On the water:
- Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave. Here lies the hub of all Fourth of July festivities. It will get packed. If you wait long enough, you can take a spin in one of 40 gondolas on the giant Ferris wheel. $7 for a seven-minute ride. Time it right, and you’ll be eye level with the sparks, perched 15 stories up.
- Take a blanket to one of the many beaches along the lakefront, like Ohio Street Beach (400 N. Lake Shore Dr.), Oak Street Beach (1000 N. Lake Shore Dr.), Montrose Beach (4400 N. Lake Shore Dr.) or Diversey Harbor (2601 N. Cannon Dr.). Get there early, and bike if you can—parking will be hopeless.
- Rent a kayak. For $65 a person, view the fireworks while paddling from North Avenue through downtown along the Chicago River (six miles total, from 7:15 to 10:45 p.m.) No experience is required.
- Book a fireworks cruise. Seadog 60-minute Fireworks Cruise along Lake Michigan (7/4, 9 p.m., $85), Shoreline Sightseeing 90-minute architecture fireworks cruise on the Chicago River (7/4, 8:30 p.m., $49). Go all out on their two-hour sunset cruise, with food and a cash bar (7/4 8 p.m., $80)
- If you’re willing to dish out some extra cash, fireworks dinner cruises are a classy way to take in the lit-up night sky. Creative cuisine, DJ and dancing are included aboard vessels like the Odyssey (7/4, 8-11 p.m., $200). Get your tickets fast, because some already sold out.
- The Adler Planetarium (1300 S. Lake Shore Dr.) has lakefront seating, but BYOC (Bring Your Own Chair). Take advantage of the stretch of lawn for some spectacular views of the twinkling skyline. Go by bike if possible.
- Promontory Point in Hyde Park (5491 S. Shore Dr.) hugs the lake and offers a skyline view unlike any other. It’s the only spot on the lakefront where fire pits are allowed, if s’mores are your thing.
Away from the crowds:
- Hotels facing Navy Pier will give you (nearly) front-seat views, and in between booms, you can soak in some peace and quiet. There are several new hotel rooftops open for 2014, including J. Parker rooftop at Hotel Lincoln and Drumbar at Hotel Raffaello.
- More established hotels include W Hotel (644 N. Lake Shore Dr., 312-943-9200) or Crowne Plaza (733 W. Madison St., 312-829-5000). The W’s restaurant, Current, invites visitors to enjoy drinks and grill fare from the seventh-floor deck from 7-10 p.m. ($75 adults, $25 children 13-20).
- The Trump Terrace at the Trump International Hotel & Tower (401 N. Wabash Ave., 312-588-8000) is another great place to perch, where you can witness the nighttime display reflecting in the Chicago River. A reservation is recommended.
- If you just want to get outdoors for the festivities—and you’re more focused on people-watching—these rooftop bars will be quite a scene.
In the suburbs:
- Enjoy Evanston’s lakefront fireworks display starting at 9:15 p.m. on Clark Street Beach (1811 Sheridan Rd.)
- See 3-D fireworks in Skokie where, starting at dusk, the park district will dole out free glasses to the first 10,000 people (Niles West High School, 5701 Oakton St.);
- Watch fireworks at dusk during Barrington’s 30th annual 4th of July Festival (Barrington High School, 616 W. Main St.)
- Catch a 30-minute fireworks break from barbecue and music at 9:30 p.m. during Naperville’s Ribfest (Knoch Park, 724 S. West St.)