360 Chicago Observation Deck Review

Formerly the John Hancock Building Observatory, 360 Chicago is the rebranded observation deck in the fourth-tallest building in Chicago, with an observatory and cafe at its higher levels overlooking Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. This post provides tips and a review of whether it’s worth your time and money to visit this observatory.

Obviously, 360 Chicago lacks the cachet of Willis Tower. “Fourth-tallest” does not have quite the same ring as the tallest building in Chicago, but there are valid reasons for choosing 360 Chicago over Willis Tower SkyDeck. As a native Midwesterner, my reason is spite. Once it ceased being Sears Tower, the building was dead to me. (Kidding…kind of.)

Probably the biggest selling point that will tip the scales in favor of 360 Chicago is that entry is included at no additional cost for holders of the CityPass, Go Card Chicago, and Explorer Pass cardholders. If you’ve already purchased one of those options, doing 360 Chicago is pretty much a no-brainer, since it’s a potentially quick experience that you can do when most other options included on the card are closed. For everyone else, I’m not sure the decision is so easy…

That’s due almost entirely to price. Both Willis Tower SkyDeck and 360 Chicago charge over $20 for admission. Willis Tower is more expensive out of pocket by a couple of dollars, which is probably a negligible difference when you’re already paying that much.

I would say the threshold question is whether either observation deck is worth that much. This is an experience that will take less than an hour, and for a family of four, burning ~$100 to see Chicago from an elevated perspective is a steep price to pay.

In my case, it was just me, and I wanted a good photo of the city to add to my photography portfolio. I’m a sucker for observation decks, having done more than I can count, including ones in New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, and Paris, among other places.

Each of the aforementioned place (and really, any major city) has multiple options for observation decks. My criteria always comes down to the uniqueness of the perspective offered. I want a view that is more than just a bunch of skyscrapers in generic city. As such, I often favor views of the tallest building in a particular city, rather than views from that building. Your mileage may vary on that.

Ultimately, I chose 360 Chicago for the sake of photography. When perusing images on various photo sharing sites, I preferred the perspectives offered from the John Hancock Building. The location closer to Lake Michigan and Navy Pier was more appealing to me.

Other advantages offered by 360 Chicago are its location near the Magnificent Mile shopping district, the Architect’s Corner – Bar & Cafe located inside the building, and the option to come a second time at night for an extra $4. Even if you’re not a photographer, I consider the location of 360 Chicago superior.

However, there’s something to be said for the allure of Willis Tower, the second-tallest building in the United States. The Skydeck is on the 103rd floor of the old Sears Tower building, which is 1,353 feet off the ground. That’s over 300 feet higher than 360 Chicago. You can see 50 miles away on a clear day–and four surrounding states are visible.

The other big upside of the Willis Tower SkyDeck is the Ledge, which is a glass box that extends 4 feet out from the exterior of the building, meaning that you are 1,353 feet directly above the street below. This is included with regular admission, whereas 360 Chicago’s counterpart to this is an upcharge, which brings its overall cost above that of the SkyDeck. We did something like this in Tokyo, and it was a bit unsettling.

My favorite time to go to any observation deck is just before sunset, staying through dusk and watching the city come alive at night. This stretches the whole visit out into a ~2 hour experience, providing more bang for your buck. It also means daytime, sunset, and nighttime photos instead of just daytime ones. (Late afternoon is almost always offers the best visibility.) If you go any other time of day, you may feel like you didn’t get your money’s worth.

The downside to this approach is that this is one of the more popular times for everyone else, too. To avoid the crowds at Chicago’s observation decks, the best bet is first thing in the morning or after sunset when the crowds are starting to clear.

The problem with the morning is the possibility of haze. At night, photography is more difficult due to reflections from interior lights and also because you’ll need a tripod (which is only allowed at select times–consult 360 Chicago’s site for that). The best bet is to be flexible: plan your visit to any observation deck around the weather on the day-of, rather than scheduling a set time before your trip.

Overall, I’m not sure how much of a “review” is actually necessary for 360 Chicago. It’s a tall observation deck that’s one of those what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of experiences. Aside from the museum-style exhibition celebrating Chicago’s history and nine of its culturally rich neighborhoods, it’s pretty much the same as any observation deck in any major city. If you are already in the area and you want a cool view or nice photo of the skyline, go for it. If bragging rights matter more to you, or you want to stand over Chicago, Willis Tower is probably a better alternative.

Your Thoughts

Have you done 360 Chicago in the John Hancock Center? Done both it and the Willis Tower SkyDeck? Which one did you prefer? Is 360 Chicago an observation deck you’d like to visit? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!

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4 replies
  1. Valerie
    Valerie says:

    I’m from Chicago and love the Skydeck! I’ve had many out-of-state friends visit and always take them here. I’ve never been to the Sears Tower’s version, but we tried once and it was a 3-hour wait on a weekday in spring…so we passed on it.

    The best part of the Skydeck is that you literally get to see 360 degrees around you (I always like to look for the old Rock n Roll McDonalds)! I’ve also been to the Signature Room on the 95th floor, and while the cocktails are overpriced (but you can get a slightly less overpriced beer) you’ll still get a great view of one cardinal direction and it’ll still be considerably cheaper than if you did the legit Skydeck experience. A couple weeks ago a friend was in from Boston and I met her and her sister, who were already up there, before dinner; I didn’t even get a drink since I knew we’d be leaving soon (read: an hour later) so I paid literally nothing for an incredible view. (Also, there’s a great perspective on a shot of the Sears Tower from the women’s bathroom).

    Like you said, there are also tons of places to shop and eat within walking distance like the Water Tower, Lou Malnati’s, Doc B’s, everything on Michigan Avenue, Oak Street Beach is nearby if it’s summer…as a Chicago native I’d def recommend the Hancock Building over the Sears Tower any day.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Just to clarify…you’re saying you prefer Chicago 360, correct? I’m pretty sure that’s the case given the context, but you call it Skydeck a few times, which is the observation platform in Sears Tower. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    For what it’s worth, our friends who are Chicago locals have always recommended the John Hancock building over the Sears/Willis tower due to location and view. It’s easier to get to if you are touring other popular attractions and they prefer the view.

    Tangent to this post – You say you often like to photograph the tallest building. Have you done the Mountparnasse tower in Paris?

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      We’ve yet to do Montparnasse Tower. It’s on our list of things to do in Paris (which seems to keep getting longer, rather than shorter), and we will at some point, though!

      Reply

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