Updated: May 21, 2015

empire state building new york

New York Vacation - Empire State Building Observation Deck Tickets and Tour

Review: Our 2009 trip to the Empire State Building in New York City:
The Empire State Building was built in 1931, and ever since that day, tourists (more than 100 million so far) have been flocking to its observation deck to get a bird's eye view of New York. No trip to New York City is complete without ascending one of the giant skyscrapers that make New York so famous -- you really need to get your head above all the other buildings to appreciate the view.

Prior to 9/11, the tallest spot in the city was the World Trade Center. But today, the Empire State Building is again the tallest building in New York (how tall is the Empire State Building? 102 stories or 1250 feet, plus a 200 foot pinnacle/antenna for a total of 1450+ feet tall). The only other observation deck is located about 20 blocks north at Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center -- it's not as high as the Empire State, but it offers better views of the midtown and Central Park areas, and is definitely a contender for best view in New York. We've visited New York dozens of times and we took yet another trip to the top of the Empire State Building in 2009. Below are the facts and details you need to know to plan your Empire State Building visit during your New York Vacation.
empire state building observation deck tickets


view from empire state building observation deck
Before we get into the details, let's tempt you with the view from the top. This is from the top of the Empire State Building, looking south. Just right of center is the light-colored, triangular shaped Flat Iron building. Right in front of that is a green area, Madison Square Park. Just to the left is a white clock tower, the Metropolitan Life Building (the tallest building in the world for a while in 1909). At the bottom right center of the photo is a white building with a little greenery on the roof - this is actually a rooftop bar called 230 Fifth -- great place for sunset or evening views of the city.

Visiting the Top of the Empire State Building in New York

First of all, where is the Empire State Building? It's at the southern end of midtown Manhattan, at 34th and 5th Avenue. Of course it is hard to miss, being the tallest thing in the city. You enter the building on the 5th Avenue side and follow the directions for observation deck tickets once inside -- there are plenty of guards and workers there to show you which way to go. The Empire State Building is open to visitors daily from 8AM to 2AM, last elevator going up at 1:15AM (yes, that is 18 hours per day!). How much does it cost to go to the top of the Empire State Building? Basic Empire State Building tickets are $20 for adults (18-61), $18 for youths and seniors (12-17, or 62+), $14 for children (6-11). As noted above, the building is 102 stories tall. You have two options in terms of observation areas. The main observation deck is on the 86th floor at a height of 1050 feet. This is where most visitors go, as it offers both an enclosed area inside (see photo to right) and an outside 360 degree walk-around promenade, protected by a large overhanging metal fence to keep you safe and secure. The other option is the recently re-opened 102nd floor observatory -- to go there, you have to buy a regular admission ticket (to get to the 86th floor) and an additional $15 ticket to get to the 102nd floor (sold only on location on day of your visit -- you cannot buy online in advance). The 102nd floor area is totally enclosed -- you cannot go outside here.

As New York's most popular tourist attraction, there are often long lines at the Empire State Building. The first line is to get through the security check. Next line is to buy tickets. You can skip this line by buying your tickets in advance at their website, ESBNYC.com. You can print out tickets right at your computer and bring them with you, allowing you to bypass the ticket line in the building. Your tickets are dated at the time you print them, but you can use them any time, any day for 2 years after printing them out -- don't worry about the date printed on the ticket. So once you buy tickets or bring your own, the final line is for the express elevator to the 86th floor. If you have more money and less time, you can also buy an Express Pass Ticket for $45 per person that lets you move to the front of each line, potentially saving you an hour or more of waiting time -- if money is no object, take this route. All the ticket details are on the ESB website. (the photo to the left here is looking north, the Hudson River angles across the upper left -- you can just see Central Park at the upper right; the green area near the bottom is Bryant Park, right behind the public library at 42nd Street).

The elevators to the top are standard sized elevators, but given the crowds standing in line, they usually fill them pretty tightly. If you are claustrophobic, these elevator rides probably aren't for you. It's a quick ride to the top -- you may feel your ears pop as you quickly climb over 1000 feet. You'll get out of the elevator and then take a second elevator the last few floors to the 86th floor observation deck. There is a large indoor area here on the 86th floor, a blessing on those icy cold, windy winter days. If you are someone that doesn't like heights, you can feel pretty safe just enjoying the view from inside the building. Most people head outside, though, to take in the amazing views on all sides, so head out one of the glass doors. Once outside, you'll find a wrap-around terrace/walkway (see photo at right). Stone walls vary from about 3 feet to 5 feet tall (the shorter areas are better for smaller kids who want a view) on each side. On top of that are very solid metal fences that reach at least 10-12 feet up, and then curl back over you, making it impossible to climb, jump, or fall from here. It can be quite crowded with people, so you may have to kind of shuffle your way through the crowds, and photos can be tough with so many people walking in front of your camera.

Be sure to make the complete 360 degree loop around the building. Highlights include the Chrysler and Met Life (old Pan Am) Buildings towards the northeast, the skyscrapers of midtown and around the Times Square area towards the northwest, and the sweeping view south to the tip of Manhattan, with the Statue of Liberty just a spec in the harbor. There are no signs or maps at the top to help you locate or identify anything (though they will try to sell you an $8 map while standing in line) -- check out your tour book ahead of time so you can spot the sights you want to see (Brooklyn Bridge, Chrysler, Central Park, etc). For better views of Central Park, check out the Top of the Rock (mentioned above). You can stay on top here as long as you like - most people linger for just 10-20 minutes, but consider coming up closer to sunset and hang around for an hour and watch the sun go down and the lights come up. In terms of when to visit, we went on a weekday morning at 9AM and had barely any line -- 15 minutes for security, tickets, and elevator to the top. Other times in the afternoon we've waited for more than an hour (they warn you to allow up to 2 hours for a visit). Later in the evenings the wait should be a lot less. Plan on buying tickets in advance and then show up whenever you have time in your day -- worst case you skip the ticket line and just wait in the elevator line. Whatever you do, relax and enjoy the view! There is nothing else like it!

If you have any questions we haven't answered here, feel free to send us an email at the address below and we will do our best to help. Thanks. Here's a final sweeping view south, looking all the way down to New York Harbor past downtown.