothing on a ship stays level. A cruise ship is essentially rattled by a constant series of small earthquakes as waves batter it. The answer to the ice rink problem came from an unlikely source: a small architectural firm in Boston called Wilson Butler Architects , which had never worked on cruise ship design before.

Since that first ice rink, Wilson Butler can lay claim to a long list of innovative cruise ship firsts and superlatives. (One trick to the rink at sea , the firm determined, is making sure the ice temperature hovers at 32 degrees so it stays malleable.) From their office in Post Office Square, the architects went on to design the largest slide on a ship (10 stories high, to be exact), the largest glass dome on a ship (covering 32,000 square feet and weighing 360 tons), the first glass-blowing studio at sea, the first concert hall at sea, the first skydiving simulator at sea, and the largest, and only, urban park on a ship with more than 30,000 real plants.

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The Pearl, a 53-foot-diameter kinetic sculpture on the Icon of the Seas, was designed in Boston by Wilson Butler Architects.

Their most recent work can be seen on Royal Caribbean’s jaw-dropping Icon of the Seas , the largest ship in the world. The $2 billion ship holds 7,500 passengers and 2,000 crew members. For Icon, the firm created a 53-foot-diameter kinetic art installation called the Pearl that also serves as a structural support, a 700-seat aquatic theater where divers and acrobats entertain in the largest and deepest freshwater pool at sea, a 1,200-seat Broadway-caliber theater, and, staying true to its roots, the largest ice arena at sea. At first glance, the Icon, with its gallimaufry of multicolor slides, tubes, arches, decks, and domes, looks like a phantasmagoric city sprung from the mind of Dr. Seuss.

It’s an impressive achievement for an architectural firm that never set out to design cruise ships and had no background in the industry. When Wilson Butler Architects was formed in 1997, its specialty was theaters, not creating massive slides on megaships.

Alastair Battson is the lead modeler at Wilson Butler Architects. The firm was known for its work designing and restoring theaters (and still is), but for 26 years, it has been the master planner and chief architect behind all Royal Caribbean Cruises.

“Up until that point, the nature of our work had been designing and restoring theaters, like the Bushnell Theater in Hartford,” said Scott Butler, one of the firm’s founders. “So when Royal Caribbean asked if we’d be interested in designing a true theater on a ship, that seemed like a natural fit. It was probably a combination of naivete and overconfidence that led us to say yes. ”

The result of that request was a 1,350-seat theater inspired by grand 19th-century European opera halls. It looked different from anything else on a ship at the time and was revolutionary because the architects moved supports that had previously obstructed audience sightlines.

“They are by far the single most influential architectural partner we have,” said Kelly Gonzalez, senior vice president of architectural design for Royal Caribbean. “They have really gone far beyond to learn about our industry and understand its complexities. They are real partners to our company and real partners with the shipyards that we have them work with.”

Birds eye aerial of Icon of the Seas

Since its first project on Voyager of the Seas, the firm has designed an additional 50 ships for Royal Caribbean, plus Silversea Cruises and Celebrity Cruises , which are owned by Royal Caribbean. The architects and interior designers at Wilson Butler may have accumulated decades of experience designing cruise ships, but ironically, none of them refer to themselves as “cruise people.”

“It helps us that none of us are particularly in love with cruising,” said Rebecca Durante, an interior designer and principal at the firm. “It helps us see a lot of the negatives. We get where these people are coming from, so we’re always looking at how we can make it better for everyone, even the people who feel like they’re getting dragged along.”

Butler said the desire to offer more options for the cruise-hesitant and make the ship feel unique resulted in the Icon’s larger, monumental scale.

AquaDome located in the Icon of the Seas.

“We’re trying to take what people might see as getting on a tin can at sea, being rocked around, dumped on an island, and then herded like cattle back on board, and change the stereotype,” he said. “We’re looking to take that perception of a cruise ship and turn it into something that doesn’t feel the same, where there’s a richness of experiences, where foot traffic flows, where there are places to find solitude, even on a ship the size of the Icon.”

There are detractors — plenty of detractors — when it comes to the Icon of the Seas. The larger the ship, the bigger the hype, the easier the target. Its unique look led one writer from the Guardian to call it “what a human lasagna might look like.” In a piece for the Atlantic, author Gary Shteyngart wrote , “It looks like a hodgepodge of domes and minarets, tubes and canopies, like Istanbul had it been designed by idiots.”

Those opinions have not stopped brisk cabin sales (the first sailing of Icon was sold out months before it launched) and positive reviews , nor has it halted next summer’s launch of Royal Caribbean’s Star of the Seas , which will be larger than Icon. The Wilson Butler team designed Star of the Seas, and is working on a third sister ship, but details are hush-hush.

Wilson Butler does more than design megaships. Last year, the firm finished work on Silversea’s latest ship, the Silver Nova . The 728-passenger luxury ship prioritizes uninterrupted vistas and expansive windows so passengers can easily see the ocean and ports to connect with their surroundings. The firm has also been involved in the innovative Celebrity Edge series of ships, particularly with the futuristic, design-forward performance space called Eden.

Writer, maritime historian, and YouTuber Peter Knego confessed that he isn’t a fan of megaships but has become enamored of Wilson Butler’s designs over the years. He said he first became aware of the firm in 2016 when he sailed on the Celebrity Solstice and discovered the ship’s Lawn Club . It’s half an acre of live grass where guests can picnic, play lawn games, watch concerts, or relax.

Wilson Butler designed the Lawn Club, a half-acre of live grass, on the Celebrity Solstice.

“Solstice is probably my favorite of their work because, aesthetically speaking, it’s just magnificent,” Knego said. “You don’t even have to be on a ship to appreciate the atriums, the interiors, and the artwork. But Wilson Butler was also responsible for the Lawn Club, which sounded kind of ridiculous in concept. But when you experience it, and you’re actually sitting on a lawn 15 decks above the sea, it’s incredible.”

The architects at Wilson Butler continue to design and restore theaters and performance spaces, but they’ve seen their business come full circle. Where once Royal Caribbean was looking for a true theater at sea, theater companies are now looking to the firm to design their performance spaces with the efficiency of those on cruise ships.

“We’ve heard a few iterations of it,” Butler said. “When we did the Calderwood Pavilion at the Cyclorama, they said they hired us because they needed us to fit a theater in a very tight space, like a cruise ship. One of our recent clients, the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford, eventually revealed that they hired us because we do cruise ships and know how to move people in and out of a theater, which was one of their problems.”

“But we’ll truly know if it’s come full circle if the theater companies start asking for ice skating rinks,” Butler said with a laugh.

Christopher Muther can be reached at [email protected] . Follow him @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.

Chicago’s Best 90-Minute Architecture Boat Tour

Photo of Chicago’s Best 90-Minute Architecture Boat Tour - Chicago, IL, US. Hillary our tour guide

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“ Hillary was so fun and made coming all the way down to the south loop worth it. ” in 4 reviews

Lindsay A.

“ HIGHLY recommend going on this when visiting. ” in 2 reviews

Dan S.

“ Our tour guide, Billy , was super-informative and entertaining! ” in 2 reviews

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River City Marina - Summer Of George

900 S Wells St

Chicago, IL 60607

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Went on the 10am tour and the weather was perfect. Both sides of the boat had amazing views! Hillary was funny and engaging. We got to see more parts of the river than I excepted and the 90 minutes was so worth it!!

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Hillary was a great tour guide keeping it light and humorous. No script, but her knowledge of the buildings and Chicago in general was phenomenal. It's probably our third time over the years but the most memorable. A great tour to do every few years.

architecture boat tour boston

Our tour guide, Billy, was very informative and entertaining! We learned a lot about the history of Chicago and it made my partner and I appreciate the city we were visiting more.

Skyline of Chicago

Skyline of Chicago

architecture boat tour boston

Had a wonderful time on this tour. Sean was a fantastic guide, and I learned a lot about Chicago and its marvelous architecture. I liked that the boat wasn't too big or crowded. Highly recommend!

View of Chicago skyline from boat

View of Chicago skyline from boat

Summer of George at dock

Summer of George at dock

Photo of N.F. P.

Wife and I enjoyed a wonderful 90 min trip with @toursandboats enjoying the architectural beauty of Chicago on the Chicago River. Took some amazing photos from the uncrowded bow of the boat; the other passengers on board were all very chill and the staff were fantastic including the captain with his dry sense of humor! The boat was clean and well maintained, in particular the bar was very well maintained and made the trip even more enjoyable. Will definitely repeat another trip with these folks next time I'm in Chi-Town, but I'm gonna try to do an evening cruise which may be even more amazing. Don't hesitate, book with this crew and you'll have a great time.

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What a wonderful day! The tour was awesome. Lots of fun information about the City.I would highly recommend it. The weather was kind of cloudy but at least it didn't rain and no sun damage.

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Booked tour through Groupon. Our tour guide Teela was so great and fun. Had such a great time and learned a lot!

architecture boat tour boston

I've taken several boat tour of Chicago, and this is the best by far! Our tour guide, Billy, was super-informative and entertaining! Very comfortable boat with a full bar. Great outing in Chicago!

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This was well worth it. The captain (Joe) and the guide (Dave) were friendly, inviting, and made the tour wonderful. Something I would do again on my next visit.

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I had an excellent experience with Tours and Travels! Initially, I faced some challenges reaching them over the phone, but their customer service team truly impressed me. They not only resolved my issues but went above and beyond to assist me. Their dedication to customer satisfaction is outstanding. I highly recommend booking your tickets directly with them for a seamless and stress-free experience. Kudos to Tours and Travels for their exceptional service!

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