If you’re looking for a fun (and free!) event in Chicago this summer, the annual Chicago Air and Water Show should be at the top of your list. It’s one of Chicago’s best attended summer festivals, averaging 2.1 million visitors a year. Even though the viewing area fills up rapidly, you can still have an enjoyable day if you plan well. Your guide to the Chicago Air and Water Show below will help you do just that. In this guide we’ll share some of the history of the show, tell you the best ways to get there, and what you can do around the show itself. And of course – we’ll share some killer tips on getting the best possible photos from the event!
What Is The Chicago Air and Water Show?
Chicago’s Air and Water Show is a two-day event held in August near on the shores of Lake Michigan. It currently ranks as the world’s largest public air show, and draws over two million visitors annually. The show combines displays by civilian and military aquatic and aviation teams. The list of performers can vary from year to year, but has included demonstrations from the Chicago Fire Department dive team, amphibious demonstration units from the US Marine Corps, and flight displays from the US Air Force Thunderbirds and the US Navy Blue Angels.
With as impressive as the show is, it came from very humble beginnings. The City of Chicago’s official history page explains the show’s origins:
In 1959 the first show was held under the direction of Al Benedict, a Chicago Park District Supervisor at Lakeshore Park. Held at Chicago Avenue and Lake Michigan, the show was titled the Lakeshore Park Air & Water Show, and was a part of a “Family Day” celebration for children enrolled in the Chicago Park District’s day camp program. The budget was $88, and the show featured a Coast Guard Air Sea Rescue demonstration, water skiers, a water ballet, games and a diving competition.
In 1960 the US Air Force Thunderbirds and the Golden Knights Parachute Team performed for the first time at the show. Since that time, the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels have performed as featured acts on both days of the show.
Below are some of my favorite photos from the Chicago Air and Water Show – enjoy! You can also see more images in my Chicago Air and Water Show photo gallery.
Your Guide to the Chicago Air and Water Show
Best Places to Watch the Show?
The main venue for the show is Chicago’s North Avenue Beach (see map below) between Fullerton Avenue to Oak Street. The beach is just to the east of the Lincoln Park neighborhood, which affords you many great choices for sightseeing and dining before or after the show.
North Avenue Beach
The beach is the most logical place from which to watch the show. It’s got great views of all the activity and there are many vendors selling food and beverages along the walking/running path. However, there are a few things to be aware of if you pick this as your location for viewing:
- The beach tends to get crowded quickly, especially on air show days. Everyone seems to have the same idea of going to the beach, so it can be difficult to find a good place if you arrive much later than 8AM or so – which leaves you a couple hours before the 10AM start of the show.
- The beach is in direct sun with very little shade, which means you’ll either need a tent, or sunscreen, or both to avoid severe sunburn.
- Shortly after the start of the show, most of the pedestrian bridges that carry traffic between Lincoln Park and North Avenue Beach are turned into one-way routes. People are allowed to walk from Lincoln Park to the beach, but not the other way. The only pedestrian bridge opened for west-bound foot traffic is found at the north part of North Avenue Beach – and this can be a long walk, depending on where you end up.
- Rest rooms are few and far between and are often crowded. If you’re at the show by yourself, this also means you’ll have to bring your possessions with you if you leave your seating area. The risk associated with having unattended items is just too high in a crowd of over 2,000,000 people!
That said, North Avenue Beach is the best free viewing spot for the show.
Near the Lincoln Park Zoo
The area just around, and east of, the Lincoln Park Zoo is a great alternative to North Avenue Beach. You can see most of the aircraft displays from the west side of Lake Shore Drive (near the Lincoln Park South Lagoon). This area is just east of the Lincoln Park Zoo – a great free attraction if you’ve got some time before the show starts. This area is typically less crowded than North Avenue Beach and has some shaded areas as well. There’s also usually a lot of parking spots available for those who choose to drive to the show. Parking in this area during show weekend will cost approximately $25-$35.
However, if you view the show from this area you miss out on some of the lower-flying parts of aerobatic demonstrations, and the water displays won’t be visible at all. If you’re interested in having a summer picnic with the show as your background, then this is an excellent place to watch.
The Shore Club is located at the south end of North Avenue Beach. It’s an upscale dining and event venue with an excellent menu and a great Sunday brunch. If you’re interested in a great meal with a unique vantage point of the show, The Shore Club is the place to go. They sell tickets for viewing Friday’s preview/fly-in day activities, or for Saturday or Sunday full showing view. Tickets range from a low of $75 for general admission for preview day all the way up to $1,000 for a VIP experience in a private cabana for Sunday’s show.
Caffé Olivia at Oak Street Beach
Caffé Olivia is located at the northern end of the show area. In addition to a really fun and tasty menu, the restaurant offers a reserved cabana experience during the show. During the rest of the year diners can reserve cabanas for free, with a required minimum food and drink purchase. A surcharge is assessed for special events like the Air and Water Show. As of the time of this writing the restaurant has not posted prices for cabana reservations during the show. Please consult the restaurant for more information.
While Navy Pier isn’t the best viewing spot for the Air and Water Show, it can be a great place to visit if you’re looking to combine viewing and dining activities. Navy Pier is approximately two miles south of North Avenue Beach, and so will afford the best views for aircraft approaching from the north and headed south.
The Pier does offer several dining options from drinks and light appetizers to fast food to full sit-down meals. Parking is more generally more affordable here during show weekend, and it’s easier to get into and out of than areas around Lincoln Park.
Formerly known as the John Hancock Observatory, 360 Chicago provides stunning views of Chicago, Lake Michigan, and surrounding areas. Located just a mile south of North Avenue Beach, 360 Chicago provides unique views of the show. You’ll have a vantage point that’s 1,000 feet in the air – in some cases, aircraft in the show may be flying below you! Tickets to 360 Chicago run $14-$16 for youth from 3-11 years, or $21-$23 for those 12+ (prices vary based on peak- and non-peak hours).
From Lake Michigan
For a really different view of the show, consider watching from Lake Michigan. Boats and water craft of all types are prohibited from the area directly below the aircraft (what’s referred to as the “show box”), but can watch from east of the box.
Chicago has several tour operators with full-day or shorter excursions that can take you close to the action. Private boats may also take on passengers or may be available for rent. It is worth considering, however, that you’ll be looking toward the west and may have the sun in your eyes for part of the show if you’re watching from the water.
What Should You Bring With You?
If you’re planning on a full day at the show, there are several things you should consider bringing with you to make the day more comfortable and enjoyable.
The most important thing is good eye protection! Sunglasses with polarized lenses can help reduce the strain on your eyes (particularly early in the show, when the sun is in the east) and can improve your view. Some companies hand out free fans that have built in eye protection. These aren’t great, but they’re better than having nothing!
There are a few other “must have” things you should consider bringing along with you:
- Sunscreen to prevent burns
- A tent or a blanket with an umbrella to keep you cool
- Water to stay hydrated
- Binoculars for close-up details
- Earplugs if you’re sensitive to loud noises
And of course, don’t forget your camera! More tips on photography are found near the end of this article.
Transportation to the Chicago Air and Water Show
While hitching a ride on a super-fast jet fighter might seem like the best way to get to the air and water show, it’s not really an option for the general public. Since that’s the case, you’ll have to settle for either public transportation or for driving yourself to the area and then getting a good parking spot. Some of the most reasonable and easy transportation options are listed below.
From inside Chicago
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) provides public transportation to the area of the show. Depending on the area from which you’re coming, you can reach the Lincoln Park Zoo area by the blue, green or red train lines. This area is also serviced by multiple bus routes depending on the time of day. Check the CTA’s website and use their Quick Trip Planner to determine the best routes and times for you. CTA typically provides additional bus and train service during the Air and Water Show, so check closer to the event for the most accurate information.
From the Suburbs
Metra, the commuter rail division of the Chicago-area Regional Transit Authority, provides fast and convenient access to Chicago from most suburbs. Metra’s site also has a convenient trip planner which allows you to select the best schedule for your needs. As with the CTA, Metra puts extra trains into service around the time of the Air and Water Show, so you should check closer to event time for the latest schedules.
Metra’s main stations are located in or near the Loop area. Based on the station in which your trip ends, you may be 3-5 miles away from North Avenue Beach. If that’s the case, a simple Uber/Lyft or taxi ride should get you there quickly and safely. If you do park in this area and have some extra time, exploring the Loop on foot can be a great experience that can be tailored to available time.
Parking is also available in and around the area for those choosing to drive themselves. Some parking venues farther away from the North Avenue Beach/Lincoln Park Zoo area may offer shuttle service to the Air and Water Show during show weekend. If you are driving yourself to the show, consider using the SpotHero app on your smartphone to reserve parking, typically at a reduced rate.
If you do park in the immediate area, be aware that traffic gets very congested and slow right after the show. I prefer to just hang out in the area for a bit to let traffic die down.
A few handy tips will help you capture great photos of the air and water displays:
- The Air and Water Show isn’t a great place for smartphone photography. The aircraft in particular move extremely fast, and you will likely have issues zooming in enough to get a great shot. If that’s the only camera you have with you, though, consider more wide-angle shots to show an grouping of planes in motion.
- It’s fun to include part of the crowd as part of your photographic story of the day. Candid photos of individuals, or shots of aircraft with people in the scene, help lend a sense of the crowd size to the shot.
- Use as long of a lens as you have to get good close-up shots of planes in flight. I shot with the Sigma 150-500mm lens and it was perfect.
- There’s no need to shoot on a tripod. You will be able to get a fast enough shutter speed that motion blur won’t be an issue. Additionally, using a tripod may slow you down and force you to miss “the perfect shot”.
- If your camera supports it, shoot in shutter-priority mode. This allows you to set your desired shutter speed, and then the camera will automatically select the appropriate aperture for the shot. When shooting jet aircraft, use a higher shutter speed to freeze the action. For propeller-driven craft, consider a somewhat lower shutter speed (somewhere around 1/250 of a second) which will give you slight motion blur on the propeller, but keep the rest of the craft in sharp focus. Freezing the action on a propeller-driven plane makes it look artificial and staged.
- Finally, consider using a circular polarizing lens (CPL). You’ll get a lot of reflected light off the water, which can make your photos look washed out. A CPL will filter out some of the stray light and add an extra bit of contrast and “pop” to your image.
For more great photography tips, check out Nick Sinnott’s fabulous post Photographing the Chicago Air and Water Show!
Hopefully this guide to the Chicago Air and Water Show has given you all you need to plan an exciting and fun day (or two!) at this world-class event! Some of my favorite photos from previous years can be found in the gallery below. Please enjoy, and please leave any comments you wish at the bottom of the post!
If you’d like to see more of my photos from the Chicago Air and Water Show, please check out my gallery!