King Kong got a bad rap–all he wanted was a better view! Wow. It really is hard out here for a chimp.
The Kong and I have a lot in common as a matter of fact. We’re both a little misunderstood; we both get considerably cranky when we’re hungry; and I, too, would be happier on a tropical island populated by dinosaurs. But our biggest similarity is probably the fact that we both prefer seeing the Big Apple from high atop the tallest tree in the jungle.
On my first trip to New York City almost twelve 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 for another nine years 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 priority numero uno. Proclaiming how much I need a shower but going straight to the pub anyway, a close second.
But since we’re all time-budget travelers here and most likely don’t have the time, money, or desire to experience all three, like the bespectacled nerd trying to win the admiration of the quarterback, 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 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. Take it away Johnny!
EMPIRE STATE BUILDING
First up we’ve got New York City’s most iconic landmark—after Shake Shack and Hook and Ladder 8, the firehouse from Ghostbusters, naturally. It loves: getting struck by lightning, starring in movies, raspberry colored sunsets, and getting things down off the highest shelf for you. Meet: the Empire State Building!
Yo mama The Empire State Building is so massive and home to so many companies that it has its own zip code. I mean, we’ve all seen the mailroom, right?–insanity. And yes, in this twisted version of The Dating Game size most definitely matters. It was built from scratch in just ELEVEN MONTHS and all during the height (depth?) of the Great Depression. It took me eleven months just to figure out how to get to work without using GPS and the success rate is still less than 80%.
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.
This observation deck is for: movie lovers, romantics, architecture and history nerds, apes, dads and other sports enthusiasts, and foreigners who probably don’t know about the other two.
- The 86th floor observation deck at the ESB is an open-air observatory. It’s the amphitheater of observation decks, if you will. All we need is a patch of grass and some sweet, sweet jams. (Hang on to your flower crown chica, they’re coming…)This factor is important to me as someone who prioritizes photography and who also enjoys the rush of will I or won’t I get blown away in a fierce wind? (In the summer, the breeze at 1,000 feet is sweeter than a 10-minute drum solo and worth the price of admission alone.) But most importantly, because it’s open-air you get real photos–ones that aren’t tinted green from the 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?
- BUT there’s an indoor observation deck on the 80th floor if the weather sucks but you’ve already bought your tickets despite your spouse’s warnings about the forecast that you pretended not to hear because then if it did rain you’d have to admit he/she was right and you know that. just. ain’t. happening.
- A great location in the center of Manhattan — only one block away from the 34th Street/Herald Square subway station and half a block from the nearest Xi’an Foods. ⇠EAT HERE, I mean it!
- With a closing time of 2:00 am, the ESB has the longest hours of all three observatories. Because what else matters as much as size? Stamina.
- The Empire State Building is iconic and famous and historically significant–who wouldn’t want to say they’ve been to the top where Harry met Sally? No? Wrong New York City-based, Meg Ryan Rom-Com?
- The Empire State Building has the friendliest employees. Something perhaps only a Southerner or a Care Bear would notice but still… worth mentioning.
- 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.
- On Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays between 9:00 pm and midnight there is a saxophonist on the 86th floor observation deck. Bring on the sweet, sweet jams, muh man!
- With the New York CityPASS you can go up to the Empire State Building observation deck TWICE in one day. The internal struggle of whether to go up during the day or after dark is real for some people so this eliminates some stressful decision making you’ll want to reserve for later when you’re asked “Red sauce or no?”
- The lines. Imagine the longest line you’ve ever waited in. Now, quadruple it (or, if you live somewhere like Mississippi or Arkansas, multiply it by a factor of 20). Fill it with dads who “have had enough of your attitude!” and moms who “just don’t understand what’s taking so long!” Add in a human body from literally every single country on planet Earth and sprinkle it with teenagers who’ve been looking at their phone screens so long they still think they’re in line for their flight to JFK.
And there’s your late afternoon at (and all the way around the block of) the Empire State Building.
HOWEVER, visit between 8:00 am and 11:00 am and there won’t be a single person in line.
- Those great views from the top lack one major thing–the EMPIRE STATE BUILDING. The most iconic aspect of the New York City skyline is absent from all your photos so basically you’re just on vacation taking pictures of office buildings.
Notable sights you can see from the top of the Empire State Building (that you can’t see from the others) include: the Chrysler Building, Madison Square Garden, the Flatiron Building, Yankee Stadium, and the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, the longest suspension bridge in America.
VIEWS FROM THE TOP
TOP OF THE ROCK
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!
This observation deck is for: ironically, people who love the Empire State Building, photographers, those who got confused and thought they were buying tickets to see Jimmy Fallon.
- In my opinion, the best views in 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 deck swings both ways and provides perfect views of both uptown and downtown Manhattan.
- Because 30 Rockefeller Plaza is so uninspiring, you won’t miss out on anything by standing on it–unlike with the Empire State Building.
- I’ve been up here many times and at all different times of the day and it’s never crowded. Long lines don’t necessarily signify something awesome. Good things also come to those who don’t wait and, in this case, brevity is totally sexy.
- It, too, is included in the New York CityPASS. Building #2 likes to save you time and money… could this be a Cinderella story after all? Everyone loves an underdog! Even if he is bald and drives a Dodge Stratus.
- Top of the Rock is also an open-air observation deck (+ two floors of indoor viewing platforms). And this one is totally open–nothing held back here. Not feelings, not emotions… not arms or cameras either. (I mean, there aren’t any bars–was that clear?) There are also concrete walls which can be used as makeshift tripods (see next photo — unsee the ‘do).
- 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.
- Rockefeller Center is confusing as shit. (all together…) How confusing is it? I have less of a clue as to what’s going on here than I do a Japanese-language organic chemistry class. 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 no one around who works there. There are TWO Top of the Rock ticket offices that appear completely unrelated. Sometimes you’re supposed to use one and sometimes the other? I could recite the complete Gettysburg Address more confidently than I could answer that question.
Most recently I was directed to one 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, woman!”
- With the observation deck on the 70th floor, it’s most definitely getting cut from the basketball team in the first round of tryouts. The views are fantastic but if it’s height you want, skip this one; just let it down easy.
- You can’t look straight down. Well, you can, just not very far.
Notable sights you can see from the Top of the Rock (that you can’t see from the others) include: Central Park, Times Square, American Museum of Natural History, the Empire State Building, and, if your husband lifts you up over his head, St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
VIEWS FROM THE TOP
ONE WORLD OBSERVATORY
Finally we’ve made it to our final contestant, our youngest yet most monumental / inspirational / revolutionary bachelor, ugh building! It enjoys geology, the color blue, high-tech gadgets, and being the first to know when it rains. Meet: One World Trade Center!
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. Show us that Blue Steel!
The base of the building is 200 square feet–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.
This observation deck is for: architecture nerds of the modern variety, techies, one-uppers, people who like the color blue, da ba dee da ba daa.
- Great location. Chances are you’ll be in lower Manhattan checking out the 9/11 Memorial and Museum or the new 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 yearbook superlatives 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… holy shit is this the place for you.
The elevator ride blew my freaking 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 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! In the architectural dating game, this is called foreplay. 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.
- The whole experience is futuristic / technology-centric making it the best possible option for learning about the surroundings and proving that nerds rule.
- Because this one is the youngest, being with it makes you feel young too. Here, you’re not a senior citizen until you’re 65! Play on, playa.
- 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 (yeah, because that had promising written all over it–it’s my fault for not bailing immediately after I learned his full name was comprised of the names of not one, but TWO Sesame Street characters). I like to be out there, the air blasting me in the face, with nothing between the sights and my own eyes (and camera lenses).
- Since this observatory opened just last year, the lines and wait times are insane. No matter what time you go. Made even worse by the fact that One World Observatory is open fewer hours than an Italian post office.
- The technology they offer visitors is like something from 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.
- The One World Observatory is not included in the New York CityPASS.
- Similar to the problem the Empire State Building has, you can’t see One World Trade Center from the inside of One World Trade Center.
- And while this is partly my fault, taking pictures from inside One World Observatory SUCKS.
Similar to the fact that I don’t like taking pictures through windows is the fact that I don’t like visiting observatories at night. Had I been a better planner, I would have visited during the day but my trip up One World Trade Center was more or less a snap decision based solely on the assumption it was either that or jail.
While my dad and husband toured the 9/11 Museum together, I decided to wander around the Memorial until they were done. Since I had about two hours to kill I made my way over to One World Trade Center to see how many dumplings it would cost to visit the observatory. A security guard approached me and inquired as to how many were in my party. “Just me!” I said, letting him know I was a strong and independent woman capable of riding elevators alone. He responded, “Good, come with me,” and took my arm.
I thought for sure they’d decided to bring in the lone, hooded figure who’d been wandering around the 9/11 Memorial in the dark for questioning. I wondered immediately who would shout obscenities in public and embarrass my husband at social functions if I went to prison. He handed me a tri-folded piece of paper and said, “Today is your lucky day. That’s my last free pass,” then led me to the front of the line. So big shout out to the security guard who threw a lonely girl a bone. That didn’t come out right.
And that’s how I ended up visiting One World Observatory after dark. That’s also why I ended up with fewer decent photos than Courtney Love. Even at night, 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 and coffee mugs like any self-respecting human being.
Notable sights you can see from the One World Observatory (that you can’t see from the others) include: the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, the Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, Washington Square Park, and I imagine some other swell stuff but had I brought my night vision goggles I’d most certainly have been locked up.
VIEWS FROM THE TOP
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 juuuust enough to get unadulterated views of the skyline so 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…
The rest of them look like this…
SO WHICH IS THE BEST OBSERVATION DECK IN NEW YORK CITY?
Alright, time is up. It’s now time to decide which of our mystery 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.
LOCATION: 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? Do you require that fresh, hand-pulled noodles be no farther away than two blocks?
VIEWS: What exactly do you want to see? Iconic Manhattan skylines? As far into the distance as possible? People acting out scenes from romantic comedies starring Tom Hanks?
TIME: 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?
HISTORY: Do you want modern engineering or historic art deco or blends right in with everything else around it? Do you prefer iconic or innovative?
PRICE: Given that the three are almost identical, this is a non-factor. (Unless you’re a CityPASS holder.)
YOU: Are you a history buff? A picture-taker? A gadget geek?
Personally, I care more about the photo opportunities available than about how lost I’m certain to get. I appreciate a speedy, no bullshit experience more than I do bragging rights. But some smooth sax action is a major turn-on. Ooh, this is hard. I really do love all three. But if I had to choose just one, I’d have to go with…
Top of the Rock–for it’s location, lack of a significant wait and mandatory time commitment, and the best photo ops in New York City. Empie is a close second.
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.
Like this post?
Sign up here to get fresh posts + the MWL monthly newsletter full of behind the scenes travel and blogging updates ⇢ straight to your inbox!