13 May Views from Above: Observation Decks in Chicago
Chicago is home to one of the tallest buildings in the world, and because of this, it is a fantastic city to reach for the sky and take in the views at cloud level. The Willis Tower and the John Hancock Center are prime spots to visit, and both offer fear inducing attractions to test your nerves with heights. We have visited both observation decks in Chicago in the past, but it was so long ago that we felt a return trip was necessary as I always love seeing a city from above. Thankfully, with our Chicago CityPASS booklets, we even had VIP entrance to both attractions, which means you can skip the lines! The only downside of the day was the weather–it was not a good day for photos. The skies were cloudy and overcast, but at least we weren’t shrouded in fog, so it could have been worse.
The Ledge and Skydeck Chicago at The Willis Tower:
The very top of the Willis Tower (or Sears Tower as we will always call it) stands at 1,729 feet high and the Skydeck is located on the 103rd floor, which is 1,353 feet high. On a clear day, you can see as far as 50 miles and four states from the observation level. Throughout the Skydeck experience, (while you are waiting in line if there is one and on the observation floor) you can find interactive exhibits, fun facts and educational attractions that discuss everything from the building to Chicago’s sports, food, history, people and more.
In addition to giant windows that allow you to see Chicago in all directions, you can also step out onto The Ledge, which is basically a clear glass box protruding from the building. You can even see Wacker Drive and all the city action 103 floors below! I love the sprawling views of the city from the glass box—it’s amazing how far you can see, even if you visit on a fairly overcast day like we did.
Micah, on the other hand, isn’t the biggest fan of heights, so after he stopped crying in the corner, he inched his way to the ledge so we could take a few photos. I always get a kick out of his hesitation to stand on glass floors—it’s definitely understandable, but I can’t help but give him a hard time about it!
If standing in a glass box so high off the ground has you worried, don’t fret. The boxes are made of three layers of half-inch thick glass that has been laminated into a seamless piece, and the glass is then fully tempered for durability. In other words…it’s safe even if your brain is telling you otherwise!
360 CHICAGO and TILT! at the John Hancock Center:
Located a couple of miles down the road from the Willis Tower, you will find another fantastic observatory at the John Hancock Center called 360 CHICAGO. The tallest point of the John Hancock Center is 1,500 feet high, which makes this the fourth tallest building in Chicago. The observatory is located on the 94th floor of the building and sits 1,030 feet above street level. On the 94th floor, you will find wide open floor to ceiling windows with fantastic views of the city, and honestly, I think the views from this location are a bit better than the views from the Willis Tower because you can see the entire skyline and great views of the lake. You will also find an open air SkyWalk, multimedia tours, a café, and the newest attraction TILT! on the observatory level.
TILT is another attraction that gives you a unique view of the city and it must have been built to test your fear of heights! This attraction is an additional $7 above and beyond your observatory ticket, but for those who like to get their adrenaline pumping it’s a fun add on to your experience. There was no way I was getting Micah on this one, so I went on my own and had the entire attraction to myself! Basically, TILT consists of several floor to ceiling window blocks with handlebars. You stand on the platform, hold on and the window slowly tilts to a 30º angle outside the building. The window gives you a facedown look of the city below and it will certainly get your heart racing—there’s something that just doesn’t feel quite right about being lowered over a city behind a panel of glass!
In addition to the observatory floor, there is also a restaurant located one floor up on the 95th floor. We visited the restaurant on our last trip to Chicago and ordered a couple of appetizers. The restaurant offers great views of the city, as well, and instead of paying a ticket fee you can order drinks and or food—it’s a nice way to see the views and get something in return. Both the observatory and the restaurant are great experiences, so either are good options if you want to see Chicago’s skyline from above!
Which is better?
We had a great time at the observation decks in Chicago and I can’t quite decide which one I like more. They both offer great views of the city and take testing your fear of heights to new levels! Personally, I didn’t find either the Ledge or TILT all that scary, but Micah certainly did—so do yourself a favor and check them both out to see how you do with heights! We visited both on a cloudy Thursday afternoon and didn’t have any waits. I don’t think this is typical though (our last visits included lengthy waits at both), so be prepared for lines, especially if you visit on a weekend. Either way, you are in for some great views and some sky-high fun!