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CHICAGO —  From floating gardens to restaurants, cafés and riverboat tours, Chicago’s beautiful river walk is rapidly becoming one of the city’s most appealing destinations.

The outdoor setting is also well-suited for social distancing, particularly when you’re paddling a kayak on a guided tour or strolling down the breezy greenway that extends for a mile-and-a-half along the Main Branch of the Chicago River.

It wasn’t always that way. The Chicago River was famously reversed, dredged and polluted to benefit industry and commerce. At one point, the mouth of the river was home to one of the busiest ports in the world. Pollution, raw sewage and animal waste from the stockyards used to foul up the water.

But Chicago’s river system is in the midst of a stunning turnaround.

“The Chicago river system has what we’ve often referred to as a long and sordid history,” said Margaret Frisbe, Friends of the Chicago River. “Today people see the river as a recreational resource, a place for corporate world headquarters, hotels.”

Visitors can learn more about the river’s compelling history at the McCormick Bridge House and Chicago River Museum, which are set to reopen in August.

All along the Chicago Riverwalk, folks are staying socially-distant and still having a great time. Free hand sanitizer is everywhere, and the path is marked with signs and other reminders to keep your social distance.

The river walk connects parts of the trendy West Loop neighborhood to the lakefront with a blue-green ribbon of nature and landscaping, with great food and beverages along the way. 

Stop at City Winery for sweet corn elotes dabbed in butter, chili pepper and cilantro, or Tiny Tapp & Café for roasted chicken nachos with monterey jack cheese.

woman with a mask on a boat on the Chicago River

One of the best places to have fun but keep your distance is on the water, where families can rent nifty electric boats or mini-retro boats.

Or explore the river on a guided excursion with Urban Kayaks. Available by reservation only, choose the two-hour $65 per-person guided tour if you’re ready for some paddling.

“I think the best part of it is seeing Chicago from a completely different angle,” said Julia Detar, Urban Kayak.

Along the way, you’ll paddle past floating wetland gardens holding native river plants that rise up and down with the tide. As you paddle through downtown, it seems like you’re gliding along the bottom of Chicago’s man-made canyons of steel and glass.

When it comes to big tour boats there are many options, including the popular Architecture Foundation Center tours on board Chicago’s First Lady.

But for a luxury experience that’s new this summer, the Lady Grebe is set to sail with Captain Gabe Argumedo, who will take you and six people on a memorable cruise. 

At just under $500 for 90 minutes, you can bask in the elegance of a vintage 48-foot yacht as you feel the sway of the rejuvenated Chicago River.

The shocking reason why the Chicago River used to be called “bubbly creek”

Watch Above: Chicago History Museum Chief Historian Peter Alter takes you back 150 years to see why the Chicago River was once known as “Bubbly Creek.”

The Chicago River looks beautiful today, compared to the past when It was known as “Bubbly Creek.”  

The south branch of the river is where the old Chicago stockyards would dump refuse and raw sewage into the river more than a century ago, causing the river to bubble up (hence the name “Bubbly Creek.”

The pollution caused serious health problems and epidemics with outbreaks of cholera, given the fact that Lake Michigan was and is Chicago‘s source for drinking water.