Chicago Tower Smackdown: Willis Skydeck vs. 360 Chicago

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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.

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.

Willis Tower looming over the Chicago River

But, while the Skydeck is wildly popular, it actually has some competition a mile and a half away at the 100-story building sitting at 875 North Michigan Avenue*. This building boasts an observatory similar to the Skydeck on its 94th floor, known as 360 Chicago, with views out over Lake Michigan and the city of Chicago.

*This building up until very recently was known as the John Hancock Center, but currently is nameless. You'll still likely see it referred to as the Hancock building, though.

John Hancock Observatory
360 Chicago view

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.

Going to be visiting Chicago soon? Be sure to pick up a Chicago CityPASS, which includes fast-track admission to both of the city's famous towers, and can save you more than $100 on attraction entry throughout the city.

Here we go!

Willis Tower Skydeck vs. John Hancock 360 Chicago

Willis Skydeck vs. 360 Chicago

Information/pricing last updated July 2021.

NOTE: As of July 2021, both towers are requiring timed tickets in order to visit. Be sure to book your tickets in advance if you want to visit at a particular time!


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 360 Chicago 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, within walking distance of public transport.

Tally: Skydeck — 1    360 Chicago — 1

View from Chicago Skydeck
Skydeck views


Visiting the Skydeck will cost you anywhere from $28-$35 for adult general admission ($22-$26 for kids), depending on what day/time you want to visit. For $55, you can get Expedited Entry, which will help you skip some of the lines. They also sell Early Bird Admission tickets on weekends for $65, which allows you to visit before the Skydeck fully opens to the public.

360 Chicago charges $30 for adult general admission ($20 for kids), and offers adults 21+ the option to add on a beer or cocktail at Bar 94 for an additional $5. They also sell tickets with the TILT experience included ($35 for adults, $25 for kids), and an All Access Pass ($40 for adults, $30 for kids) which includes admission, TILT, and a drink or gelato from Bar 94 – this one is a good deal!

Smackdown Winner: 360 Chicago, because of lower prices, and the fact that their All Access Pass includes quite a bit.

Tally: Skydeck — 1    360 Chicago — 2

360 Chicago view
Weird clouds over Chicago


This is a small thing, but still important.

The Skydeck is open 365 days a year. From March through September, the Skydeck is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. From October through February, it’s open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., with the last entry 30 minutes before closing.

360 Chicago is also open 365 days a year. Its hours are 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, and 9 a.m-11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday year-round. Last entry is one hour before closing.

Smackdown winner: 360 Chicago, because it’s open slightly more hours, no matter what time of year.

Tally: Skydeck — 1    360 Chicago — 3

Chicago at night
Get nighttime views like this from 360 Chicago

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 360 Chicago suggest visiting early in the morning, or in the evening (after 5 p.m.) 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 – and again on a sunny Saturday afternoon in April a few years later. 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 for general admission.

View from the Skydeck in Chicago
Though maybe the wait is worth it for these views?

Over at the 360 Chicago, 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 360 Chicago 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. On my most recent visit (a Sunday morning in April), there once again was no line to take an elevator up.

Buying an express entry ticket ahead of time at either tower can help avoid some of these lines. In fact, I would say it's a must at the Willis Tower on busy days!

(Buying a Chicago CityPASS includes Expedited Entry to the Skydeck, and skip-the-line entry to the 360 Chicago!)

Smakdown winner: 360 Chicago, because it will probably always have shorter wait times.

Tally: Skydeck — 1    360 Chicago — 4

Sunset views over Lake Michigan from 360 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 360 Chicago 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 is pretty cool.

Tally: Skydeck — 2    360 Chicago — 4

360 Chicago views at sunset
Golden Hour views at 360 Chicago
Chicago CityPASS
Pick up a CityPass for entry to both towers!

The Views

This particular section is probably the one everyone is most interested in — which Chicago 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
Skydeck views

The 360 Chicago 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.

360 Chicago views at sunset
View from 360 Chicago

I felt like 360 Chicago has a more “open” feeling to it, with larger glass panes on its windows and mirrors on the ceilings. You are also able to get closer to the windows at the 360 Chicago to take photos.

360 Chicago observation deck
Inside 360 Chicago

After dark, I also feel like 360 Chicago has the advantage. True, one side of the building will just be dark since there are no lights on Lake Michigan, but seeing the Chicago skyline (*including* the Willis Tower) lit up at night is pretty special.

Smackdown winner: I think I have to go with the 360 Chicago, because I liked being able to see the Willis Tower in the skyline, as well as the gorgeous color of Lake Michigan on a sunny day. But this one was really close.

Tally: Skydeck — 2    360 Chicago — 5

Chicago at night
View from 360 Chicago at night

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 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.

The Ledge at Skydeck Chicago
The Ledge boxes, as seen from street level

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.

Willis Tower Skydeck
Being dramatic on The Ledge

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

Just be aware that there WILL be lines to get into these boxes, so be prepared to wait your turn. They also ask that groups only spend a minute or two inside in order for more people to move through.

Amanda on The Ledge at the Skydeck in Chicago
Getting a shot like this will take some patience!

The 360 Chicago used to have the “Skywalk,” which was an open-air walkway along the side of the John Hancock building that faced Willis Tower. When it was re-branded as 360 Chicago, though, they added TILT.

TILT is a row of 8 huge glass windows that tilt out 1000 feet over the Chicago streets below. The cool part is that you can hang onto handrails inside as the windows tilt out, giving you a real rush.

Tilt at 360 Chicago
It's much scarier than it looks!

This is a super unique new feature, even though it does cost an extra $8 to try. (Though if you have a CityPASS, you get a dollar off, or you can purchase entry tickets that already include TILT.)

Tilt at 360 Chicago
Another look at TILT

The 360 Chicago also offers some special events like yoga classes on Sunday mornings, and sip-and-paint classes.

Smackdown winner: Draw, because both towers offer extras that are really cool.

Tally: Skydeck — 3    360 Chicago — 6

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, multimedia exhibits about the tower, and a theater presentation called Reaching for the Sky, which focuses on Chicago's unique architecture.

360 Chicago also has a souvenir shop, as well as a small café/bar (Bar 94) with tables and chairs on the south side of the building. Both towers have full-service restaurants on separate floors, but the bar here is a nice touch. It suggests that you are welcome to just sit for a while and enjoy the views.

Bar at 360 Chicago
The bar at 360 Chicago

Smackdown winner: 360 Chicago, because I like the fact that you can grab a snack (or a drink!) and a seat. The Skydeck has no seating at all, which would be nice if you just stood in a line for 2.5 hours!

Tally: Skydeck — 3    360 Chicago — 7

Bar 94 cocktail
If you purchase a 360 Chicago ticket that includes a cocktail, you'll get it from Bar 94.

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, 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 (for purchase) standing in one of the glass boxes, with the city far below.

360 Chicago also has a professional photographer at the bottom of the tower. At the top, you can also get professional photos taken if you choose to do the TILT.

Smackdown winner: Draw, because both towers offer similar photo ops. (The prices are a little cheaper at 360 Chicago, though.)

Tally: Skydeck — 4    360 Chicago — 8

On The Ledge at the Skydeck in Chicago
Or just take your own photos!

Getting there

Both towers are easily accessible using Chicago public transportation. There's an “L” (elevated train) station just a block from the Willis Tower, and the Red Line metro will get you within walking distance of the Hancock building. CTA buses also make stops nearby both, or you can always catch an Uber or Lyft.

If you’re already downtown, it’s also pretty easy to walk to either building.

Smackdown winner: Draw, because both are relatively easy to get to.

Tally: Skydeck — 5    360 Chicago — 9

The "El" in Chicago
The “El” in Chicago

Final Results: 360 Chicago wins!

The Skydeck at the Willis Tower is iconic in Chicago, which 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 360 Chicago.

(Or, you can always do what I did, and visit both! That way you can make up your own mind.)

View from the Skydeck in Chicago

Chicago CityPASS

You can save on admission to BOTH of these towers with a Chicago CityPASS (as well as admission to the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, The Adler Planetarium, and more).

RELATED: 3 Reasons Why Buying a CityPASS in Chicago is Worth It

Or check out these Chicago tours:

And check out the best hotels in Chicago to find your perfect stay.

Disclaimer: I was given free, fast pass entry to both the Skydeck and (former) John Hancock Observatory on my first trip to Chicago, and received a complimentary CityPASS on my second trip to re-visit both towers. As always, though, all opinions are 100% my own. 

READ NEXT: A Couples' Weekend Getaway to Chicago 

Have you visited either the Skydeck or the Hancock 360 in Chicago? Or both? If so, which one was YOUR favorite?

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67 Comments on “Chicago Tower Smackdown: Willis Skydeck vs. 360 Chicago

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  1. 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.

      Thanks for weighing in, Mike! Seems like most people are voting for Hancock here. Interesting!

    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).

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

    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.:)

      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!

    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)

      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!

    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!!!

      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!

    Guess I’ll just have to do both!

    Pictures made me remember what an absolutely beautiful city Chicago is!

      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!

    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!

      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.

    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?

      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!

    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!

      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.

    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.

      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!

    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!

      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!

    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.

      That sounds lovely! Definitely a good option for those looking for the views in a more relaxing setting.

    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! 😉

      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!

    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?)

      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!

      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!

        Now I’m kind of sad I didn’t check out the Signature Lounge! Love your tip about the ladies’ restroom… haha.

        Haha – now that part I did not know about! Need to figure a way into the ladies’ restroom next time I’m there!

    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.

      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.

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