One of the most famous things about New York is its skyline. It’s something that is imprinted on the minds of most travellers from a young age.
When visiting the city, most people are keen to enjoy the view from one of the well-known viewing galleries, like the Empire State Building or the Top of the Rock deck at the Rockefeller Center.
But if you’re only in New York for a short trip and don’t have time to visit both, which one should you choose?
The Empire State Building
One of the most popular tourist attractions in New York, the Empire State Building is the obvious choice for anyone wanting a glimpse of the spectacular view across the city. It’s featured in films like An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle and is an iconic part of the skyline in its own right.
Observation deck is higher
Visit the Empire State Building and you’ll be whisked up to the 86th floor, with the option to head up to the observatory on the 102nd floor, which usually requires an additional fee.
Bonus visit with CityPASS
We were lucky enough to visit the Empire State Building twice on my birthday: once in the morning, and then again at night.
This is because we bought a CityPASS, which provides entrance to six of the city’s major attractions at a discounted rate. As a bonus, the CityPASS provides a second ticket for the Empire State Building, which you have to use for an evening visit on the same day as your first visit.
You can see some of the photos I took on our evening visit here.
Note: Top of the Rock does have its own Sun and Stars ticket, which comes in at $42 (adult).
Can be very busy
Depending on the time of day you choose to visit, it can become a very busy. That can means queues of an hour or more before you can actually get up to the viewing floors. The staff manage the process well and each elevator load of visitors must wait for one to come down before they can go up to prevent overcrowding, but it can still get really busy on the observation deck, which can make it difficult to find a good spot to enjoy the view.
I did manage to obstruct somebody else’s view through the binoculars after getting carried away taking photos in what initially looked like a free spot. Sorry.
Supposedly the best times to visit if you want to avoid the queues are before 10am or after 8pm, and we did find it much quieter at night.
Exposed to the elements
As we visited in December, it shouldn’t be any surprise that it was cold and very windy. The viewing platform is quite exposed, as the safety barriers are made of a heavy wire mesh that doesn’t offer much protection from the weather. On the plus side, it’s easy to snap photos through the gaps. However, the 102nd floor observatory, which we didn’t visit, is enclosed.
Top of the Rock
View includes the Empire State Building
The main reason to visit Top of the Rock is because it offers one important thing its rival does not: a view of the city that includes the Empire State Building. It might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how much it improves the already amazing view!
Although the two buildings are only a few blocks apart, I thought the view from the Rockefeller Center was slightly better than that of the Empire State Building. As it’s further uptown, it also offers a much better view of Central Park (although the 102nd floor at the Empire State Building does apparently offer a clearer view than the lower observation deck).
Book a time slot
Top of the Rock limits visitor numbers by assigning everyone a time slot for their visit. You have to book in advance, which you can do online, or turn up at the ticket office on the day and choose the one you want. We arrived around 2pm and booked in for the next available slot, which was 2.50pm. There are plenty of shops and restaurants in the Rockefeller complex, so you can easily pass the time if you don’t want to go away and come back later.
Much more sheltered
Unlike the viewing area at the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock is actually quite sheltered from the wind. Rather than safety wire, it uses sheets of safety glass, which seem to block out the worst of the weather.
Viewing area is more spacious
The viewing area at Top of the Rock also has a different layout to the Empire State Building. Rather than a central room with a narrow walkway all the way round, it is made up of a lobby with floor to ceiling windows, with a spacious balcony on either side. There are several benches and even in December it was a pleasant space to sit outside enjoying the view.
As well as the main platform on the 67th floor, you can also take an escalator up to the 69th and 70th floors to enjoy the view from there.
Viewing gallery isn’t as high
Whereas the viewing gallery at the Empire State Building is on the 86th floor, at Top of the Rock it’s on the 67th floor. Still pretty high, but not quite as impressive, especially if you’ve taken the extra trip up to the top deck on the 102nd floor of the Empire State.
Not as iconic
Although the Rockefeller Center is fairly well known – along with the Christmas tree and the skating rink – many people haven’t heard of Top of the Rock and it isn’t as recognisable.
Ticket office is tucked away
We got the train to the Rockefeller Center’s own subway station, so we emerged into the network of tunnels that run underneath the plaza and its 19 buildings. It is a bit of a hike to Top of the Rock, which was more noticeable for us as my husband is recovering from a knee injury. So it’s worth bearing in mind that depending on where you’re travelling from, it may be just as easy to walk rather than use the subway.
The ticket office for Top of the Rock is tucked away among a row of generic looking underground shops and cafes. It’s only small, but there wasn’t much of a queue when we arrived (you can use one of the ticket machines to exchange your CityPASS and some other pre-bought tickets).
The entrance to Top of the Rock can also be found in this underground plaza.
Glass barriers make it harder to take photos
Although the glass barriers are great for providing shelter, they can be a bit annoying when it comes to taking photos, as anyone who has ever tried to snap a great picture through a window or a display case will know.
Each sheet is huge, but there are gaps between them so you can get close enough to take a good photo. However, the 70th floor does provide an unobstructed view.
So which is better?
There isn’t really much between these two attractions; both offer a very similar experience, for a similar price. A lot of people will choose to visit the Empire State Building because it is the most famous, but I think Top of the Rock may have just edged it for me.
Although the viewing gallery there isn’t as high, I found the view was better – perhaps because the presence of the Empire State Building made a big difference, as you can see in some of these photos. The observation deck was also less crowded and less exposed to the elements, so I was happy to stay for longer, even in the winter.
But whichever place you choose, I’d recommend a night-time visit as it’s so worth seeing the city all lit up, in its full glory.
Of course, the observation deck at One World Trade Center is due to open this spring and will no doubt become just as popular.
Have you visited either or both of these attractions? Which was your favourite? Maybe you know of an even better viewing spot in New York City? Leave ‘em in the comments!
Notes for your visit
It’s worth remembering that once you’re inside, both attractions have a similar entrance process. You’ll go up a floor or two, where you’ll need to queue to have your tickets checked and go through airport style security. This is common in New York, so be ready to remove your coat and go through the body scanner.
Both attractions have a small display or film on the history of the building to keep you entertained while you’re in the queue.
Empire State Building: 8am to 2am, final elevator at 1:15am
Top of the Rock – 8am to midnight, final elevator at 11pm
Empire State Building $29 (adult)
Top of the Rock $29 (adult)