Chicago's various cruise lines ply the waters of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River pretty much year round (until the river freezes over, at least) during the day, evening and even midnight. But when the long nights of summer arrive, an additional option enters the mix: the early evening cocktail cruise.
From white-tablecloth buffet cruises to zero-frill rides with basic tour-boat commentary, there are cruises (all around happy hour) for all tastes and budgets. Zip along the river and hear more architectural information than can fit inside your skull for less than $30. Gather a group of friends and bob along Lake Michigan -- with open bar, yet -- for about $100 per head. Try a wine tasting. Dance to a DJ.
And return to land with most of the evening still ahead of you.
Two of us sailed on a selection of cocktail cruises and evaluated the experience.
Chicago Architecture Foundation Evening Cruise
The basics: Two-hour river cruise, $28-$32.
Available: 5:30 p.m. Thursdays, 5 and 5:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Departs: Chicago's First Lady dock, south bank of Chicago River, east of Michigan Avenue.
Features: Tour is narrated by a CAF volunteer, providing virtually non-stop commentary on the riverfront architecture.
Refreshments: Cash bar serves beer, wine, cocktails.
Best for: Architecture fans and serious tourists, though even casual tourists will enjoy the low-key vibe.
For tickets: 800-982-2787, First Lady box office or ticketmaster.com/rivercruise.
Mystic Blue Lake-Breeze Dinner Cruise
The basics: Two-hour lake cruise, $74.66-$80.50.
Available: 6:30 p.m. Mondays- Fridays, 6 p.m. Sundays, 5 p.m. Saturdays (twilight cruise).
Departs: Navy Pier, east end.
Features: No narration. Live music on outdoor deck, DJ and dancing inside.
Refreshments: Price includes light buffet dinner; cash bar. Numerous upgrade packages available.
Best for: Large groups get the best deals, but also fun for romantic couples comfortable in an energetic atmosphere.
For tickets: 877-299-7783, dockside box office or mysticbluecruises.com.
Chicago Line Cruises Evening Architectural/ Cocktail Cruise
The basics: 90-minute river and lake cruise, $36.
Available: 6 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 8 p.m. Mon.-Sat. except Wed.
Departs: Just east of 465 N. McClurg Ct., from the docks on the promenade behind River East Art Center.
Features: Part-guided architectural tour, part-pleasure cruise along the lake, this one is the best of both worlds. Chicago Line also partners with the Chicago History Museum for one-off themed cruises in the summer.
Refreshments: Complimentary non-alcoholic beverages and light snacks (mine had cookies and pretzels), with an optional $18 all-you-can-drink bar package.
Best for: Architecture fans with short attention spans ... who like to drink. Once the docent's off the mike, you're on your own for entertainment.
For tickets: 312-527-2002, Chicago Line ticket office or chicagoline.com/ cocktailarch.php.
Wendella Chicago at Sunset cruise
The basics: 2-hour river and lake cruise, $25.
Available: 7:45 p.m. daily.
Departs: From Wendella's tiny dock wedged between the northeast corner of Wrigley Building and the Michigan Avenue bridge.
Features: Historical, architectural and minor cultural commentary dominate the guided tour, with breaks along the lake for self-reflection ... at the bar.
Refreshments: Soft drinks and hot chocolate run $1, beer is $4 and cocktails average $7; snacks are limited to chips and pretzels.
Best for: Tourists looking for a crash course on the city's floating history, and locals who want to float along while brushing up.
For tickets: 312-337-1446, Wendella ticket office or wendellaboats.com/sunset.htm.
Shoreline Sightseeing Sunset Cruise
The basics: 45-minute lake cruise, $14.
Available: 8 p.m. daily.
Departs: Navy Pier, West Boat Dock.
Features: The instruction "remain seated at all times" seems more Disneyland than pleasure cruise. Guided narration is done via a voiceover that far predates Millennium Park. Its campy tone evokes a 1950s Chicago.
Refreshments: Soft drinks, cheap wine and Budweiser. Or Bud Light.
Best for: Tourists only, who unfortunately will leave Chicago believing that the city's last great boon was Grant Park.
For tickets: 312-222-9328, Shoreline Sightseeing ticket office or shorelinesightseeing.com. ---