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

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  1. This article helped my boyfriend and I choose to visit 360 Chicago this past weekend. The experience was wonderful! The wait was pretty much non existent and you could NOT beat the water views. The Tilt was cool but I can’t help but wonder how sitting in the famous “Ledge” at SkyDeck would have been. I suggest going with enough time to see the views while the sun is still up but right before the sun is going down so you can also see the city shine at night. It’s a win-win! Thank you for helping us with this decision.

    Shan 🙂

      Happy to be able to help, Shan! I honestly don’t think you can make a bad choice – both towers are great!

    Do either of those towers have open air ( with out glass) aria?

      No they don’t as far as I know! The 360 used to have a fenced-in open-air section when it was the Observatory, but I’m fairly certain they got rid of that when they rebranded.

      No, both towers don’t have outdoor space. For John Hancock, its design makes it impossible to have outdoor platform. But I think it’s possible to set an outdoor observation deck on Willis Tower, cause the building is simply nine bundled tube structures of different heights, and technically each of these tube structures can have an outdoor viewing platform on the roof. However the owner of the building don’t want it so it’s still impossible to have outdoor space.
      If you like outdoor observation deck, you can go to New York City and Los Angeles, NYC has two buildings that have outdoor observation decks, and Los Angeles has one, that is US Bank Tower.

    With the renovations at the Hancock (now called the 360), the observation deck is the runaway winner. Tilt is both terrifying and awesome AND there’s now a full café with really tasty food and good bar drinks. I went up most recently on a Saturday night with a friend; great view, great fare, and a great deal 🙂

      Good to know! I’ll have to go back and check it out!

    Last comment got cut off, I’ll try again.I was saying I did both towers both at day and at night. I would have to say I’m a bit partial to the Sears/Willis. I had fast pass tickets to each so there was virtually no line. Got great scenic pics, shots of me in the boxes, and the pro shot you have to pay for was great, the camera is angled from above so it ‘looks down’ on you and captures your feet as you’re surrounded by the glass. The Hancock tower also has a feature called tilt where you stand right against the glass, bars to jold-on to, and hydrolically (sp?) you are tilted out about 20 degrees over the side.

      Ooo the tilt thing must be newer – it definitely wasn’t there when I was last there!

    I grew up in Chicago, and still remember when eating lunch at the top of the Prudential Building was such a thrill, because for a brief time it was the tallest building.

    When the Hancock first went up, I was sure I’d never like it, but it became a favorite of mine not long after my first visit at sundown…

    The view of Lake Shore Drive and the North Shore is stunning from that view, and at sundown there is no equivalent. The entire city glows!

    I’ve been able to view our city from many points at the Hancock Building… from the Observatory at the top, the Cafe to relax and watch the setting sun, the Signature Lounge for drinks and conversation as the city comes to life in the evening, and one memorable night when I had a glorious birthday dinner at the 95th watching as the sun set over the city…

    Yes, I’ve been to the Sears Tower, but didn’t find it as interesting… Aside from the architecture of the building itself which I never cared for, I always felt the location itself might have been greatly improved upon if it had been nearer the lake itself… perhaps near Lake Shore Drive so it could take advantage of the beautiful views on the South Side of the city. Then to change it’s name?

    The clean lines, of the building itself, and the different options available at the Hancock Building will keep it as my favorite place to view our city… day and night!

    The Observatory has another photo opportunity at the Tilt! now, where up to 8 people can go on at one time. It’s a fun thing to do 😀

    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.


      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!

    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.
    ; )

      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!

    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

      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.

        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 🙂

          Good luck! You’ll have to let me know which view you like better if you try both of them!

    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

      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!

    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 🙂

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

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