Chicago is famous for its architecture. From soaring skyscrapers, historical wonders, and beautiful buildings, to anything and everything in between, Chicago is an architecture lover’s dream destination. Fortunately, there are a great many ways to explore Chicago’s famous architecture, as a variety of tours here highlight this extraordinary aspect of the city. There are boat tours devoted solely to Chicago architecture, as well as walking tours or bus tours that cover the same ground. Regardless of how you choose to go about experiencing them, here’s a list of ten famous examples of Chicago architecture.
Formerly known as the Sears Tower—and still called that by the majority of Chicagoans—the Willis Tower is one of the most famous skyscrapers found anywhere in the world. Willis Tower was the tallest building on the planet for nearly a quarter-century, and at approximately 1,450 feet, it remains one of the Western Hemisphere’s tallest buildings today. Skydeck Chicago, Willis Tower’s 103rd-floor observation deck, provides breathtaking views of the city in all directions, and is well worth a visit.
875 North Michigan
Another quintessential Chicago building that has undergone a recent name change (many locals still refer to it as the John Hancock Center), 875 North Michigan is one of the city’s most striking structures. Famous for its crisscrossing, “X-braced” exterior, the building rises some 1,500 feet from the ground to its distinctive twin antennas. 875 North Michigan is located in a prominent spot on the Magnificent Mile, just across the street from the high-end shops of Water Tower Place and one block north of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Its 94th-floor observation deck, 360 Chicago, is a favorite of visitors from all over the world.
All things considered, Aqua is one of Chicago’s newer high rises (having been completed in 2009), but it has wasted no time becoming one of the city’s most well-regarded structures. Designed by the acclaimed architect Jeanne Gang, Aqua takes its name from the irregular, wave-like balconies that adorn the building, giving it an almost, well, you guessed it, “water-like” quality. Sound crazy? It’s not, I promise. Seeing it from street level, with the sun hitting it at just the right angle, is a must for any architecture aficionado.
The two identical towers that comprise the Marina City complex are so evocative that they’ve been featured in TV show credits and used as album cover artwork. You might already be familiar with them as “The Corn Cobs” because, frankly, looming over the Chicago River, they resemble nothing else so much as they do corn cobs. A fantastic way to see Marina City from an incredible vantagepoint is by taking a river cruise. Shoreline Sightseeing and the Chicago Architecture Center run two of the best boat tours in the city that focus on Chicago’s architectural brilliance.
The Wrigley Building
You need travel only two blocks east of Marina City to glamorous Michigan Avenue in order to visit our next two Chicago buildings of note. First up is the Wrigley Building, one of Chicago’s most beloved historical buildings. Dating to 1921, this gem was designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, an architectural firm with ties to the legendary Daniel Burnham. It’s said to have been modeled on the elegant Giralda, the bell tower of the beautiful Seville Cathedral in Spain.
Just across the street from the Wrigley Building you’ll find its spiritual partner, Tribune Tower. Difficult as it is to believe today, the commanding Gothic Revival structure’s unmistakable design was actually the result of a 1922 contest sponsored by the Chicago Tribune newspaper, who decided the best way to come up with architectural plans for their new home was to throw it open to the public. The winners of the competition were the tandem of John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood. As you walk past Tribune Tower at ground level, look for the fragments of other famous buildings that have been embedded in the structure. It’s an odd but fascinating detail worth checking out.
Carbide & Carbon Building
The Carbide & Carbon Building, located at 230 N. Michigan Avenue, is one of my personal favorite downtown Chicago skyscrapers. Designed by the Burnham Brothers architectural firm (Daniel Burnham’s sons) and completed in 1929, the Carbide & Carbon Building stands today as an Art Deco masterpiece. This beautiful building’s exterior magnificently combines black granite with green-and-gold terra cotta, and the entire structure is topped off with a 24-karat gold cap. When you’re done gawking at its gorgeousness, walk one block south and treat yourself to a stop at the American Writers Museum. The building was recently the St Jane Hotel which closed due to the pandemic. A Pendry Hotel will soon take its place.
Chicago Water Tower
I fear we’re guilty these days of overusing the word “iconic”—I know I certainly have my moments—but there’s no need to apologize here: Chicago’s Water Tower is truly iconic. Built in 1869, the Water Tower may not have been the only building to survive the Great Fire of 1871 (as legend sometimes has it), but it’s certainly the most famous structure from that time period still standing today. A symbol of the city’s strength and resilience in the face of tremendous adversity, the Water Tower means so much to the people of Chicago that it’s even been incorporated into the design of Chicago Fire Football Club’s jerseys.
For all the fantastic exhibits on display at Chicago’s Field Museum, takes some time to appreciate the powerful architecture of the building itself. The grand building itself is nearly as famous as the vast collections within. The Field Museum’s permanent collections date back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and its Classical Revival, temple-like structure is no slouch either.
Marshall Field and Company Building
No list of famous Chicago buildings is complete without a mention of the Marshall Field and Company Building. Though the store itself has changed hands in recent years, and Marshall Field’s influential department store is no more, this massive structure remains a testament to the vision of early 20th Century architects such as Daniel Burnham—who designed the building, including its signature Great Hall—and an artist like Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose mosaics adorn the ceilings here.