A Pier Beyond Peer: The Legacy of Navy Pier


Navy Pier wields a powerful force. Each year, millions of visitors gravitate to this spot. Crowds simply cannot resist the allure of Navy Pier. But what produces this effect? Surely scientists have studied this phenomenon.

Well, it’s not complicated (or paranormal). Navy Pier just rocks. Jutting 3,300 feet into Lake Michigan, this Chicago landmark demands attention — and it never disappoints. With nearly half a mile of entertainment, thrilling attractions, ongoing events, and world-class restaurants like Giordano’s, Navy Pier earns its spot as Chicago’s number 1 attraction.

Navy Pier delivers on its promises, and always has. This living piece of history proves the strength of Chicago’s accomplishments. We Chicagoans always love pushing boundaries — of course we’d build a giant playground for the city onto the lake.

The longevity of Navy Pier proves our civic dedication. With Navy Pier’s centennial anniversary coming up, it’s important to pay tribute to this symbol of Chicago. Navy Pier’s unique and wacky history reflects the phases of our past. Through good times and bad, we never forgot about Navy Pier.

A History of Navy Pier

Navy Pier feels drenched in the past. Stand on it and you’ll get a face full of history — and maybe lake spray. Memories of bygone days whisper from the planks as you cruise the boardwalk.

This proud fixture of the Chicago landscape reminds you of its age, but doesn’t scream it at you. Navy Pier has aged well, considering it’s almost 100 years old. This graceful aging comes from Navy Pier’s adaptability.


It changes with the times. A coat of bright modernity covers Navy Pier, but the past shines through. Like the waves churning beneath the pilings, Navy Pier mixes the past with the present.

This balance owes its success to a century of upkeep and attention. We raise our glasses to the city workers, engineers and visionaries who maintained Navy Pier while preserving its history — cheers!

The Dream of a Pier

When the original planners envisioned a pier, their goal was twofold: a majestic pier, open to shipping and the public. We say that Navy Pier finally achieved its mission. Nowadays, Navy Pier functions both as a dock for ships and as a public recreation area for the city. This accomplishment didn’t come easy. Like the brave soldiers it’s named after, Navy Pier fought hard to win its battle.

Navy Pier’s status has bobbed up and down through its century. Its rocky history can make anyone seasick, but this strange journey defines its character. Navy Pier’s story isn’t defined by any one event. Only by looking back at the accumulated experiences does a true picture come into focus.

The Amazing Transforming Pier

Navy Pier has gone through many phases. Its first incarnation reflected the designers’ intentions — a public space where private ships could dock. As time wore on, Navy Pier became a food containment facility naval base and military school, a detainment center, a raucous venue for honky-tonk abandon, a university and, of course, an ongoing role as Chicago’s star pier.


The Plan of Chicago

The desire for a pier came from Chicago’s hunger for development. By the early 1900s, Chicago had become a robust city, rebelliously bursting outward — pushing into its outskirts and the lake. Chicago needed to shape its destiny. With its citizens in mind, the Plan of Chicago took center stage.

The Plan of Chicago was the brainchild of Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett. These civil engineers envisioned Chicago as a green metropolis, open to the public. They wanted wider streets, greater park space and a breathtaking harbor front.

The lakeside area represented a vital interest for Burnham and Bennett. Daniel Burnham believed the Chicago public shared collective ownership of the lakefront. In 1909, he proclaimed:

“First in importance is the shore of Lake Michigan. It should be treated as park space to the greatest possible extent. The lakefront by right belongs to the people … not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.”

Burnham and Bennett wanted their waterfront fantasy to center on a pier — but not just any pier.

The Birth of Navy Pier

When their pier was built in 1916, it was the largest pier in the world. The pier was called Municipal Pier #2 — not a particularly catchy name, or even a relevant one — there never was a Municipal Pier #1.

The original project called for constructing five piers, but only the second one was built. Lucky number #2. We can’t blame the laborers for limiting their aspirations. The pier took two years to finish, but the work yielded an impressive result.

At 3,300 feet long, it blew every other pier out of the water. Two massive, doubled-decked buildings flanked both sides of the pier. These structures stored goods unloaded from ships and served as launches. A road sliced through the center of pier, leading to a 3,000-seat concert hall at the end of the pier.


The pier cost $4.5 million, but its true value lay in its utilitarianism. It served many needs at once. It satisfied Burnham and Bennett’s requirement of public access, while serving as a shipping dock for goods and passengers.

At the time, a great number of people travelled by boat. The pier served as a stunning disembarkation point for ship travelers. Freighters also used the pier to supply Chicago with its lifeblood of food and products.

By 1917, trucks had risen in prominence and freight shipping began to decline. The pier shifted to public demand, and soon, to military objectives.

The Era of World War I

Almost immediately after its inauguration, Municipal Pier #2 took on military duties. A month after the United States entered World War I, Chicago converted the pier into housing for the army, navy, Home Defense units, Red Cross and a prison for draft dodgers.

The pier’s expansive structure provided a perfect makeshift military facility. The pier’s natural layout made it easy for different contingents of the military to coordinate. The all-purpose pier seemed adaptable to any situation. In the years of peace to follow, it also knew how to relax.

The Roaring ‘20s

After the armed forced moved out, it was time to party. The Great Gatsby was nothing compared to Municipal Pier #2 — the celebrations still exude a legendary status. One such ultra-bash was the 1922 “Pageant of Progress.”

Named the “greatest collection of business and industrial exhibits this city has seen,” the Pageant of Progress didn’t hold back. It featured wild mock-pirate attacks, sky diver exhibitions, racing speedboats, fire fighter demonstrations, a typing contest, and a race between a pigeon and an airplane (the pigeon emerged victorious). Hundreds of thousands poured onto the pier to participate in the pageant — it really kicked off the decade.


New facilities of the era included dining pavilions, picnic spots, a dancehall, concert hall, a streetcar, a children’s playground and a radio station. The pier developed a reputation as a summertime playground. It knew how to draw a crowd. During this “Golden Age,” 3.2 million people visited the pier each year.

Finally, in 1927, tired of chewing on the name Municipal Pier #2, and seeking to honor veterans of World War I, Chicago rebranded our favorite party spot “Navy Pier.”

The momentum of the 1920s continued into the ‘30s for Navy Pier. Despite hard times during the Great Depression, people never forgot their favorite lakeside spot. Navy Pier maintained its title as the best place for exhibitions.

Many events during the 1930s helped to cheer up the city and boost faith in the economy. In 1932, the Flower and Garden Show epitomized Chicago’s spirit of hope and growth, despite the Depression. The next year, the Century of Progress Exposition at the Chicago World’s Fair also lightened the mood of the decade. In the late 1930s, The Automotive Services Industry Show and the National Motor Truck Show bolstered confidence in American industry.

Navy Pier serves as the mirror of the times. During World War I, it housed troops. In the 1920s, it danced the swing, and in the 1930s, it optimistically looked to the future. In the 1940s, when America again went to war, so did Navy Pier.

World War II

As war became inevitable, Navy Pier accepted its wartime role. In August 1941, Navy Pier ramped up its facilities in preparation for training and housing Naval forces. Now closed to the public, Navy Pier undertook a five month transformation. A month before Pearl Harbor, Navy Pier was prepared.

Navy Pier’s training operations handled over 10,000 Navy service members. Engineers constructed additional facilities next to the pier, including a 20-acre hanger. Pilots trained at the pier and launched exercises from the USS Wolverine and the USS Sable, a pair of aircraft carriers docked nearby.


During Navy Pier’s time as a training base, roughly 15,000 pilots passed through the program, including a young George H.W. Bush.

From Navy Pier, the Navy conducted live-fire drills and submarine hunt exercises. Spectators often caught a glimpse of these mock-attacks. One incredible public show featured graduating sailors subjected to an actual gas attack using a specialized chamber.

Military schools soon established themselves in Navy Pier’s vast complex. These cavernous warehouses were easily converted into an educational behemoth. More than 60,000 servicemen and 15,000 electronic technicians trained at Navy Pier during the war.

Navy Pier’s prestigious academies laid the groundwork for Navy Pier’s future schools, after the war.

University of Illinois

As newspaper headlines heralded “War Is Over!”, Navy Pier began to demilitarize. In 1946, the Navy withdrew from Navy Pier, leaving all their educational infrastructure intact. Like a hermit crab leaves one shell for another, another school moved into the vacant facilities.

The University of Illinois seized the opportunity and established themselves at Navy Pier. Wasting no time, 4,000 students enrolled in classes by October 1946. The original two-year program focused on providing instruction to returning servicemen.

Unfortunately, the University of Illinois outgrew the 5,500 student limit of Navy Pier, and in 1965, the school relocated to Chicago Circle. Navy Pier was left to choose a new path.

The Modern Era

Like many graduates, Navy Pier experienced a sense of confusion after parting with a university. Much of the old facilities descended into disrepair. It’s difficult to image how this cherished emblem of our city fell so low. It took several decades for Navy Pier to recover its luster.


Eventually, crowds returned to Navy Pier. The annual ChicagoFest, from 1978 to 1983, helped draw citizens back to Navy Pier. The two-week-long festival featured the best acts of the day. Diverse bands like the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, the Scorpions and Kool and the Gang helped Navy Pier to “get down” on the sixteen stages assembled on Navy Pier.

ChicagoFest helped us remember our love of Navy Pier. The festival was discontinued in 1983, but Navy Pier remained in the spotlight. It only needed an influx of cash to revitalize its potential.

Finally, in 1994, a major renovation project pumped $200 million into Navy Pier. With concession stands, commercial spaces, a concert arena, convention facilities and a ballroom, the modern Navy Pier was finally born.

Navy Pier Attractions

After travelling through Navy Pier’s wacky history, why not actually go there? There’s never been a better time to visit Chicago’s premiere attraction. We’re not exaggerating the appeal of Navy Pier.


Navy Pier routinely ranks among the most popular tourist attractions. In 2014, it ranked 26th of the top 50 attractions in the world! Word of Navy Pier’s wonder has reached the masses. In 2012, it broke all previous attendance records when 9.2 million people visited this must-see world attraction.

So what’s all this fuss about? Well — lots, actually! Among Navy Pier’s countless attractions, it offers:

Ferris Wheel 2016

Coming in the summer of 2016, the new Ferris Wheel will make your head spin. The new wheel features a design perfected by Dutch Wheels, the world’s top Ferris Wheel manufacturer. This wheel will fit snugly in the old wheel’s footprint, like replacing a light bulb.

Except no regular Ferris wheel will do. The new one is custom made to handle the lake’s brutal 115 mile an hour winds. It’ll be one tough wheel. Check it out this summer!

Navy Pier Beer Garden

A Beer Garden like none other — the Landshark Beer Garden sits a mile out on Navy Pier. It’s got a million dollar view and cold beer — what could be better? Grab some shade in this beautiful spot on the pier.

Nestled by trees in a corner of Navy Pier, Landshark puts the “garden” in beer garden (it also puts the “beer” in it, too). This little oasis will certainly quench your thirst. Sit back with a drink, grab a bite at the concession stand and watch a band. The Landshark frequently hosts various musical acts. The best part? No cover charge!

IMAX Theatre

The IMAX at Navy Pier is probably the best movie theatre in Illinois. The screen towers over the audience at a staggering 60 feet high by 86 feet wide. This colossal screen took the theatre by storm in 2009. It cost $100,000 and took 18 workers 14 hours to install — but it was well worth it.

Catch the latest blockbuster or a scenic spectacle tailor-made for IMAX. The next time you watch an explosive 3D superhero movie, consider the Navy Pier IMAX.

We recommend that you plan ahead, buy online, and take transit. The theatre maintains a reputation for its awesomeness, and shows sell out fast. Go online and print your tickets at home if you can. This helps to avoid the lines of moviegoers. Parking also costs $25, so consider leaving the car in your garage.


Seadog Boat Cruise

Hold on to your hat — the Seadog goes fast. Navy Pier’s team of Seadog speedboats each crank out 1,400 horsepower of lake-ripping fury. Picture “The Fast and the Furious,” except with boats.

Choose one or both of Seadog’s tours. The first choice offers a 30-minute thrill ride around the lake, with gut churning 360-degree turns. Their second option showcases classic Chicago architecture in their 75-minute guided tour down the Chicago River.

Both tours will make for an excellent day on the lake. Check out their YouTube video, if you’re still on the fence.

Navy Pier Upcoming Events

As if the year round attractions weren’t enough, Navy Pier supplies Chicago with extra events. Make sure to mark your calendar for exciting one-time opportunities like the Aon Summer Fireworks. After all, they only happen one season a year!

Aon Summer Fireworks

This dazzling fireworks display happens twice a week every summer. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the Aon Summer Fireworks burst into the night skies. Stake a spot on Navy Pier to watch the show. Admission is free and the event is perfect for all ages. There’s no better way to polish off a dreamy summer day.

Let the sizzle and crack of exploding fireworks wash over your senses. Relax and enjoy the technicolored splendor of these shifting illusions. They only exist for a moment and then fade away, replaced by another firework, as the show continues.

Consider every second you’re alive like a tiny firework. Take time to appreciate the small things, like a day out at Navy Pier with loved ones, watching fireworks.


Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Every so often, Navy Pier’s own Chicago Shakespeare Theatre releases a new play. Their acclaimed performances always pack a punch. These all-star actors honor the demands of Shakespeare while breathing new life into familiar plays.

Not only does this Navy Pier theatre perform Shakespeare year round, but they also pump out other, sometimes more unusual, acts. A show entitled “Gary Busey’s One-Man Hamlet,” appearing July 12-17, 2016, imagines what would happen if Gary Busey tackled Hamlet solo.

The shows change, so check out their website for upcoming plays and events.


Approaching Navy Pier, you’ll pass through Streeterville. Since you’re here, why not check out this upscale neighborhood. Streeterville encompasses a sizable chunk of downtown Chicago. With giant skyscrapers towering overhead, there’s plenty to see.

Elegant hotels, fine restaurants and glamorous residential high rises pack the streets of Streeterville. Fancy boutiques scattered through the area provide an opportunity to grab a new designer bag — if you’re tempted by fashion.

Streeterville also boasts some great restaurants. Some on Navy Pier, some off the pier.

Restaurants Near Navy Pier


We at Giordano’s love Navy Pier so much we have a restaurant here! How could we not? Navy Pier and our Chicago-style deep dish both define Chicago, so we put them together. If you come to Navy Pier, grab one of our trademark deep dish pizzas. Do Chicago right!

Wrap up your perfect day at Navy Pier with a meal at Giordano’s. Give our location at Navy Pier a call at (312) 288-8783 or just drop by at 700 East Grand Ave. See you there!

Billy Goat Tavern

Another iconic Chicago restaurant on Navy Pier is the Billy Goat Tavern. Named for William “Billy Goat” Sianis’ and his famous goat mascot, this restaurant is pure Chicago. Come down and snag a “Cheezborger” — made famous by the classic SNL sketch.

This classic Chicago burger joint still slings some tasty burgers. Don’t miss this other side of classic Chicago cuisine.

Riva Restaurant

In the mood for seafood? Put your exoskeleton-busting skills to use at Riva Restaurant. This top seafood place may not have oceanfront scenery, but it’s on a pier! Looking out over the lake, you can hardly tell the difference.

Despite its dislocation from the coast, Riva delivers the highest quality seafood on Navy Pier. Crack open a shell or chow down on some chowder. Let your craving for seafood delicacies overtake you.

If you love top-notch seafood, tie up your lobster bib, and scuttle over to this scenic restaurant. Riva’s got the goods to represent Navy Pier’s seafood desires. They also do great steaks, soups, salads and side dishes.

The Purple Pig

Take a trip off Navy Pier into Streeterville to this spacious Mediterranean restaurant. Located smack dab on the “Magnificent Mile” at 500 North Michigan Ave, this restaurant justifies its prestigious real estate spot.

Finish off your day at Navy Pier in style, at the Purple Pig. Your unforgettable day deserves a culinary coup de grâce. While on the Magnificent Mile, why not try some magnificent food? Go ahead — take a sidebar from Navy Pier. It’ll be there tomorrow.

Kanela Breakfast Club

Start your epic day at Navy Pier off right. Order a delicious Greek-inspired breakfast at Kanela Breakfast Club at 502 East Illinois Avenue. Not far from the pier, fill up with a hearty breakfast before tackling the pier. With gourmet Mediterranean-themed dishes at a reasonable price, Kanela easily gets our recommendation. Just save enough room for some Giordano’s deep dish later on.

Honor Navy Pier

We at Giordano’s hold Navy Pier in high regard. It’s an emblem of Chicago’s fortitude, accomplishment and often quirky history. So come down to Navy Pier and complete your unforgettable experience with us at Giordano’s. Check out our location at Navy Pier, order online or try our frozen pizzas.