Empire State Building or Top of the Rock – which is better?

Joreks/Getty Images & Pio3

If you have decided to take in New York’s skyline from one of the city’s observatories, chances are you are confused. 

After all, New York has the maximum number of observation decks – Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, One World Observatory, and The Vessel at Hudson Yards.

It’s not an easy decision because each of the observation decks has its pros and cons.

In this article, we compare the Empire State Building to the Top of the Rock so that you can make an informed decision. 

Visit both Empire State and Top of the Rock

Both the Empire State and the Top of the Rock (in Rockefeller Center building), are historically and culturally significant attractions.

Both the decks offer stunning New York City skyline views, and the experiences are very different. 

That is why, if time and money permits, we suggest you visit both the observatories.

The best part is if you opt for New York City Explorer Pass, you can get more than 50% discount on the ticket price available at the gates. 

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Location of the buildings

Despite the reasonably different views from their observation decks, the two buildings are actually not situated very far apart – both buildings are in the middle of Manhattan.

The Rockefeller Center is a bit further north than the Empire State Building.

The buildings are 1.4 km (one mile) apart.

Empire State Building’s location

Empire State Building is in the heart of Manhattan, New York, a mix of residential and commercial areas.

Its exact location is 350, 5th Avenue, between 33rd and 34th Street.

The ESB is so large that it has its zip code – 10118.

Earlier, Empire State Building’s tourist entrance was on Fifth Avenue between 33rd Street and 34th Street, but now it’s on 20 West 34th Street.

Top of the Rock’s location

Top of the Rock is at the heart of Manhattan at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY.

30 Rockefeller Plaza is a skyscraper that forms the centerpiece of Rockefeller Center. Get Directions

The main entrance to the building is on 50th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

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Views from the observatories

Despite the height difference, there isn’t much that differentiates the fantastic sights of New York one gets from their decks. 

View from the Empire State Building

With its two observatories – on the 86th and the 102nd floors, the Empire State Building offers an unobstructed panorama of New York skyscrapers and natural landscape. 

Since the building is further south of Manhattan, it offers better views of the financial district’s skyline near the water. 

Here are some of the landmarks visitors can see from Empire State – 

  • Rockefeller Plaza Center
  • Chrysler Building
  • One World Trade Center
  • Central Park
  • Times Square
  • Statue of Liberty
  • Brooklyn Bridge

One World Trade Center and Statue of Liberty are closer while Central Park is further from the Empire State Building. 

View from the Top of the Rock

From the Top of the Rock, visitors get an unobstructed view of the stunning New York skyline all around. 

Since the observatory is North of Manhattan, it is closer to Central Park and offers better views of the green expanse. 

Towards East and West, visitors see the water bodies East River and the Hudson, respectively. 

The best treat for your eyes is towards the South – Empire State Building, the World’s most famous building. 

Here are some of the landmarks visitors can see from Top of the Rock – 

  • Empire State Building
  • Chrysler Building
  • One World Trade Center
  • Central Park
  • Bank of America Tower
  • Flatiron Building

One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the USA, is closer to Top of the Rock than to the Empire State Building. 

View of the Chrysler Building is partially obscured from TTOR. 

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Entry tickets at the observatories

Both observation decks feature educational exhibits and experiences as part of general admission.

What is included in the basic ticket

Empire State Building basic ticket includes –

  • Access to the Main Observation Deck, a 360-degree, open-air on the 86th floor of the building
  • Access to 12 other exhibits about Empire State Building
  • A self-guided multimedia tour that helps visitors identify landmarks in the New York skyline

Access to the 102nd-floor observatory is not part of the General admission, but you can upgrade at the venue for $20 per person. 

Top of the Rock’s entry ticket includes –

  • Access to three indoor and outdoor observation decks on the 67th, 69th, and 70th floors
  • Sky shuttle elevator ride up to the Top with a light show
  • Access to more than six different exhibits about the building
  • Access to the interactive Beam Walk where visitors can ‘feel’ what it is like to walk on a construction beam 69 floors above Manhattan

Cost of the entry tickets

Empire State Building’s entry tickets tend to be costlier than the Top of the Rock’s entry tickets. 

At ESB, an adult ticket (for visitors aged 13 to 61 years) costs $45.73 while the same ticket costs only $41.35 at the Top of the Rock. 

Seniors 62 years and above pay $43.55 at Empire State Building, while at TOTR, seniors only pay $39.20 for their entry.

At Empire State Building, kids below five years enter for free, while the ticket for children between 6 to 12 years costs $39.20.

At Top of the Rock, all kids below 12 years must purchase their tickets, priced at $34.84.

>> Top of the Rock tickets
>> Empire State Building tickets

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Height of both observatories

Empire State Building has two observatories – on the 86th and 102nd floor.

At 320 meters (1050 feet), the 86th-floor observation deck on the Empire State Building is slightly higher than the Top of the Rock. 

Its observatory on the 102th-floor is at 381 meters (1,250 feet), making it even higher than Top of the Rock. 

Top of the Rock is 244 meters (800 feet) above ground, making it shorter than the Empire State Building. 

However, the views from its observation deck aren’t anything less. 

As can be imagined, it is the Top of the Rock that offers the best views of the Empire State, the most iconic building of New York.

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History of the attraction

Empire State Building is classic, while Top of the Rock is modern. 

While Top of the Rock started welcoming tourists only in 2005, the Empire State Building has been an observation deck since 1931.

In fact, till 1973 Empire State Building was the tallest in the World. 

Over the years, various films, books, TV shows, video games, etc., have featured the Empire State Building and turned it into a pop icon. 

Did you know that Empire State Building was once known as the Empty State Building. More such facts

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Flexibility of visit

There is one significant difference in the tickets for both the attractions.

While Top of the Rock issues timed tickets, Empire State building’s tickets are flexible.

Visitors only have to select the date of their visit and land up at the attraction anytime during the day. 

This provides a lot of flexibility to tourists who have a packed itinerary for the day because they can reach the Empire building whenever they can.

Update: After the Coronavirus scare, even the Empire State Building offers timed tickets

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Elevators at the attractions

Top of the Rock’s Sky shuttle elevator takes less than a minute to reach the observatory. 

Images from the 1930s to the present day are projected on the glass ceiling, so remember to look up during the 260 meters (850 feet) climb.

At the Empire State Building, you change elevators a few times depending on your destination.

The first elevator takes visitors from the ground floor to the 80th-floor where visitors get to see a few interesting exhibits.

Once done, you take the second elevator to the 86th floor observatory.

If you upgrade to the 102nd-floor observation deck, you take a third lift from the 86th floor to the 102-floor observatory. 

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What do you want in your photographs?

Since many tourists feel the Empire State is an integral part of the New York skyline, they find it difficult to see the city from the building itself.

Such tourists who prefer to have Empire State in their photographs and memories prefer to visit the Top of the Rock.

View of Empire State Building from Top of the Rock. Image: Loving-newyork.com

Once 40 stunning wildlife photographs were projected on the Empire State Building. Seen them yet?

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Barriers affecting visitor experience

The Empire State Building has crisscrossing wire mesh installed on the outdoor observation deck for the visitors’ safety. 

Even though this makes it challenging to take photos, visitors can still place their lens in the small breaks between the wiring to snap decent photographs. 

Top of the Rock’s observation deck has large, expansive glass as a barrier, and they don’t affect your photographs. 

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Tools to explore New York City

The Empire State Building has an augmented reality experience called ‘The scenes of New York,’ on the 80th floor. 

The Scenes of New York exhibit on the 80th floor of Empire State. Image: Untappedcities.com

Visitors look inside the classic binocular viewfinders to see, move and hear sounds of New York City’s most notable locations, such as the Grand Central Terminal, Statue of Liberty, the High Line, Coney Island, etc.

Top of the Rock doesn’t have such fancy tools, but they have binoculars where you can zoom in to any part of New York if you toss two quarters. 

Empire State has more than 10 different exhibits about New York and the building itself.

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Views of Central Park

Because of the Empire State Building height, visitors get to see the far corners of Central Park, but Top of the Rock offers better views of the park.

This is because Top of The Rock is only nine blocks away from Central Park, while the Empire State is 25 blocks away.

This is also why visits to Top of the Rock at night feel a little incomplete because, with no lighting at Central Park, one doesn’t get to see its magnificence. 

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Crowd to expect

Empire State Building gets 4 million visitors annually while the Top of the Rock gets only 3 million. 

Crowd at the 86th floor outdoors deck of Empire State Building. Image: Suzyguese.com

That’s why Top of the Rock tends to be slightly less crowded.

The best time to visit Empire State Building is from 8 am to 10 am, after which the lines start getting longer.

If you visit during summer both the NYC attractions are going to be crowded.

One of the best ways to avoid the crowd is to buy your tickets online, before visiting. 

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Our recommendation

Both attractions offer a unique experience, and the better New York observatory for you depends on what you expect from your visit. 

If experience and the New York skyline is important, you must go up to Top of the Rock. New York’s skyline can’t be the same without the Empire State Building. 

>> Top of the Rock tickets

If you prefer the classic, historical experience, you must opt for the Empire State. 

Besides the observatories, the building offers the visitors a lot of historical exhibits about the building. 

>> Empire State Building tickets

If you plan to visit during the sunset hours, we recommend Top of the Rock because it won’t be as crowded as the Empire State. 

If you can only plan after dark, it is better to visit the Empire State Building after 9.30 pm. They remain open till 2 am the next day.

Top of the Rock closes as early as 7 pm.

If you are still undecided, we suggest the New York City Explorer Pass, which lets you visit both the observatories at half the price. 

Whichever observatory you choose, please remember to: 

  • Buy your tickets online in advance. It helps you save money, and also avoid long queues at the venue
  • Check the weather and ensure the day is clear before booking your tickets
  • It is always colder at the observatory than how it felt at the ground. Always carry an extra layer along

Popular attractions in New York

# One World Observatory
# Top of the Rock
# Empire State Building
# Statue of Liberty
# Metropolitan Museum of Art
# 9/11 Memorial and Museum
# Museum of Modern Art
# Intrepid Museum
# Guggenheim Museum
# Bronx Zoo
# Central Park Zoo
# Queens Zoo
# Prospect Park Zoo
# New York Botanical Garden
# American Museum of Natural History
# Edge Hudson Yards
# Vessel Hudson Yards
# Museum of Ice Cream
# BlueMan Group NYC
# New York Dinner Cruise
# New York Helicopter tour

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Deeksha Anand: Deeksha loves to explore diverse cultures and cuisines. She is always looking forward to learn what different countries have to offer. She is not too worried about the holiday destination as long as it is different from her last one. She loves roaming around the streets with no timelines to adhere. Favorite Cities: New York, Barcelona, London, Paris, Rome