7 Things to Know Before You Visit Sears Tower (or Willis Tower, whatever)

You can read about how huge it is. You can see photos of it on the internet. You can photograph it from street level.

But until you actually step out of the elevator on the 103rd floor, you have no real appreciation of the architectural feat that is the Sears Tower.

This building was the tallest building in the world for the first 25 years of its existence, and even today it remains the tallest building in North America.

Sears Tower soaring overhead

I’m not sure you can be fully prepared to witness the view that awaits you at the 103rd floor. I wasn’t, and as you’ll see, I was very lucky: it was a very clear day.

After waiting in line and watching a short film about the tower in their small theater, I finally stepped into what should only be described as a super-elevator. Any elevator that goes up to the 103rd floor in just a couple minutes deserves some respect — or at least a cool name. And only when I stepped out onto the Sears Tower Skydeck to see the view from 412 meters up (1353 feet) could I fully appreciate the Sears Tower for what it is: a view like no other.

To extract the most awesomeness out of your Sears Tower experience, there are 7 things you should know before you go:

  1. Take lots of photos!
    • And while you’re at it, join the 21st century and use a digital instead of a film camera so you can see how your photos are turning out. Take more photos than you would expect to need, because there are millions of opportunities up there on the 103rd floor. When you get home, some photos you thought turned out great might not be so great after all, and you’ll be glad you have so many photos to choose from.
    • Flat Chicago Skyline to the West
    • Contrary to what some say, NEVER use your camera’s black and white setting. If you want black and white photos, you’re much better off using a piece of software like Photoshop and use a channel mixer adjust later to convert to black and white later. (Or if you want to save some money, you can get Photoshop Elements and find a plugin that will channel mixing, like this one.) Here’s why you want to avoid forcing black and white setting on your camera: when you take a color photo, you essentially get 3 black and white digital photos in one shot — basically 3 value channels that are colored as red, green, and blue. In a program like Photoshop, you can mix the red, green, and blue in the proportions you want and decide whether you want to emphasize red contrast, green contrast, or blue contrast. You get to decide the character of the final black and white photo.
  2. Explore the exhibits.
    • At all four sides of the tower are small exhibits that make it easy (well, sort of) to spot some Chicago’s historical and architectural landmarks from that vantage point. There are even some touch-screen computers that offer all of the information in six, count ’em 6, different languages so visitors of many nationalities can enjoy the exhibits, too.
  3. Keep your eye on the sky.
    • Depending on the weather, your visibility can be anywhere from zero to over 40 miles. Your experience will hinge on how far you can see. Obviously if the air is more clear, your view will be more breathtaking. The sexy thing about this perspective (which is likely the highest you’ll ever be while in a legal state of mind) is that when the sky is clear, you can see four different states: Illinois (duh), Michigan, Indiana, and Cheeseconsin… Wisconsin.
    • While the Skydeck does have some binocular-like tools available to the public, you may want to bring your own binoculars if you’re a germaphobe. I’m not sayin… I’m just sayin’.
  4. Be smart with crowds.
    • The Sears Tower has plenty of traffic year round, but there will be significantly more people on weekends. So if you’re very antisocial, or you just want to minimize your waiting time, go on a weekday after 5 P.M. to avoid the crowds as much as possible.
  5. Notice the subtleties, the things other people miss.
    • Keep in mind this may be the only time you visit the lovely Sears Tower, so take this moment to appreciate it. Try to spot a touring ferry in the Chicago River. Feel the way that the building sways if it happens to be windy that day. Look out and try to see where Illinois ends and Indiana or Wisconsin begins.
    • Like in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! From the skydeck, you’re 412 meters (1,353 feet) in the air. Most people are wimps afraid to look down, but looking down is the only way to fully appreciate how high you are.
    • Some people brag about leaning over the railing to look down, but I say that’s nothing. If you really want added thrill (not to mention bragging rights), lean your head on the surface the glass like Cameron does in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. See how tiny everything looks. Tell them the Byteful Traveller gave you permission. 😀 Actually don’t. You never read this. It was YOUR idea, I swear!
  7. Appreciate the marvelousness of what you’re seeing.
    • The Sears Tower is an engineering marvel that would have been impossible to build a hundred years ago. The Sears Tower provides a view greater beyond any bird’s of the marvelous web of interaction and exchange known as Chicago. Take the time to really enjoy your view from the highest observation point in Chicago, one of the great cities of the planet.

All kinds of info about hours, directions, parking, and many other details are available on the official (though somewhat basic) Sears Tower Skydeck site.

Are You asking for a Challenge?!

Whatever you do, promise me you’ll push yourself to be a little more adventurous on your next trip than your last. Pushing your own, self-imposed, limits results in a more enjoyable trip, and you’ll be glad you did. Travelling, when done right, spurs big time growth.

More photos from this trip are in the Sears Tower – Chicago album.

4 bits on 7 Things to Know Before You Visit Sears Tower (or Willis Tower, whatever)

  1. Pingback Carnival of Cities for 17 Dec 2008 | Family Travel Guide
  2. That first image of the tower makes it seem large enough to be able to explore for days and days. This might not be too far from the truth. The following image, that shows the view from the top floor, makes it seem as though you are in an airplane when it is being taken. The point about taking multiple pictures is quite appropriate, as we suddenly end up with too few photos when we return home, away from the excitement.

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, Armen. Yes, being up there is like being in a plane without all the hassle of taking off. 🙂

  4. The views from the Sears Tower are amazing, definitely worth seeing. The idea of the tower swaying on a windy day is a little unnerving though.