I usually don’t like doing touristy things when I visit a place for the first time. I like to live like the locals and thus really experience the place. But, sometimes it is necessary and actually helpful and enjoyable, if you know how to pick and choose which attractions to partake in.

Let me tell you this: the Hancock Observatory in the Magnificent Mile district of Chicago is helpful and extremely enjoyable. While on the ground, trying to explore a downtown such as Chicago’s it’s easy to get lost and confused among all the behemoth buildings in this city on the shore of Lake Michigan. The downtown skyline reminds me of Manhattan, with beautiful old architecture mixed in with newer buildings, all sky high and mammoth.

So, I decided to visit one of those tourist attractions, the Hancock Observatory in the Hancock Center, on Chestnut and Michigan Ave. This building, while only the second tallest in Chicago (Sears Tower is the tallest), is one of the tallest buildings in the world. The first thing that impressed me was the elevator ride up to the observation floor. It’s the fastest elevator in North America and we zipped up 94 floors in only seconds.

The view from there is astonishing. You get a full 360 degree view by walking around the perimeter in a comfortable, enclosed environment. This is valuable as the weather in Chicago in the winter can be quite cold, especially 1000 feet up. One portion is actually open air, protected only by a screen, which doesn’t inhibit visibility at all.

I expected to be amazed by the view from up there. What I didn’t expect was for this casual trip to the top of an historical building to be so valuable to me as a new explorer of the city. From the top I got a view of the city, its layout, the scope of it, that I just simply couldn’t achieve from street level. This helped me tremendously as I am a person who relies on his sense of direction to guide him and make care free, unplanned travel possible. I now knew and understood the lay of the land and really appreciated the vastness of the city, its architecture, the various neighborhoods and Lake Michigan.
The Observatory experience comes with an audio tour narrated by David Schwimmer, which actually turned out to be informative and useful, too.

Some of the things you can see from there: Navy Pier, Streeterville, a view of the old Water Tower from directly above, Wrigley Field, Soldier Field, the Field Museum, The Loop area and Sears Tower. While Sears Tower may be taller, it lies on the edge of downtown, so the view from the Hancock is better. You can also see, on a clear day, all the way across the lake, 80 miles to the state of Michigan. From the north, following the shore, you can see Wisconsin.

At the beginning of a trip to Chicago, there is no better way to become acquainted with the layout of this city than to take a trip to the Hancock Observatory. The view, along with the multimedia tour, gives you a great starting point for traveling and exploring one of the greatest cities in the world.