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360 Chicago vs Skydeck | Which Chicago Observation Deck is Best?

Updated: May 10, 2024
 By Mel

As local tour guides, we hear from visitors every day, and on nearly every tour, someone asks about Chicago’s observation decks and which they should go to.

Having been to both of them more than once, we are in a unique position to compare the Willis Tower Skydeck and 360 Chicago at the former John Hancock Tower.

This post shares the information you need to decide which to visit including views, costs, special features, and other factors to consider.

We also looked at what the members of our Chicago Travel Tips Facebook group thought of each deck. You can see what they had to say at the bottom of this post.

Our group of over 20,000 members consists of locals, veteran travelers to Chicago, and newcomers to the Windy City.

You don't need to join the group to read the posts, comments, and recommendations.

So check out our group for tips on all things Chicago!

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Disclosure: While our recommendations are always unbiased, we may receive a small share of sales through some of the links below at no cost to you. See the full text.

360 CHICAGO OBSERVATION DECK (JOHN HANCOCK OBSERVATORY) 

360 Chicago is located in the Hancock Building at 875 N. Michigan Avenue.

It's 1000 feet (305 meters) tall and offers an amazing view not just of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan, but also of four states on a clear day: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

From 9 am for the early birds until 11 pm for the night owls, you can rise 94 floors high in the Hancock Building.

For the truly brave visitors, there is TILT!, a thrill ride that leans you out over the building's edge for some of the most exhilarating views of Chicago and the city's most iconic attractions.

This attraction costs extra, and tickets can be purchased at a kiosk on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center.

TIP: Entry may be included for free for holders of some of the money-saving tourist passes such as the CityPass booklet, Go City Chicago Pass, Explorer Pass, and several other options.

Read more about Chicago tourist attraction passes and see which ones include 360 Chicago.


Unique Features

  • Tilt! A moving experience that leans 8 adults (12+), visitors, at a time toward the street below. This is often referred to as Chicago's highest thrill ride. Watch the video above to see what it is like.
  • Architect’s Corner Cafe and Bar offers coffee, a full bar with cocktails, and snacks.
  • Online activities for kids to use before, during, and after your visit.
  • Interactive exhibits (in seven languages) to learn more about Chicago's rich history and the beautiful neighborhoods you'll see below.
  • Located on Chicago's legendary Michigan Avenue, not far from the Magnificent Mile, known for its shops and restaurants
  • North America's fastest elevators will raise you to the top of 360 Chicago (1000 ft) on a 40-second ride to the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center.

Additional Features

  • An observation deck on all four sides
  • Gift Store with Unique Merchandise
  • Professional Souvenir Picture (optional, additional cost)

Tickets (when purchased online)

  • Adult (12+) $30
  • Child (3-11) $20
  • Free for Children under 3
  • add $9 for Tilt (must be 12 and older)

Purchase tickets to 360 Chicago here.

TIP: Members of the military (active duty and veteran) receive 10% off admission for themselves and one guest when tickets are bought at the door with valid ID.


Other ticket options

  • Sip & View (includes cocktail): $43.50
  • All-Access Pass (Tilt and cocktail): $52.50

Can you go to 360 Chicago for free?

Although there aren't free days or any other way to get free tickets, there are a few ways you might be able to enjoy the view from this building for a much lower price. Here they are:

Get a Drink at the Signature Lounge

Located on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Center, this bar is just a bit higher than the observation deck. The view from here is just as good, and it'll only cost you $5-$15 for a cocktail!

Use a Chicago Tourist Pass

Entry is included at no additional cost for holders of the CityPass booklet, Go City Chicago Pass, 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 near in the Magnificent Mile shopping district, the Architect's Cafe, and its amazing views of the city.

The views are spectacular from both floors, but your ease of movement is not.

Like any Chicago observation decks you choose, you'll have to keep an eye out for bad weather, because it will likely be much more difficult to see all the sites on a cloudy day.

If you can't manage to make it on the date of your ticket, you can cancel up to 24 hours in advance for a full refund.

You are not guaranteed a refund if you cancel your tickets within the 24-hour period before your slated arrival.


SKYDECK CHICAGO (Willis Tower)

Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) is the third tallest building in America, rising 1,353 feet (412 meters) in the air.

It is 108 stories tall, and at such a height, you can feel the building sway (safely!) on windy days.

Skydeck Chicago at the Willis Tower is located on the 103rd floor. If that is closed, there is a backup observatory on the 99th floor. 

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 enjoy breathtaking views of Chicago, including sites like Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and Wacker Drive.

On a clear day, you can even see four states: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Skydeck Chicago is open 365 days a year. From March through September 9 am-10 pm, and October through February, Sunday through Thursday 9 am - 8 pm; Friday and Saturday 9 am-10 pm.


Tickets:

All tickets are timed to help prevent large crowds and practice social distancing. 


Can you go up the Willis Tower for free?

Unfortunately, there are no free days at Skydeck Chicago, and there aren't any other ways to get admission for free. Even so, there is at least one way to save some money on tickets.

Use a Chicago Tourist Pass

Entry to Skydeck Chicago is also included at no additional cost with the purchase of the Chicago CityPass as well as the Go City Chicago Pass.

Although this isn't free, since it's included with the pass, you won't technically have to pay any other cost for admission.


Unique Features:

  • 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 to get a great look at the architecture of the magnificent city! (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 neighborhood of South Loop, just a short walk from other popular Chicago attractions such as the lakefront shoreline.

For the Kids

The Willis Tower (Skydeck Chicago) is also a great place for kids to have fun learning.

Several 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 visitors 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 several 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 Skydeck Chicago 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 on 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.


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 a 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 this tourist attraction pass.


CENTENNIAL WHEEL AT NAVY PIER

Although this is not technically one of the major Chicago observation decks, it's worth mentioning because it offers some of the city's best views.

The Centennial Wheel rises to almost 200 feet in height, giving visitors an excellent look at Lake Michigan, the lakefront shoreline, the Navy Pier, and of course the architecture of the magnificent city.

It's located at 600 E Grand Avenue. It is open Sunday - Thursday from 11 am - to 8 pm; Friday and Saturday from 11 am to 9 pm

Admission to the wheel is included with tickets that provide access to all of the rides and attractions at Navy Pier.


Tickets

NOTE: This attraction is also included with the Chicago C3 Pass at no additional cost.

For more information on this and other attractions in the area, read our post on things to do at Navy Pier.


WHICH HAS THE BEST VIEWS

VIEWS FROM SKYDECK  

The view looking southeast toward Lake Michigan

Southeast view from Willis Tower Skydeck

The view northeast from the Willis Tower Skydeck with the Hancock Building to the left.

View northeast from willis tower

View from the Willis Tower Ledge

View from the Willis Tower Skydeck Ledge

Panoramic View from Skydeck at Willis Tower


VIEWS FROM CHICAGO 360

The view north with Oak Street Beach at the bottom and Lincoln Park at the top of the image

View North from Hancock Tower Chicago

The view south with the Willis Tower on the right and the Trump Building in the center.

View South from Hancock Observatory Chicago

The view east toward Lake Michigan and the Navy Pier.

View East from Hancock Building Chicago

West view during sunset.

View West from Hancock 360 Observatory

Tips For Visiting 360 Chicago and Willis Towers:

  • Buy Your Ticket Ahead of Time. With e-tickets and cell phones, there is little reason for visitors 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 the 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. 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, rain, and other inclement weather 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 on the ground floor. There are also a lot of great places to shop in the surrounding neighborhoods, including the Magnificent Mile.
  • 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.
  • Follow the Rules. Perhaps this goes without saying, but you should always follow the instructions of any officials in the building to ensure you have the best experience.

TIPS FROM LOCALS AND TRAVELERS

To offer you as many opinions of Chicago’s observation decks, we asked the members of our Chicago Travel Tips Facebook group what they thought.

Group member Hugo provides fantastic advice.

Suzanne took advantage of her tourist pass purchases to go to both - and both lived up to the hype.

Another group member who went to both, and has a particular reason for liking Skydeck over 360 Chicago.

Of course, there will always be disagreement. Skydeck got quite a lot of votes, but so did 360 Chicago.

Erica differentiates what makes each deck good.

We hope that after reading this post, you can easily decide which to visit.

Remember, you don't need to become a member of our Chicago Travel Tips Facebook group to read the posts, comments, and advice.

You can even ask a question yourself on any Chicago topic!

About The Author

Mel

Mel loves to be a tourist in her own city. With a background in performing arts, tourism, and photography, giving tours and being a story-teller comes naturally to her. She loves traveling, food, and theatre. Mel splits her time between Chicago and Los Angeles (#theatrelife) and leads tours and manages both cities!
Updated: May 10th, 2024
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