Many visitors heading to New York City have two questions, what is the main difference between Top of the Rock vs the Empire State Building? And which one should I visit?
We had the same questions ourselves before we lived in NYC, but now we have climbed both Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building multiple times at different times of the day.
Both observation decks are among our epic list of the best things to do in New York City.
But there is certainly one observation deck which will allow you to soak up the most recognizable skyline on the planet in the battle of the two towers.
In this guide, we will explain everything you need to know about visiting both Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building. For each observation deck, we will discuss:
- Building location and ease of access
- Exhibit and elevator experience
- Detailed comparison about each observation deck
- Best views at the top of each viewing platform
- Photography tips for each location
- A sunset vs night time visit
- How to buy tickets and save money
At the end of this guide, we will determine whether the Top of the Rock or the Empire State Building is a better overall experience.
Now, let’s climb the Top of the Rock and Empire State Building!
New York City Observation Decks
Before we get into the details about these two original observation decks, we wanted to quickly tell you the about the 3 other observation decks in New York City.
Taking in the famous concrete cityscape from a birds eye view is simply unmissable when planning a vacation to NYC. The world famous borough of Manhattan is one of the most extraordinary urban landscapes on Earth.
In an ideal world, you would summit all five of New York City’s iconic observation decks and even include the climb up the State of Liberty.
But this is not possible if you are short on time and traveling on a budget. Unfortunately, we don’t all descend from the Rockefeller family.
We recommend you visit one of the original observation decks including Top of the Rock or the Empire State Building along with one of the new modern decks below.
- Edge at Hudson Yards – Opened in 2020, this is New York City’s highest outdoor sky deck. Edge is one of our favorites for a 360-degree view of Manhattan including the Hudson River and New Jersey.
- One World Observatory – Officially opening as an observation deck in 2015, the One World Trade Center currently holds the record for the tallest building in the Western hemisphere.
- SUMMIT One Vanderbilt – More like an experience instead of an observation deck, SUMMIT One Vanderbilt opened in 2021 and is quickly becoming an extremely popular attraction in New York City.
Top Of The Rock Vs Empire State Building Statistics
Year Each Building Opened
- Empire State Building – 1931
- Top of the Rock – 1933
Entire Building Height
- Empire State Building – 443.2m (base to top of antenna)
- Top of the Rock – 260m (base to top of antennas)
- Empire State Building – 102 (floor 103 access for VIP’s only)
- Top of the Rock – 70
Observation Deck Height
- Empire State Building – 86th floor (1,050ft or 320m) OR 102nd floor (1,250ft or 381m)
- Top of the Rock – 67th floor (820ft or 250m) to 70th floor (850ft or 259m)
Step Count From Streep To Top Floor
- Empire State Building – 1,860 steps
- Top of the Rock – 1,215 steps
Cost To Build Each Building
- Empire State Building – US $41 million in 1931 (US$ 564 million today)
- Top of the Rock – Estimated ~ US$ 250 million (additional plots of land included)
Which Is Better: Top Of The Rock Or Empire State Building?
Let’s take a detailed look at some of the major comparison points between each observation deck experience so you know exactly what to expect when you visit.
As you read through our detailed guide comparing the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock, be sure to think about what features are important to you.
At the end of each section, we will tell you which observation deck we preferred in that particular field. We will also reveal our overall favorite deck out of these two originals at the very end.
1. Building Location And Ease Of Access
Top Of The Rock Entrance
The Top of the Rock observation deck is located at the top of Rockefeller Center, one of the many buildings located in Rockefeller Plaza, on 5th and 6th Avenue as well as 49th and 50th Streets.
Looking at a map of Manhattan, Rockefeller Center is between Times Square and Central Park.
Top Of The Rock Address: 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112
Access to Rockefeller Center entrance is on W 50th Street, closer to 6th Avenue and opposite Radio City. A bright red carpet with ‘Top of the Rock’ in high 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 (5th Ave 53 St Station)
- Green Line: 6 (51 St)
Empire State Building Entrance
Head southwest through Manhattan, passing Times Square and Bryant Park, as far as W 34th Street to find New York City’s historical landmark and centerpiece.
The enormous Empire State Building is squished tightly between 34th and 33rd Streets as well as 5th and 6th Avenue.
Empire State Building Address: 20 W 34th St., New York, NY 10001
Access to the Empire State Building is on W 34th Street, half way between 5th and 6th Avenues. While there is no red carpet here, look up for all the excitement you need.
Closest subways to the 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 St Station)
- Red Line: 1, 2, 3 (34 St Penn Station)
Best Entrance Location For Top Of The Rock Vs Empire State Building?
- Winner = Top of the Rock
Both observation decks are extremely easy to access from many different parts of the city. However, we believe 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 the Rockefeller Center is located between the two major attractions. There are also more touristy things to do near Rockefeller Center.
2. Observation Deck Exhibits
Top Of The Rock Exhibits
Once you pass through security and up a flight of stairs sprawling around a sparkling Swarovski chandelier, you will find yourself in the Mezzanine Exhibit.
A horseshoe bend shaped walkway take you on a journey through the life of John D. Rockefeller and how Top of the Rock Observation deck was created.
If you are familiar with the famous photograph of workman in NYC sat high on a metal beam enjoying a break, this is where you can have a photo taken which imitates the scene for purchase later.
Before heading to the elevators, the last stop is the theater. There are three short films you can choose to watch or you can continue to the sky shuttle elevator. Each short clip has a 4 minute run time.
Empire State Building Exhibits
After passing through security at the Empire State Building (ESB), you will embark upon an adventure through two floors of exhibits.
On the 2nd floor, there are a total of nine exhibits. You can opt to download the free self-guided audio tour when onsite with the free Wifi at ESB.
Below we have listed the exhibits at the Empire State Building on the 2nd floor:
- The Site In The 1920s
- Opening Day
- Modern Marvel
- Otis Elevators
- Urban Campus
- World’s Most Famous Building
And these are the exhibits on the 80th floor:
- NYC Above And Beyond
- Artistry In Light
- Stephen Wiltshire’s Drawing
- Scenes of NYC
Phew, talk about a lot to get through before you even head to the observation deck.
Travel Tip: Due to the large amount of exhibits at the Empire State Building, be sure to give yourself plenty of extra time to see each exhibit. Two hours should be enough time if you want to explore thoroughly.
Best Exhibits For Top Of The Rock Vs Empire State Building?
- Winner = Empire State Building
The Empire State Building takes this one by a distance. Not only in terms of quantity, but also in quality.
Personally, we thought Top of the Rock’s exhibits were minimal and a little outdated, whereas the Empire State Building exhibits had a grandeur and more symbolic feel.
We can tell you from experience, the exhibits at the Empire State building are the best out of all New York’s observation decks. If you are a history buff, this is the observation deck for you.
3. Elevator Experience
Top Of The Rock Elevator Experience
The elevator at Top of the Rock is known as the Sky Shuttle.
As you step into the Sky Shuttle, get ready to experience a climb of 850 feet in 42 seconds. This elevator has a glass ceiling and will reach floor 67 of the Rockefeller Center.
Be sure to look up to see a light show projected against the glass and watch an animation about the history of New York City.
Empire State Building Elevator Experience
After the exhibits on the 2nd floor, it is now time to ride the main elevator. A large classy elevator will transport 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 ESB 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.
But you will have to exit the elevator on the 80th floor to see the exhibits on this floor.
After you finished the last exhibit on the 80th floor, a standard elevator then takes you 6 floors up to the open air 360 degree viewing platform on the 86th floor.
Best Elevator Experience For Top Of The Rock Vs Empire State Building?
- Winner = Empire State Building
The elevator experience at the Empire State Building takes another one fairly easily. The elevator experience at this observation deck feels more immersive and relevant.
However, the standard elevator which takes you from the 80th to 86th floor is a standard elevator with no frills whatsoever.
But there is an even better elevator experience in the city…
There is absolutely no competition when it comes to the One World Observatory elevator experience.
Not only will you ascend to the 102nd floor in 47 seconds, making this the fastest elevator in the world, but the short film played inside the elevator showcases 300 years of history in NYC.
4. Observation Deck Comparison
Top Of The Rock Observation Deck
Top of the Rock has 3 floors of observation decks: 67, 90 and 70.
As you leave the elevator on the 67th floor, you will walk through an enclosed room with windows creating frames for Manhattan and the Empire State Building.
From this floor, you can also access an intimate viewing terrace behind large glass barriers looking at Central Park on one side and Lower Manhattan on the other.
Floor 69 has a 270 degree platform facing North, West and South, all from behind glass panels. The deck is fairly large and can fit a substantial amount of visitors.
The 70th floor at the very top of Rockefeller Center offers full 360 degree unobstructed views without glass barriers. This area is shaped like a rectangle with open space in the center, but the total area is quite small and can become busy in peak times.
Empire State Building Observation Deck
Once you arrive to the 86th floor main observation deck, you will be enclosed by a metal diamond shaped mesh fence. This fence surrounds the entire 360 degree viewing platform.
The 86th floor is square shaped with a fairly narrow observation deck which can get packed during peak times. But the holes in the fence are large enough to take unobstructed photographs if you angle your camera properly.
If you take a good look at our photo of the 86th floor above, you will also notice a red glow. This is the result of heaters which come on when it gets cold out. Keep in mind if there heaters are on, your photos may have a red tone.
The 102nd floor at the Empire State Building brings you to a viewing platform located right up in the antenna.
When the weather is clear, you should be able to see up to 80 miles in the distance. This includes six states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
Keep in mind that while this floor is higher, there is no outdoor viewing platform which makes it difficult to take photos without heavy glare. You will also have to pay an additional cost.
Best Observation Deck For Top Of The Rock Vs Empire State Building?
- Winner = Top of the Rock
While the Empire State Building has an observation deck a whopping 32 floors high compared to Top of the Rock (the 102nd floor), this platform is expensive and surrounded by glass windows.
The 86th floor of the Empire State Building is worth the trip, but the diamond mesh fence makes photography challenging.
The Empire State Building is also a one way system so once you visit an area, you can not go back on yourself.
We love Top of the Rock because the 70th floor is completely open and unobstructed which means photographs never have glare or dirty spots from glass barriers.
In fact, Top of the Rock is the only one out of all 5 major observation decks in the city to have no glass barriers.
And just to rub salt in the wound a little more, Top of the Rock is not a one way system so you can revisit any previous floors during your visit.
Further Reading: 18 Awesome things to do in Lower Manhattan for every budget
5. Best Observation Deck View Of NYC
Both the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock offer gorgeous views of New York City and the surrounding areas. You really can’t go wrong because each view is stunning in its own unique way.
But depending on what you want to see, one of these original observation decks may be a better fit for you.
In this next section, we will discuss the views from the Top of the Rock as well as views from the Empire State Building in detail with photos.
View From Top Of The Rock (With Images)
From the 70th floor viewing platform, this is what you can see from 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
Take a look at the next four photos to see views from Top of the Rock observation deck.
View From Empire State Building (With Images)
Now, we will do the same thing with the next observation deck for comparison purposes.
This is what you can expect to see from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building from each direction:
- Northeast: Chrysler Building, Times Square and Top of the Rock
- Southeast: East River and Brooklyn
- Southwest: One World Observatory, Flatiron Building and Lower Manhattan
- Northwest: Hudson River, Hudson Yards and Edge
Take a look at the next four photos to see views from top of the Empire State Building.
Best View For Top Of The Rock Vs Empire State Building?
- Winner = Top of the Rock
This is probably the most important aspect when considering which observation deck to visit. All other aspects up until this point are just starters for the main course.
Both options offer mind-blowing city skyline views from different perspective, but we know you are reading this to gather opinions on which building has the better view.
In our opinion, Top of the Rock has better views compared to the Empire State Building for two main reasons.
1). Top of the Rock is the only observation deck in New York City to deliver a close up view of Central Park. The park looks stunning any time of day and season from this high up.
2). 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. At Top of the Rock, you will feel extremely close to this iconic building.
If you are 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.
Best Time To Visit Top Of The Rock And Empire State Building
Without a doubt, sunset is the best time to visit both observation decks. But unfortunately, this is also the most popular time slot to visit.
Sunset tickets can sell out extremely quickly and you should purchase your tickets online well in advance (more on tickets later in this guide).
However, if you want to beat the crowds, we would recommend you visit at one of the first time slots in the morning. Visiting during a later night time slot after the sun has set can have smaller crowds as well.
So we have broken down what you can expect at each observation deck during each time of day.
View Highlights For Top Of The Rock
Here is what you can see from Top of the Rock by time of day:
Day Time – A varied urban landscape view including Central Park as well as the entire Manhattan skyline as far as the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Sunset – Views of the stunning Manhattan skyline perfect to capture the sunset. Midtown illuminates under an orange glow. The sun will drop below the West horizon (right of the South facing view) beind Edge and Hudson Yards for an amazing sight.
Night Time – The Empire State Building illuminates beautifully at night, drawing your gaze from all parts of New York City like a gravitational force.
View Highlights For Empire State Building
Here is what you can see from the Empire State Building by time of day:
Day Time – You will be surrounded with 360 degrees of concrete, granite and glass skyscrapers as well as a 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 the sun moves closer to setting, you will have gorgeous views over Chelsea and New Jersey.
Night Time – This time of days offers the best time for photography from the Empire State Building. Looking towards Rockefeller Center, Edge and Lower Manhattan, you will have stunning views of the twinkling city lights in many directions.
NYC Observation Deck Photography
Both Top of the Rock and Empire State Building are among the best photography locations in NYC.
So what do you need to know about photography on New York City’s popular observation decks?
The first and most important piece of information when it comes to photography, is you can NOT set up a tripod at any point on any floor. It also means you won’t be able to bring a tripod either.
If you do bring a tripod to either location, you will most likely have to ‘check’ it with security and they will return it to you as you leave the observation deck.
This means you will have to improvise a little bit to get your shots 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:
Photography Tips For Top Of The Rock
Of the 70th floor, walk all the way to the far end (away from the steps to the right) and find a flat stone outcrop like in the picture above.
Here you can stabilize yourself enough to get a decent photo, but it won’t be perfect like a tripod photo.
As long as you have a camera strap attached to your wrist or around your neck, you can also use a sweatshirt or a backpack to raise the body of the camera a little higher to get a great shot.
Photography Tips For The Empire State Building
The only way you can take this photo is with a very secure neck strap. You can wiggle the camera though the diamond shaped gap and rest the lens hood on the edge of the stone.
In this position, the camera lens will gently rest on the bottom of the metal fence and you can take a photo with minimal disturbance.
Unfortunately, you will not have much control over the angle of the photo. Try not to move even the slightest bit throughout the expose because you will blur the image.
Photography Tips For Both Observation Decks
Now that you know how to take a decent shot at the top of each observation deck, here are a few more tips to help you when shooting on location.
- Take photos in all 4 directions when at the top of each observation deck. You will be surrounded by stunning NYC skyline so your camera is sure to get a work out.
- The best views are southwest facing from either building which means you will shoot directly into the sun in the early afternoon. Avoid visiting at this time of day and wait until sunset for the best images.
- Everyone visiting wants the same photos so it can get extremely hectic. Be patient as you may have to wait your turn or be asked to take someone else’s photo many times.
Is The Empire State Building Or Top Of The Rock Better For You?
Based on your personal preferences, this is the observation deck we think you should go for:
- Photography – Both options are great, but Top of the Rock photography is more diverse and using the tricks we mentioned above, it is easier to obtain long exposures. You can also take photos of Central Park, sunset behind Edge, more of Manhattan and the amazing tower lights on the Empire State Building.
- History – If you are looking for a pure NYC experience, the Empire State is your observation deck. The exhibits are top notch and its overall a more educational experience.
- Nature Lover – Top of the Rock gives you views of Central Park which looks incredible during the summer months when the foliage is lush green among an ocean of concrete.
- Architecture – The Empire State Building is surrounded on all sides by more impressive architecture including a direct line of sight to Hudson Yards.
Our Winner In Top Of The Rock Vs Empire State Building
- Winner: Top of the Rock
Our personal preference between these two original observation decks is Top of the Rock.
In four simple reasons, this is why:
- We love the unobstructed view from the 70th floor at Top of the Rock because it significantly improves photography
- The Central Park view is second to none and you can see more of Midtown Manhattan
- It’s cheaper to visit the highest viewing platform at Top of the Rock compared to the lowest observation deck at Empire State Building
- The view of the Empire State Building from the Top of the Rock is a game changer
We like the no frills experience at Top of the Rock. We came for amazing views of New York City and that is exactly what you get at this observation deck at a fair price.
How To Buy Tickets For Top of The Rock And Empire State Building
Unfortunately, it’s not cheap to visit either of these observation decks and you will have to pay an additional $10 if visiting during the coveted sunset time slot.
But there are some ways you can save a little bit of cash and we will show you how.
Top Of The Rock Tickets
There are three main ticket options for Top of the Rock.
The general admission ticket grants you access to all 3 levels of observation decks with no time limit and 360 degree unobstructed views.
The two other ticket options will include additional add ons from the basic general admission.
- General Admission – Online tickets begin at $40 for adults and $34 for children (6-12) for day time tickets.
- Express Pass – General Admission + Immediate entry to viewing decks + Priority elevator access and 20% discount at gift shop. Online tickets begin at $85.
- VIP Tour – General Admission + Skip the line + Exclusive tour of the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and Rainbow Room. Online tickets begin at $125.
There are many ways to purchase Top of the Rock tickets. Compare prices on each platform before purchasing.
You can buy directly from the official Top of the Rock website or onsite at Top of the Rock.
Or you can purchase an entry ticket through:
Click on the links to compare reviews and prices for each platform.
Empire State Building Tickets
There are two main ticket options for the Empire State Building.
Each ticket type will also include entry to the exhibits located on the 2nd and 80th floors. The main decision you need to make is what floor you want to visit.
- Main Deck: 86th Floor Observatory – Includes access to the open-air observatory on the 86th floor. Online tickets begin at $44 for adults and $38 for children (6-12) for day time tickets.
- Top Deck: 102nd and 86th Floor Observatories – Includes access to both the open-air observatory on the 86th floor and the indoor platform on the 102nd floor. Online tickets begin at $79 for adults and $73 for children (6-12) for day time tickets.
You can buy directly from the official Empire State Building website or onsite at the Empire State Building.
Or you can purchase an entry ticket through:
Click on the links to compare reviews and prices for each platform.
What Is The Best Observation Deck In New York City?
Below is a quick overview for the 5 New York City observation decks (including Top of the Rock).
We understand you may not have time to visit each observation deck so it’s important for you to have all the facts before you make a decision about which one to visit.
If this is your first time to the city, we recommend you pick one of the originals such as Top of the Rock or Empire State Building along with one of the newer modern observation decks.
- Edge at Hudson Yards – New York’s highest outdoor sky deck with an optional City Climb experience taking you 1,200 ft above Manhattan.
- Empire State Building – The most iconic observation deck filled with history and glamour. The 360 degree view of surrounding concrete buildings is stunning, but it’s the most expensive option.
- One World Observatory – The tallest observation deck with a different perspective to the others. But while you are closer to Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty, the sunset is much less impactful.
- SUMMIT One Vanderbilt – The newest addition to New York City’s high vantage points. But this is more than just an observation deck, it’s an entire experience.
- Top Of The Rock – The shortest and unglamorous option from the outside, but in our opinion, the observation deck with the best view in all of New York City.
Having trouble deciding which observation deck to visit? Don’t miss our popular guide to the 5 best NYC observation decks ranked with pros and cons.
New York City Attractions Pass
We visited both Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building with our New York CityPASS.
So if you plan to visit several of New York City’s top attractions, we would recommend you consider purchasing an attractions pass.
Buying a New York attractions pass will give you instant access to the most iconic NYC museums, landmarks and observation decks at a discounted price.
The idea is simple in that the more attractions you visit, the more discount you will recieve and the more money you save. It’s very similar to buying in bulk.
Having used all of the NYC attraction passes ourselves when we lived in New York, we recommend the New York Sightseeing Pass because its extremely easy to use while offering both flexibility and big savings.
Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building are both included with the NY Sightseeing Pass. We even have an exclusive 10% discount just for our readers.
Want To Save Money In NYC?
Use the button below to claim 10% off any NY Sightseeing Pass.
You can also read our detailed comparison to the New York attractions passes to help you decide which pass you should purchase for your visit to the Big Apple.
Travel Tip: If you have a New York attractions pass, you will not have to pay the extra fee for a sunset time slot when you reserve your timed entry ticket online.
Need Help Planning Your Visit To New York City?
NYC is a vacation planning beast and it can be overwhelming trying to get every aspect right. Trust us, we know!
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FAQ’s For Top Of The Rock Vs. Empire State Building
Let’s take a quick look at some of the most frequently asked questions about Top Of The Rock Vs. Empire State Building.
Top of the Rock is better than the Empire State Building because you have an amazing view of Central Park as well as the iconic Empire State Building itself.
Top of the Rock is best at sunset because you can experience both day and night if you time it right. During the day at Top of the Rock, you will see Central Park and during the night at Top of the Rock, you will see the stunning NYC skyline lit up all around you.
From Top of the Rock, you won’t be able to see the Statue of Liberty very well. If you want to see Lady Liberty from a NYC observation deck, visit One World Observatory in Lower Manhattan.
No, the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building is not worth it because the views aren’t much different from the 86th floor and you are completely enclosed by glass windows.
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Want more New York City content? Head to our New York Travel Guides to explore more from the Big Apple as well as beautiful upstate NY.
We hope this Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building comparison helps you decide which observation deck to visit in NYC!
Please let us know if you have any questions about Top of the Rock vs the Empire State Building in the comments below.
Mark and Kristen
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Mark and Kristen Morgan are travel, hiking and photography experts. Over the last 6 years traveling full time, they have explored more than 40 countries and 30 US states.
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