Beat the Chicago Heat with These 9 Waterfront Activities
From riverside bars and sandy beaches to suburban waterparks worth the drive.
As we head full speed into late August and gear up for an onslaught of back-to-school and Labor Day weekend festivities, we can’t help but notice that our Chicago summer will soon be exiting just as swiftly as it entered. But—that’s a capital “B”—we’re not there yet. And until then, we plan to seize the summer the best way we know how: by diving head-first into as many water-soaked activities as possible. It’s hot out there, and thankfully, Chicago’s splash scene is hotter than the steamy blacktop beneath your ratty old Slip ‘N Slide.
From riverfront dining to sailing school, here are the best ways to get out on the water this month.
Catch a show
The Air & Water Show is back this year, touching down August 21 and 22, with a dress rehearsal running from 10 am to 2 pm on August 20. Grab a primetime viewing spot on the lakeside breakers between Oak Street and Fullerton Avenue and settle in for an incredible spectacle from the Blue Angels—a demo squadron formed in 1946 by the U.S. Navy (the second oldest formal aerobatic team in the world, we might add). And when it comes to live tunes with a side of waterfront breeze, pop over to Northerly Island for a concert at Huntington Bank Pavilion, home to flashy upcoming acts like Alicia Keys, 311, and New Order.
Hit the beach
Perhaps our city’s most impressive redemption to the long, frigid winters? That epic shoreline of ours, and all of the beaches she boasts. Pack a bag and head to go-tos like North Avenue, Montrose, or Oak Street, all of which have plenty of options for volleyball, lounging, and summer-worthy sips. The best part? Chicago is home to more than two dozen beaches, so if ever one feels a bit too crowded, it’s all too easy to pack it up and discover yet another lakefront gem.
Sail away aboard a rented boat
It’s all fine and well to be near the water, but it’s tough to beat floating on top of it. Enter boat rentals, the best way to explore all the waterways that cut through our fine city—and some rental spots will even let you go it alone on a solo voyage. Chicago Electric Boat Company, the city’s largest self-guided river boat rental operator, features a full fleet of vessels that can fit anywhere from four to 13 folks for hourly charters traversing the Chicago River and its meandering branches. Not feeling sailor-spry? No problem—for a slight surcharge, an experienced team member will navigate said branches for you (and share plenty of Chi-centric facts, too).
Dive into the pool scene
If sandy shorts just aren’t your thing, the city’s network of public and private pools offer a change of pace. For a low-key neighborhood hangout, try Holstein Park, Smith Park, Wrightwood, or Pulaski Public Pools—all of which are operating at 50 percent capacity, five days a week. And if you want to take it to the next level, check out a hotel-bound offering, with options spanning tony favorites like the Hoxton Hotel, Cabana Club, or Viceroy. You’ll need to patron the venue, of course—but these laps are better with an Aperol Spritz in hand, anyway.
Get schooled in sailing
If there’s any kind of summer school we’re actually up for, it’s the kind that happens on the water—and thankfully, The Northwestern University Sailing Center is down to clown. They offer bi-weekly classes through September for all levels of sea leg readiness, and anyone enrolled receives membership perks. If sailing’s not your thing, rest assured—they offer an array of other activities, too, from windsurfing to paddle boarding.
Feast your eyes on some of our shoreline’s best sights
Though Navy Pier is best known for its 200-foot Centennial Wheel, it packs plenty of other finds, too, from shops and restaurants to gardens and games (not to mention Offshore, the country’s largest rooftop deck). Expect to find a bounty of signature Chicago eats here (including Garrett Popcorn and Giordano’s Pizza), and do save room for dessert—FRIO Gelato and the Original Rainbow Cone operate stalls onsite, as does churro haven Xurro. It all goes down better against a backdrop of lakefront fireworks, which happen here every Wednesday and Saturday through Labor Day weekend.
For another special site a bit further south, cruise over to Promontory Point, Hyde Park’s beloved peninsula stocked with pristine skyline views alongside prime swimming and sunbathing zones. Stick around into evening and gear up on the s’mores fixings—several firepits await for a late summer snack-off.
Snag a riverfront rez
There’s nothing dreamier than dining al fresco as the sun sets over the Chicago River, casting a kaleidoscope of summer hues across a landscape of skyscrapers—and now more than ever, the city has options. Check out Pizzeria Portofino for a medley of spritzes alongside coastal Italian cuisine, while Beatnik on the River is a favorite for Mediterranean small plates and Boho-chic vibes. Over at Porter Kitchen + Deck, it’s all about contemporary American fare (think sliders, ceviche, and steak frites) alongside solid cocktails and front-row seats of the river’s south branch.
Park it along the river for pints and people watching
While one hand waves to the boaters passing by, the other raises a toast to the plethora of bars dotting the scenic Chicago river. The views don’t get much better than at City Winery, where low-key vibes and housemade wine draw loyal crowds. Neighbor The Northman is just as frequented for its colossal list of cider and beer, all of which pair up swimmingly with the Euro-inspired fare on offer. And further uptown (er, upstream), folks will do well by a visit to Metropolitan Brewing, a stellar brewpub situated on Avondale’s East Side boasting an ace panorama of the river’s north branch.
Channel your inner child at a good old-fashioned waterpark
Though most waterparks are a trek from Chicago proper, sign your own field trip permission slip and embark on a day revelling in the adventure of it all (road trip most definitely included). Slides, diving boards, and splash pads are part of the experience at Coral Cove (Carol Stream), while drop slides and a “sprayground” await at Atcher Island (Schaumburg). Don’t miss the chance to lounge about the lazy river ride at Mystic Waters Family Aquatic Center (Des Plaines)—something that, we’ll admit, has gotten much more intriguing as we’ve gracefully aged.