Empire State Building vs Top of the Rock: The Best Observation Decks in NYC (+One World & Summit)

Is there anything more impressive than the NYC skyline?

It just might be the most famous skyline in the world so most people traveling to the city make plans to go up in one of the skyscrapers to check out the view.

Of Course, the Empire State Building is the big one, but there are a handful of options when it comes to the big skyscraper observatories in New York City.

Now here’s the deal…I am new to the world of going to the top of tall buildings. As someone who’s moderately afraid of heights, it’s not something I imagined I would enjoy much so I never sought them out. But a trip to Chicago earlier this summer saw me going up to the top of the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) to recreate the scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Well, a quick pre-NYC trip poll among my readers (hey, it’s you!) revealed that the people want to know which observatory is best…Empire State Building vs Top of the Rock vs One World Observatory…if you’re only going to go one, which one should you pick??

So on my last trip to New York, I made plans to visit the “big three” NYC skyscraper observatories to see for myself.

And now, apparently I am a person who goes up in skyscrapers. Maybe it’s a new travel blogging niche for me ; )

Empire State Building vs Top of the Rock vs One World Observatory

Okay, so on this trip I visited the three biggest/tallest/most famous NYC observatories:

The Empire State Building

Top of the Rock

One World Observatory

Here are my overall impressions: the Empire State Building and the Top of the Rock are the two that are the easiest to compare. They’re in the same part of town and they have similar views. Top of the Rock and the main deck of the Empire State Building are about the same height. And pricewise, the general admission options are pretty similar (Empire State Building is about $4 more expensive).

Between the two, the Empire State Building was by far my favorite. 

It’s just soooooo iconic, and there’s so much nostalgia that it just feels like a bigger experience. It’s one of the most famous buildings in the world! And so many movies have been filmed there that you feel like you already know it.


Both the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock have indoor and outdoor viewing areas, but the outdoor viewing platform on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building (yes, the one where Tom Hanks met Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle) is MAGICAL.

It’s crowded, and everyone is pressed shoulder to shoulder, but when the sun sets and the lights start to come on, there’s a kind of quiet energy that just feels like New York City.

I noticed in all of the other observatories I’ve been to, people jockey around for the perfect position to get their photos and selfies and then move on to the next thing, but here once people find a spot along the ledge and they take their photos, they just kind of…stay. Staring out across the city, pointing out this and that, whispering with their friends and family. Just being.

I think it being open air has a lot to do with that. It’s different when you’re looking out a window. But feeling the breeze and hearing the faint sounds of the city below, you really do feel like you’re up in the clouds.

10/10 would recommend.

I didn’t dislike Top of the Rock, but it just didn’t feel as special. Actually, I think the biggest selling point for Top of the Rock is that you get a good view of the Empire State Building itself ; )

And the views of Central Park are a little better because you’re closer (only a factor during the day though).

I’ll get more into each experience below.

Now, if the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock are apples to apples, the One World Observatory is an orange. Still a fruit, but not as directly comparable.

Partly it’s the location. While the other two are up in midtown, the One World Observatory is at the top of the One World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. So the views are totally different. While the views from the midtown buildings are way more iconic, I actually think the view from the One World is more interesting.

Down at the southern end of the island you’re in a prime location to see out over Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Connecticut on a clear day.

The One World Observatory is completely glass (no outdoor viewing decks) and it’s on the 102nd floor (as opposed to the 86th-ish floor of the other two).

It feels new, and modern and bright whereas the other two have a vintage (but also iconic) feel. And it has some pretty show stopping technology.

Also, it’s the World Trade Center. And that brings a lot of emotion. 

It’s a great activity to pair with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (I suggest doing the observatory first and then the museum) and it’s really close to Battery Park and the Staten Island Ferry if you’re planning to visit the Statue of Liberty.

If you’re only going to visit one observatory in NYC, I think you have to choose between the Empire State Building and the One World Observatory. But they’re both very much worth doing and ultimately offer pretty different experiences.

Now let’s get into the details of visiting each observatory.

I’m going to go in the order that I visited these…

Top of the Rock

The building is actually 30 Rockefeller (yep, 30 Rock like the TV show) in Rockefeller Center, but Top of the Rock has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

This was pretty much the first thing I did in NYC after my plane landed and I checked into my hotel so I didn’t make reservations in advance because I wasn’t sure exactly what time I would get there.

Rockefeller Center is a nice, tourist friendly area with plenty to see like Radio City Music Hall and the famous ice skating rink. And there are plenty of signs to let you know exactly where the observatory is.

We walked into the lobby and bought tickets from a lady at a desk, went through security and started winding our way through the queue. Now there really wasn’t much of a line, but they have different exhibits stretched out linearly to kind of break up the flow of people so not everyone hits the elevators at the same time.

There’s a small theater that you walk through that rotates through different videos about building Rockefeller Center, Rockefeller Center at Christmas time, etc and then you stop in front of a green screen where they take a photo of each group.

And then we loaded onto the elevators and went right to the top. The ceiling of the elevator is plexiglass so you can watch as you go up and they play some projections of major world events on a timeline.

The floor where the elevators open has a few different decks where you can go outside, but on this floor they’re lined with plexiglass. Some of the barriers have fun designs and they’ve got one that lines a heart up perfectly around the Empire State Building. They know their photo ops.

From there you go up an escalator to the next floor and that deck is open air with a chest high railing/wall.

And from there you can walk up a small staircase to the highest (smaller) deck where there’s just a waist high railing. It’s the best spot to take photos.

I was there about 4PM on a Sunday and it wasn’t crowded at all. I would not pay the extra $$$ for the Express Pass here.

A note about photos: When I was doing research before my trip, I found a few travel bloggers who said that the Top of the Rock was a better experience than the Empire State Building (part of what made me want to do both), and here’s what I’ve figured out about that…if you are a content creator/blogger or just someone who’s invested in taking the best possible photos of yourself for social media, it is much easier to take photos at Top of the Rock than the Empire State Building. 

Partly because it’s less crowded but also because of the double decker observatory at the top. If you go all the way to the top platform and stand at the edge, someone still has enough space to get far enough away from you to get a photo with the backdrop (and no people in it because they’re on the deck below), or you can stand on the lower deck and they can take the photo from the upper deck.

And at the Empire State Building, the observation deck is just so narrow and and crowded that it’s going to be hard to get those influencer pics ; )

So if taking photos of yourself is the priority, then yes, the Top of the Rock has the advantage over the Empire State Building.

I mentioned this before, but one of the strengths of Top of the Rock is that it has great views OF the Empire State Building.

And also better views of Central Park as it’s a little closer. But if you’re going to sunset or after dark, that won’t matter as much.

The Logistics

Here’s the pricing breakdown for the Top of the Rock:

General Admission is $40/Adult, $38/Senior, $34/Child.

The Express Pass (priority entry through security and the elevators) is $75/person.

The VIP Tour (which includes a personal tour and access to the Rainbow Room) is $110/person.

The Rock Pass which includes general admission to the observation deck AND a group tour or Rockefeller Center is $56/person.

Of all of these options, I would just do general admission, or possibly the Rock Pass if you’re also interested in the tour of Rockefeller Center (they have multiple times throughout the day).

The Top of the Rock is open from 9AM to 11PM every day.

The Top of the Rock is located at Rockefeller Centeron 50th between 5th and 6th Avenue. If you’re taking the subway, the B, D, F & M trains (orange) all have stops at Rockefeller Center. 

Empire State Building

The Empire State Building has to be among just a small handful of the most famous and recognizable buildings in the world.

I’m not sure why, but I always had it in my mind that going to the top of the Empire State Building had to be an incredibly cheesy and touristy thing to do. Something I would do for my blog, but not something I’d actually enjoy that much.

Boy was I WRONG!

This is a completely iconic experience and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the top attractions in a city filled with top attractions.

Okay, so here’s how it went. A visit to the Empire State Building starts off with a little confusion. There’s usually a line of people out on the sidewalk, but what are they waiting for? Do they already have tickets? Are they waiting to buy tickets? Well, yes. The people on the sidewalk are confused too ; )

The line you see on the sidewalk in front of the ESB is supposed to be for people who have already purchased tickets and are waiting for their time slot (usually in 15 minutes) to be called to go up. 

The line outside is not to buy tickets. Either buy tickets online in advance or tell the man managing the crowd at the door that you need to buy them and he’ll let you inside so you can go upstairs to buy them. It’s not super straightforward. But once you’re inside you go up to the second floor and purchase them from a kiosk (there are only kiosks, there are no humans). So you might as well just stand out on the sidewalk and buy them on your phone.

Once you have your ticket and it’s within 30 minutes or so of your arrival time, they’ll usually let you in the line at the sidewalk. They let the people from the line outside into the building about 15 minutes before their printed arrival time. Once you’re in the building, you’re in the queue. You’ll go through security and start winding your way through all of the exhibits which kind of thin the crowds.

There are a couple of really fun ones! Don’t miss the King Kong photo op and I really liked the theater where they play scenes from all of the movies and shows that have filmed at the ESB.

They’ll snap your photo in front of a green screen (there’s always a photo op!) and then you load into the elevators.

The elevator ride up to the 86th floor is pretty quick and there’s a great video they play on the ceiling that shows the progress of the building being built as you rise.

You actually stop at the 85th floor first and that whole floor is done up with exhibits and windows to look out, but what you realllllly want is the observation deck on the 86th floor. I can’t remember if it was another elevator or an escalator if we just walked up some steps, but the 86th floor is the iconic view that you know from the movies.

I’ve said before…it was pretty magical. The sun had set and the lights were all starting to come on. There was a bit of a breeze and the temperature felt a little cooler. But mostly what I noticed was how everyone was whispering. It’s like people thought if they talked too loudly they’d break the spell.

Anyways, you kind of have to wait and jockey around for a spot at the ledge and once you get a spot most people just stand there and look out for awhile (a lot longer than I’ve seen them do at other observatories).

Now here’s where the adventure begins…the 86th floor is the “Main Deck” and it’s what everybody comes for, but they’ve also opened up a new “Top Deck” on the 102nd floor which is a more…intense…experience.

Well, remember the part where I said I really don’t like heights? I wasn’t bothered at all at the Top of the Rock or the 86th Main Deck of the Empire State Building, but the 102nd Top Deck freaked me out pretty good.

I really didn’t know much about it, but figured I should do it all to report back. And now I know! The 102nd floor is actually the little glass ring that you see on top of the ESB. Like up on the antenna. It’s all glass and it’s probably only 30 feet wide or so.

It’s the same view as the 86th, just higher and you feel oh so closer to the edge. 

You can also feel it swaying ; ) Needless to say, I was not a fan and I wouldn’t do it again. It’s also a roughly $35 add on from the Main Deck experience (and needs to be purchased at the time you buy your original ticket).

If you love heights/more extreme experiences then go for it, but I wouldn’t say it’s part of the classic Empire State Building Experience. I think for your average visitor (even one who’s not afraid of heights) it’s probably skippable for the price.

The Logistics

Here’s the pricing breakdown for the Empire State Building:

Access to the Main Deck (86th Floor): $44/adult, $42/senior, $38/child (6-12), 6 and under are free

Access to the Main Deck AND the Top Deck (102nd & 86th Floor): $77/adult, $74/senior, $71/child

There’s a $10-15 surcharge for sunset times (a roughly two hour window).

The Sunrise on 86th Floor Experience is $125/person and only offered on Saturday mornings. I would 100% do this on another trip to NYC. I just didn’t happen to be there on a Saturday this time.

Express Pass (priority entry) to the 86th & 102nd floors starts at $113. Again, I don’t think Express Pass is necessary here.

The Empire State Building is open from 9AM to 10PM every day.

The Empire State Building is located at 34th & 5th Ave. If you’re taking the subway, the 34th St/Penn Station stop (1, 2 or 3 RED train), the 33rd St (4 or 6 GREEN train) and 28th St (N, Q, R or W YELLOW train) are all pretty close. 

One World Observatory

Alrighty, let’s jet off downtown for something a little different. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know about this one.

The One World Trade (sometimes called the Freedom Tower) is the new skyscraper built next to ground zero where the Twin Towers stood. It’s the new World Trade Center, a financial hub of the world, and it’s modern in every way. But it also feels a bit like a memorial to what was there.

Now I’ll start off with this…there is nothing about the actual experience of going to the top of this building that is emotionally charged at all (nothing is referenced, there’s no tribute, etc.) except for the fact that everyone know what happened there, everyone walked past the memorial to get inside, and everyone is probably thinking about it the whole time.

So here’s how my last morning in NYC went: I bought tickets on my phone that morning for the very first time slot (9AM I think) and there was a decent line of people waiting to get in when the building opened.

There is a counter where you can buy tickets inside if you didn’t purchase them in advance. But keep in mind    (like all attractions with timed entry), time slots sell out (sometimes days in advance) so if you’re trying to stick to any kind of schedule, it’s best to buy in advance.

We went down an escalator, tickets were scanned, and then we went through airport style security. It was by far the most extensive security at any observation I’ve been to and given the location, you really can’t be surprised.

And then pretty much as soon as we finished with security we went around the corner and loaded on an elevator. Unlike other places that use a long physical queue with things to read and look at to disperse the crowd, this one didn’t have that at all.

These elevators seemed a lot bigger and I suspect since this building was built more recently, they just have a much better infrastructure for moving the crowds.

They also didn’t cram us in the elevator here. There were only six of us in total.

And this is by far the best elevator ride from a technology and entertainment point of view. As soon as the doors close and you start moving, all three walls and the ceiling come to life with video projections of what this part of Manhattan looked like starting with the original Natives and then the first European settlers. And as you go up, you move forward in time and it shows the growth of the city.

This is really where you’ll see the only reference to the Twin Towers. You see them slowly being built, blocking most of the view, and then suddenly in 2001 they’re gone.

The video lasts as long as the elevator ride (less than a minute) and moves quickly. It was captivating enough to make me forget that I was in a metal box speeding up 102 stories.

Once you exit the elevator, you enter a long room where everyone from all of the elevators comes and lines up. There are panels along the wall and they start a presentation about NYC’s ever changing skyline using videos and graphics until at the most climactic moment, the panels are raised to reveal floor to ceiling windows. It’s a showstopper.

From there everyone files through a checkpoint where they distribute the One World Explorers (iPads with a digital skyline guide) to the people who already paid for them and try to upsell the ones who didn’t.

And from there you’ve got as long as you want to enjoy the 360 degree views around the 102nd floor.

Don’t miss seeing one of the City Pulse presentations. There are two tour guides/city ambassadors on the floor at all times and they take turns doing the presentations and are also on hand to answer questions and engage with you.

We saw the first one of the day and it was a GREAT overview of the city (geographically and culturally). It would be a perfect first day activity for someone who’s never been to NYC before. And I think each presentation throughout the day is a little different.

There’s also a gift shop, coffee shop, and cafe on the floor.

I think we spent about an hour at the observatory, and it was a pretty pleasant experience. It didn’t feel crowded at all and the views were so different from the ESB and Top of the Rock that it felt like a whole new experience. Plus the technology that they use here is top notch.

And it pairs perfectly with a visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum below. It’s also near Battery Park and the Staten Island Ferry if you’re going to see the Statue of Liberty.

The Logistics

Here’s the pricing breakdown for the One World Observatory:

General Admission is $38/adult, $36/senior, $32/child (6-12).

The Combination Experience (which includes priority access and One World Explorer – the digital skyline guide) is $48/adult, $46/senior, $42/child (6-12).

The All Inclusive Experience (which includes a more flexible arrival time plus $15 store/restaurant credit) is $58/adult, $56/senior, $52/child (6-12).

The Mastercard VIP Tour (only available to Mastercard card holders) is $68/adult, $66/senior, $62/child (6-12).

The One World Observatory is open from 9AM to 8PM every day.

The One World Observatory is located at Fulton St and West St downtown. If you’re taking the subway, the World Trade Center (E BLUE train) is the closest stop, but there are several others in the area as well. 

The Summit

I didn’t know about the Summit before I went to NYC, but I heard about it from a few different people once I was there and got home.

It’s the newest observation deck in the city and it just opened a couple of years ago at the One Vanderbilt above Grand Central Station.

It looks pretty cutting edge (aka terrifying) and it uses mirrors and lights across three floors of glass to basically just blow your mind. Plus there are those little skyboxes that you can step out in like the Willis Tower in Chicago has. It all sounds completely awful for someone who hates heights, but the location is pretty ideal and it seems way more modern (maybe more on par with One World Observatory) than the ESP and Top of the Rock. I’ll have to try it next time!

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