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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.

John Hancock Observatory, Chicago

See it there in the center?

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.

John Hancock Observatory, Lake Michigan, 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!

Location

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

Willis Tower Skydeck, Chicago

View from the Skydeck.

Prices

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

John Hancock Observatory, Chicago

Weird sunset over Chicago, as seen from the Observatory.

Hours

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

John Hancock Observatory, Chicago

Get this kind of view from the Observatory at night.

Wait Times

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.

Willis Tower Skydeck, Chicago

Though maybe waiting for this view is worth it?

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

John Hancock Observatory, Chicago

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

John Hancock Observatory, Chicago

Either way, you’re pretty high up.

The Views

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.

Willis Tower Skydeck, Chicago

That other tall black building is the rival John Hancock tower.

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.

John Hancock Observatory, Chicago

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

Willis Tower Skydeck, Chicago

The Extras

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).

Willis Tower Skydeck, The Ledge, Chicago

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.

John Hancock Observatory, Skywalk, Chicago

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

Willis Tower Skydeck, Chicago

Cool, right?

The Amenities

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

John Hancock Observatory, Lake Michigan, Chicago

You can sit and enjoy views like this at night.

Photo Ops

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

Willis Tower Skydeck, The Ledge, Chicago

Or, take your own Ledge photo from above.

Getting there

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

Willis Tower Skydeck, Chicago

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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?

Willis Tower Skydeck, 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.

Also note: All photos used in this post were taken by me, in Chicago.

 

To help you out with your own trip to Chicago:

 

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46 Responses to Chicago Tower Smackdown: Willis Skydeck vs. Hancock Observatory

  1. Alouise says:

    Love reading the pros and cons of both towers. I thinks sometimes it’s okay to have a tie. The ledge looks really cool, it’s nice to have an obstructed view.
    Alouise recently posted..A Lesser Known Way To Make Some Extra Money

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks, Alouise! I discovered I really like doing these sorts of comparison posts. I’ll have to keep an eye out for opportunities to write more in the future.

      I hope to not always have a tie (and, with my pizza post, I didn’t), but, in this case, it was impossible to pick a favorite! Both are great options.

  2. Micah says:

    If you’re looking to save some coin, try checking out the Signature Room in the Hancock. For the price of a drink you can sit at the bar and take in the same view you’d get from the observatory, minus the wait, the pricey tickets, etc. (Oh and did I mention you’ll have a drink in your hand?)
    Micah recently posted..The Temples of Tikal

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Haha, good tip! In fact, some high school-aged kids were trying to do this the night my friend and I went up, but decided against it after they were warned that their IDs would be checked, and they might get thrown out for being under 21. But it’s definitely another good option!

    • Maggie says:

      You took the words out of my mouth! The signature lounge is definitely the most impressive bar in Chicago. And ladies, visit the restroom! It has the best view in the bar!

  3. Kieron says:

    Loving this smackdown series for Chicago – it’s definitely helping with our travel planning and I guess we’ll just have to visit both of these buildings to make up our own mind! ;)
    Kieron recently posted..A Local’s Guide to Philadelphia

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks, Kieron! Unfortunately, this is going to be a short-lived smackdown series, as I don’t really have anything else to compare! I did go see 2 different imrpov shows, but that’s not really something you can review, since it changes every night! I am planning at least one more Chicago post, though, so stay tuned! Glad you’re enjoying these and finding them helpful!

  4. Claire says:

    Definitely agree with the bar at the Hancock comment. I did this when I was in Chicago. All the views plus a cocktail. It was a gorgeous day and a Saturday and there was no wait.
    Claire recently posted..Memories of New Zealand

  5. suzer says:

    As a native Chicago-an, it’s Hancock hands down! The views are just so much better…and you can pop to the lounge one floor down for drinks afterwards, to continue the viewing!
    suzer recently posted..The Rest of my Life -or- Now What!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks for weighing in! And it’s good to hear that as a Chicagoan you’ve visited both these places! I always find it interesting that people who call a large city home often never do the “touristy” things themselves. I mean, I understand why, but I think I’d want to explore and get to know my city, no matter what!

  6. Your smackdowns are so detailed!! Really enjoyed reading it, as we’ll finally get to go to the Observatory later this year. Jess is from Chicago, so we’ve been there quite a few times now, and she took me to the Skydeck, but we never made it to the Observatory. We were thinking about going to the Signature Restaurant and enjoy the views from there, as some people also suggested in the comments, but I like the idea of having a ticket that I can use during the day and at night.
    Dani | Globetrottergirls recently posted..Leon’s no gem – that’s what we love about it

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Glad you’re liking my smackdown posts, Dani! I’m definitely going to try to do more of these in the future as I’m able to. They’re fun! And hopefully they’re providing some helpful insight to others – like yourself!

      I liked the idea of the Sun and Stars pass at the Observatory, too. And, since the Signature Room is free, you could technically buy the pass, and then go down for a drink, too!

  7. Kendra says:

    This is fantastic! I love how detailed you are and all the pictures! I went up to the Sears Tower when I was about 5 (also, I have a hard time calling it the WIllis Tower. lol I hate that they changed it!) but I’ve never been to the Hancock Observatory. I’m originally from the Chicago suburbs and you’ve influenced me to want to go see them both sometime!
    Oh and the cafe in the Observatory sounds awesome! I would love to get a coffee and just sit up there!
    Kendra recently posted..Hello from Scott

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks so much, Kendra! I find it weird to call the Sears Tower the Willis Tower now, too… I think, to most people, it will always be the Sears Tower no matter what.

      Hopefully you’ll get a chance to check the Observatory out sometime! Going up at night was one of my favorite things I did in Chicago.

  8. Ayngelina says:

    At first I was going to balk at the prices and then I saw the night views. But I can’t help but wonder if there is a chichi bar somewhere that I could get a $10 cocktail AND the view?
    Ayngelina recently posted..How I Quit Happy And Got Much More

    • DangerousBiz says:

      The night views alone I think would be worth the admission price… Seeing the city all lit up on a clear night was amazing. But I’m sure there are plenty of other buildings you could get a great view from, too!

  9. Cat says:

    As a Chicagoan, I totally vote for the Hancock because it’s right on the lake and you can see five states on a nice day. Tip – if you go get a $5 beer up at the restaurant, just a few floors down from the deck, you get similar views for much less money!
    Cat recently posted..Things Not to Expect in your Spanish Flat

    • DangerousBiz says:

      You’re not the first one to suggest the Signature Lounge at the Hancock! Sounds like a pretty good bet for people wanting to skip the lines and avoid the admission charge. And it seems like Chicago has a lot more love than I realized for the Observatory! Very interesting to know.

  10. Guess I’ll just have to do both!

    Pictures made me remember what an absolutely beautiful city Chicago is!
    Debbie Beardsley recently posted..Is a Yurt Lodging

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Chicago certainly is a very nice city! I can see why so many people fall in love with it. I don’t think it would be very hard to do!

  11. Rebecca says:

    Gah! So mad that it’s a tie!!!

    But considering that I went up to the top of the Sears Tower when I was in town when I was a kid, and it was a tie, I’ll probably try something new and do the Observatory. Great post!!!

    Totally can’t wait to visit next week now. Fingers crossed on the weather!!!
    Rebecca recently posted..New Zealand – Greymouth and Pancake Rocks

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Sorry! I really couldn’t pick a favorite, even when throwing in all the niggly facts! I’ll admit to being really indecisive… But, honestly, both towers had good points and are well worth a visit!

      I’ll hope for good weather for you, too. If you end up going to the Observatory, you’ll have to let me know what you think!

  12. Kim says:

    Ha! I love that this was a tie. I totally agree though. It really depends on what view you want. I really need to get to Willis Tower now that they have the class bottom viewing area. Glad you had a good time in the city. Great post! :o)
    Kim recently posted..Sightseeing’s Serious Side

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks, Kim! The glass boxes in the Willis Tower were really fun. It was great to watch little kids – and adults, too! – freak out about stepping out on the glass.

      Hopefully I’ll make it back to Chicago soon to explore even more!

  13. Dave and Deb says:

    Fabulous post and what a great idea! Thanks for all the tips. I haven’t been to Chicago before so I may just have to do both since it was a tie. I didn’t know that it wasn’t called the Sears Tower anymore, I am a little behind on the times it seems.:)
    Dave and Deb recently posted..Glowworm Caves- a Dazzling Display of Light

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks so much! I wanted to write about them both, so I figured why not do a side-by-side comparison? It was fun! Definitely want to try and do this more in the future if I can.

      And you’re not behind on the whole Sear’s Tower thing… most people in Chicago (and elsewhere) still call it the Sears Tower, and always will!

  14. You captured some shots of my hometown! I’ve been to both the Hancock Building and Willis Tower many times — love ‘em both. Nice post about them and the details, too. Chicago is a great city and underrated by some (usually by people who haven’t been there).

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks, Cathy! Even though I was only there for a weekend, I thought Chicago was a great city! Definitely deserves more attention.

  15. Mike says:

    Hancock wins due to the location and the lounge. The Sears Tower is only convenient to people getting there from the burbs or by car. It’s located in the west loop in an area full of office building’s that’s dead on evenings and weekends. Hancock is right off the always bustling Mag Mile.

  16. flapane says:

    Thanks for your article.
    I’ll be there in a few days, and I’ll definitely choose JHT Observatory.
    I am sad that it isn’t THE higest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere, but anyway, never mind :)

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I’m really glad you found my review helpful! I think you’ll really like the Hancock Observatory. Have fun in Chicago!

  17. [...] have the chance to fully appreciate just how tall those buildings are. Two of the tallest ones, the Hancock Tower and the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, have observation decks near their top levels. For a small fee, [...]

  18. dave says:

    My wife and I visited the observatory last weekend. We went straight to top no wait. I think the thing you will get at either place will be great pictures! But standing on a piece of glass did not apeal to us. Stepping outside the door at hancock to feel the air and temerature at that heigth was amazing. Got plenty of great pics from behind the gla ss and a different high behind the screen! 5/29/12

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Yes, you will definitely get great photos at both! And, if standing in the that glass box isn’t appealing, then the Hancock is definitely the better bet. Shorter (or no) lines, but still great views!

  19. Rob says:

    Can someone tell me the pricing on the professional photos, particularly at Willis Tower? It mentions the option but I couldn’t find a price on their website. I’m interested in the pro photo at the Ledge because (a) I’ll be on my own (b) I’d quite like a night shot, which requires a long exposure, and it says you’re not allowed to take a tripod with you

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I just tried looking, too, Rob, and also could not find the prices listed anywhere. I didn’t purchase any photos at the Skydeck so I’m afraid I can’t help you out! My best advice would be to just call them and ask about their photo packages.

      • Rob says:

        Thanks for checking for me :) I’ll take my chances and see what happens when I get there.

        Thanks for the page, I possibly wouldn’t have known about the Observatory before I saw this. I’ll try to cram as much Chicago into my 3 days as I can :)

  20. Adriana says:

    Thanks for doing this review, but it leaves me unable to decide!!
    I will be going on a family trip to Chicago for the first time for the Marathon.
    I need good travel tips!! (anyone??) Please.
    ; )

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Exciting! Well it’s really up to you which one you visit! I might go with the Hancock… be a little different than the rest of the crowd!

  21. KT says:

    Hi, Thank you for your precise analysis.

    I will go to Chicago next week. Can you help me with the following question?

    #1. In Signature Lounge can people have a full view (360 degree)? I saw from somewhere that Signature Lounge faces only west. So we can only have 360 view in Signature Room or Hancock Observatory.

    Thanks!!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Hi KT. Sorry, but I have not been to the Signature Lounge, so I can’t really advise you on that. You have a 360 view from the Skydeck at Willis Tower and the Hancock Observatory – both have windows on all 4 sides of the building. But I have no clue about the bars/lounges! I would check out their website to see if you can find out. Or, better yet, give them a call or e-mail!

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