Chicago’s Observation Decks

Chicago, Illinois, USA
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360 Chicago Observation Deck – John Hancock Center

Location and Admission

The 360 Chicago Observation Deck is located inside the former John Hancock Center at 875 N Michigan Avenue. It is the fourth tallest building in Chicago. At the top of Chicago’s Magnificient Mile, the best shopping experience in town. Parking is limited to parking garages and some street parking. The building has its own parking garage, but be prepared to pay for this convenience. I recommend you to get there via public transportation, ride share or by walking if you stay somewhere in town. The entrance is off N Michigan Avenue. Once at the building take the stairs down to the lower plaza level and use the entrance next to the Cheesecake Factory. Yes, you have to go down first to go up. 😉 Don’t worry, you can’t miss it, there are plenty of signs of how to get there. Once inside keep to your left and you will see the ticket counter in front of you.

Main Entrance of 360 Chicago Observation Deck

You can buy your tickets online or at the box office at the lower level of the building. I recommend you to check their website for the most up-to-date prices. The below prices are for adults.

  • General Admission (Observation Deck only): $30
  • Cocktail & General Admission (1 free beer, wine, or cocktail at Bar94 + Observation Deck): $37
  • General Admission + TILT: $38
  • All-Access Pass (all of the above): $45
  • Chicago City Pass: 50% off General Admission, TILT needs to be purchased separately
Ticket Counter

Hours of Operation

Monday – Thursday: 9 AM – 9 PM
Friday and Saturday: 9 AM – 11 PM
Sunday: 9 AM – 9 PM

You have to book a timeslot for entry. Time slots are sold in 30-minute increments from open to close. The last entry is one hour prior to closing. Please check their website for up-to-date hours as they can change, especially on holidays and for special events. Even tho, you have to reserve a certain timeslot to enter, you can spend as much time as you want. I arrived at the counter around 11 a.m. and after a quick chat with the cashier, I bought my All-Access Pass for 3:30 p.m. If you miss your timeslot, the cashier can help you to reschedule. Depends how busy the observation deck is, they might have to give you a different date for your visit. Better be on time.

John Hancock Center

Depending on the day, the best time to visit is about 1.5 – 2 hours before sunset. This gives you enough time to enjoy the history exhibit through which you will walk before taking the elevator ride up to the observation deck. Enjoy some daytime views before you watch the sunset and the city lights turn on.

History Exhibit

The entrance to the experience, which will lead you to the elevator is right next to the ticket counter. As you proceed you have to undergo a bag check. It’s just a visual inspection of the bag and I only had to open one compartment of my camera bag and they were happy. From there you will be guided through a small exhibit about the history of the tower and Chicago itself. You will learn more about the different neighborhoods and their history. This is probably just to make the time go by faster if it’s a really busy day during summer. During my visit on a weekend in December, I went through the exhibit all by myself. Just before you get to the elevator they have a photo booth where they take your picture. You can buy the photo later on your way out of the building. I just skipped that experience and after that, you have to scan the first time your ticket to get through a gate and in line for the elevator. Theoretically, you don’t need a ticket to see the exhibit.

A few people were already waiting for the elevator and it took me about 15 minutes before it was my turn to get on the elevator. Even though that you have to wear masks and practice social distancing throughout your visit, they fill up the elevators to capacity. 

While riding the elevator to the top, you can watch a video on the displays inside the elevator with more information. It is a bit of a wobbly ride going up. The elevator runs at a top speed of 1,800 ft/min (20 mph; 9.1 m/s). The car shifts a little bit from side to side as you go up. Don’t be scared this is normal, but it could be smoother.

Display in the Elevator

Observation Deck

The observation deck, bar, and gift shop are all located on the 94th floor of the building. As you exit the elevator you are free to roam around and enjoy the views. I would recommend you to check out the TILT experience and how long the line is. Either get in line right away if it’s short or first enjoy the observation deck and let the crowds die down a bit before getting in line. That’s what I did.

As you walk around in the observation deck, you get a full 360° view of the city. The views are really spectacular and worth coming here. As the building is at the North end of Downtown, you can basically see most of downtown from here. The best view is right from one of the corners of the building which blocks views a bit and makes it harder to photography, especially with bigger cameras. I assume that all the deactivated and covered touchscreens around the observation deck would point out at what you are actually looking at. I think they were all taken out of service to minimize touchpoints due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Be courteous about other visitors, enjoy the view and then walk on to the next spot so other people can enjoy the view as well. I also would encourage everyone to not touch the windows as this keeps them clean and clear for even better pictures. Walk around the observation deck and get a lay of the land here. Don’t forget to check out the skywalk. It’s an open-air section of the building where you can feel the wind and temperature up here. Unfortunately, there is mesh over the whole section so nobody can jump out, which also hinders you from getting good pictures.

There are restrooms at the observation deck as well as a bar. If you bought an All-Access pass, be aware that the actual menu for your free drink is different from what their main menu is. The bartender will let you know what is actually included with your pass. Otherwise, you can buy whatever you want. they even have some small snacks. The gift shop offers the usual gifts you would expect. Maybe worth checking out.

Be aware that cellphone reception at the observation deck is horrible, at least if you have Verizon. For most of the time, I had no service at all. There is free Wi-Fi available throughout the observation deck. Speaking about smartphones, there is also an app to enhance your visit. It’s available in Apple App Store and Google Play Store. I haven’t tried the app as I was too busy taking pictures.

TILT Experience

The TILT experience is 360 Chicago Observation Deck’s answer to the Ledge at the Willis Tower. It was added in the summer of 2014. It is advertised as the most thrilling ride in Chicago. That’s about it, it is an advertisement slogan. If you are afraid of heights, yes it might be a real shocker for your, but other than that, it’s rather boring. Especially as there is an extra charge to actually ride “The TILT”. If you buy a City Pass which includes admission to the observation deck, the TILT experience is not included and has to be purchased separately. A ticket for TILT is $8 and you can only ride once per ticket.

What is the TILT? 

The TILT is a separate section of the observation deck, next to the skywalk. You have to have your ticket scanned to be able to enter. Eight people at a time can enter the TILT experience. You will step up to the glass windows in front of you and grab the handles on either side of you with your hands. After that a set of hydraulic cylinders will tilt you out, hence the name. The cylinders will tilt you out away from the face of the building in three stages to a maximum angle of 30°. You get an impressive view by looking straight down. The whole experience only lasts about a minute. 

Staff members on-site will take your photos before you enter your spot on the platform and once tilted away from the building. After that, you can purchase these photos. No photos are allowed inside the TILT room but you can take pictures through the glass walls on the inside of the building or from the skywalk. Of course, they want to sell their own photos first. It’s all about money. Overall, it is nothing really spectacular and it’s over so quickly as they try to get as many people as possible through the experience. If you are here the first time, I would spend the $8 for this experience so you have it done once. After that, it’s nothing special. If you arrive with a backpack or handbag, that’s not a problem, there is a rack inside the TILT room where you can put down your stuff while on the platform.

For Photographers

A few tips, if you plan on taking pictures from the observation deck. 

  • Bring a tripod monopod if you want to shoot during sunset or after dark. I had my tripod with me and no one from the staff complained about it but found out on the website when writing this post that tripods are actually not allowed.
  • Bring a cleaning cloth to wipe the windows clean. There could be some condensation on the windows but more likely you will encounter smudges from people touching the glass
  • The Ultimate Lens Hood (or similar) is a must, especially after dark. With the bright indoor lights, you will get too many reflections and your pictures will look just cheap.
  • For night pictures, you want to consider using a bit higher ISO to get a shorter exposure time to counteract the sway of the building. Depending on the winds, this can lead to some blurry images.
  • Make sure your batteries are charged and your memory cards are empty. Plenty of pictures to take from up here.
  • No photos are allowed inside the TILT room. They want to sell the photos they take. If you want to take pictures you have two options. Take some from the outside while you wait in line. You also get a good angle from the Skywalk. The door to the TILT experience is locked but you can use it to take pictures and videos of the experience. The whole experience looks really fancy at night as they turn on the lighting.

Ending your visit

As you get ready to leave, keep an eye on the elevator queue. The line can get quite long and depending on how many people come up, you should enjoy the views a few more minutes rather than standing in line for the elevator. The elevator will drop you off at the same level again as you got on when riding up. You will use a different line to exit, which will bring you through another gift shop where you can also buy all the photos they took of you. Just present the card with the code you received during the photo sessions. 

Gift Shop and Photo Pick-up

Fact Sheet

  • Construction completed in 1969
  • Height (including antennas): 1,499 ft (457 m)
  • Observation Deck located on 94th floor, 1030 ft (314 m) above ground

 

Skydeck Chicago – Willis Tower

Location and Admission

Skydeck Chicago is located at 233 S Wacker Dr, Chicago, IL 60606. To get to the Skydeck enter the building through the main entrance on Wacker Dr. There are signs pointing you towards the entrance. However, I wasn’t sure if I am supposed to take the main entrance or if there is a side entrance just for tourists going to the Skydeck. But no, you have to use the main entrance of the building. Just walk along the side of the building next to Wacker Drive and you can’t miss the entrance. Once inside, keep right and follow the stairs down. Signs will point you to the Skydeck entrance.

Stay to the right and follow the stairs down.

You will pass a few restaurants on your way and have to take escalators another two levels down. Yes, here as well you have to go down first to go high. Once you arrive at the lower level staff members will help you and direct you where you have to go, depending if you already have a ticket or still need to buy one. Don’t worry, there are elevators as well to get down to the ticket counter. Just follow the signs. As I got the day off early from work, I rushed back to the hotel to grab my camera gear and walked to the Willis Tower, which is just down the road from the Hyatt Place Chicago Downtown/The Loop where I was staying. December is off-season for the tower and I was hoping to get there in time to view the sunset. I arrived around 4 p.m. at the ticket counter and the sun would set at 4:30 p.m. that day. 

Ticket Counter

You can buy your tickets online or at the ticket counter at the lower level of the building. I recommend you to check their website for the most up-to-date prices. The below prices are for adults.

  • Skydeck Chicago General Admission: $35
  • Skydeck Chicago Expedited Entry: $55
  • Chicago City Pass: 50% off General Admission

Hours of Operation

March- September
Daily: 9 a.m. – 10 p.m.

October- February
Sunday – Thursday: 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
Friday – Saturday: 9 a.m. -10 p.m.

At the Willis Tower, you have to book a timeslot as well for your entry to the observation deck. Slots are sold in 30-minute increments here as well. The last entry is 30 minutes prior to closing. Please check their website for up-to-date hours as they can change, especially on holidays and for special events. You can spend as much time as you want upstairs but you need to be on time for your elevator ride. Depends how busy the place is, you might have to reschedule your ticket for another day if you miss your timeslot. The Skydeck is open 365 days a year.

Depending on the day, the best time to visit is about  2 hours before sunset. This gives you enough time to enjoy THE SKYDECK EXPERIENCE through which you will walk before taking the elevator ride up to the observation deck. Enjoy some daytime views before you watch the sunset and the city lights turn on. Once you have your ticket, you will have to go through a metal detector and your bag has to go through an x-ray machine, just like at the airport. 

THE SKYDECK EXPERIENCE

That’s the name of this unique exhibit you will pass through before reaching the elevator. It is a large and very unique exhibit bringing Chicago closer to you. You learn about the history of Chicago, the big fire, famous people from Chicago, Chicago’s food, art & culture as well as the different construction and building styles throughout the city. There are many immersive experiences, like the Chicago Fire exhibit or a walk through one of the L-Trains (elevated trains) which run in Chicago. Before each immersive experience, there is a bypass door for this experience. It’s well-marked, just keep a lookout for the signs in case you have trouble with light shows and such. You can spend easily an hour here, probably more, exploring all the exhibits and taking pictures. 

However, I was in a rush as I wanted to get up to the Skydeck before sunset. I rushed through the Skydeck experience and used all the bypass doors. Please be careful opening the doors, as the last door drops you out in front of the elevator where usually people are waiting in line and of course not keeping clear of doors. I slightly slammed the door on a guy, standing too close to it as I was rushing for the elevator. So far I was well in time to make it for sunset, but the line for the elevator killed my plans. Even though that I barely saw a soul throughout the Skydeck experience, the line for the elevator was long and it took me over 30 minutes to get on the elevator. Good-bye sunset. Maybe next time. At least I was able to capture pictures throughout the blue hour. Yes, I also skipped the amazing Skydeck experience, but don’t worry. You can revisit the experience after you come down from the Skydeck. Go straight ahead and use the center hallway. This is actually the expedited entry lane but you can take it back out and it brings you right to the beginning of the Skydeck Experience. Don’t worry about the gate, it will open automatically as you get close. The lane could be busy with waiting people who hold expedited entry tickets but that’s the way the agent operating the elevator told me.

As you get on the elevator, keep your eyes on one of the two large displays overhead. While riding up to the Skydeck, the displays will show you at what elevation you are and what it compares to. It’s super interesting and it makes the ride even more fun. These are some of the fasted elevators in the world. Traveling as fast as 1,600 feet (488 meters) per minute.

Display in the Elevator

Current Covid protocols in Chicago require wearing masks indoors and to social distance. But the elevator here got loaded to the limit. Every inch of space was used to get as many people in as possible. Definitely no chance for social distancing, not even close. If this is an issue for you, you might want to reconsider your visit for the time being. 

The Skydeck at Willis Tower

When I exited the elevator on the 103rd floor it was the first time that I saw daylight again after spending all the time in the basement of the building and waiting for the elevator. As mentioned, the sun already set but it was still bright enough outside to take some great pictures during Blue Hour. Later on, I switched to my tripod to take pictures of the city at night. Little did I know that tripods are actually not officially allowed, according to their website. They do allow monopods though. Nobody from the staff ever said a word to me and I talked to a few of them, especially the guys at the Ledge. I was the only person with a “big camera” and a tripod. Other visitors brought mini-tripods for their smartphones. I was actually surprised that nobody said anything. Just imagine half of the people would have tripods, it would be a mess along the windows. 

Welcome to the Skydeck

The views are spectacular from the Skydeck. You are in the third tallest building in the western hemisphere. The Willis Tower was formerly known as Sears Tower and was the tallest building in the world when it was completed. It held the record from 1974 until 1998.

Multiple large touch-screen monitors throughout the building explain and point out what you see in front of you. This is very helpful to find out what you are actually looking at. 

There are restrooms on the same floor as well as a gift shop where you can buy souvenirs reminding you about your trip to Chicago. If you want to buy something, buy it just before you leave, as otherwise, you have to carry it around the whole time. You will also pass through another and bigger gift shop as you exit the building. Leave your mark in the sky at the oversized doodling wall. Perfect to doodle comments, your name, and more to take a selfie with it. Did I mention that cell phone service is amazing up here? No issues at all compared to the 360 Chicago Observation Deck. Guess what? The large antennas on top of the building 

The Ledge Experience

This experience is unique to the Skydeck. There are currently four “ledges” and a fifth one is under construction. There is a line for general admission ticket holders and expedited entry holders. Don’t worry, nobody can cheat, as they will scan the tickets of people in the expedited entry lane. Depending on how busy it is, wait times can be quite long. The Ledge experience is included with every admission. No extra ticket is necessary. Even when you buy a Chicago City Pass, the Ledge is included in the price.

The Ledge

What is the Ledge?

It’s basically a retractable glass box that extends 4.3 feet (1.3 m) out from the 103rd floor of the building. The idea came as countless visitors left their forehead print on the glass windows as they tried to take a glimpse of the city directly below. Now, only three layers of glass with a total thickness of 1.5″ separate you from the outside and provide breathtaking views of the city directly below. It’s absolutely amazing. Staff members are at each Ledge to take your picture and they will give you limited time to enjoy your views. Depending on your party size, you have 1 minute for parties of 1 to 2 people and parties of 3 or more people have a maximum of 2 minutes. During your time your party can pose and take as many pictures as they want with their own personal devices. There is no pressure to buy photos from the Skydeck operators. This is awesome and way better than what you get at the TILT experience of the 360 Chicago Observation Deck.

Line for the Ledge Experience

But the Ledge has one more killer feature! You can go as many times as you want. You just have to go back at the end of the line and wait until it’s your turn again. The best time is during the week and then either very early or later (about 1 hour after sunset) and you can almost stay in the box as nobody is in line anymore. Use the Ledge to actually look straight down. Remember it’s only 1.5″ of glass separating you from whatever you see below. It is amazing!

The Ledge boxes get retraced for maintenance and for window cleaning. This lets the automatic window washer swoop by and clean the windows. This happens outside of the operation hours.

For Photographers

A few tips, if you plan on taking pictures from the observation deck. 

  • Bring a tripod if you want to shoot during sunset or after dark. I had my tripod with me and no one from the staff complained about it
  • Bring a cleaning cloth to wipe the windows clean. There could be some condensation on the windows but more likely you will encounter smudges from people touching the glass.
  • The Ultimate Lens Hood (or similar) is a must, especially after dark. With the bright indoor lights, you will get too many reflections and your pictures will look just cheap.
  • For night pictures, you want to consider using a bit higher ISO to get a shorter exposure time to counteract the sway of the building. The usual sway fo the building is up to 6″ (15,2 cm) and has a maximum sway of 3′ (0,9 m)
  • Make sure your batteries are charged and your memory cards are empty. Plenty of pictures to take from up here.

Ending your visit

Keep an eye on the line waiting for the elevator to go back down. Spend your time by enjoying the breathtaking views rather than waiting in line. Once you are all the way down again, you will exit through the gift shop where you can buy additional gifts as well as all the pictures of you taken out at the Ledge. As I mentioned earlier, instead of leaving I went actually through the Skydeck Experience to actually enjoy it as I was just rushing for the elevator as I got here.

Fact Sheet

  • Height: 1,450 feet (443 meters) Building itself – 1,730 feet (520 meters) including twin antenna towers
  • Highest public viewing area in the United States
  • Skydeck is 1,353 feet (412 meters) above ground level
  • Opened in 1973 and was the tallest building in the world after opening

Conclusion

Both observation decks are worth visiting and you want to do it almost on two separate days to be able to enjoy the sunset from each of the observation decks. 

My favorite was definitely the Skydeck at Willis Tower as it just allowed unlimited use of the Ledge and better photo opportunities from Ledge. No forced buying of overpriced pictures. On the other side, I enjoyed my free drink at the 360 Chicago Observation Deck while looking over the city. Both are worth a visit and you should actually visit them both. I think the Skydeck has the highest re-visit value and I want to go again as I missed the sunset.

Depending on your other plans you could buy a Chicago City Pass which gets you admission to both observation decks. Remember, you would have to buy a separate ticket for The TILT experience at the 360 Chicago Observation Deck. Besides the two observation decks, you get also admission to 3 more attractions in Chicago.

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