Looking up

Empire State Building or Top of the Rock?

If there is a city where I would be happy pay to visit an observation deck to view the skyline, New York would be it. Arguably, the most famous observation deck in the city is also located near the top of arguably the world’s most famous skyscraper and icon of the New York skyline since 1931; the Empire State Building located on 33rd St. Needless to say however that by viewing New York from the Empire State, you will miss out on viewing the Empire State.

Not to fear however, as on 49th Street you have the Rockefeller Centre and the “Top of the Rock” observation deck.  Located uptown from the Empire State and Financial District, the Rockefeller gives you views of the bulk of the Manhattan skyline.

In terms of pricing and options, you have the choice at the Empire State Building to go to the 82nd storey main observation deck ($27.00), or the 102nd storey top deck ($44.00).  “Express” line tickets can be purchased for $50.00 and $67.00 respectively.

The Top of the Rock observation deck costs $29.00 for single entry, or $42.00 for two visits in the day (for daytime and evening).

Empire State Building vs Top of the Rock

Empire State
  • Online tickets valid for 1 year
  • +$2.00 handling fee for online purchase
  • No time window during day – use at any time from 8am to 1:15am (last elevator, closing at 2am)
  • Opportunity to purchase ‘express tickets’ for $50.00 to 82nd storey to skip the queues.
  • Top Deck is accessible (102nd storey) for $44.00, $67.00 express.

The views

If I could choose between either the Empire State or the Top of the Rock in terms of my favourite view, I would have to choose the Empire State.  Being closer to the Financial District and towering over the buildings in it’s immediate vicinity, I personally think it gives a greater appreciation for the already ridiculous density of skyscrapers on the island.

Looking across
View from Empire State looking downtown- Note: aircraft lining up to land…
Looking down
View from Empire State looking uptown

The Top of the Rock observatory, whilst giving views of the Empire State, does seem far removed from bustle of Manhattan.  With Central Park uptown of the Rockefeller, there isn’t much to see at night looking uptown (I’m sure it would look good), especially as Manhattan really flattens out past the Rockefeller as well.

Top of the Rock looking downtown at sunset
Top of the Rock looking downtown at sunset
Top of the Rock looking downtown.
Top of the Rock looking downtown.

What I will say is that great views of the skyline don’t necessary depend on the location – you’ll probably enjoy both, but rather the time of day that you visit.  You could choose a clear day, overcast, arrive at sunset or well into the night.

From a photo-taking perspective, clear days will probably result in a lot shadows in the city and reflections depending on the time of day.  Overcast, but not raining, snowing or too windy actually makes for neutrally developed photos, albeit you’ll have to brave the possibly cold weather if it’s winter (especially if there’s a polar vortex).  Snow would look cool but would hamper visibility.

However, I would definitely recommend arriving in time to catch the sunset, from either observation deck.  It’s here that the Rockefeller stands out with the time-window booking reservations as the lines for both can be ridiculously long at these peak times.

I actually visited the Empire State around 9pm and there were no lines to be seen.  But the length of the passageways to get to the lifts to take to you to the 82nd floor was never ending.  It wouldn’t surprise me if you had to wait up to 2 hours in a peak period.  At least along the way, there is a huge exhibition on the rejuvenation of the Empire State to make it more energy efficient and environmentally friendly and there is a stop on the way up to an exhibition on the building of the Empire State.

I did not go to the 102nd storey Top Deck as it was an enclosed area (bad for photos).  The 82nd storey Observation Deck is still an open air balcony stretching out from the enclosed and heated centre.  It get’s bloody windy up there!  Be sure to rug up and wear gloves and a beanie!

At the Top of the Rock, the observation deck is actually comprised of 3 levels.  The bottom two have glass walls (wind break) and the top is mostly exposed.  I wouldn’t bother spending too much time on the lower two levels, find the stairs and get to the top for the better and unobstructed views.  However, going up to the 3rd level means that you can’t get the same ‘looking down’ perspective of Manhattan that you get from the Empire State.

Second level of the Top of the Rock observation deck. Note – glass walls of the first level obstruct views.
Looking 'down' from the Empire state...
Looking ‘down’ from the Empire state…

So if I had to choose between either decks to view the Manhattan skyline, my personal choice would be the Empire State.  It’s better located, being closer to the buzz of Manhattan (and gives you views of Times Square as well), gives you better perspectives of the city, has a really good exhibition on the construction of the building (you stop here on the way up) and the work currently being done to modernise it and finally there’s not much price difference, unless you go with the express options.  Just watch the time and conditions when you want to go and prepare to wait a long time during the peak periods.

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