The Great Fire of 1871 didn't just ignite 18,000 buildings in Chicago: it also sparked an architectural revolution. Ambitious young designers streamed in with bold ideas to try out on the city’s newly blank landscape – like the world's first skyscraper, which popped up in 1885. Soon lofty buildings that used radical new technology were known as the ‘Chicago School’ style.

Daniel Burnham was one of the prime architects during the era, and he summed up the city's credo in a way that lingers to this day: ‘Make no little plans,’ he counseled, ‘for they have no magic to stir men's blood… Make big plans.’ Chicago has pushed the envelope with its designs ever since. Here are 10 must-sees, from sky-high record breakers to art-deco landmarks, mod newcomers and a Frank Lloyd Wright showpiece.

Willis Tower

For superlative seekers, Willis Tower is it: Chicago's tallest skyscraper, rising 1454 feet into the heavens. Built in 1974 as the Sears Tower, the black-tubed behemoth reigned as the world's tallest building for almost a quarter century. It still wins the prize for wildest views. Take the ear-popping elevator ride to the 103rd-floor Skydeck, then step onto one of the glass-floored ledges jutting out in mid-air. Look down for a knee-buckling perspective smack to the ground. Look up for a vista that sweeps over four states.

Chicago architecture as seen from the river. Photo by Paul Velgos / Getty

Chicago Architecture Foundation

There's no better way to feel Chicago's steely power than on a boat tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Grab a seat on deck and gape as cloud-busting high-rises glide by. Guides’ lessons carry on the breeze, so you’ll know your beaux arts from Prairie Style by journey's end. The group also offers bus and walking tours, along with a great gift shop, from its downtown headquarters (located, appropriately enough, in the 1904 office building where Daniel Burnham drew up the Plan of Chicago).

Aqua Tower

Aqua made waves when it appeared in 2009. Local gal Jeanne Gang designed the 82-story tower, which is the world's tallest created by a woman. Dramatic undulating balconies curve out from the core, interspersed with glass that together form reflective pools shimmering amid the white rippled tiers. The Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel takes up floors 1 to 18; the remaining floors hold multi-million-dollar apartments and offices.

Robie House

The 1909 home is Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style masterwork. The look of the Robie House reflects the Midwest's landscape – low-slung, with long horizontal lines and lots of earth colors. Frederick C Robie, a forward-thinking businessman who dealt in bicycle parts and early auto machinery, was only 28 years old when he commissioned Wright to build the mod house for $60,000 (furniture, light fixtures and 174 stained-glass windows included). The family of four lived there for a mere 14 months, when financial and marital problems forced them to sell. Docents tell the tale during one-hour tours.


Marina City

Janitors and window washers financed the twin corncob towers of Marina City. Their union put up the cash for the 1964 structure, because they worried white flight to the suburbs would wreck the economy and leave them jobless. But if apartments existed downtown that had everything on-site – bowling alleys, stores, restaurants and even a marina – Chicagoans would stick around. Not a bad plan, it turned out. Bertrand Goldberg designed the futuristic high-rise.

Detail of the base of the Tribune Tower. Photo by Jason Raia / CC BY 2.0

Tribune Tower

Take a close look when passing by the 1925 Gothic edifice of the Tribune Tower. Colonel Robert McCormick, eccentric owner of the Chicago Tribune, collected – and asked his reporters to send – chunks from famous monuments around the world. He stockpiled pieces of the Taj Mahal, Westminster Abbey, the Great Pyramid and 140 or so others, which are now embedded around the tower’s base. The unusual ‘bricks’ are all marked and viewable from street level.

Monadnock Building

Architecture buffs go gaga at the Monadnock Building, because it's two lofty buildings in one. The north half is the older, traditional design from 1891 (with thick brick walls and a plain facade), while the 1893 southern half goes high-tech (with a newfangled steel frame that allows for jazzier walls and bigger windows). It's a textbook look at skyscraper development, split right down the middle between old-school and avant-garde.

Carbide & Carbon Building

Daniel Burnham's two sons drew up plans for the Carbide & Carbon Building after admiring a bottle of champagne. Or so the story goes. This much is true: the art-deco landmark is clad in deep-green terra cotta, and toward the top it narrows into a kind of ‘neck’ trimmed with gold leaf (à la a foil-wrapped top). The 1929 gem now houses the Hard Rock Hotel.

IIT’s train station, designed by Rem Koolhaas (Office of Metropolitan Architecture). Image by Bruce Leighty/Getty Images

Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Campus

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed many of IIT's buildings in the years after WWII. With his tools of exposed black metal and glass, along with a less-is-more creed, he pioneered the Second Chicago School style of architecture. The simple translucent box that holds Crown Hall shows it in action. ‘Starchitect’ Rem Koolhaas provides a 21st-centurybonus: IIT's cool train station, which sits inside a stainless steel-sheathed tube atop the campus center.

Chicago Cultural Center

The exquisite beaux arts building of the Chicago Cultural Center began its life as the Chicago Public Library in 1897. Some rooms were modeled on the Doge's Palace in Venice, others on the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Gilded ceilings, rich marble walls and mother-of-pearl mosaics bejewel the halls, while the world's largest Tiffany stained-glass dome arches over the third floor. Free concerts and art exhibitions provide ample reason to go inside and be immersed in the splendor.

Explore related stories