Looking for great views of the New York City skyline? Trying to decide whether to visit the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock (aka the top of Rockefeller Center)?
It’s not an easy decision–both viewpoints offer major pros and cons, and odds are that your New York travel plans don’t allow time or money to visit both (and even if it did, there are so many other ways to treat yourself in New York than visiting both viewpoints in one trip, right?).
We’ve got you covered here: this guide covers everything you need to know to decide whether Top of the Rock or the Empire State Building is the right viewpoint for you.
Table of Contents
Where are the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock?
First things first: where exactly are the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock anyway?
Despite the fairly different views from their observation decks, the two buildings are actually not situated very far apart: both are located in Midtown, with Rockefeller Center being set a bit further north than the Empire State Building.
Empire State Building Address: 20 W 34th St, New York, NY 10001, USA
Top of the Rock Address: 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112, USA
We’ve included a map below that shows the locations of the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock in Manhattan. It also highlights a few of the iconic New York locations that you can observe from the two buildings to give you a better idea of what you’ll be looking at in each place.
Map of Empire State Building and Top of the Rock Locations
Choose the Empire State Building if…
… you want the most classic New York skyline experience.
Let’s face it: if your trip to New York is all about hunting down the truly iconic experiences, the Top of the Rock–while wonderful–just can’t beat the icon status of the Empire State Building.
Whether you’re an Art Deco architecture nerd, a King Kong fan, or just someone who knows the Empire State Building as the (once) tallest building in the world, it’s probably an iconic piece of New York to you in some way!
… you want the best views of Lower Manhattan & the Financial District.
Looking south from the top of the Empire State Building gives amazing context to the sheer density of Manhattan: from the (relatively) shorter buildings of Midtown and the Village all the way to the eruption of height at the southern tip of the island in the Financial District, the view is iconic and unforgettable.
… having the highest of the two views is important to you.
The 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building stands at 1,050 feet, and the 102nd-floor observation deck at a towering 1,250 feet.
By contrast, the Top of the Rock’s observation deck standing at a mere 850 feet sounds downright unimpressive! (It isn’t, though, I promise.)
… you’re interested in the history of the Empire State Building itself.
The former tallest building in the world. An Art Deco masterpiece. A building that has been featured on 250+ movies and TV shows. A symbol of the reach-for-the-sky attitude of the roaring 1920s. Arguably the most iconic building in New York City.
If your choice between the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock isn’t just about the views but also about the location’s history, well–the Empire State Building is hard to beat.
… you want to maintain flexibility during the day.
The Empire State Building sells tickets that are good for any time of day, allowing you to purchase tickets ahead of time and then work the visit into your schedule.
However, the Top of the Rock sells tickets for a specific date and time, so if you buy directly from them, you’ll need to plan your schedule a bit further in advance (there is a workaround, however: you can purchase flexible tickets to Top of the Rock through Get Your Guide, which we highly recommend).
Does the Empire State Building sound too good to pass up?
Choose Top of the Rock if…
… you want the Empire State Building in your photos.
Sounds obvious, but it’s worth keeping in mind: since the Empire State Building is such an iconic part of the New York skyline, you might be more interested in having it in your photos than taking photos from it!
One of the best features of the views from the Top of the Rock is the Empire State Building dominating the view from what feels like–when you’re up in the air, anyway–right next door.
… having wiring in front of the view distracts you.
While the Empire State Building has crisscrossing wiring installed on the observation deck in order to keep visitors safe, Top of the Rock has opted for large, open-air windows as a barrier instead.
The barriers can distort the view a tiny bit–if you want crystal-clear photos of the skyline, you’ll likely need to situate your lens in the small breaks between the barriers–but they offer a much less interrupted view to the naked eye.
… having epic views of Central Park is a high point for you.
The views from the Empire State Building have a lot going for them, including clearer views of southern Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, but when it comes to staring down at the green lung of the city that is Central Park, Top of the Rock’s views are far superior.
… you want to dodge (some of) the crowds.
With an estimated 4 million visitors a year at the Empire State Building vs. Top of the Rock’s 2.5 million visitors, you’ll be likely to share the view with slightly fewer people at Top of the Rock as opposed to the Empire State Building.
Don’t kid yourself, though–the Top of the Rock is still extremely popular (2.5 million equals just under an average of 7,000 visitors a day if they were evenly distributed across each day of the year, which of course they aren’t–summer will certainly see larger numbers of daily visitors).
Know you want to visit the Top of the Rock?
Bottom Line: Is the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock better?
It truly depends on what you are looking for!
We were honestly blown away by both views and will more than likely revisit each of them at some point during one of our many trips to New York City.
When we first chose between Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building, we opted for Top of the Rock, mostly because we wanted the Empire State Building in our photos and were intimidated by the idea of denser crowds at the Empire State Building.
However, having now visited both, I’d have to say that if we absolutely had to pick a favorite, the Empire State Building has a slight edge over Top of the Rock–the incredible views looking toward southern Manhattan manage to so clearly capture the essence of the New York City skyline, and there’s something about being on top of such an iconic structure that just adds an extra layer of joy to the experience.
That being said, there is truly no wrong answer here–it’s all about your priorities and which view looks more interesting to you!
Tips for Visiting the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock
Buy tickets in advance, especially during the high season.
I can’t emphasize this enough: with limited time in New York City, purchasing a ticket in advance is practically essential to have a good experience at either the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock. These destinations can get extremely crowded, and the lines and security measures are intense, especially at the Empire State Building.
You can purchase tickets in advance via Get Your Guide for either building for just a couple dollars over the base price, and I highly recommend it–just show the screenshot with the barcode on your phone when you arrive.
If you’re visiting during the high season (ie, anytime not in the post-Christmas dead-of-winter time period), strongly consider purchasing skip-the-line tickets as well–the Empire State Building offers one that lets you jump to the front of all security and elevator lines, of which there are several throughout the visit.
Made your choice?
Wait for a clear day.
Clouds, rain, fog–all of these can be the difference in a “this-is-so-amazing” experience as opposed to “why-do-people-think-this-is-worth-the-money-and-crowds” one.
If you know you want to visit either the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock during your trip to New York, I recommend checking the weather on your first day in the city and opting for the first clear, sunny day available to do your climb (another reason to picture a flexible ticket in advance–weather doesn’t always cooperate with pre-booked time slots!).
Consider visiting early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Both the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock open at 8:00 AM, and if you can be there right when they open, you’ll stand the best chance of avoiding the worst of the lines and being part of one of the first groups to make it up the elevators–which means that you’ll be able to have more elbow room on the observation deck.
If there’s a sunny morning forecast during your visit, these viewpoints are worth pulling yourself out of bed early for!
Don’t forget to account for the wind and colder weather at the top.
Even if it’s a pleasant day on the ground, the wind and colder weather at the top of each skyscraper will be sure to take its toll.
Ladies, learn from my mistakes and consider not wearing a short, flowy dress with a tendency to fly up like I did when visiting Top of the Rock, and for everyone visiting outside of the height of summer, consider bringing a jacket.
If you want to watch the sunset, be sure to plan ahead.
Watching the sunset from the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock (or even visiting at night!) is a long-dreamed of experience for many New York visitors, but if you have it in mind for your visit, well… remember that it’s a long dreamed-of experience for many New York visitors if you know what I mean (read: so many crowds).
Be sure to plan ahead by looking up the sunset time in advance, and plan to be on the observation deck at least half an hour beforehand depending on how long you want to enjoy the view and how many photos you want to take (golden hour right before sunset is an amazing time to take photos).
If you have your heart set on this experience, especially if you’re visiting during the summer, you absolutely want to purchase a skip-the-line ticket to the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock to ensure you don’t miss your window.
Ready to plan your visit?