14 Ways to Watch the Fourth of July Fireworks in Chicago This Year

Jun 28, 2018

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The annual Independence Day fireworks at Chicago’s Navy Pier will light up the sky at 9:30pm on Wednesday, July 4.

To help you find the best places to watch the July Fourth fireworks in Chicago this year, TPG spoke to restaurant owners, bartenders, hotel managers and lifelong Chicagoans. Best of all, this expert guide doesn’t just tell you where to go — it will also help you score the perfect table, couch, cabana or spot on the grass amidst the inevitably crazy crowds. 

Where to Watch the July Fourth Fireworks

The Shedd Aquarium, on the shores of Lake Michigan, has an unobstructed fireworks view from its terrace. Your way in? Buy tickets ($25) to a July Fourth edition of Jazzin’ at the Shedd, a weekly after-hours event featuring live jazz, food, cocktails, freedom to roam the exhibits and — crucially — terrace access. For the holiday, a special a la carte menu will include barbecue and other picnic-inspired bites. And definitely bring a blanket. If the terrace fills up, “we’ll be encouraging guests to spread out among the surrounding lawn and gardens,” said Johnny Ford, communications manager for the Shedd.

Crowds? No thanks. Book either the Navy Pier suite or one of the Chicago suites at the Loews Chicago Downtown Hotel, and watch the fireworks from the privacy of your room, where lake facing, floor-to-ceiling windows offer a front row seat. Less extravagant, but still lovely: Regular guest rooms on the 11th, 12th and 14th floors. They’re high enough to see fireworks, too, if you snag one that faces the lake, according to the hotel’s public relations director, Kathleen O’Connell. While booking agents will never promise you a “fireworks view,” asking for a “view of the lake” will do the trick. Pay with your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card at Hotels.com to earn 10x miles on your stay (offer ends Jan. 31, 2020). (You can also take advantage of the Hotels.com Rewards program to earn one free night for every 10 paid nights.)

A Chicago classic, the Riva Crabhouse is a seafood restaurant on the south side of Navy Pier — offering unbelievable firework views. Primetime tables book early, but those in the know will take any dinner slot they can get. That’s because Navy Pier closes its gates once the pier hits capacity, usually by early evening on July 4, but a reservation at Riva is a golden ticket to get past the guards. Enjoy an early dinner, then stroll the boardwalk and find a spot to set up camp for the fireworks. For the 21 and over crowd, to-go cups are now legal on the Pier, so ask your server at Riva for a cocktail for the road, suggested Anthony Stefani, a partner at the restaurant.

If you can snag a spot on the small, lake-facing terrace of Cindy’s — a fashionable bar and restaurant on the 13th floor of the Chicago Athletic Association hotel — you’re in for quite the show (fireworks and people-watching). The couches just behind the terrace have a fireworks view, too, thanks to the glass roof above. But file this venue under “long shot”—only walk-in seats are left for July 4, and the bar is notorious for its long lines even when there’s nothing special happening. But if you’re committed, get there by early evening and, with $16 cocktails on the menu, be prepared to run up quite a tab if you’re going to take up a table until the fireworks show. (For the record, no rooms at the hotel have fireworks visibility, so it’s Cindy’s or bust.)

True to its name, the W Chicago – Lakeshore boasts an address on Lake Shore Drive, with plenty of opportunities for fireworks seekers. Unfortunately, rooms are already sold out for July 4, but even non hotel guests can put down a $100 deposit to book a patio table at Current, the ground-floor bar with a straight sight line to Navy Pier (the money will go toward your food and drink bill). And on the 7th floor, the WET Deck pool bar overlooks the fireworks as well. Non-hotel guests can rent a cabana to enjoy for the evening.

Three miles from Navy Pier, the newly renovated Theater on the Lake and The Lakefront Restaurant, located where Fullerton Avenue hits Lake Michigan, has a direct, if a bit distant, view of the fireworks — an ideal option for those who don’t want to battle downtown’s heavy traffic or crushing crowds. Plus, the venue is hosting a family-friendly barn dance, led by third-generation square dance caller Annie Coleman. At dusk, grab a spot on the lawn (it’s bring-your-own-blanket) or stand on the restaurant’s terrace with a drink from the cash bar.

Northerly Island (really just a peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan) offers plenty of grass, lakefront concrete and even a small beach — 12th St. Beach — on which to set up blankets and chairs for a view unobstructed by skyscrapers. The lawn outside Adler Planetarium, on the northern edge of the peninsula, puts you closest to the action. What time to go? “People start lining up along the lakefront all day, with many there by 5:00pm or 6:00pm,” said our tipster at Adler. “By night time, it is packed. You will still likely be able to find a spot somewhere though. It is a pretty big swath of land.”

“In the past, guests of the hotel have been able to see fireworks from their rooms,” Hadley Sullivan, senior communication manager for Swissotel Chicago, told TPG. The property sits on the Chicago River near Navy Pier, and your best bet for views of the pyrotechnics is a corner suite, typically ending in -03. Satisfied guests report good luck from 3903 and 3703, specifically.

Ninety-five floors up, you don’t have to worry about any other buildings blocking your view. The Signature Room at the 95th — the iconic restaurant at the top of the John Hancock Center — is taking reservations for July Fourth, while the bar one floor above, the Signature Lounge, is reserved for walk-ins (get there with hours to spare, and good luck). You’ll want to try for a table with a vantage point facing southeast, but the windows are big enough and the restaurant is high enough that you’ll get a good show even if you’re lurking behind the prime seating. (And while you probably don’t want to spend Independence Day locked in a bathroom, the women’s restroom has enormous windows with a southern exposure.) If you snag reservations, still show up at least twenty minutes early; as you might imagine, an elevator running up and down so many floors can take some time to transport a constant stream of guests, so you’ll inevitably run into a line here. 

For $69 a person, get cozy with the fireworks from a kayak on the water. Kayak Chicago’s guided Fireworks Paddle is a three-hour, six-mile round-trip tour that takes you down the Chicago River to the waters outside Navy Pier in time for the celebration. No kayaking experience is required, though some athletic ability is recommended. Kayaks, paddles, life jacket, paddling lesson and an expert guide are all included.

Cité restaurant sits atop Lake Point Tower, the skyscraper that sits directly west of Navy Pier. It’s the only building in Chicago on the east side (read: the lake side) of Lake Shore Drive, so the views are truly unparalleled. Tables are pricey — you’re committed to a five-course, 1776-inspired menu that’s $125 per person (kids $35), paid in full when you book the reservation — but at least you get a meal out of it, too.

If you’re looking to watch from a private room, request one at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel that ends in -24 or -25 to ensure a lake view, a rep from the hotel told TPG. The pool deck, open to hotel guests, also gets a decent peek at the fireworks. Sure, you’ll be watching through a gap between skyscrapers, but it’s an option if you’d rather not brave the crowds below. On July 4, there are only premium rooms available at this time, which can be booked for 105,000 Club Carlson points.

Many of Chicago’s boat companies do special fireworks cruises on July Fourth, allowing passengers to watch the fireworks from the water. Here are a few to look into: Shoreline Sightseeing, Tall Ship Windy and Spirit Cruises (an umbrella company for four different boat lines, including the always-thrilling Seadog speedboats), all leaving from Navy Pier. Wendella Boats, which embarks from a dock on the Chicago River near Tribune Tower, is another good bet.

Navy Pier will be a madhouse, with endless lines for the bathroom. But if you want to try watching fireworks from Navy Pier proper, skip the whole get-there-hours-early deal and guarantee your entry, even if the pier has reached capacity, by purchasing a ticket for either the Navy Pier IMAX (now playing is “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” with helpful showtimes at 7:30pm and 10:45pm on July 4) or the premium gondola experience on the new 200-foot-high Ferris wheel (for $125, or $31.25 per person, you and three friends get to ride in a private glass-bottomed car). A reservation at Riva Crabhouse (see above) will also do the trick.

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