The Chicago River dyed green for St. Patrick's Day

The Windy City is easily one of the best cities in the country to spend St. Patrick’s Day. Due to the city’s rich Irish heritage, residents and city planners are very enthusiastic about holiday celebrations. Chicago is home to over a million Americans with Irish heritage, placing it number 2 right after New York City and just before Boston. Residents of the city and surrounding neighborhoods take their Irish pride seriously, and thus, the Chicagoland metro always ranks as one of the best places to get your Irish on each March (and really all year long). In addition to enjoying many spirited neighborhood parades, green beer galore, live step dancing, and corned beef and cabbage, you can partake in one of the most iconic festivals in the country: the annual dyeing green of the Chicago River.

Chicago claims the title as the first city to (successfully) dye its’ river green. The Chicago tradition began in 1962 as a way to clean up the river. Many cities now partake in this fun & eclectic St. Patrick’s Day tradition, including Indianapolis, Charlotte, Washington D.C., and even Tampa. Technically, Savannah was the first to attempt to dye their river.

The history

Dyeing the river green in Chicago

The idea for dyeing the river green dates back to a local plumbers union. Business manager Stephen Bailey came up with the idea after seeing green stained plumbers coveralls. At the time, the city began enforcing restrictions on waste entering the water during construction projects. Plumbers used dye to detect leaks and trace wastewater flow. Bailey believed that the dye would connect the city to Ireland.

Mayor Richard Daley originally considered dyeing Lake Michigan green but ultimately decided on a smaller section of the Chicago River.

Today, 60+ years later, the tradition remains one of the city’s most popular and beloved events. While most locals still prefer to visit a local pub for a green beer or enjoy a Guinness quietly at home, the event still draws thousands of locals and visitors despite the hassle and crowds. Really, it is a bucket list contender for anyone with Irish heritage or even those simply interested in attending an event with a lot of passion, history, and energy. You can’t deny that Chicago’s Irish population is truly passionate about their heritage. You will never see so many people decked out in green, head to toe.

Read more about the hsitory of the iconic tradition

How it’s done

Chicago River dyed green for St. Patrick's Day

The dye is spread via boats using pumps and plumbing pipes. Interestingly, the dye is actually orange but reacts with the water to turn green. Thankfully, today the dye used is an eco friendly vegetable based powder. At first, a chemical was used until 1966 when environmentalists pushed for eco friendly alternatives. The water typically stays green for a few days unless there is heavy rain in the forecast.

What time?

Chicago Water Taxi

The river is dyed at 10am with over 100 lbs of environmentally friendly dye. It takes about 45 minutes. The color remains for at least a few hours and sometimes several days, so there is plenty of time to take photos! For a good view, get downtown as early as possible.

Best place to watch

Michigan Ave. bridge in Chicago on St. Patrick's Day

Upper Wacker Drive between Columbus and Fairbanks. Note, even if you can not get a prime view of the actual dyeing (which is quite hard to see due to the crowds), there is plenty of opportunity to take pics of the river afterwards.

More details on viewing

The parade

NYC held the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1762. The first Chicago parade was held in 1843, and became an annual event in the 50’s. Following the dyeing the river green tradition, it became one of the most iconic holiday festivals in the country. The parade, taking place at noon, downtown on Columbus Drive between Balbo Drive and Monroe Drive, is one of the largest and most festive in the country.  From colorful floats, to exciting step dancing performances, to talented marching bands, you will never be bored. Unfortunately, due to the immense popularity, it can be hard to find a decent view. You will definitely want to arrive early to compete with nearly a million others vying for the perfect view!

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Where to watch?

Note that if you are viewing the river dyeing first, it will be extremely hard to get over to parade viewing in time to score a good viewpoint. It’s best to line up for the parade first and then take pics of the river later as the green remains for several hours. A few good places to watch include: Buckingham Fountain, MIchigan Ave. bridge, and Columbus Drive bridge. Street closures begin around 8am. Also ABC broadcasts the parade, so if you can’t get downtown, don’t worry. Cozy up with an Irish coffee and enjoy the festivities at home or at a local bar!

Parade Route

Parking details

There are many parking garages to choose amongst. The best deal is to reserve in advance on a site like Spot Hero. Be aware that parking will be quite pricey, as it will be for any big city event. Consider adding another city tourist activity to your itinerary get the most out of the hefty fee.

St. Patrick’s Day dining, Chicago style

There are many great authentic Irish pubs to enjoy both in and around the city. Note that many will be insanely crowded following the parade, so honestly it is best to enjoy a nice Irish meal on another day. Also, some pubs will be standing room only due to the crowds/live music performances. Some pubs offer special packages or rooftop deals, so check around. Popular options include: The Kerryman and Cork & Kerry. Of course, there are many more authentic pubs throughout Chicago’s very Irish Southside neighborhoods such as Barney Callaghan’s Pub and Porter Cullens. On the north side, check out O’Shaughnessy’s Public House and Chief O’Neils.

Restaurant and drink specials