How to Choose Between the Empire State Building and the Top of the Rock
When the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center—two of America’s most famous buildings—are in your own backyard, you’re at risk of losing that sense of awe and wonderment that oozes from a double-decker bus full of visitors from out of town. So we gave two New Yorkers the chance to play tourist in their own city and answer one of the most popular questions first timers going to NYC ask: “Should I visit the Empire State Building or the Top of the Rock?”
Empire State Building
The world's tallest building from 1931 to 1977, the Empire State Building is topped with a stepped art deco pinnacle that's floodlit at night and boasts holiday and commemorative colors throughout the year. The Empire State Building wins the title of New York's best observation deck, according to Michele Laufik, a writer and editor based in Spanish Harlem who's called New York City home for more than a decade. Here's how she ranked the New York icon.
The views: 3/5
"OK, I’ll admit it, because of its location in Midtown East, the views from the Empire State Building’s 360-degree, 86th-floor observation deck aren’t as impressive as those from the Top of the Rock (which include glimpses of Central Park and the Empire State Building), but you do get a postcard-worthy perspective of the World Trade Center and lower Manhattan, as well as the New Jersey skyline. And at 1,050 feet (320 meters) it beats the Top of the Rock (850 feet (259 meters)) in terms of height."
The exhibits: 5/5
"Thanks to a major overhaul in July 2019, the new and improved visitor experience on the second floor offers interactive, museum-quality exhibits that detail the history of the Empire State Building, from its construction to modern day. (So even if you’ve been here before, the revamped galleries make it worth a return trip.) There’s even an homage to the building’s most famous, uninvited tenant—King Kong. Be sure to stop and pose with the giant ape as he appears to dangle outside the windows. Plus, you can learn how the elevators work, which is way more interesting than it sounds."
The history and architecture: 5/5
"The Empire State Building, which was listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places in 1982, is perhaps the most recognizable image of New York, with its distinct art deco outline that pierces the cityscape. As part of the recent “Empire State ReBuilding” initiative, areas of the landmark skyscraper are being carefully restored to the original art deco design, including using the same old-school techniques to recreate the lobby’s ceiling mural."
The VIP experiences: 4/5
"With a standard ticket, you get access to the 86th-floor observation deck, but you can easily upgrade to see the panoramic views from the renovated 102nd-floor observation deck, which reaches 1,250 feet (381 meters) into the air. Sunrise experiences are also offered from both the 86th and 102nd floors or look out over the city during the day and then again at night with a 2-for-1 option. There’s also the ultra exclusive experience that includes a personal guide and access to the VIP entrance and celebrity green room."
The dining options: 3/5
"Dining options are somewhat limited here, as compared to Rockefeller Center. The State Grill and Bar, located in the lobby, does offer a specially-priced business lunch and a 3-course prix-fixe dinner, both of which are available only to visitors of the observation deck, and the restaurant’s menu focuses on local ingredients, from the Hudson Valley to the North Fork, to keep you in that Empire State of Mind. There are also a few fast casual-type eateries like Tacombi for a quick and easy bite."
The bottom line
"Overall, if you’re looking to experience a classic New York moment, the Empire State Building is a must, and as Deborah Kerr’s character in An Affair to Remember says, it’s 'the closest thing to heaven in this city.'"
Ways to experience the Empire State Building
Top of the Rock
One of New York City’s most famous buildings, 30 Rockefeller Plaza boasts 360-degree vistas from its multi-tiered sky-high observation deck. It's the Top of the Rock that stands out as the place to get the best views in New York City, according to Brooklyn-based Peter Neely, a writer who's lived all over New York, from Harlem to Crown Heights. Here's how he ranked the legendary skyscraper.
The views: 4/5
"Peering out from 67 stories above New York's bustling streets, I'm awe-struck by the Empire State Building, One World Trade, and Central Park. I was hoping for a better look at the Chrysler Building, but unfortunately, it's a partial view. Stepping onto the windswept deck, I visit the three indoor and outdoor platforms—leading to the 70th floor—where I set foot on the actual top of 'The Rock.'"
The exhibits: 2/5
"The Mezzanine Exhibit features historic images and wall text, but I wanted richer details and engaging interactives. Past security, there's a handful of artifacts, including an original NBC microphone, but most visitors seemed to breeze past. I skipped the souvenir photo op (you can pose with the Beam Walk image) and headed into the theater for three mini-documentaries on the history of Rockefeller Center. The experience lasts about 15 minutes."
The history and architecture: 4/5
"I was ensconced in historic details before I even entered the building. Approaching the plaza entryway along Fifth Avenue, it's hard to miss the towering art deco Atlas statue in the building's forecourt. Entering the lobby, the murals spanning the ceiling and walls are outstanding, and the black-and-gold tiling offers a classy 1930s touch. The building's lobby is definitely a fortuitous start to the experience."
The VIP experiences: 4/5
"The VIP options at Top of the Rock offer outstanding perks: VIP access means you can skip the queue and ride in a priority elevator, which is a major benefit at this popular attraction. Timed ticketing can work to your advantage—if you arrive early, but you may be out of luck if you want a coveted sunset view. All-access passes come with a Rockefeller Center tour, while the New York CityPASS offers reduced-price general admission plus extra discounts around town."
The dining options: 5/5
"As a coffee enthusiast, I started my outing with a chicory-infused iced coffee at Blue Bottle, and discovered plentiful dining options on the Concourse Level. Highlights include a bagel shop, sushi bar, and Sweetgreen—a New York staple for salads. Though seating is limited, the stand-up tables are serviceable, and some offer ice rink views. For an evening excursion, try Bar SixtyFive for cocktails with a view, or opt for dinner at one of the street-level fine dining establishments."
The bottom line
"Top of the Rock may get short shrift in "best view" debates, yet it's the Rock that offers the best views of the Empire State Building through its glass-paneled viewing decks. Admiring this New York architectural gem up close truly makes the experience a standout."
Ways to experience the Top of the Rock