Top Of The Rock vs Empire State Building: Which Observation Deck Wins?

by Mark and Kristen Morgan
Best Observation Deck View in New York City - Top of the Rock Rockefeller Center or Empire State Building? The Ultimate Comparison

World famous New York City borough Manhattan is one of the most extraordinary urban landscapes on Earth. Taking in the famous concrete cityscape from a birds eye view is simply unmissable on a vacation to NYC – but which of the classic and iconic observation decks will you stand atop? Top of the Rock vs the Empire State Building?

One World Observatory (opened 2014) and Edge (opened 2020) are the latest additions to New York’s unrivaled array of mega-view observation deck options. Both offer unique and amazing perspectives over the city and Hudson River, but neither have those quintessential or traditional NYC views of being surrounded on all 4 sides by skyscrapers.

In an ideal world, you would summit all four observation decks and even include the Statue of Liberty Crown to complete the set. But we don’t all descend from the Rockefeller family!

In this guide we will explain everything you need to know about both Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building. We will discuss location, best exhibits, elevator experience, observation decks and best views by day, sunset and night.

At the end we will determine which is better value for money, has a better overall experience and which we personally call the winner. We’ll even throw in some handy photography tips for good measure.

Let’s find out which observation deck you will choose to soak up arguably the most recognizable skyline on the planet in the battle of the two towers…

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Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building Statistics and Facts
Year Opened:
  • Top of the Rock – 1933
  • Empire State Building – 1931
Building Height:
  • Top of the Rock – 260 m (base to top of antennas)
  • Empire State Building – 443.2 m (base to top of antenna)
Floor Count:
  • Top of the Rock – 70
  • Empire State Building – 102 (floor 103 access for VIP’s only)
Observation Deck Height:
  • Top of the Rock – 259 m
  • Empire State Building – 86th floor @ 320 m OR 102nd floor @ 381 m
Step Count from Street to Top Floor:
  • Top of the Rock – 1,215
  • Empire State Building – 1,860 steps
Cost to Build:
  • Top of the Rock – Estimated ~ US$ 250 million (additional plots of land included)
  • Empire State Building – US$ 41 million in 1931 (US$ 564 million today)

Which is Better – Top of the Rock or Empire State Building?

Let’s take a detailed look at some of the major comparisons between each observation deck experience so you know exactly what to expect.

Each section comes with our choice of which sky deck wins in that particular field. At the end we reveal our overall favorite and why.

Which do you think it will be?

1. Location and Access

Red carpet entrance with ornate revolving doors top of the rock
Top of the Rock

Top of the Rock observation deck is at the top of Rockefeller Center, one of many buildings located in Rockefeller Plaza on 5th and 6th avenues / 49th and 50th streets. Looking at a map of Manhattan, Rockefeller Center is between Times Square and Central Park.

Access to the building entrance is on W 50th Street, closer to 6th avenue and opposite Radio City. A bright red carpet with ‘Top of the Rock’ in huge letters builds instant excitement.

Closest subways to Top of the Rock:

  • Orange Line F, B, M, D –  47-50 Sts Rockefeller Center
  • Blue Line E – 5 Avenue 53 St Station
  • Green Line 6 – 51 St
Empire State Building

Head southwest through Manhattan, passing Times Square and Bryant Park as far as W 34th Street to find New York City’s historic landmark and centerpiece. The enormous Empire State Building is squashed tightly between 34th and 33rd streets / 5th and 6th avenues.

Access to the building entrance is on W 34th Street, half way between 5th and 6th avenues. No red carpet here, but look up for all the excitement you need.

Closest subways to Empire State Building:

  • Orange Line F, B, M, D –  34 St Herald Sq
  • Yellow Line N, R, Q – 34 St Herald Sq
  • Green Line 6 – 33 Street Station
  • Red Line 1, 2, 3 – 34 St Penn Station
Top of the Rock vs Empire State Best Location?
Top of the Rock

Both observation decks are extremely easy to access from many parts of the city. However, we’d say Top of the Rock just about edges it on location.

Most first time visitors to NYC will stay close to Times Square or Central Park and Rockefeller is between the two major attractions. There are also more touristy things to do near Rockefeller.

2. Exhibits

King Kong exhibit with big hands grabbing woman
Top of the Rock

Once you pass through security and up a flight of stairs spiraling around a sparkling Swarovski chandelier, you will find yourself in the Mezzanine Exhibit. A horseshoe bend shaped walkway takes you on a journey through the life of John D Rockefeller and how Top of the Rock was created.

You know that famous photograph of workmen sat on metal beam? You can sit on a bench imitating the beam in front of a green screen and have your photo taken, which you can then purchase later in the experience. Next up is a small theater with very short video about NBC and Rockefeller before entering the elevator.

Empire State Building

Okay are you ready? After passing through security, you will embark upon an adventure through a modern-style gallery featuring super-sized images, a museum-style look back into the 1920’s before construction of the Empire State building began on the site of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, a story of the construction and an opening day exhibit.

That’s half of the fun. Next up is a look into the original Otis elevator technology, a theater room with 72 screens showing clips from movies in which the Empire State has been referenced, a fun King Kong exhibit the kids will love and finally a gallery showcasing images of celebrities on the 86th floor observation deck.

Phew, that’s a lot to get through before you even get into the elevator!

Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building Best Exhibits?
Empire State Building

The Empire State takes this one by a distance. Not just in terms of quantity, but also quality. Top of the Rock’s exhibits felt a little outdated and rushed, whereas the Empire State exhibits had a grander and more symbolic feel.

You know when you go to view a house and the kitchen looks like it’s had a really professional finish? The Empire State was finished well.

3. Elevator Experience

Man in elevator with mask on
Top of the Rock

You will gain 260 meters elevation in 42 seconds inside an elevator with glass ceiling to reach floor 67 of the Rockefeller Center. 

Look up as a light show is projected against the glass and a very quick photography story through modern history ends in the present day.

Empire State Building

A larger and classier feeling elevator with similar ceiling movie experience transports you to the 80th floor of the Empire State Building in less than one minute.

As the elevator gains elevation, so does an animated movie of the Empire State Building being constructed around you. Familiar New York accents from construction workers swinging on metal beams and tossing hot rivets into the air surround you on the way up.

Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building Best Elevator Experience?
Empire State Building

The Empire State takes another one fairly easily. The elevator experience feels more immersive and relevant.

As a side note, our favorite elevator ride of all observation decks in New York was Edge in Hudson Yards.

4. Observation Decks

Top of the Rock observation deck is open without barriers unlike the empire state building observation deck in new york city
Top of the Rock

Top of the Rock has 3 floors of observation decks; 67, 69 and 70.

As you leave the elevator on floor 67, you are inside an enclosed room with windows creating frames for Manhattan and the Empire State Building. You can also access an intimate viewing terrace behind glass barriers looking southwest to Lower Manhattan.

Floor 69 has a 270 degree platform facing North, West and South, all from behind glass. The deck is fairly wide and can fit a substantial amount of visitors.

Floor 70 is the very top of Rockefeller Center and offers full 360 degree views unobstructed and without glass barriers. It is shaped like a rectangle with open space in the center but its total area isn’t enormous and it does become extremely busy in peak times.

Empire State Building has a mesh fence with diamond shaped holes on its observation deck and a red glow
Empire State Building

You will leave the initial elevator ride on floor 80. This floor has been recently redeveloped as part of a US$ 165 million renovation (including floor 102) and you can find more exhibits here:

  1. NYC Above and Beyond builds an itinerary for New York City based on personal preferences by answering questions.
  2. Binoculars have been implemented and point directly at many of the most famous landmarks in New York.
  3. Artistry in light explains everything you need to know about the Empire State Building’s tower lights.
  4. You can also see British artist Steven Wiltshire’s entire NYC skyline drawing that he memorized from a single 80 minute helicopter ride – impressive!

Next, another elevator takes you 6 floors to the 360 degree 86th floor and main observation deck. A metal diamond shaped mesh fence surrounds the observation platform, with large enough diamonds to get unobstructed photographs.

The 86th floor is square shaped with a fairly narrow observation deck, which means it gets tightly packed during peak times.

Notice the red glow? That is the result of heaters when it is cold and it gives images a red tone.

Floor 102 is the brand new 360 degree panoramic viewing platform located right up in the antenna. You do have to pay more for access and glass windows are floor to ceiling.

Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building Best Observation Decks?
Top of the Rock

Yes, the Empire State has an observation deck a whopping 32 floors higher than Top of the Rock but it is completely surrounded by glass windows and it is expensive. The 86th floor of Empire State is awesome, but the diamond mesh fence makes photography challenging.

Top of the Rock’s 70th floor is completely open and unobstructed, which means photographs never have glare or dirty spots from glass barriers. In truth, Top of the Rock should shout from the rooftop about how it is the only one of all 4 major observation decks in the city to have no glass barriers.

5. Best View

Top of the Rock observation deck best view during the day over Manhattan in NYC

1. Top of the Rock – Looking southwest at Midtown, Empire State Building and Lower Manhattan before sunset.

Empire State Building seen from Top of the Rock on the Rockefeller Center in New York City with One World Observatory in the background

2. Top of the Rock – Close up of Empire State Building with One World Observatory and a tiny Statue of Liberty in the background, right before a cloudy and hazy sunset.

Top of the Rock has an incredible night view including the empire state building midtown and lower manhattan nyc

3. Top of the Rock – Wide shot of Midtown, Empire State Building and Edge as sunset transitions into night.

Top of the Rock looking north at Central Park during sunset in new york city

4. Top of the Rock – Looking Northeast at Central Park in shadow as sunset illuminates Northern Manhattan.

Top of the Rock

Let’s go around the landmark compass from the 70th floor top deck at Top of the Rock:

  • Northeast – Central Park
  • Southeast – Chrysler Building, Brooklyn
  • Southwest – Empire State, One World Observatory, Midtown, Lower Manhattan, Hudson Yards
  • Northwest – Hudson River

Here’s what you can see from Top of the Rock by time of day:

Day – Varied urban landscape view including Central Park as well as the entire Manhattan skyline as far as the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge.

Sunset – Stunning Manhattan skyline to capture with sunset. Midtown illuminates under an orange glow. The sun drops below the West horizon (which is right of the South facing view), right behind Edge and Hudson Yards for an amazing image.

Night – The Empire State Building illuminates beautifully at night, drawing in your gaze from all parts of New York City like a gravitational force. You can’t see this from the 86th floor of Empire State!

View over top of the rock and northern manhattan plus central park from the empire state building observation deck new york city

1. Empire State Building – Looking northeast at Times Square, Chrysler Building and Top of the Rock on a very cloudy afternoon.

Lower Manhattan at dusk on a cloudy day taken through diamond shaped holes on empire state building observation deck in new york city best view and location vs top of the rock

2. Empire State Building – Ultra-wide photograph looking southwest toward Lower Manhattan taken through a diamond shaped mesh fence.

Empire state building observation deck facing northwest at the edge and hudson yards for amazing night views and photography

3. Empire State Building – Looking northwest toward fantastically illuminated Edge and Hudson Yards at night.

Night view from Empire State Building looking towards lower manhattan in new york city

4. Empire State Building – Ultra wide shot looking southwest at Lower Manhattan at night, dense low hanging snow clouds reflecting city lights.

Empire State Building

Now we’ll do the same thing with Empire State Building:

  • Northeast – Chrysler Building, Times Square, Top of the Rock
  • Southeast – East River, Brooklyn
  • Southwest – One World Observatory, Flatiron Building, Lower Manhattan
  • Northwest – Hudson River, Hudson Yards, Edge

Here’s what you can see from the Empire State Building by time of day:

Day – Surrounded 360 degrees by concrete, granite and glass skyscrapers. Closer view of Lower Manhattan.

Sunset – In the far distance you will see the sun beginning to set behind the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan. But as it moves closer to setting, you will have views over Chelsea and New Jersey.

Night – Night time offers the best time for photography from the Empire State. Looking 3 directions towards Rockefeller, Edge and Lower Manhattan gives stunning night views.

Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building Best View?
Top of the Rock

All other aspects of your visit are just starters for the main course. You are reading this to gather opinions on which observation deck has the better view.

Well, we think Top of the Rock takes the gold medal… by the skin of its teeth.

Both offer mind-blowing city skyline views from different perspectives and hopefully you can visit each observation deck.

However, we have to pick a winner and we think Top of the Rock has a marginally more impressive view.

What tips the win in favor of Rockefeller in a very tight contest?

As obvious and cliche as it sounds, you can’t see the Empire State Building from the top of the Empire State Building. In a sense, the Empire State is a victim of its own icon.

If you’re reading this and have been to Top of the Rock, what was the first thing you looked for in the skyline? We’re guessing the Empire State Building.

NYC Observation Deck Photography

So what do you need to know about photography on New York City’s observation decks?

Well, the first and most important piece of information for professional and serious hobbyist photographers is that you can not set up a tripod at any point on any floor. That means a US$ 1000 carbon fiber all terrain tripod or a 2 inch US$ 5 iPhone tripod.

When we asked a guy why we couldn’t set ours up despite being the only people on the entire deck, he said he had no idea why but we couldn’t. It is frustrating but it is the rule.

Therefore you will have to improvise at sunset and at night. You could bump your ISO up into the high thousands to get a faster shutter speed or you can try these tricks to capture a clean long exposure at ISO 100:

Small concrete flat walls at Top of the Rock can be used to place cameras down for long exposure photography but no tripods allowed
Top of the Rock

On the 70th floor, walk all the way to the far end (away from the steps) and find a flat stone outcrop like in the picture above. You can simply set your camera down and use a hoody or bean bag to raise the body up if you want to create an angle. Wear a strap connected to the camera!

How to take long exposure photography at the empire state building observation deck without a tripod
Empire State Building

Again using a (very!) secure neck strap, put your camera through a diamond shaped gap, rest the lens hood (use one to protect the lens) on the edge of the stone and rest the camera body gently on the bottom metal fence section. Try not to move even the slightest bit throughout the exposure or your image will blur.

Tips
  • Shoot in all 4 directions.
  • Stay out from before sunset until after dark.
  • The best views are southwest facing from either tower, which means shooting directly into the sun in late afternoon. Wait for sunset to get best images.
  • Everyone up there wants a selfie with such an iconic backdrop, so firstly, be patient and secondly expect to be asked to take some!

Which NYC Observation Deck Is Best For You?

I love NY at sunset gorgeous colors in the sky

Let’s get you up the right tower for your taste and personal preferences. Here’s which observation deck we think you should go for based upon interests:

Photography – Both are awesome, but Rockefeller is more diverse. Using the trick we mention above, it is easier to get long exposures, you can see Central Park, sunset is stunning behind Edge, you can see more of Manhattan and of course you can see the amazing tower lights on the Empire State Building.

History – Traditionalists, historians and those looking for a pure NYC experience should plump for the Empire State Building. It has far greater exhibits and an overall more educational experience.

Nature – Top of the Rock allows you to see Central Park, which looks incredible during Summer when it is lush green among an ocean of concrete.

Architecture – Both offer fantastic views, which makes it difficult to pick a better option based on buildings. If pushed we’d say the Empire State Building is surrounded on all sides by more impressive architecture, including a direct line to Hudson Yards.

Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building – Our Winner

Woman standing with hand on glass barrier rockefeller center observation deck top of the rock looking at empire state building and manhattan around sunset

We’re not going to give you that age old ‘it depends’ answer. We do have a personal preference between the two towers.

But before we give you our opinion it is very important to note that we lived in New York City for three months during coronavirus restrictions. That meant two things:

  1. Many exhibits inside both towers were closed
  2. We pretty much had each observation deck to ourselves

After lockdowns and travel restrictions lift, lines will be backing up along the street and the observation decks will be packed full once again. Our opinions are based purely on overall experience from entering to exiting.

However, crowds inevitably play a big role in determining how enjoyable an experience has been, so that is one limitation here to our opinion.

Our personal choice and the one we tell our friends and family to do when visiting New York is …

Top of the Rock.

Here’s why:

  • Having an observation deck with no glass windows is huge. It significantly improves the view and more importantly photography is not limited.
  • Having Central Park as well as Manhattan gives a little more diversity in the view.
  • Top of the Rock is cheaper! (We’ll get onto that next).
  • Seeing the Empire State Building from Top of the Rock is a game changer.

How to Buy Tickets to Top of the Rock and Empire State Building

Finally, on to the financials. Will price sway your decision in any way?

You might be surprised at the costs associated with access to each observation deck, so let’s get right into the numbers:

Top of the Rock
  • Adult tickets: US$ 38
  • Child Tickets: US$ 32 (One child under 12 admitted free per adult ticket)
  • Senior Tickets: US$ 36
  • VIP Ticket: US$ 75 (only worth it at the busiest peak periods)
  • More information: Top of the Rock NYC
Empire State Building

86th Floor Only

  • Adult tickets: US$ 42
  • Child Tickets: US$ 36 (ages 6-12, under 6 enter for free)
  • Senior Tickets: US$ 40
  • Important: Add US$ 7 to each ticket for reserving a sunset slot

86th Floor & 102nd Floor

  • Adult tickets: US$ 75
  • Child Tickets: US$ 69 (ages 6-12, under 6 enter for free)
  • Senior Tickets: US$ 73
  • Important: Add US$ 7 to each ticket for reserving a sunset slot
  • More information: ESB NYC

Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building better value for money?

Top of the Rock.

If Empire State didn’t cheekily add add on an extra US$ 7 for sunset time slots we’d be inclined to reconsider.

But they do. And it is a bit naughty!

NYC CityPASS

If you’re planning a touristy long weekend, a 3 day or 4 day itinerary in New York City, you should seriously consider purchasing a New York CityPASS:

  • We highly recommend you read our comprehensive guide to New York CityPASS to see if it is worth buying for your visit.
  • We cover the full list of attractions with directions and tips, plus a huge amount of useful information to help you decide if it’s right for your trip.
  • In addition, here’s the official website for NYC CityPASS so you can look at the attractions list for yourself and see how much you would save.

There are two choices for CityPASS and both will save you money on your trip. Let us explain how.

The two NYC passes are priced as follows:

  • CityPASS with 6 attractions – US$ 136 per adult
  • C3 Pass with 3 attractions – US$ 87 per adult

Here’s an example of a 6 attraction combination you can do with the pass and individual prices:

  • Empire State Building – US$ 42
  • Top of the Rock – US$ 38
  • Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island Ferry – US$ 23.50
  • 9/11 Memorial – US$ 26
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art – US$ 25
  • Natural History Museum US$ 23

Total price without NYC CityPASS for those major attractions is US$ 177.50.

  • Therefore a CityPASS would save you US$ 41.50 per adult.

Or you could buy the C3 pass for US$ 87 and do Top of the Rock, Empire State Building and Edge – combined price of US$ 116.

  • Therefore you would save US$ 29 and hit three awesome observation decks.

Top-tip:

  • CityPASS has an awesome exclusive feature that allows you to go up Empire State during the day and again at night with one single reservation. Plus, you can reserve Empire State sunset time slots at no extra charge.
  • Take a look at the CityPASS website for more information.
Read More About New York City
We hope this Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building comparison helps you decide which observation deck to visit in NYC!

Which was your favorite NYC observation deck and do you think One World Observatory / Edge will take over as tourist favorites?

Please let us know if you have any questions or need any help planning your visit.

-Happy Travels-

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Best Observation Deck in NYC Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building
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Leave a Comment

2 comments

Mariana April 13, 2021 - 7:56 am

I’ve lived in the city for a year now and I did not know how beautiful these places truly were. You take attractions like this for granted and I’m now seeing them so stunning and exhilarating because of your photos and perspectives. Thank you – Top of the Rock is definitely on my list this year!

Reply
Mark and Kristen Morgan April 14, 2021 - 9:43 am

Thanks Mariana! We’re so happy that we’ve been able to show you the city from a different perspective and hope you enjoy your visit to Top of the Rock!

Reply

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