For a real sense of the city’s epic scale, you need to get up into the sky, into one of New York's unparalleled observatories. The sometime chaos of New York sidewalks gives way to a clarity on the upper stories. The grids of streets, the flow of traffic, and architectural masterpieces from across the eras all come into clear focus. There’s no bad time to take an eagle eye to the lives of millions of New Yorkers, but if you can time it, we’d steer you to dusk, when you can enjoy both sunset and the thrill of watching the city’s lights flickering to life.
EMPIRE STATE BUILDING. Ever since its 1931 completion, the Empire State Building has been the most famous skyscraper in the world. It remains a vital part of NYC and an inspiration to the millions of visitors who ascend to the ESB observation deck in every season. Despite the feel of another age conveyed by the building’s Art Deco style, the Empire State Building is very much a modern phenomenon. From its pioneering energy efficiency to its selfie-friendly panoramas, the structure stands firmly in the 21st century.
The 86th floor is home to the Observation Deck, one of the most famous spots in all of New York. When you step out onto the platform time slows down. It’s open to the elements, and you’ll feel the breeze, with the city’s hum still audible, but quieted by the remove. The views are, of course, unparalleled. Main thoroughfares are seen as the arteries that they are, pulsing with traffic. Competitor buildings are reduced to the size of a child’s block set. The views from the deck go 360° and a look into the distances will reveal the curvature of the Earth. (You can see five states from here.)
Like any good New York institution, the Empire State Building keeps late hours. It’s open until 2am, and every bit as spectacular showing off the city lights as it is in the daytime. (The best times for avoiding peak traffic is to get in before 10am, or after 11pm.) If you’re looking for a post-Broadway experience, the ESB can’t be beat. Experience it yourself and you’ll know immediately why it’s one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. 20 W. 34th St., 212-736-3100, esbnyc.com
ONE WORLD OBSERVATORY. There’s only one tallest. Only one strongest. And only one destination selected as the Best New Attraction in the World. These attributes belong to One World Trade Center, and its pinnacle, the One World Observatory, rising over 100 stories in the sky.
You’ll learn some fast facts as you make your way to the elevators, confirming the superlatives: at 1,776 feet, One World Trade is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere; with over 45 tons of steel and a unique concrete core, it’s the strongest building in the world.
After a minute’s ride and a short video, you’ll hit the Discovery Level (the main observatory), with 360° sights of the city and beyond. It’s all here, from the rivers to the harbor, from the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building. Jersey and Queens recede in distant horizons. Helicopters zip by like hummingbirds, well below the floor-to-ceiling windows. If you want to get up close with downtown, One World Observatory is the place to go. The skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan—some of which once claimed title to the tallest building in the world—cluster below your feet like playthings. 285 Fulton St., 844-696-1776, oneworldobservatory.com
TOP OF THE ROCK. At this stunning perch atop Rockefeller Center, you’ll find state-of-the-art features like reserved-time tickets, multimedia exhibits, an indoor viewing area, and transparent safety-glass panels that allow wholly unobstructed views of the city’s most iconic landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the rivers, and all of Central Park (its size can only truly be appreciated when seen from above).
Top of the Rock also boasts two crystal installations by Swarovski and the jaw-dropping Sky Shuttle elevators. Outfitted with transparent glass ceilings, the Sky Shuttles let riders view their own rapid acceleration through the building’s shaftway as they zip their way towards the light and open air above. The Grand Viewing Deck on the 69th floor offers unparalleled views of the city, with visibility that reaches some 30 miles on a clear day. The 70th Floor is the proverbial cherry on top, allowing visitors to experience a 360° panorama of Manhattan in all its glory. This is an open-air perch with completely unobstructed views—no glass or anything. It provides a vantage point unlike any other in the city...or the world. 30 Rockefeller Ctr., 212-698-2000, topoftherocknyc.com