In 1973 the Sears company completed construction of their famous tower which even decades later remains the world’s 8th tallest building and the US and western hemisphere’s second tallest (first if you measure to the top of the last usable story rather than the top of the spire placed above it). It was a testament to modern architecture and engineering for sure but heading into Chicago, all I could think about was the chance to stand over the city and check out the view!
That’s because in 2009 the building made one heck of an upgrade transforming the already impressive 103rd story Sky Deck from a stop with incredible city views into with the option to look straight down as well. Several glass enclosed boxes referred to as “the ledge” were added to the building which, when extended out, let you stand 4′ over the city below with nothing but a couple inches of glass to hold you in. The perspective from inside the ledge thrilling as you look straight down some 1,353′ to the streets, cars and many other “normal” skyscrapers below. Naturally seeing it for myself was at the top of my list, no pun intended.
For some just the idea of standing on the ledge is too much and it’s almost as fun to watch people slowly creep onto the glass with their friends dragging them as it is to take your own turn. Of course with the ability to handle 4.5 tons of load each, you’re not going anywhere even if the thought of looking down so far makes your stomach feel like it’s going to drop all the way to the ground. Yes, visiting the Sky Deck is about as touristy as it gets but views, heights, history, sometimes it’s fun to be a tourist.
The building now named Willis Tower (but still fondly frequently to by its original name) is located in the heart of downtown, just a few blocks west of the Millennium Park and is easily accessed by Chicago’s public transit, tour buses or by walking. Open 365 days a year, large signs and a steady stream of visitors make the Sky Deck entrance easy to spot and once inside it’s just a short ride down to the visitor floor where you’ll line up for your ride to the top passing through a litany of history exhibits and building fun facts while you wait.
Wait you will, with the tower’s tremendous popularity (there’s a reason it’s rated 4.5 with over 10,000 reviews on TripAdvisor) lines can be rather long; even on a fall weekday it was over an hour wait to get to the top. In true tourist fashion a “fast pass” is offered for $49, about twice the price of the regular $22 ticket, which lets you skip most of the lines. However, if you arrive right when the place opens (9 or 10 depending on the time of year) you may be able to sneak by the wait almost completely with a regular ticket or, if you show up a little later as we did, pre-purchase your ticket and skip the purchase windows to at least shorten down the time.
Save a buck and a minute: Pre-purchase tickets from Groupon, authorized street kiosks or other deal sites and you’ll skip the payment section of the lines (a good 30 minutes on my visit) and save around $5 a person too. No need to print anything out either, they’ll take the voucher code right from your phone.
The final stop before the zippy ride up to 103 is a short film on the history of the building which is actually pretty fascinating to watch and worth sticking around for even if they start to load the elevator on up. Then again, with speeds of up to 1,600′ per minute on the ride to the top, it was mighty tempting to just rush on over enjoy the express up.
While the straight down drops from the ledge may flip some people out, there’s nothing to fear about heading up to the Sky Deck level its self I assure you. In fact, the place looks just like you’d expect for a typical office, except of course that the furniture has been traded in for viewing benches, gift kiosks and countless tourists gawking at the view. We lucked out on weather for our mid-day and had blue-sky views for miles in nearly all directions. On a truly good day you can see up to four states from the various points around the building!
Of course the big attention goes to the ledge viewing areas. All of those are clustered on the same single of the Sky Deck and come with their own lines as you’d expect with everyone clamoring to step out, look down and snap about a billion photos. While the small size of the boxes limits the
fear fun factor, it really is an awesome experience to be above the city and able to look out in all directions. Just don’t forget to put the camera down for a few seconds to take in the view yourself, no photo can capture it all! Sadly, the ledge does not have any open air access to make it obvious just how out there you truly are but I bet that would get mighty cold in the Chicago winds anyways!
Hint: Look for one of the boxes with a professional camera in front of a single line. The wait for these is of course a little longer but you’ll have the ledge more or less to yourself for a few moments after the camera operator takes their photos (those sell for $30, $40 with the green screen photo they take in the lobby when you first buy your tickets). Heck, they’ll even generally help out and take group shots with your camera or phone too if you ask.
As you can see, I had the chance to check out the Sky Deck both during the day and at night and I would honestly suggest the same if you have the time and don’t mind paying twice. Our daytime visit offered a far better view around the Sky Deck to scope out and photograph the city properly while night was a stunning sight to just experience, even it’s hard to capture a shot with the reflections off the glass. I found the ledge pretty cool on both visits though it’s certainly more thrilling at night with the darkness really making the all seem to disappear while building lights appear far below. Either way is well worth the $22 ticket (or even more so the $17 discounted price we paid) to stand on a few inches of glass over the city far below!
When you’re done with the ledge and the view from the Sky Deck, it’s back on down the same elevators and out the building through several gift shops to pick up as many t-shirts as you can stand. But don’t worry, there’s pizza just down the block to celebrate your epic selfies.
- https://www.groupon.com/deals/the-skydeck-at-the-willis-tower-1 ($5 off Sky Deck tickets only when the deal is active)
- http://www.citypass.com/chicago/skydeck-chicago (save a few more bucks when you get a bunch of varrious activity tickets)