Anyone who has seen a photo of the Chicago skyline can probably pick out the city’s most famous building — a 108-story asymmetrical black behemoth with two spiky antennas that are colorfully lit up at night. Add a blazing red eye between the antennas, and you’d have something right out of “Lord of the Rings.”
This, of course, is the Willis Tower — known as the Sears Tower until July 2009.
The Willis Tower’s “Skydeck Chicago” on the 103rd floor is easily Chicago’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing more than 1.3 million visitors per year to its 360-degree views out over the city.
But, while the Skydeck is wildly popular, it actually has some competition a mile and a half away in the John Hancock Observatory. The 100-story John Hancock building boasts an Observatory similar to the Skydeck on its 94th floor, with views out over Lake Michigan and the city of Chicago. (It’s now known as 360 CHICAGO.)
So which tower is REALLY better? Which one is more worth your time (and money)?
I’m going to try to answer that question for you in this Chicago Tower Smackdown by comparing various features of each tower.
Here we go!
The Willis Tower is located on Wacker Avenue, with the Skydeck entrance on Jackson Boulevard. The tower is basically at the heart of downtown Chicago, with buildings and busy Chicago streets all around it.
The Hancock Observatory is located on popular Michigan Avenue, right next to Lake Michigan. You have water on basically two sides, and Chicago on the others.
Smackdown Winner: Draw, because both are located in good areas.
Tally: Skydeck — 1 Observatory — 1
Visiting the Skydeck will cost you $17 for adult general admission, or $11 for child general admission. For $30, you can buy a “fast pass,” which will help you skip some of the lines. If you’d like to pair your admission with an audio/visual tour, tickets are $22.50 for adults and $16.50 for kids.
The Observatory charges $15 for adult general admission, or $10 for child general admission. A fast pass here will cost $29 for adults or $24 for kids. The Observatory also offers a Sun and Stars pass, which will get you two admissions into the tower within 48 hours — once during the day, and once at night. This pass costs $19 for adults and $14 for kids. The Observatory also offers a free interactive multimedia Sky Tour with each admission.
Smackdown Winner: Observatory, because of slightly lower prices, the Sun and Stars pass, and the free audio/visual tour.
Tally: Skydeck — 1 Observatory — 2
This is a niggly thing, but still important.
The Skydeck is open 365 days a year. From April through September, the Skydeck is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. From October through March, it’s open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The Observatory is also open 365 days a year, but has only one set of hours: 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, with the last admission at 10:30 p.m.
Smackdown winner: Observatory, because it’s open more hours, no matter what time of year. The hours are particularly nice in the winter months, when you might want to end your night with a twinkling view out over the city.
Tally: Skydeck — 1 Observatory — 3
Unless you go up either of these towers on an overcast day, chances are you will have to wait in line to buy tickets, and then wait to get into the elevators that will whisk you up to the observation decks. Both the Skydeck and Observatory suggest visiting early in the morning, or in the evening for the shortest wait times.
Wait times are completely dependent on the weather, day of the week, and the season. But here’s an idea of what to expect:
The Skydeck, being the more popular of the two options, can have some really long lines and wait times. I visited on a sunny, Saturday afternoon in mid-March — right around Spring Break time for most high school and colleges. There was a line to simply board the elevator that takes you down to a security checkpoint and the ticketing counters, and then another wait to board the elevators up to the Skydeck. Total wait time from the front doors was quoted at about 2.5 hours.
Over at the Observatory, an employee said that wait times can get up to 1 hour on busy summer days, but usually average between 10 and 30 minutes. I went up to the Observatory twice on the same March weekend that I visited the Skydeck — once on a slightly overcast afternoon, and again on a clear night — and did not even wait 5 minutes to go up either time.
Buying a Fast Pass ahead of time at either tower can help avoid some of these lines. Also, buying a Chicago CityPass will get you Fast Pass tickets to both of these attractions.
Smakdown winner: Observatory, because it will probably always have shorter wait times.
Tally: Skydeck — 1 Observatory — 4
The Ride Up
Once you finally make it to the elevators that will whisk you up to the Skydeck, it takes about 60 seconds to ascend 1,353 feet to the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower. The large elevator will probably be packed, but you’ll be entertained for that minute by a flat-screen television throwing out some fun facts and explaining how high you are climbing, while comparing that height to other well-known structures around the world. It was cool to see the Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower falling away as we quickly ascended, and the feature helped put into perspective just how tall the Willis Tower is.
The Observatory elevators — while smaller — could also potentially be crowded on a busy day. The ride up to the Observatory takes 40 seconds to climb 1,000 feet, making these the fastest elevators in North America. The ride up is accompanied by a witty narration, mostly explaining how fast you’re going (more than 20 mph).
Smackdown winner: Skydeck, because the feature comparing your height to other famous structures was pretty cool.
Tally: Skydeck — 2 Observatory — 4
This particular section is probably the one everyone is most interested in — which tower has the best views? Well, the answer is completely dependent on personal perspective and taste. But I’ll give you my take on it.
The Skydeck has great views on all 4 sides of the building. You can see out over downtown Chicago, look down onto the Chicago River, and see all the way to navy Pier and Lake Michigan. The Willis Tower is the tallest building in the city, so nothing stands in the way of your view. On a clear day, you can literally see for miles.
The Observatory also has great views on a clear day. It sits right on Lake Michigan, and you can see across the lake to other states on good days. You can also look right down on Navy Pier, and see out over downtown Chicago. You can’t see the river from here, but you CAN see the Willis Tower in the Chicago skyline, which is pretty cool.
I felt like the Observatory had a more “open” feeling to it, with larger glass panes on its windows. You are also able to get closer to the windows at the Observatory to take photos.
After dark, however, I feel like the Skydeck might have an advantage. I went up to the Observatory late at night during my visit and loved the views (including the Willis Tower lit up at night), but, due to Lake Michigan filling up nearly half of the windows, you really only had a view over the city on 2 sides of the building — the other sides were just dark.
Smackdown winner: I think I have to go with the Skydeck, because I liked being able to see the river, and I imagine you might be more impressed with the nighttime view from here. But this one was really close.
Tally: Skydeck — 3 Observatory — 4
Both of the towers offer some “extras” at the top to try and entice more visitors.
The Skydeck boasts “The Ledge,” which are a set of four glass boxes that extend roughly 4 feet out from the side of the Willis Tower that overlooks Wacker Avenue. The boxes — added in 2009 when the Skydeck underwent a renovation — have glass bottoms, so you can look down and see the street 1,353 feet below. If you stand in one box and have a friend stand in the next box over, you can take some cool photos of each other. The glass-bottom feature is the real draw here, because the boxes sit on the side of the building with the least impressive view (in my opinion).
The Observatory has the “Skywalk,” which is an open-air walkway along the side of the John Hancock building that faces Willis Tower. In theory, this is a cool idea. But, in practice, the windows are just replaced with a screen. The views aren’t any different, but the screen prevents you from taking any good photos at any time of day.
The Observatory in 2011 also opened up a small (very small) “ice rink,” where you can “Skate in the Sky.” The “ice” is actually synthetic, but this would obviously be an option for those wanting to skate while avoiding Chicago’s blustery winter temperatures. It’s really popular with kids.
Smackdown winner: Skydeck, because those glass boxes are just really, really cool.
Tally: Skydeck — 4 Observatory — 4
Both towers have basic amenities like restrooms, and both also have walls with fun facts about Chicago as a bit of extra entertainment.
The Skydeck has a little souvenir shop, and not much else. The views here are really the focus.
The Observatory also has a souvenir shop, as well as a small café with tables and chairs on the south side of the building. Both towers have full-service restaurants on separate floors, but the café here is a nice touch. It suggests that you are welcome to just sit for a while and enjoy the views.
The Observatory also has a concierge near the elevators that can help you plan your stay or other activities in Chicago. I picked up a business card here and was able to use it to get priority seating at Gino’s East.
Smackdown winner: Observatory, because I liked the fact that you could grab a snack and a seat. The Skydeck had no seating at all, which would have been nice if I had stood in a line for 2.5 hours!
Tally: Skydeck — 4 Observatory — 5
Both towers will offer to take professional photos of you in front of a green screen before you board the elevator. You can then purchase these photos later on (either before you leave, or online), with a variety of Chicago backgrounds to choose from.
The Skydeck offers one of the green screen photos at the bottom of the tower. It also has a photographer at the top of the tower at The Ledge, who will take a photo of you standing in one of the glass boxes, with the city far below.
The Observatory only had a professional photographer at the bottom of the tower. I was given a free photo package here, and the quality of the prints was fantastic. At the top of the tower, a free photo op is set up where you can pose pretending to be a window washer on the side of the tower. A cute idea, but glare on the glass made for frustrating photo-taking.
Smackdown winner: Skydeck, because, even though I didn’t buy any of the photos here, I liked that there were 2 different professional photo stations to choose from. More choices are always better!
Tally: Skydeck — 5 Observatory — 5
Both towers are easily accessible using Chicago public transportation. There are “el” (train) stations close to both towers, and CTA buses also make stops nearby both. If you’re already downtown, it’s easy to walk to either building.
Smackdown winner: Draw, because both are relatively easy to get to.
Tally: Skydeck — 6 Observatory — 6
Final Results: It’s a tie!
Okay, I really didn’t want this to end in a tie. I wanted to be able to tell you which tower was the “best” in Chicago. But, the truth is, each tower has its positive points.
The Skydeck at the Willis Tower is more well-known, and arguably might have better views. But, because it’s more well-known, that means it’s also more expensive and will have longer lines.
So, if you want a great view but don’t want to wait for it, go to the Hancock Observatory.
Or, you can always do what I did, and visit both! That way you can make up your own mind.
Have you visited either the Skydeck or Observatory in Chicago? Or both? If so, which one was YOUR favorite?
To help you out with your own trip to Chicago:
Disclaimer: I was given free, fast pass entry to both the Skydeck and Observatory, and free photos at the Observatory. But that fact in no way influenced my review. As always, I would never suggest something to you that I didn’t enjoy or believe in. There are many things you can buy, but my opinions aren’t one of them.