Willis Sears Tower vs. John Hancock Center: Which Attraction Reigns Supreme?

(click on most of the images in this article to view their larger cousins)

Much to my surprise, Chicago is quite the awesome city, rivaling NYC in many ways. I first visited it for work a few months back and decided to take a short vacation and explore the downtown area. There's a lot to see and do, more so than my meager four days allowed for. My first time out there I did most of the touristy things, including a visit to two of Chicago's most recognizable landmarks, the John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower. Err, Willis Tower as it's now called. Both offer some of the best views of the city, looking down. After visiting each skyscraper the question arose, is it worth visiting both? If not, which one is the preferred stop?

After much thought I've decided that a lengthy comparison between the two isn't necessary. But I wrote one up anyway. I won't blame you for skipping to the end for the spine tingling answer.

Location, Location, Location

In my opinion, downtown Chicago is a fantastic place. It's safe for a big city and the homeless are pretty harmless. Finding yourself in the neighborhood of the Willis Tower or Hancock Center isn't going to make much of a difference from a safety standpoint.

From the attraction standpoint there's much more to do around the Hancock Center. Hancock sits on Chicago's Magnificent Mile. A stretch of prime estate loaded with historic building, great restaurants*, and lots and lots of shopping. As an added bonus, it's only a block away from Chicago's best stretch of nightlife. It's also a lot closer to attractions like Navy Pier and Grant & Millennium Park.

Alternatively the Willis Tower is along the southern end of Wacker Drive. If you visit you might recognize Wacker from the last two Batman films, the original Blues Brothers, and others. The area, unfortunately, isn't home to much more than offices. There's not a whole lot of activities for most visitors to do.

Neither attraction quite wins this category so I'll call it a draw. Simply because it's an easy and inexpensive task to cab from one to the other. If you had to choose a hotel in the vicinity of one then I recommend you look around the John Hancock Center.

*Many of the restaurants along the Magnificent Mile, like the Cheese Cake Factory underneath Hancock, are chains that taste exactly like the one in your neighborhood. If you travel to Chicago, go out to eat at a place like this, you should have your taste buds forcefully removed.

Bang for your Buck

As far as the touristy things to do in Chicago go, the two vantage points are a great deal. I have movies in my collection which cost more than the price of admission and are complete shit.

Tickets to the Willis Tower cost $14.95 for an adult and $10.50 for kids ages 3 through 11. If you'd like to partake in the Skylights Tour, an audio and visual guide to the tower and view, it'll cost $20.45 and $16.00 for the kids. Sorry, no love for seniors.

The John Hancock Observatory tickets run $15 for adults, $10 for kids between 4 and 11, and $14 for seniors 65+. Hancock's multimedia tour, sponsored by the Discovery Channel, is FREE.

While these tickets only get you one whopping trip to the top, the Hancock Observatory comes to the rescue with a Sun and Stars ticket. For only $4 more you get a second pass good for 48 hours after the ticket was purchased. An amazing deal for anyone who's undecided about whether they'd want to see the view during the day or night.

Ease of Entry

On a busy summer day you're bound to encounter a line at either location. My visit occurred late August and featured the Hancock Observatory on Saturday night, again during the morning on the following Monday, and the Willis Tower around 2pm local.

Upon neither visit to Hancock did I find myself stuck in a line, nor was there a long wait for the elevator. There was a wait for the elevator at Willis... because of the video they make everyone watch. It's a short, 5-10 minute video that talks a little about Chicago, the Sears Tower, and how it came to be known as the Willis Tower (little on Sear's inability to keep the tower occupied for most of its life, or their eventual demise and relocation from the building). A nice video by most standards, but forcing people to watch it only creates stagnate groups of people who then make their way to the elevators all at once. With out this obstacle the other visitors would've been easier to manage (and wait in) steady trickle. I can only wonder how it would delay things during high volume times.

The lake from the Hancock Observatory

I got the feeling that Willis, more often than Hancock, gets swamped with a lot of people. Hancock only had two, short queues for people to stand in. Sears has three larger ones, plus a fourth for the ticket counter in the middle. Both waits are complimented by facts and information about the building on the wall but Willis has little trivia screens where you can test your retention of that info.

There are two sticking points that get under my skin. Both towers force you to stand in front of a green screen and take your photo. The photos are then sent upstairs and printed with various backgrounds featuring the view or city skyline. Not only is this waste of resources but you're required to have your photo taken if you want up the elevator. An "obligation of the ticket" I was it described as to me.

In addition the Willis tower also has a metal detector which you need to pass through first. This thing is so bloody sensitive that it picked up my small belt buckle, something the metal detectors used by the TSA at airports have yet to do.

Both of these attractions are rubbish as a result of such policies. At the very least you're likely to reach the Hancock Observatory first.

Screw you buddy, I'm rich

For the high rollers among us each building offers a quicker way to the top. Both attractions offer a "Fast Pass" which allows the ticket holder to skip the lines and head right on up. The cost of the ticket? $30 for the Willis and $29 ($24 for ages 4-11 and $28 for seniors over 65) for the Hancock Observatory.

You shouldn't really have to pay for these expensive passes if you visit during the weekday or early on the weekend. If these times don't fit into your schedule, it's going to pay off a lot more for those visiting the Sears Tower, considering their higher visitor count and excessive queue. Visitors to Hancock will reach the top a lot faster thanks to an exclusive elevator. At the Willis Tower you're still crammed in along with 15 others for the quick journey to the top.

The Hancock Observatory wins this one by a small margin, but in the end you lose for looking like a dick.

Let's get High

Willis Tower is 1,450* feet tall, with the observation deck sitting on the 103rd floor at 1,353 feet.

The Hancock Center rises 1,127* feet, and its observation level can be found on the 94th floor at 1,030 feet.

If it's shear height you're looking for, the Willis tower is calling.

* Not including antenna

Outer Limit

The Willis Tower has a nice little attraction called The Ledge. Three (soon to be four) unassuming glass boxes that dangle thousands of feet above the waiting pavement below. The most popular attraction at the top, some hesitate to set foot on it while others do handstands.

"The Ledge"

They originally intended to have four from the beginning, but apparently one cracked during install. Hmmmmm...

Can you spot the ledges?

Unfortunately the boxes face west, toward Illinois, and away from downtown.

On the other side of town the Hancock Observatory features an outside viewing area, sort of. I wouldn't necessarily call walls on either side and a thick steel mesh between me and certain death count 'outside.' It's nice, but not really exciting. I think the better view is from inside since the windows go all the way to the floor and they're, well, clear.

Hancock's Outdoor Observatory

The Willis Tower definitely wins this category.

The View

One can't go wrong with either.

Hancock looking South at Night

Northern view from Willis Tower

Who wins? Well, I'll let you decide...

(Whatever, I'm to opinionated to shut up here. They're essentially the same view, just different sides of the city)

Umm, is this it?

At some point you're going to get bored with the view and wonder about. Each tower has information about the city, and the building itself, on the inside walls. There are also little guides near the windows indicating points of interest. Of course, each tower also has a little store filled with t-shirts, key chains, and other touristy goodies.

The Hancock Observatory has a nice little extra, a coffee bar. Items are a bit more expensive than a normal shop but worth it since you can sip your combination of French and Italian words while taking in the city below.

Espression by Lavazza Cafe

While you won't sit and watch it, the Hancock Observatory has a few TV's running History's Modern Marvels: John Hancock Center. Each time I walked past I picked up an interesting factoid. Oh, less I forget, on a clear Saturday or Wednesday night during the summer (not sure what seasons they're active), you can look down upon fireworks launched from Navy Pier.

The Hancock Observatory definitely wins this one.

The Winner?

In my humble opinion the victor, if you haven't guessed by now, is the Hancock Observatory. The views are pretty much the same, but over all it's just in a slightly more convenient location with just enough extra interesting extra bits.

Besides, the less Diff'rent Strokes references you encounter during your trip the better off you'll be.

All images used (aside from the obvious Google Earth one) in this article were taken by myself. If you're interested you can see all my photos on flickr. I only used the 'large' panoramas in this article, full size ones are available in the panoramas section.


The 95th and 96th floors of the Hancock Center feature a restaurant and lounge. I hear you can head up to the lounge, sip a drink and drink in the views for a quarter the cost of admission to the observation deck.

If you're trying to take photographs of the view, turn your bloody flash off. Less you love viewing giant light reflections in the glass.

In addition, you damn dirty photographers, don't bother bringing a tripod unless you have prior permission from management. I received shit at Hancock, "Professional photographers need permission to shoot from the observatory. A tripod is considered professional equipment." Uhuh.

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