While searching for the best observation deck in New York City, one thing became clear. King Kong got a bad rap–all he wanted was a better view! Wow. It really is hard out here for a chimp.
On my first trip to New York City many years ago I went to the top of the Empire State Building because it was the only thing I knew to do there besides hopscotching crosswalks and tackling mall Santas at Gimbels. I wouldn’t discover the Top of the Rock until years later and One World Trade Center was still just a heartbreaking hole in the ground.
Now, I’ve seen more rooftops than Peter Pan on a hot summer night and finding the highest points in any city is my #1 travel priority.
How to explore the best observation decks in New York City
New York CityPASS
Since we’re all time-budget travelers here and most likely don’t have the time and/or money to experience all three, I’ve done all the homework for you. Armed with my New York CityPASS and a winning attitude that sometimes gets me free upgrades and extra curly fries, I took to the skyline of Manhattan so I could finally recommend one as being the best.
The New York CityPASS is a time and money-saving booklet that gets you huge discounts (44%!) on all the top attractions in New York City. Two of the three best observation decks in NYC are included! You also get to skip the long lines in most cases and it comes with additional coupons and discounts. I always get one when I visit one of the participating cities!
Which is the best observation deck in New York City?
The Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, or the One World Observatory at One World Trade Center — which is the best observation deck in New York City? Let me start by introducing our three eligible bachelors, er… buildings.
Empire State Building
- Website: esbnyc.com
- Observatories: 80th and 86th floors (or upgrade to newly renovated 102nd floor)
- Location: Midtown Manhattan – entrance on Fifth Avenue between 33rd & 34th Streets
- Hours: 8:00 am – 2:00 am – 365 days/year (last elevator 1:15 am) *2021 hours are temporarily different
- Prices: General Admission – Adults $42, Children (6-12) $36, Seniors (62+) $40
- Handicap accessible? Yes, fully.
- Included in the New York CityPASS? Yes (Twice!)
First up for best observation deck in New York City we’ve got Manhattan’s most iconic landmark. It loves: getting struck by lightning, starring in movies, and getting things down off the highest shelf for you. Meet: the Empire State Building!
(It actually gets struck by lightning an average of 23 times per year. Get more NYC fun facts here.)
The Empire State Building is so big and home to so many companies that it has its own zip code. It was built from scratch in just eleven months and all during the height (depth?) of the Great Depression.
It’s been featured in more than 250 movies and from the observation deck you can see five states–New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and–spoiler alert–New York.
The Empire State Building observation deck is best for:
- movie buffs,
- architecture and history nerds,
- misunderstood apes,
- and visitors from abroad who probably don’t know about the other two on this list.
Observatories at the Empire State Building
The Empire State Building boasts three separate observation decks. Here’s a little about each:
80th floor observation deck
The 80th floor observation deck at the Empire State Building is the lowest of the three and is completely enclosed. This is great for visiting on rainy, snowy, high-wind days, super hot days.
The 80th floor observatory has just undergone a huge renovation (Nov 2019) as part of the ESB’s multi-million dollar renovation project. It now features an augmented reality experience, an exhibit on the famous tower lights, an interactive itinerary creator.
86th floor observation deck
The 86th floor is the Empire State building’s main observatory. Here, you can head outside to experience New York City from above. This deck is the highest open-air observatory in New York City. It wraps completely around the building for 360° views of Manhattan and beyond.
102nd floor observation deck
The Empire State Building’s newly renovated 102nd floor observatory is located inside the building’s mast accessible by a glass elevator. Up here at 1,250 feet you’ll also get 360° views but only through floor-to-ceiling glass windows (not open-air).
Why the Empire State Building is the best observation deck in New York City
The 86th floor observation deck is an open-air observatory.
Because it’s open-air, you can get real photos from up here. Ones that aren’t tinted green from glass or contain the reflections of that kid in the stroller behind you picking his nose.
You get to see New York City the way it was meant to be seen–through the eyes of a 50-foot gorilla-gone-wild. If you don’t leave the airport, can you really say you’ve been to France? No. So if you never breathe the air, can you really say you’ve been to 1,200 feet?
There’s also an indoor observation deck
Though this observation deck is a few floors lower (on the 80th floor), it’s great to utilize in rain, snow, and other terrible weather conditions.
But don’t let temperature be a factor: the 86th floor observation deck at the Empire State Building is now heated!
The Empire State Building is located right in the center of Manhattan. Just one block away from the 34th street/Harold Square subway station.
Besides being easy to get to and being near many other places you’ll want to go, this is also important in terms of what you can see from the top!
With a closing time of 2:00 AM, the Empire State Building has the longest hours of all the top 3 NYC observation decks.
It’s iconic, famous, and historically significant
The Empire State Building has the distinction of being the most photographed building in the world. The Empire State Building is what comes to mind at the mere mention of New York City. The building and city are synonymous.
It’s the most famous of all New York City’s incredible monuments and buildings. Go big or go home.
The friendliest employees
The Empire State Building has the friendliest employees. Something perhaps only a Southerner or a Care Bear would notice but still… worth mentioning. Visiting NYC can be a stressful experience, don’t let your quest to find the best observation deck in New York City be one too.
From the 86th floor you can look straight down into the streets. Part of the thrill (or paralyzing anxiety to some) is seeing just how high up you are.
From the top of the Empire State Building you’ll get great views of:
- downtown Manhattan
- the Flatiron building
- Madison Square Garden
- the Chrysler Building
- the Verrazano-Narrows bridge – the longest suspension bridge in America.
- and so much more!
There’s a saxophonist
Late on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (between 9:00 PM and midnight between Labor Day and Memorial Day and 10:00 PM and 1:00 AM from Memorial Day to Labor Day), there is a saxophonist on the 86th floor observation deck. Bring on the sweet, sweet jams!
You can visit twice for one price
With the New York CityPASS you can go up to the Empire State Building observation deck twice in one day. The struggle of whether to go up during the day (to see the buildings), at dusk (to see the sunset), or after dark (to see all the pretty lights) is real. Now you don’t have to choose!
Why the Empire State Building is not the best observation deck in New York City
Long, long lines
Imagine the longest line you’ve ever waited in. Now, quadruple it. Fill it with dads who “have had enough of your attitude!” and moms who “just don’t understand what’s taking so long!” And there’s your late afternoon at (and all the way around the block of) the Empire State Building.
Visiting the Empire State Building around dusk is the most popular time of day. Lines to even get inside the building will wrap about the block. You’ll be sheep herded inch by inch through every step of the process.
However, if you visit between 8-11 AM there won’t be a single person in line.
The views lack the building itself
Those great views from the top of the Empire State Building lack one major thing–the Empire State Building! The most iconic figure of the New York City skyline is missing from all your photos. So basically, you’re just on vacation taking pictures of office buildings.
Views from the Empire State Building observation deck
Top of the Rock
- Website: topoftherocknyc.com
- Observatories: 67th, 69th, and 70th floors
- Location: Midtown Manhattan — entrance on 50th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
- Hours: 11 am – 7 pm — 365 days/year (last elevator up 6:10 pm)
- Prices: General Admission – Adults $38, Children (6-12) $32, Seniors (62+) $36
- Handicap accessible? Yes, fully.
- Included in the New York CityPASS? Yes
Next up for “best observation deck in New York City” is very well the epicenter of televised American comedy. It enjoys: ice skating, the holidays, being in the middle of all the action, and making people laugh. Meet: Rockefeller Center!
Rockefeller Center is a complex of 19 buildings that were built between 1930 and 1933 but the one we’re climbing is 30 Rockefeller Plaza. 30 Rock is home to NBC Studios and therefore Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Seth Myers, The Tonight Show and, appropriately, The Today Show.
Don’t let the fact that this bachelor, er… building, is not as famous as the Empire State Building, not as tall either, and is all-around a nondescript addition to New York City solidify your decision. Even the Jason Alexanders of the world have something to offer!
The Top of the Rock observation deck is best for:
- ironically, people who love the Empire State Building,
- those who got confused and thought they were buying tickets to see Jimmy Fallon.
Observatories at Top of the Rock
67th floor observation deck
The 67th floor observation deck at Top of the Rock is completely enclosed, small, and includes the gift shop.
69th floor observation deck
The 69th floor of Top of the Rock is completely open-air but surrounded by large glass panes.
70th floor observation deck
The 70th floor observation deck is an entirely open rooftop deck. There are no glass panels so the 360° views of New York City from up here are totally unobstructed. (This deck is the best deck.)
Why Top of the Rock is the best observation deck in New York City
The best views of New York City
Though it’s nothing to look at itself, you won’t find any insecurity here. It’s totally fine with you checking out the better looking sights and is happy to help you do so. The Top of the Rock observation provides perfect views of both uptown and downtown Manhattan.
Because 30 Rockefeller Plaza itself is so uninspiring, you won’t miss out on anything by standing on it – unlike with the Empire State Building.
From the Top of the Rock you’ll have great views of:
- the Empire State Building
- Central Park
- Times Square
- both uptown and downtown Manhattan
- St. Patrick’s Cathedral
- and so much more that you really can’t see from the others!
It’s never crowded
I’ve been up here many times and at all different times of the day (including dusk) and it’s never been crowded. Long lines don’t necessarily signify something awesome. Good things also come to those who don’t wait.
It’s included in the New York CityPASS.
Building #2 on this list likes to save you time and money… could this be a Cinderella story after all? Everyone loves an underdog!
You can purchase timed tickets
To visit Top of the Rock, you can pre-purchase timed tickets ahead of time to ensure your wait time is left to a minimum. However, if you don’t know which day and time you’ll be visiting, you can always purchase untimed tickets as well (but you’ll be subject to available times later).
It’s is also an open-air observation deck
By the end of this article, you’ll see why this is such an important attribute! Up here you can get unobstructed views of Manhattan – but there are also two floors of indoor viewing platforms as well.
The location is perfect
You’re definitely going to be in the area–whether it be checking out the Christmas tree, Fifth Avenue, Radio City Music Hall, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Times Square, whatever. This location also provides perfect views since it’s located smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.
Why Top of the Rock is not the best observation deck in New York City
Rockefeller Center is confusing as hell
(all together…) How confusing is it? The switchboard inside a NASA space shuttle is more straightforward than the inside of Rockefeller Center. I know my way around a brain surgeon’s operating table better than I do 30 Rock.
There are no directionals, no directories, and seemingly no one around who works there. There are two Top of the Rock ticket offices and they appear to be completely unrelated. Sometimes you’re supposed to use one and sometimes the other? I can recite the complete Gettysburg Address more confidently than I can answer that question.
Most recently I was directed to one ticket office in particular. I stepped out to talk to someone, tried to re-enter and was told I now had to go across to the other one. “But… you just told me to go here!”
Prepare to get lost. Prepare for this to take you a little bit of extra time.
It’s not that high
I realize 70 floors is still 849 feet, but Top of the Rock is most definitely getting cut from the basketball team in the first round of tryouts.
The views here are fantastic but if it’s height you want, skip this one.
You can’t look straight down.
Well, you can, just not very far. (Maybe it’s just me who likes to look straight down at the tiny ant people?)
Views from the Top of the Rock observation deck
One World Observatory
- Website: oneworldobservatory.com
- Observatories: 100th, 101st, 102nd floors
- Location: Downtown Manhattan — entrance on the corner of West and Vesey Streets
- Hours: *Double check hours when planning your trip as their 2021 operating hours and open days are inconsistent and fluid. You’ll need to take into consideration exactly when you want to visit.
- Prices: General Admission – Adults $43, Children (6-12) $37, Seniors (65+) $41
- Handicap accessible? Yes, fully.
- Included in the New York CityPASS? Unfortunately not. But the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is and that’s more than worth a visit!
Finally we’ve made it to our final contestant, our youngest yet most monumental/inspirational/revolutionary building! It enjoys geology, the color blue, high-tech gadgets, and being the first to know when it rains. Meet: One World Trade Center!
It’s the tallest building
One World Trade Center is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere (ooh la la) and its observatory opened on May 29th, 2015.
The building itself measures in at 1,362 feet, the exact height of the original World Trade Center South Tower. Add the deck and that makes it 1,368 feet, the exact height of the original WTC North Tower. Add the spire and you’ve got a total of 1,776 feet and the most important number in all of American history.
The base of the building is 200′ x 200′ – the exact footprint of the Twin Towers, an impressive shoe size indeed. Needless to say there isn’t a single piece of this building that isn’t a tribute to our country or the memory of September 11th, 2001.
One World Trade Center is also the “greenest” and safest office building in the world with concrete seven times stronger than traditional concrete and rebar as thick as your forearm.
The One World Observatory is best for:
- architecture nerds,
- technology geeks,
- people who like the color blue, da ba dee da ba daa.
Why the One World Observatory is the best observation deck in New York City
Chances are you’ll be in lower Manhattan checking out the 9/11 Memorial and Museum or the Oculus. Or the Statue of Liberty or the Brooklyn Bridge. The new kid on the block is already hanging out with the popular crowd as you can see.
It’s the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
So if record-setting and incredible heights are your thing, you’ve come to the right place.
You can look straight down
but be careful of the glass…
If you’re into modern technology… wow is this the place for you!
The elevator ride to the top blew my mind. Going up it’s a 360° virtual rendition of how New York City has grown and developed in the last 500 years. Going down is like riding in a real life Wonkavator. If you’re into spoilers, here’s the video.
The See Forever video presentation
The See Forever video presentation they force you to watch is worth the trip itself. You’ll curse it at first because informative video presentations are lame and you just want to see the views already!
But then… it happens. Followed by a collective, audible gasp. I’m not telling you any more than that because you really need to experience this for yourself and a little delayed gratification never hurt anybody.
A great spot for learning
The whole experience is futuristic/technology-centric making it the best possible option for learning about the surroundings and proving that nerds rule.
Pretty good views
Though not the best, you can still see some cool stuff that you can’t from the other two.
From the One World Observatory you’ll have great views of:
- the Brooklyn Bridge
- the Manhattan Bridge
- Washington Square Park
- the Statue of Liberty
- the 9/11 Memorial & Museum
- and I imagine some other cool things but had I brought my night vision goggles I’d most certainly have been locked up.
Why One World Observatory is not the best observation deck in New York City
The One World Observatory is not an open-air observation deck
All that waiting and anticipation then… wah-wahhh. This was a bigger let down than that time I took a blind date to the prom. I like to be out there, the frigid air blasting me in the face, with nothing between the sights and my own eyes (and camera lenses).
Long lines and wait times
When I visited the One World Observatory, it was just a year after it opened and the lines and wait times were insane. I haven’t visited since then so maybe they’ve relaxed a little? However, I have walked past many times and there’s always a line.
However, they also used a time-ticket entry system here and you can upgrade your ticket (now $45 instead of $35) and get priority lane access if you wish.
What doesn’t help the long lines is the fact that One World Observatory is open for the shortest length of time of all the New York City observation decks. It also closes long before the other two.
The technology they offer visitors is like something straight outta The Jetsons, but renting one of their state-of-the-art tablets during your visit is a non-refundable $15. That’s 30 Chinatown dumplings. I don’t think that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
You have to pay full price
The One World Observatory is not included in the New York CityPASS. However, the general admission price is still the cheapest of all three!
Similar to the problem the Empire State Building observation deck has is: you can’t see One World Trade Center from the inside of One World Trade Center. And it’s such a meaningful part of the NYC skyline.
You’re almost too high
It’s cool being at the top of the country’s tallest building and all. But at some point it just becomes too much. You’re too high to see the ground and you’re too far away to see anything really clearly.
You can see a sparkly skyline, sure, but you can’t see any close-ups of cool landmarks or tiny ant people.
Taking pictures from the One World Observatory sucks
Perhaps the conditions are better during the day, but at night they’re downright miserable.
After dark, the lights inside the observatory are as bright as daylight making it nearly impossible to even see out the windows, let alone photograph the city. If I wanted to get photos of the French couple standing behind me without them knowing I’d just hide behind the rack of keychains like any self-respecting human being.
Luckily, I found a pillar that stood in a particular spot in front of a particular window that, if I pressed my entire body against the glass, I could squeeze behind just enough to get unadulterated views of the skyline. This is how I managed to get a few half decent pictures.
When I was done, I turned around and saw a line had formed behind me. The nerd has become the trendsetter I see…
Views from the One World Observatory
The rest of them look like this…
So which is the best observation deck in New York City?
Alright, time’s up. It’s now time to decide which of our buildings you’ll choose for a date. Which of these hunks of metal will be taking you for an elevator ride? But to answer that question you’ll need to take into account your priorities and preferences.
What are your priorities and preferences?
Are you going to be only/mostly in one area of town during your visit? Is there a particular part of town you’re hoping to see from up there?
If your time will be focused downtown, the One World Observatory is for you. If you’ll be mostly in Midtown, Top of the Rock is the most ideal.
What exactly do you want to see? Iconic Manhattan skylines? (Top of the Rock)
As far into the distance as possible? (One World Observatory, during the day)
People acting out scenes from romantic comedies starring Tom Hanks? (Empire State Building)
What time of day do you plan on visiting? Are you available first thing in the morning, after midnight, or is dusk your only option?
Do you want modern engineering, historic art deco, or the place that blends right in with everything else around it? Do you prefer iconic or innovative?
Given that the three are almost identical, this is a non-factor. (Unless you’re a CityPASS holder.)
Are you a history buff? A picture-taker? A gadget geek?
My expert opinion
Personally, I care more about the photo opportunities available than about how lost I’m certain to get. I appreciate a speedy, no frills experience more than I do bragging rights. But some smooth sax action is really cool. Ooh, this is hard. I really do love all three.
If I had to go with just one[drumroll]
I’d say Top of the Rock is the best observation deck in New York City. I choose Top of the Rock for it’s location, lack of a significant wait and mandatory time commitment, but mostly because it offers the best photo ops in all of New York City.
For those who agree with me, the New York CityPASS is the best option. With it you’ll be able to visit both of these while avoiding having to make such cutthroat decisions.
Which did you decide on for best observation deck in New York City?
Let me know below!
But first, pin me ⇣⇣⇣