Chicago Attractions With a View – Seeing the City from Up High

While I previously wrote about suggestions for things to do in Chicago with your family, two new Chicago attractions that opened to visitors this summer prompted me to offer another list of ideas, this time to see the city from a bird’s eye view. Given that the Windy City is well known for its striking skyline and many architectural masterworks, this can be a very memorable way to experience Chicago.

Because not everybody is comfortable with heights, I listed these Chicago attractions in the order of “thrill level” from mild to daring, at least according to our family’s ratings.

Level 1: Ride the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier
Chicago’s Navy Pier offers a long list of attractions and opportunities for fun year-round, both for natives and visitors alike. While some feel it’s a bit touristy, others see it as a must-see for anybody visiting Chicago!

Navy Pier’s perhaps most famous attraction is the 150-feet tall Ferris wheel, modeled after the very first one, which was built for Chicago’s famous World Exhibition in 1893. It’s a nice way to experience Chicago from up high, especially the city’s lakefront vistas.

Despite appearing tall and mighty, particularly as you stand underneath it, the gentle Ferris wheel ride is not scary at all, even for those who might suffer from fear of heights (like our son!). The cabins are enclosed in glass and the wheel moves very slowly, so the ride is suitable for everyone, including families with younger children.

A Few Tips:

  • For a unique experience, consider taking a ride after dark, when the Ferris wheel, along with the city at its feet, is illuminated with thousands of bright lights.
  • Admission to Navy Pier is free, but parking and many of its attractions are not. While there is no great multi-ticket deal to maximize your budget, purchasing a You-Ride-Two Value Ticket will stretch your dollars just a little bit if you plan to visit another attraction or ride at Navy Pier.
Chicago Attractions - Navy Pier Ferris Wheel View
The Ferris Wheel at the Navy Pier offers a great view of the Gold Coast and is one of the most famous Chicago Attractions.

Level 2: Step Out on the Ledge at the Willis Tower
For more adventurous types, I recommend heading over to the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) to visit the Skydeck on its 103rd floor. You will enjoy a fantastic 360° view of downtown Chicago and its many neighborhoods, as well as Lake Michigan and the surrounding areas, which can span four states on a clear day.

There are also plenty of opportunities to learn more about our great city and its history, either from the short theater presentation or several interactive exhibits. The real treat, however, is the Ledge, a completely enclosed glass balcony (or four of them, for that matter), extending four feet outside the west side of the building. At 1,353 feet above the ground, I dare you to go all the way to the far glass window and then look down in-between your feet!

A Few Tips:

  • The Skydeck is open 365 days a year, but is usually busiest in the summer. To minimize your wait, try to visit as early as possible in the day (lines start to form before it opens) or invest in the Fast Pass. The latter does require a hefty surcharge, but might be worth it on the days when lines require more than a one-hour wait time.
  • Alternatively, if you are planning to visit several main Chicago attractions, consider purchasing the Chicago CityPASS, which can save you quite a bit of money, especially when visiting with your entire family.
  • For a special occasion or a unique experience, you can ask to have a free message posted on the Welcome Wall located at the bottom of the Tower (same floor where you catch the elevator to the Skydeck). You can imagine our daughter’s delight, when she spotted a birthday message for her during our recent visit. (“How did they know, Mommy?”)
Chicago Attractions - The Ledge at Willis Tower
Our fearless daughter, enjoying the thrill of the Ledge at the Willis Tower.

Level 3: Tilt at the Hancock Tower
One of my favorite ways to experience Chicago’s skyline along with its beautiful lake shore, is to visit 360° Chicago (formerly known as the John Hancock Observatory), located on Magnificent Mile at the Hancock Tower, which is currently the fourth tallest building in Chicago. If the Ledge is not daring enough for you, you will be happy to know that TILT, Chicago’s new thrilling adventure, just opened here in May. First of its kind in the world, TILT offers visitors “unique, downward facing views from 1,000 feet up.”

After reaching the 94th floor you can simply enjoy the spectacular views on each side of the building, or you can instantly up the adrenalin by deciding to TILT. If this is the case, you will be ushered to a separate room on the south side of the tower and then asked to step into a special enclosed glass and steel platform with capacity for eight visitors at a time. Ready or not, you will then be slowly tilted outward to “an adventurous angle.”

Just as you manage to calm your nerves and steady your stomach, you are tilted again, this time even lower. I have to admit that I was grabbing onto those sidebars very hard, but I loved the experience and would repeat it in a heartbeat (and this is coming from someone who dreads roller coasters).

A Few Tips:

  • Both of our children decided they are not yet ready to experience the thrill of TILT despite contemplating doing it prior to our visit. Because TILT requires a separate, additional ticket on top of the general admission fee to 360° Chicago, I recommend your family first observe other visitors enjoying this attraction before purchasing the tickets. Seeing it in real-life and up-close might be different than seeing the promotional pictures or website.
  • Similar to visiting the Skydeck at the Willis Tower, you can purchase the Fast Pass if you want to minimize your wait in line. This is obviously a personal decision, but in my experience, the lines at the Hancock Tower are usually shorter and faster than those at the Willis Tower, even in the summer. This might change, however, if the new TILT attraction becomes very popular.
  • I love to visit the observation deck late in the afternoon (or early in the evening, depending on the time of the year), shortly before the sunset, for an extra special experience. There is a small café area with tables and chairs on the west side where you can enjoy some food and refreshments while marveling at the setting sun reflecting off the many tall glass buildings and Lake Michigan.
Chicago Attractions: TILT at 360° Chicago at the Hancock Tower
TILT at 360° Chicago at the Hancock Tower is one of the newest Chicago attractions.

Bonus Item
If you loved these up-high experiences so much that you are ready to fly like a bird, you should consider visiting iFly, a recently opened indoor sky-diving facility in Rosemont, close to Chicago’s International O’Hare Airport, where you can do just that! With its original location in Austin, Texas, the company now boasts several domestic as well as international locations, but Chicago is lucky to have two of them.

Always looking for new adventures, our family tried flying in their wind tunnel earlier this summer. And what an adventure it was! You won’t see the Chicago skyline from here, but I promise a highly exhilarating experience you and your family will talk about for a long time. But be aware, I hear that it is highly addictive!

Having fun at iFly, Chicago
The author of this article, attempting to fly like a bird, at iFly Chicago.

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Know Before You Go

  • Chicago’s nickname is “The Windy City.”
  • Make sure to visit Millennium Park so that you can see the world-famous Bean!
  • Avoid visiting in the winter if you aren’t a fan of cold weather! The weather warms up around May.

This post was written by Hilton Suggests Team Member, Vera H. Are you interested in traveling to Chicago? Let us know if we can help you with any other recommendations. Tweet us for more great local travel tips!

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