Which Chicago Observatory is Best?
This post reviews and compares two Chicago observation decks. Both observatories offer stunning views of the city – including each other.
With cafes, bars, audio tours, a visit to the Chicago 360 Observatory or the Skydeck is more than just a pretty view!
- Chicago 360 (Hancock Building)
- Skydeck (Willis Tower)
- Which Has the Best Views?
- Free Tours by Foot
- Chicago Architecture Tours
Hancock Building Observatory, 875 N. Michigan Ave, 94th Floor.
Now the 360* Observatory, takes you up 1000 feet (305 m) to view not only the city skyline of Chicago and Lake Michigan, but also four neighboring states (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan).
From 9 am for the early birds until 11 pm for the night owls, you can rise 94 floors into the Hancock Building.
For the truly brave, there is TILT!, a section of windows built to tilt outwards by 30* for a unique experience as if you were leaning out of the building. (This is at an additional cost.)
TIP: Entry is included at no additional cost for holders of the CityPass booklet, Go Card, Explorer Pass, and several other options.
Read our post comparing the different Chicago tourist attraction passes.
- Tilt! A moving experience that leans 8 adults (12+) visitors at a time toward the street below. There is an added cost of $8 to enjoy Tilt.
- Architect’s Corner Cafe and Bar offers coffee, full bar with cocktails, snacks
- Online activities for kids to use before, during, and after your visit.
- Interactive Technology (in seven languages) to learn more about what you see
- Convenient location to Magnificent Mile, known for its shops and restaurants
- An observation deck on all four sides
- Gift Store with Unique Merchandise
- Professional Souvenir Picture (optional, additional cost)
- $30 – Adult
- $20 – Child (3-11)
- Free for Children under 3
- 50% off for residents of Chicago
- 50% off for Military with a valid ID
Other ticket options:
- Cocktail & View Ticket: $5
- Tilt & View Ticket: $35
- All-Access Pass (Tilt, Drink, Skip-the-Line): $40
- Individual Tilt Ticket (in addition to observation deck admission ticket): $8
Tip: Entry is included at no additional cost for holders of the CityPass booklet, Go Card, Explorer Pass, and several other options. Read our post comparing the different Chicago tourist attraction passes.
Before You Buy
We love 360 Chicago for its location to Magnificent Mile shopping district, the Architect’s Cafe, and the option to come a second time at night for only $4 more.
Keep in mind that the alternative to “Tilt” at Skydeck is “The Ledge”, which is both kid-friendly and free. That extra $8 can be used to buy yourself something nice at the gift store.
Alternatively, you can use the ticket money for dinner or drinks at the Signature Room and Lounge on the 95th and 96th floor.
The views are spectacular from both floors of this establishment, but your ease of movement is not.
SKYDECK (Willis Tower)
Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) is the third tallest building in America, rising 1,353 feet (412 m) in the air.
It is 108 stories tall, and at such a height, you can feel the building sway (safely!) on windy days.
The Skydeck at the Willis Tower is located on the 103rd floor. If that is closed, there is a back-up observatory on the 99th floor.
The Skydeck is open from 9 am – 10 pm in summer and 10 am – 8 pm in winter. The best time to visit is either early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid the long lines.
About one hour before sunset you can view the city in the daytime, twilight, and nighttime, along with dramatic sunsets on clear days.
You’ll see the city, Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and Wacker Drive. On a clear day, you can even see FOUR surrounding states, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
- General Admission
- $28-$35 Adult
- $22-$26 Child (3-11)
- Expedited Entry
- $55 per person
- Free for kids under 3
- Purchase tickets to the Skydeck at Willis Tower
All tickets are timed to help prevent large crowds and practice social distancing.
- The Ledge! If you are brave enough, step out onto a glass box that extends 4.3 feet from the wall, giving you a unique perspective from 1,353 feet (412 m) above the passers-by below. There are several ledge boxes, and all are free, just politely wait your turn! (Watch the video)
- Informative panels and computer screens that designate landmarks on the horizon, among other Chicago facts and trivia.
- An introductory movie while you wait for the elevator.
- An interactive elevator that displays famous tower heights worldwide.
- The cafeteria on the ground floor next to the gift store with free souvenir cups.
- Located in the South Loop, just a short walk from other popular Chicago attractions.
For the Kids
The Willis Tower is also a great place for kids to have fun learning.
A number of engaging activities that allow them to explore the building in an interactive way without realizing they are learning are a major plus available for every age group.
From coloring books for the very young to the quizzes and interesting fact sheets for those older ones, children will be engaged from the moment they step in the front door.
Kids young and old will enjoy the scavenger hunt activity as they stand in the glass box and overlook the city in search of a number of listed items.
The list for the scavenger hunt and other interactive activities for kids can be downloaded and printed from home before you arrive at the Tower.
Even before they reach the Skydeck itself, they can take in the sites of the knee-high exhibits created just for them.
With interactive floor displays that can place them right into the scene of many historical events that have happened in the city over the years, there will be plenty of experiences they will remember for a lifetime.
Imagine standing on the pitcher’s mound at Wrigley Field or another experience your child will find himself completely immersed in.
Hours: October through March 10 am-8 pm; April through September 9 am-10 pm (Last entry 30 minutes prior to closing)
Address: 233 S. Wacker Dr. (map)
Before You Buy
We love Skydeck for The Ledge (free!) and the great Chicago-themed gift store when you exit.
Instead of paying the outrageous price for Fastpass, we suggest you arrive at open, with a pre-purchased admission ticket.
You will still get immediate access to the elevators after walking through a museum exhibit and brief introductory (optional) movie experience.
Also, if you plan to purchase the CityPass booklet, the Go Chicago Card, or the Chicago Explorer, please note that the Skydeck is already included in these tourist attraction passes.
The view looking southeast toward Lake Michigan
The view northeast from the Willis Tower Skydeck with the Hancock Building to the left.
View from the Willis Tower Ledge
VIEWS FROM CHICAGO 360
The view north with Oak Street Beach at the bottom and Lincoln Park at the top of the image
The view south with the Willis Tower on the right and the Trump Building in the center.
The view east toward Lake Michigan and the Navy Pier.
West view during sunset.
Tips For Visiting the Hancock and Willis Tower:
- Buy Your Ticket Ahead of Time. With e-tickets and cell phones, there is little reason not to pre-purchase tickets to attractions. You’ll skip the line for the box office entirely, and head straight to the elevator after security checkpoints.
- Arrive 10 Minutes Before Open. The morning is the best time to go to these observatory decks to beat the crowds and a very long line that can form. If you go during peak hours, be prepared to wait in a line that is as long as some theme park attractions.
- Bring Your Camera. The photos you take from 1,000 or more feet above Chicago will be some of the best in your trip’s photo album.
- Take Time To Look Without a Filter. Obviously, you can get amazing photos at both towers, but don’t forget to stop and enjoy the view without the lens to gain some perspective.
- Take Your Time. Once you arrive at the top level, you are free to roam without a time limit. Be sure you enjoy the view, get your photos, and be courteous to others if you have to wait your turn for Tilt or The Ledge.
- Check the Weather. If the morning forecast calls for anything but clear skies, consider going somewhere else that day, or go later in the evening/night. Clouds and rain can quickly limit the view you paid all that money to see.
- Check Out The Shops. Both locations have excellent gift stores on your way out. Specific experience gifts (“I survived The Ledge!”) are on the upper levels, but the bigger Chicago-themed shops are located on the ground floor.
- Height Doesn’t Matter. The Observation Deck at 360 Chicago is 94 stories high, and Willis Tower is 103 stories high. It’s a difference of roughly 300 feet, but trust us when we say there is not much of a difference when you’re up that high.