Skyline Faceoff — Empire State Building vs. Top of the Rock

New York City skyline view, including the Empire State Building taken from the Top of The Rock, photography by NSL Photography

When anyone travels to big cities, one of the most requested locations is where one can see and photograph the best panorama of the city. For a trip to New York City, that means the Empire State Building, or the Top of the Rock.

While in New York City recently, I decided to have a “skyline faceoff” between two of the most famous skyscrapers in the world, the Empire State Building, and the GE Building, and its Top of the Rock observation decks, to find out which is the best for “Big Apple” visitors to view, enjoy, and photograph the Manhattan skyline.

The Empire State Building, completed in 1931, is a 102 story skyscraper located in Midtown Manhattan. Including its iconic antenna spire it stands a 1,454 ft (443.2 m) tall. For 40 years, it was the world’s tallest building. The Empire State Building is designed in the distinctive Art Deco style. It’s a designated National Historic Landmark.

The GE Building, completed in 1933, is another Art Deco gem and National Historic Landmark. It’s the centerpiece of Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan. Previously known as the RCA Building, it houses the headquarters of the NBC television network. The 70 story building is 850 feet (259 m) tall, and is the 10th tallest building in New York City. The building’s nickname, “30 Rock,” is derived from its address, 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Both buildings have rich histories, but are perhaps most famous, due to the part they’ve played in the world of entertainment, with the Empire State Building having the edge.

I think, without a doubt, the most famous use of the Empire State Building in movies was in the 1933 film, “King Kong,” in which the title character, Kong, a giant ape, climbed to the top of the building to escape his captors, but after being attacked and shot by airplanes, fell to his death.

Of course, a whole generation of romantics remember the 1957 film “An Affair to Remember” and the rendezvous that didn’t happen atop the Empire State Building, between Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant, and more recently the 1993 film “Sleepless in Seattle,” in which the rendezvous between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks did happen, on the 86th floor observation deck of the building.

The GE Building has seen a great deal of NBC television history, from the national morning television news and entertainment show “The Today Show,” the first of its genre, to the original “Tonight Show,” to the current “Saturday Night Live.”

So, if I could only chose one, which building would I visit to view the panorama of the New York City skyline?

The Empire State Building has two observation decks, an open air terrace on the 86th floor, which also has an indoor area, and the 102nd floor indoor observatory. The open air terrace on the 86th floor is great for both viewing and photographing the New York City skyline. There are plenty of places to poke your lens out through the safety fence surrounding the deck. On the other hand, while the view from the 102nd floor is spectacular, it’s totally enclosed. Reflections alone, from the window glass, make great photographs difficult, especially after dark.

The Top of the Rock observation decks of the GE Building, are located on three floors. Both the 67th and 69th floors include outdoor terraces with fully transparent, safety glass. While these glass fences give the visitor an unobstructed view of the New York City skyline, they are a problem with light reflection, especially at night. The 70th floor observation deck, on the other hand, has a completely open air, unobstructed view of New York City’s skyline. Between the two buildings, the Top of The Rock has the best view of Central Park.

For photographers, both the Empire State Building and the Top of the Rock prohibit the use of tripods, making high quality night skyline photos more difficult. At the Top of The Rock, however, it’s easy to use a “bean-bag” on top of the low wall to steady cameras. It’s possible to do the same at the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, but it’s a bit more difficult.

The Empire State Building charges $25 for adults and $19 for children for the 86th floor observation deck only. If you also wish to go up to the 102nd floor observatory it will cost $42 and $36 respectively. You can use the tickets at any time, but at times the line to the elevators to the observation areas are very long, so you might want a combo express ticket for $64.50.

The Top of the Rock charges $25 for adults, and $16 for children. The ticket gives you access to all three observation decks. Tickets for the Top of the Rock have a specific date and time, so once you’re in line, the wait isn’t long.

So what’s my bottom line?

For my money, the skyline faceoff victory goes to the Top of the Rock.

The skyline view is spectacular at the Top of the Rock. It’s easy to get great photographs night and day. Plus, the Top of the Rock has the added benefit that its skyline view includes its more famous counterpart, the Empire State Building.

  • Anonymous

    Exactly right, seeing the ESB on balance gives the edge to Top of the Rock.

    I am shocked at the prices, however. Although I was born in nearby Connecticut and have spent a lot of time in Manhattan I’ve never been to the top of the ESB. Was planning to when we visit for a week in December but just scratched the ESB from The List.

    And with the Rainbow Room now closed (never had to pay an entrance fee if one dined there), the Rock is also off The List.

  • Anonymous

    As to the pricing, I was really surprised by the ESB prices when I decided to write this column. Express tickets are almost a must at most times during the day, especially near sunset, or visitors will waste a great deal of time waiting in line. Once the holiday season rolls in, express ticket will be more needed for the ESB. For a family of 4, $258 is otherworldly.

    Of course, while $88 for a family of 4 at the TOTR isn’t inexpensive, it is more or less in line with many NYC venues, although many museums don’t charge for children under 12. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is $25 for adults, $12 for students, and children are free. The neighborhood tours of the Tenement Museum, which I highly recommend for history buffs, cost $22 for adults, $17 for students, and children are free. They last between 1.5 and 2 hours.

    One of the best deals going is the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It’s $17 for adults, and $9 for children. You get the boat ride, both islands, and even the Statue of Liberty crown for that price. As of October 28th the crown is again open for a very limited number of visitors, but there are no open dates/times until December 9th, as I write this comment.

    As to the Rainbow Room, there appears to be good news. As of October 16th, the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission added the historic eatery to the city’s list of interior landmarks, making it the 115th. Apparently, that’s what Tishman Speyer, the owner, and the yet unnamed restaurateur was waiting for, to reopen the restaurant atop Rockefeller Center. It’s unknown when the Rainbow Room will reopen, but it looks as though that will finally happen. Some expect Tishman Speyer to have a public announcement about the restaurant by year’s end, but that the restaurant won’t open until next year.

  • Carolyn Ozcan

    I like the glass roof elevator at TOTR. Does the ESB have one too?

  • Nigel Appleby

    In January of last year we visited the Statue of Liberty from the New Jersey side. The worst part was the line ups for security checks. We got checked just like the TSA before we got on the ferry and again at Liberty Island before we went into the Statue. We didn’t get off at Ellis Island because of time constraints so I don’t know if security would have raised its ugly head again there.
    In my opinion a check before getting on the ferry should have sufficed for the the Statue as well – what a waste of money.

  • Anonymous

    Nigel, while it’s outside of the scope of the article, permit me to give some information concerning the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island.

    There is a specific security screening process whether you start from NY or NJ which is followed for both Liberty and Ellis Island.

    Before boarding one’s ferry to either island you have to go through security similar to the airport, except that the NPS is still using magnetometers (metal detectors), wands, and if necessary, pat-downs (reasonable ones, in my opinion, unlike at airports with TSA, and rarely done), no full body scanners. Belongings are carefully screened as well.

    Later at Liberty Island, only if you’re going inside the Statue of Liberty, you will pass through a secondary security screening at the base of the Statue before entering any portion of the monument. This includes going into the pedestal just to see the museum, when it reopens, or up to the Statue’s crown, which will reopen on October 28th.

    The NPS feels this secondary security is very important. They have apparently had threats in the past, which they won’t discuss, which included smuggled explosives to Liberty Island to be used by someone who came to the Statue as a visitor and got the smuggled explosives brought to the island earlier.

    There is currently no secondary screening at Ellis Island, and none in the planning stages, of which I’m aware.

    If you would visit Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, you would find that if you visit Independence Hall you will be screened, and then if you go directly to the Liberty Bell, you will be screen again, for example.

    Unfortunately, it’s all part of the world in which we live today. While they may be somewhat overly cautious at both the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Independence National Historical Park, these locations are national treasures and irreplaceable. I personally don’t find the security procedures at either location particularly burdensome, nor unwarranted. The NPS doesn’t treat visitors at either location like criminals unlike what we find at many airports with TSA, though they have an obvious serious demeanor at security at these locations.

    Just like going to the airport, when you go to such parks and monuments, you have to build in the necessary time to your trip to account for security.

    You’re going to find more and more historic travel locations and museums with serious security measures, as time goes by, in my opinion, and we’re all going to have to plan to deal with them. Heck, it takes about 30-45 minutes to get through security at many NFL stadiums to see the games. I’m far more inclined to be okay with security at the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell than a football game myself.