Things to do in Chicago

Even Chicagoans can't get enough of this tourist attraction: ‘It's about the only touristy thing I do'

Tourists aren't the only ones that love Chicago Architecture Boat Tours -- locals do, too

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We've all been there: Family or friends are visiting Chicago from out of town, and they want to hear it from you, the expert -- the local -- what's the "must-do," or "must-see" activity in the city?

Of course, there are plenty to choose from. But there's one tourist attraction many locals say they actually join their visitors on: The Chicago Architecture Boat Tour.

"I have some family in town for a wedding, and they wanted to go on the tour," said Nick Pappas, of Uptown. "And I wanted to join them, so I can give them my own personal commentary of my own history in Chicago as we went along."

Pappas, 55, has lived in the Chicago area his entire life. And although he was the only local passenger aboard a 90-minute, 9:30 a.m. Wendella Chicago River Architecture Tour on a recent Wednesday, it's not uncommon for more Chicagoans to be out sailing along the Lake or the River, listening to a tour guide wax on about how the sons of famous architect Daniel Burnham decided to design a building to look like a champagne bottle.

"I was surprised when I first started," said Bobby Scheffel, who was helming tour guide duties on the boat that morning. "We get a lot of repeat locals, and always, there's a lot of local people that come on when they have guests visiting them in town."

Wendella, billed as Chicago's "original" architecture tour, in 1935 gave its first architecture tour of the city from a wooden diesel yacht out on Navy Pier, said Andrew Sargis, director of sales and marketing for Wendella Tours and Cruises. Now, upwards of 20 architecture tours are offered daily, with more on the weekends.

On average, Wendella tours see roughly 100,000 passengers each month over the summer, according to Sargis.

MORE: 7 things that might surprise you about the Chicago Architecture Boat Tour

Although the majority of passengers on any given tour are Americans, they are from out of town, Sargis said. But there's just something about the tour that makes local people want to go, too, whether or not they are accompanying out of town guests.

"There's always something new to see," Sargis said. "New architecture, new developments. One of the tallest buildings in the city was just finished in the last year or so."

More than 100 locals who wrote to NBC Chicago on Facebook agreed.

"I go on one almost every year and there is always something new to see," Maria Ohman wrote. "They are awesome."

"Born and raised in Chicago," Lynn Tanner Heicher echoed. "Love it and always learn something new!"

As Scheffel puts it, locals "like to show off the city in this way." But it's not always about what's new.

"I think it is probably part of that, if you don't live downtown, it's about reliving coming downtown as a kid," Scheffel said, adding that his favorite part of the tour is when he talks about the Board of Trade building, because he remembers walking by it when he was young.

"I remember really being impressed by it, thinking was such a cool, big, city building," he said.

The way Pappas describes it, is the city's history and one's own personal experience ultimately creates a new narration on Chicago.

"I was probably 25 years old the first time I went on this tour," Pappas said, as he pointed out a building where he held his first job as a lawyer. "That clock tower building, which was a warehouse, was a traffic court back in the day."

'It's about the only touristy thing I do'

According to Sargis, tour guides receive extensive, in-house training. They are also given a general script of facts to follow, and highlights to hit. But each of them will add their own narratives and personal flavor to the tour, "using their experience in the city and their character."

"We have a tour guide that is a retired police officer, and he will interject anecdotes form his career," Sargis said. "We have a tour guide that's a Vietnam War Veteran, and when we go by the Vietnam War Memorial, he will always discuss the importance of it to him."

It's moments like those -- along with playing the role of tour guide in their own city -- seems to be what keeps locals coming back to such a traveler-friendly attraction over and over again.

"It's about the only touristy thing I do," Micki Kay told NBC Chicago on Facebook. "It's my favorite. I love it. It's such a great way to see the beautiful city and learn about its history. I like quizzing myself to see if I know the answers to all the questions the guides throw out there."

As Pappas puts it, "It's nice to, you know, supplement, maybe something that the tour guide is not telling people on the boat."

Tours run year round, including during Chicago winters, Sargis said, "but weather is a factor."

"I have certainly had [the tour] under thunderstorms and downpours," Scheffel said. "I've never had a tour get canceled because no one bought a ticket. There's always someone who wanted to come out here in the rain or the cold"

Thunderstorm, snow or shine, there's just something about the pride Chicagoans feel for their city, Sargis said.

"One of the things we hear most commonly from locals is...that they forget, or at least, don't appreciate always how beautiful the city truly is, and how beautiful the skyline is," Sargis said. "I hear it almost every time I'm out on the boat."

"Life is busy," Sargis added. "We don't usually act like a tourist in our own city. It really gives them an appreciation of living here. It really makes them proud to be from Chicago."

Video editors Ivonne Ramirez and DS Shin produced and created the video for this story.

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