Do you like to travel and explore different cities? I certainly do. While I travel mostly for pleasure (rather than for work), the planner in me cannot help but observe, study, and evaluate the places I visit. While much of this observing, studying, and evaluating take place on foot at the street level, I also try to find high-above vantage points that offer the best views of a city. To be expected, the tallest buildings typically offer the greatest views, but as you may have discovered, not all skyscrapers have observation decks or viewing areas that are open to the public. For those who are not afraid of heights, here are some of the high-rises that are worth visiting for the best views of the cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Chicago, Baltimore, and New York City.
U.S. Bank Tower, Los Angeles
From almost 1,000 feet above the city in the iconic U.S. Bank Tower, OUE Skyspace LA offers panoramic, 360-degree views of Los Angeles. The observation deck opened to the public on June 25, 2016 following a major renovation of floors 69 and 70 of the building. As the tallest open-air observation deck in California and the only destination that offers a complete view of Los Angeles, OUE Skyspace LA is a unique destination offering visitors a complete view of the city, from the mountains to the ocean, which can be enjoyed year-round. In addition, OUE Skyspace has an attraction built on the outside of the skyscraper that is taking thrill-seekers on a ride that is not for those scared of heights. As shown in this video, visitors can take a trip down the Skyslide which is a 45-foot glass chute nearly 1,000 feet above street level.
Wilshire Grand Center, Los Angeles
Wilshire Grand Center is a 1,100-foot skyscraper in Downtown Los Angeles. Not only is it the tallest building in Los Angeles, it is also the tallest building in California, the tallest building west of the Mississippi River and outside of New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and the 10th tallest building in the U.S. Its height surpasses the U.S. Bank Tower by 82 feet. The Wilshire Grand Center is home to the 889-room InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown hotel and its cutting-edge restaurants, and a state-of-the-art office complex. The hotel has a sky lobby on the 70th floor and a rooftop cocktail lounge featuring 360 degree views of the city. The skyscraper has become a distinctive part of the Los Angeles skyline, as it is the first building over 75 feet tall built since 1974 to not feature a “flat roof” design. The pattern of buildings in Los Angeles to feature these “flat roofs” was the result of a 1974 fire ordinance which required all tall buildings in the city to include rooftop helipads.
Space Needle, Seattle
Built in 1962, the Space Needle has since become the symbol of Seattle, and one of the most recognizable structures in the world. Once the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River, it is 605 feet high, is built to withstand winds of up to 200 miles per hour and earthquakes of up to 9.1 magnitude, and has 25 lightning rods. The Space Needle has an observation deck at 520 feet and the rotating SkyCity Restaurant at 500 feet. The top of the Needle offers views of the downtown Seattle skyline, as well as the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Elliott Bay and surrounding islands. The top of the Space Needle has been under renovation since the summer of 2017 to add an all-glass floor to the restaurant, and replace the observation platform windows with unbroken floor-to-ceiling glass panels unobstructed by mullions to more closely match the 1962 original concept sketches. The work is scheduled to finish by June 2018.
Columbia Center, Seattle
The Columbia Center, formerly named the Bank of America Tower and Columbia Seafirst Center, is a skyscraper in downtown Seattle. The 76-story structure is the tallest building in Seattle and the state of Washington, reaching a height of 933 feet. At the time of its completion, the Columbia Center was the tallest structure on the West Coast. As of 2017, it is the fourth-tallest, behind buildings in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Sky View Observatory is located on the 73rd floor of the Columbia Center. At nearly 1,000 feet, it is the tallest public viewing area in the Pacific Northwest, providing visitors with a 360-degree panoramic view that includes Mount Rainier, Bellevue, the Cascade Mountains, Mount Baker, Elliott Bay, the Olympic Mountains, the Space Needle and the city of Seattle.
U.S. Bancorp Tower, Portland, OR
The U.S. Bancorp Tower is a 42-story (536 feet) skyscraper in Portland, Oregon. It is the second tallest building in the city after Wells Fargo Center, and with its nearly 740,000 square feet office space, it is the largest in Oregon in terms of volume. Since a $4 million renovation in 2002, the 30th floor of the tower has been occupied by the Portland City Grill, Portland’s top-grossing restaurant. I was fortunate to have enjoyed dinner at this location which is widely recognized as the restaurant with the best views in Portland. The building bears the nickname “Big Pink” which comes from its building materials: pink Spanish granite and pink glazed plate glass. Designed to emphasize the play of light and shadow on its surface, Big Pink’s granite appears darker or lighter than the windows depending on the time of day.
Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), Chicago
The Willis Tower, built as and still commonly called the Sears Tower, is a 110-story, 1,450-foot skyscraper in Chicago. When it was completed in 1973, it surpassed the World Trade Center towers in New York to become the tallest building in the world, a title it held for amost 25 years and remained the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere until 2014 and the completion of One World Trade Center. The Willis Tower is the second-tallest building in the U.S. and the 16th-tallest in the world. Over one million people visit Skydeck, its well-known observation deck, annually, making it one of Chicago’s most popular tourist destinations (see this video). The building is home to The Ledge which dares visitors to attempt a new Chicago experience: stand on The Ledge and feel the city from 103 floors over Wacker Drive and the Chicago River.
875 North Michigan Avenue is a 100-story, 1,128-foot skyscraper in Chicago which was formerly known as the John Hancock Center and is located in the Magnificent Mile district. The building is home to the 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck, which offers 360 degrees views of the city skyline and Lake Michigan, and TILT, Chicago’s highest thrill ride, which is an enclosed moving platform that literally tilts riders out over Michigan Avenue from the 94th Floor. I also recommend trying the brunch buffet at The Signature Room at the 95th which offers amazing views of Chicago and Lake Michigan along with a variety of delicious food.
Located on the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, Maryland, the Baltimore World Trade Center is the world’s tallest regular pentagonal building. I came across this attraction two years ago when I visited Baltimore for the first time. The building is 30 stories tall and rises 405 feet above the one-acre plaza where it stands between Pratt Street and the harbor. “Top of the World,” an enclosed observation level on the 27th floor, provides a 360-degree panoramic view of the city. The Top of the World offers Baltimore history, rotating art exhibits, occasional special events, a gift shop featuring local art, and is home of the 9/11 Memorial of Maryland.
Rockefeller Center, New York City
Rockefeller Center is a large complex consisting of 19 commercial buildings covering 22 acres between 48th and 51st Streets, facing Fifth Avenue, in New York City. Commissioned by the Rockefeller family, it is located in the center of Midtown Manhattan. Located in the heart of Rockefeller Center, Top of the Rock Observation Deck is one of New York City’s biggest attractions and provides the most breathtaking views in the city. This was one of my favorite places when I visited New York City for the first time almost seven years ago. There are three levels of observation decks to explore at Top of the Rock. The first deck includes the Radiance Wall and tour gift shop. The second is entirely outdoors and features the Breezeway. Located on the 70th floor open-air roof deck, the third observation deck is completely outdoors and free of a glass enclosure, making it perfect for photos.
One World Trade Center, New York City
One World Trade Center (also known as 1 World Trade Center, 1 WTC or Freedom Tower) is the main building of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. It is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and the sixth-tallest in the world. Located on levels 100, 101, and 102 of the 1,776-foot tall One World Trade Center building, One World Observatory provides unique, panoramic views of New York City, its most iconic sites, and surrounding waters (see this video). The elevator ride to the top is about 47 seconds long and covers 102 stories. This amazing ride reveals how New York City has been transformed from unsettled lands to today’s densely populated metropolis. One World Trade Center also offers a dining experience above high above. Located on the 101st floor is One Dine, which features a seasonally inspired à la carte menu complimented by small production wines, local draft beers and hand crafted cocktails.
As a planner and someone who enjoys traveling, I must say that there is no experience quite like observing, studying, and evaluating cities from up high. Highlighted above are some high rises which offer the best city views in America. I look forward to expanding this list as I visit other cities in the future.
Note: All photos by author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.