With its dazzling display of both aeronautical and nautical feats on the shores of Lake Michigan, the Chicago Air & Water Show is one of Chicago's most popular events. Every August the skies and shores of Chicago are filled with daring water rescues, with aircraft of now and before, with daredevils and their awe-inspiring antics, with demonstrations of bravery, precision, and not a little bit of hubris. It’s a thrilling display of discipline, drive, and the desire to achieve perfection.
And it’s free.
The Chicago Air & Water Show is a two-day event that attracts two million people. It’s the largest free festival of its kind in the country and it is truly a spectacle to behold, one that will bring chills and wonder. Whether you choose to be in the middle of the action, or prefer to be a little more removed, this guide will help you find the perfect experience for you. Inside you'll find:
- all the details including
- what you can bring
- ...and what you can't
- public restrooms
- how to get there - and how to save money doing it
- who's performing
- best spots for watching the show
- on the beach
- on the water
- in the air
- where to stay
and more! We've also got insider tips that will help you get the most out of the show. You'll truly feel like a Local Tourist!
Disclaimer: This free guide contains affiliate links. If you purchase tickets or make reservations we may get a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Guide to the Chicago Air and Water Show
A Brief History of the Chicago Air & Water Show
The Chicago Air & Water Show has humble beginnings. In 1959 the Lakeshore Park Air & Water Show was held at Chicago Avenue and Lake Michigan. It wasn’t even its own show, but was part of a Family Day celebration for Day Camp kids. With a budget of $88 Chicago Park District Supervisor Al Benedict put on a display that included a Coast Guard Air Sea Rescue demonstration, water skiers, a water ballet, games and a diving competition.
But the next year? The next year the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the Golden Knights Parachute Team performed, and a tradition was born.
Chicago Air & Water Show Basics & FAQs
As you’re getting ready to enjoy the Chicago Air & Water Show there are a few things you’ll want to know. Here are the FAQs, answered.
When is the Chicago Air & Water Show?
The Chicago Air & Water Show is the third weekend in August from 10am to 3pm.
TLTip: the Friday before the show is practice day, so if you want to avoid the crowds you can view the show a day early. Just remember that they are practicing, so you may not get the full experience.
How much does the Chicago Air & Water Show cost?
It’s FREE! Individual viewing options may charge admission.
Where is the Chicago Air & Water Show?
The majority of the show is performed between Oak Street Beach and Fullerton Avenue, with the epicenter at North Avenue Beach. This is where the announcers are, where any ceremonies occur, and where the skydivers land. This show center is the absolute best vantage point to see everything that’s happening. However, that means it’s more crowded than the Red Line during the Crosstown Classic. Fortunately, it’s not the only place to watch, and we’ve got several suggestions for alternate locations below.
The rest of the FAQs specifically reference the show center at North Avenue Beach.
Is there food?
There are vendors near North Avenue Beach.
Are there public restrooms?
Yes, at the North Avenue Beach House. There will also be lots of port-a-potties set up. If you watch the show from Oak Street Beach, there are bathrooms in the tunnel that leads to Michigan Avenue.
What can I bring to the beach?
Blankets, chairs, and coolers are all welcome.
What can’t I bring to the beach?
Sigh. What you can’t bring is a much longer list than what you can…
- Alcoholic Beverages
- BBQ Grills (Open Flames)
- Fireworks or Explosives (duh)
- Illegal Substances & Weapons (double – no, triple-duh)
- Pop-up Tents/Canopies
- Flag Poles
- All Pets (except Service Animals)
- A Bad Attitude
From the City of Chicago:
Primary Accessible Seating will be provided for the Air & Water Show at the north end of the North Avenue Beach House viewing stands. There will be no Secondary Accessible Seating for this event. Beach mats will be in place for accessible travel over sand to/from the seating area.
The following is a list of what is required to obtain accessible seating:
- Individuals who use wheelchairs
- Individuals with disabilities who are ambulatory, but use mobility devises such as walkers or crutches
- Individuals who are ambulatory, but who are unable to stand during the performance
- Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing and need unobstructed sightlines to the sign language interpreter
- Individuals who are blind or have visual impairments that require seating in close proximity to the stage
Paratransit drop-off is at the entrance to North Avenue Beach.
TLTip: Don’t miss ANY of the Chicago Air & Water Show action! Tune into WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105.9FM for play-by-play commentary. You can also watch live streamed video coverage at cbschicago.com/airshow
The Chicago Air & Water Show brings a thrilling variety of both military and civilian performers to Chicago’s lakefront. The skills and precision displayed are extraordinary. Announced by the “Voice of the Air and Water Show,” Herb Hunter, each team is introduced with respect and admiration. Here’s who you can expect to see. There’s no schedule for when they’re going to appear because the performances are very dependent upon climate conditions.
Please note: the performers are subject to change, and we'll update as we learn of any differences.
U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds: The Thunderbirds have performed since 1953, and were the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team in 1956.
U.S. Army Parachute Team Golden Knights: Named after the gold medals they’ve won and their ambition to conquer the skies, you might think this team should be named the Golden Nuts for the stunts they pull.
U.S. Navy Parachute Team Leap Frogs: Want to see what a Navy SEAL looks like? Watch these guys land at North Avenue Beach. The team is made up of active-duty Navy SEALs, Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC) and support personnel.
F-35 Heritage Flight: This flight features modern USAF fighter aircraft flying alongside World War II, Korean and Vietnam-era aircraft in a dynamic display of our nation's airpower history.
U.S.A.F. F-18: A twin-engine supersonic, all-weather carrier-capable multirole combat jet, designed as both a fighter and attack aircraft.
C-130 Hercules: This beast is the workhorse of the Air Force combat airlift fleet. It’s been transporting troops and equipment via airdrop and short runways for over fifty years.
P-51 Mustang: This aircraft dates back to World War II. It was designed in 1940 to fulfil a British need for Curtiss P-40 fighters.
T-38 Talon: The T-38 Talon is a twin-engine, high-altitude, supersonic jet trainer used in a variety of roles because of its design, economy of operations, ease of maintenance, high performance and exceptional safety record.
U.S. Coast Guard MH-Dolphin Helicopter: This active helicopter from Traverse City, Michigan, will perform a simulated air-sea helicopter rescue. Watch as the helicopter's rescue swimmer free-falls from 30 feet into Lake Michigan, recovers a simulated survivor, and both are hoisted back to safety.
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter: United States Coast Guard Cutter is the term used by the U.S. Coast Guard for its commissioned vessels. They are 65 feet (19.8 m) or greater in length and have a permanently assigned crew with accommodations aboard.
Aeroshell Aerobatic Team: This team of four flies the North American AT-6 Texan, a plane that first appeared in 1938.
Aerostars: You won’t see tutus or point shoes on this trio, but the ballet they perform is no less graceful. Their planes are Soviet-designed, Romanian-built, and despite their WWII aesthetic, only about a dozen years old.
American Airlines – 787: Nicknamed the Dreamliner, you’ll be able to see this passenger jet much closer than when it’s taking off and landing at O’Hare.
Sean D. Tucker & Team Oracle: You’ll get an adrenalin rush just watching this man fly. He does things in a plane that make no sense, and as you watch him you’ll question all the laws of physics.
Bill Stein Aerosport: Don’t blink or you’ll miss the changing paint job on the Edge 540. This professional air show entertainer has over 5,000 hours of aerobatic and formation flight.
The Firebirds Delta Team: Watch this team in action and be amazed by the gyroscopic tumbles and head-on near-misses.
Matt Chapman Airshows: When this guy isn’t thrilling airshow fans he’s flying an airliner.
Susan Dacy in the Super Stearman Model 70: This Illinois native is one of only a few females performing airshows in a biplane, and is the only woman flying exhibition in the Super Stearman.
Warbird Heritage Museum Foundation, A-4 Skyhawk Jet Tac Demo: Skyhawk's were the Navy's primary light bomber during the early years of the Vietnam War. Some of the notable A-4 pilots during the war were Vice Admiral James Stockdale and then LCDR John McCain.
Chicago Fire Department Air/Sea Rescue: For over fifty years the Air Sea Rescue Unit has been providing search and rescue services for 37 miles of lakefront, an extensive river system, numerous lakefront venues, and the largest harbor system in the U.S.
Where to Watch the Show
Much of the Chicago Air & Water Show is in the air. That means that you can see the Air portion of the show from several different areas. If you definitely want to see the Water portion of the show, then you’ll want to set up camp on North Avenue Beach or watch it from Lake Michigan.
At the Beach
One of the best things about Chicago is its miles and miles of beaches, and what better place to watch the air and water show than from the shore? These spots are prime location, so buy your tickets early, and if it’s not a ticketed event, make sure to arrive early.
North Avenue Beach
You’ll be front and show center when you pick a spot at North Avenue Beach. The beach itself is free, and there's a pop-up Sand Bar Beer Garden near the boathouse (a.k.a. Castaways). There’s no charge for admission to the pop-up bar, but first come first serve, so expect a wait.
Castaways Air & Water Show Sunday Funday
Get a suite view of the Air and Water Show from Castaways on North Avenue Beach. Tickets are $180 per person and are available for Sunday, August 19 from 9 a.m. until the end of the show. The price of admission includes a breakfast and lunch buffet, and open bar. Limited tickets remain and are available by emailing Andrea Frankos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
North Avenue Beach's newest place for dining and cocktailing is hosting a beachside viewing party. The signature Shore Club Brunch will be included from 9 AM to 2 PM, as well as a premium open bar. A pre-show event will also be held on Friday, August 17th. VIP cabanas are available in The Oasis at Shore Club as an upgrade to the General Admission tickets. Early bird tickets start at $80. Tickets can be purchased at shoreclubtickets.com.
Located on Ohio Street Beach, this seasonal café offers an open bar and an all-you-can-eat package, including a “Make Your Own Ice Cream Sundae” buffet. If you’ve got a group of friends, you can get a cabana for 10, 15, or 25 people. 550 E Grand Ave, caffeoliva.com, 312-612-0734
The lakefront at the Fullerton promontory added an additional 5.8 acres in 2015, and now Theater on the Lake has been renovated with a restaurant featuring Chef Cleetus Friedman. Theater on The Lake will host a viewing party with some of the best, unobstructed views of the action on the lakefront. Tickets are currently on sale and are $125 per person (+tax) and include open bar, as well as lunch offerings from Blue Plate Catering; $50 for children 12 and under. Fullerton Ave and Lake Michigan
Oak Street Beach
This is the Gold Coast’s beach, baby. You can access this beach from a tunnel that connects it to Michigan Avenue. The ramps leading up to the beach are decorated with a mural by artist Jeff Zimmerman. Oak Street and Lake Michigan
Oak Street Beach Food + Drink
You’ll feel like you’ve taken a tropical getaway at this oasis. They often offer an ala carte menu and charge for the seats, but the fee will go towards your food and drink for the day. 1001 N Lake Shore Dr, oakstreetbeach.com, email email@example.com for reservations
TLTip: Alcohol is not allowed on Chicago beaches unless you’re in a designated area.
Near the Show
If you want a peaceful experience (relatively speaking), where you can spread out your blanket and rest in the shade of some trees between performances, pick a spot near the South Lagoon of Lincoln Park. You won’t see any of the water performances, but this is probably the most tranquil area to watch the show.
Located at the East End of Navy Pier, the Miller Lite Beer Garden is an Air Show viewing hotspot on both Saturday, August 18 and Sunday, August 19. To celebrate, the beer garden will have live entertainment all weekend long. Click here for more info
From the Air
You may not be able to see the whites of the pilots’ eyes, but you’ll be pretty darn close at these rooftop venues. While there are lots of rooftop lounges in Chicago, we’re only including those that offer a good view of the show.
Photo credit Janelle Rominski for The Local Tourist
Get unobstructed views of the Chicago Air & Water Show 1,000 feet up. When looking out and up gets to be too much, you can look down for a bit with TILT. The attraction is a viewing platform that literally tilts away from the building, allowing you to see what’s 1,000 feet below. Get Tickets
TLTip: If you get hungry, or thirsty, you can satisfy both at Bar 94.
This sells out each year and tickets generally go on sale August 1. Located on the 95th floor of the Hancock Building, this restaurant is actually above the observatory. Admission includes premium seating, gourmet buffet, and a premium bar package in one of their private rooms from 11am to 4pm. 21+ 875 N Michigan Ave, 312-787-9596
While further away from the action, the tallest observatory in the city gives you the long view. This means that you’ll be able to see a lot of the performers as they fly in from distant airports.
For an exclusive experience that's normally not open to the public, you can watch the show from The Metropolitan. This members-only club on the 67th floor of Willis Tower will have food, drink, and "skip the line" VIP access to Skydeck. 233 S Wacker Dr (877) SKYDECK
From the Water
Unless you’ve got a friend with a boat, or you are the friend with the boat, you’ll have to pay to be on a boat to watch the air and water show. Here are your options.
Seadog Speedboat Tours
Do you feel the need for speed? This exhilarating speedboat ride takes you out onto Lake Michigan for the ride of a lifetime. Experience the roar of the 2000-horsepower engines as you race along Chicago's famous Lake Michigan. The best way to view Chicago is always from the lake! This 30-minute ride will give you a quick view of the action and then drop you back off at Navy Pier to see the rest of the show.
Chicago Electric Boats
You can’t take these boats out on the lake, but who cares when you can be on the water and see the planes overhead. Bonus: they’re BYOB (and BYOFood)! 300 N State St, Marina Level Unit EE, 312-644-6411 chicagoelectricboats.com
This ship offers three enclosed decks with the largest picture windows of any ship on Navy Pier. More information
For a more upscale cruising experience consider Odyssey Cruises. The recently renovated luxury vessel has a sophisticated rooftop lounge and an elegant interior. More information
Their Classic Lake Tour will definitely be classic when there are pilots doing aerobatics over your head. This is a quick 40-minute experience, so you can get a quick taste of the show and then do something else.
Spirit of Chicago
Sister ship to Mystic Blue, Odyssey, and Seadog, Spirit of Chicago offers buffet-style dining.
Where to stay near the Chicago Air & Water Show
If you want to be close to the action (and why wouldn’t you), consider booking a room at one of these accommodations. Some are within walking distance to some of the best vantage points and others offer free transportation.
At this boutique hotel in the Gold Coast you’ll be close enough to walk to the beach and can hit the area’s restaurants and nightlife after the show. 1244 N Dearborn Parkway, Chicago, IL 60610
What was once the Ambassador East became Public and is now Ambassador again. Conveniently located in the Gold Coast and just a few blocks from Oak Street Beach. 1301 N State Parkway, Chicago, IL 60610
Located on the west side of Lincoln Park you can choose a lake view when you book your room. You can also head to the rooftop for drinks at J. Parker, just know that your view of the show will be limited. The popular spot is first come, first serve, but when you’re in the same building you’ve got a head start. 1816 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614
This hotel is considered to be one of the best in Chicago. It’s just a couple of blocks from Oak Street Beach and the Magnificent Mile. When you’re here you’ll want to make reservations at on-site Nico Osteria, an excellent Italian-inspired seafood restaurant. 21 E Bellevue Pl, Chicago, IL 60611
Hyatt Regency McCormick Place
Stay at this hotel and you’ll receive a complimentary shuttle to and from show center, as well as breakfast for two, self-parking, and premium wi-fi so you can upload all those awesome pictures you took. 2233 South Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Chicago, IL 60616
The Westin Michigan Avenue Chicago
If you get a room on the north side of the hotel you just might get a view of the show. Or, you can walk the two blocks to the beach. Either way, you’re close to the action at this Magnificent Mile hotel. 909 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611
Getting to the Chicago Air & Water Show
When two million people descend upon the same location, getting there can be challenging. There are several options, but with all of them you’ll want to allow plenty of time – and patience!
The easiest way to plan your public transportation route is to use Google maps. Plug in your location, enter North Avenue Beach as your destination, and then choose the Transit option (it’s the icon that looks like a train). Visit transitchicago.com for fare information.
TLTip: Taking the Metra? On weekends you can get a pass for $10 that’s good for unlimited rides on Saturday and Sunday. If you’re bringing the family, kids 11 and under are free.
Taxis are an easy way to get to the show, and every driver will (should) know how to get to North Avenue Beach. That being said, you may not be able to get dropped off right at the entrance with so many people trying to do the same. For economy’s sake you can have your driver let you off a little further from the show and walk in.
Ride Sharing Services
Even easier than a taxi, and often less expensive, is using a ride sharing service like Uber or Lyft. (If you already use these services you can skip ahead.) You sign up for their service by downloading the app and adding your credit card information. When you’re ready for a ride you request a pick up at your location. Your fare is charged to your card, so no money changes hands, and you can choose to leave an additional tip once the ride is complete. If you’re new to these services, you can get a credit with Uber and Lyft.
Ride a Bike
Divvy usually offers valet service at four stations near the show. What this means is that when the bike racks become full, some will be removed to make room for more riders to drop off their bikes.
If you’re not familiar with Divvy, it’s a bike sharing system that allows you to pick up and return bikes at stations all over the city. You pay a fee for the day and then you can rent as often as you like, in half-hour increments. You’ll be given a code which you enter into the kiosk at the station.
Valet stations for the show are:
- Theater on the Lake (10am-6pm)
- Clark & North (10am-6pm)
- Michigan & Oak (10am-6pm)
- Streeter & Illinois (12-6pm)
Sometimes driving is your best option. Like using public transportation, the easiest way to find the best route is to use Google maps. If you do drive we’ve got some parking ideas for you.
Your best bet is to use a discounted parking service. You can search and pay for your parking in advance and it's going to be much, much cheaper. Check Parkwhiz for affordable parking near the Chicago Air & Water Show.
Lincoln Park Zoo:
The parking lot at Lincoln Park Zoo on Cannon Drive is about as close as you can get to the show. You can pre-pay for parking, but you will pay a premium. Visit lpzoo.com to purchase your parking in advance (available closer to show date).
Chicago History Museum:
Located on Stockton and North, this lot is just a little further west. Feel good bonus: if you park here the fees will help fund neighborhood parks and programs. Details will be on the Chicago Parking District’s Parking website.
These garages are located right under Millennium and Grant Parks. During the Chicago Air & Water Show rates are a little higher than normal and usually include a free shuttle to the beach. Garage locations are Millennium Park Garage and Millennium Lakeside Garage at 5 S. Columbus Drive, Grant Park North Garage at 25 N. Michigan Ave. and Grant Park South Garage at 325 S. Michigan Ave. Call (312)616-0600 for information.
If you try your luck at finding street parking, and you’d have to be really, really lucky – like, buy a lottery ticket now lucky – there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Meters are only good for two hours, so make sure to download the ParkChicago app. With this app you can pay for your parking and if you get close to the expiration you might be able to extend your time. There's no fee if you purchase the maximum time allowed for that meter. If you park for less than that it will cost you $0.35 extra.
Visit chicagometers.com for more information. The other thing to keep in mind is to look at all of the street signs very carefully. There’s a lot of restricted parking in the area and you will get ticketed and possibly towed, and that’s one sure way to put a damper on your day.
There you have it! Everything you need to know about the Chicago Air & Water Show! Don't forget to save this for later: