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Windy City Architectural Attractions


Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower)

233 S. Wacker Drive, Chicago


Willis Tower is what pretty much everyone still refers to as the Sears Tower, although in 2009 the name changed after the building's acquisition by the Willis Group, a London- based global insurance broker. What may have been lost in local bragging rights was made up for in additions, specifically acrophobiac nightmare inducing "The Ledge" which includes 4 glass encasings that extend over 4 feet outside the Tower, allowing the public to stare down at Wacker Drive from 1,353 feet above. Each “box” weighs 7,500 lbs and can hold up to 10,000 lbs, so no need to worry if you have over indulged on your diet that day, or for the last few year for that matter.


As the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, the Willis Tower stands at 1,450 feet into the heavens with 110 stories including its Skydeck on the 103rd floor with the aforementioned and downright delightfully ominous Ledge, where on a clear day you can actually see four states -Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan within the 50 mile viewing radius of the Skydeck. There is no wonder as to why this architectural creation garners over 1.3 millions visitors a year. On an especially windy day, the average sway of the building is appropriately 6 inches from the center so prepare to get your vertigo “on”.


In case you weren't in the mood to wait in line AND ride all the way up to the 103rd floor, you should know that the Willis Tower elevators operate as fast as 1,600 feet/minute, which is among the fastest in the world and thus makes your journey to the Willis Tower more than an attraction but a theme park ride of sorts.


General Admission
Fast Pass $30 (express elevator line)
Adult - Ages 12 and up $15.95
Youth - Ages 3 to 11 $11.00


Tour Admission
Adult $21.45
Youth $16.50


Photo: Randy Stancik


Art Institute of Chicago

111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago


Most major metropolitan city museums in North America are worth the visit for the architectural aesthetics alone, inside and out and is the second largest of its kind standing at one million square feet, only to be eclipsed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. However the Art Institute of Chicago, located in Grant Park, is truly an institution as both a museum and a school for gifted artists. Its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist permanent collection is world renowned and the exhibits that come through the landmark include American Art, Masters, Asian, decorative, modern and contemporary to name but a few stand outs.


Created and modeled after European Art Academies in 1866 the original building was destroyed in a fire (a consistent theme with important architecture in the 1800's) and began the rebuilding process in 1882 when the name officially changed from the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts to the Art Institute of Chicago. Jumping ahead to the early 1980's saw major expansion and renovation to the Institute which would also begin to include works of artists such as , Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. only serving to further enhance the prestigious image of the establishment. In May, 2009,  a modern addition on the southwest corner of Columbus and Monroe and designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Renzo Piano and opened its "doors" to the public catapulting the Art Institute of Chicago to 21st century acclaim.


Although the architecture as an attraction is the key to placing the Art Institute of Chicago on this list, there is no question that their collections are what make it an important destination point. You can find exhibits of works that include paintings you know by first glance, even if not recognized in name; Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Grant Wood's American Gothic (the farmer and his wife in front of a barn) and Edward Hopper's Nighthawks which is the painting of a diner scene at night that you have certainly seen numerous times in a parody of sorts with the patrons replaced by American pop culture icons Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean, and the attendant with Elvis Presley.


Admission Fees
Adults: $18.00
Students and Seniors: $12.00
Children under 14: Free*


Chicago Resident Admission
Chicago residents receive a $2 discount on admission.


John G. Shedd Aquarium

1200 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago


The Shedd Aquarium stands In contrast to most North American aquariums that have a more contemporary image and as much tempered glass on the exterior as the walls that contain the marine life within. It looks more like a museum which is appropriate because it is surrounded by the Greco-Roman/Beaux Arts designed Museum Campus of Chicago. Where the world’s biggest facility Georgia Aquarium is modern and almost overwhelming for those with limited time on their hands, the Shedd version, established in 1929, is classical and modest yet brings in two million annual visitors with award winning exhibits that display over 1500 species of marine mammals, birds, snakes, amphibians, insects and of course an abundance of fish. Five permanent exhibits garner the most attention; Amazon Rising, Caribbean Reef (est.1971), Waters of the World, Oceanarium (est.1991), and Wild Reef (est.2003). All additions were created to complement the original décor with the Oceanarium taking the biggest architectural leap by mimicking a more Pacific Northwest aesthetic.


General Admission:
Adults $26.95
Children (ages 3-11) $19.95


More comprehensive packages and passes are available here  


Old Chicago Water Tower

806 N.Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL


Erected (it is quite phallic in nature) in 1869 with yellow toned limestone, this 154 foot tall creation contains a water pipe within and served as an aid to fire fighters well over a century ago. Appropriately, it is one of the last remaining structures in the Magnificent Mile district to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. If you are a regular YAHglobal.Com reader you will know that pretty much everything in North America of architectural worth has gone through some sort of fire tragedy in the late 1880's. “Note to self” should one ever build a time machine.


When one traditionally pictures a water tower an image comes to mind of some enormous bucket shaped contraption perched upon stilts that will almost certainly tip over in a Hollywood action/sci-fi movie based in that city. The Old Chicago Water Tower however is a surprise to visitors when they venture on over to 806 North Michigan Avenue in that it appears more akin to a castle in Scotland or an exotic Mediterranean lighthouse.


Those who find no allure in the history or architecture of such an attraction can still deem it picture and note worthy when they find out that the Old Chicago Water Tower apparently inspired the design for Harold and Kumar's favorite munchy satisfying establishment, White Castle. Seriously.   


Note: There are no known tours of the Old Chicago Water Tower other than what you can do on your own around the exterior and from time to time there are art exhibits on the first level.


Aqua Skyscraper

430 E. Waterside Drive, Chicago, IL


This beyond Post-modern 86 storied architectural creation came from the edgy imagination of Jeanne Gang who poured her soul into Aqua as the first woman on the planet to ever take the lead on building this tall a development at 859 feet. The fluid and purposefully warped balconies stand out from the glass backgrounds with residents overlooking the 200 block of North Columbus Drive, as if to say “Look where I get to live!”.


As a new addition to the landscape and skyline of Chicago, Aqua continues to develop with retail additions and Radisson Blu hotel taking over the first 18 floors. Depending upon when this article reaches you, Aqua is either a fantastic point of interest visual attraction or a place to spend one's day and night in shopping, dining, and accommodation luxury. Actually, it will be all of the above.