USA 2016 Travel Diary: Empire State Building VS Top of the Rock

If there was any doubt as to what the most iconic building in New York City is, Jay-Z probably erased all that with his song. It’s a song that has been used a gazillion times to pertain to NYC so I’m not going to jump into that bandwagon. No sir. Doesn’t change the fact that when most people think about New York, they think about the Empire State Building.

If you ever find yourself planning your visit to New York City, I think it’s a good experience to go up high and get a feel of how massive and jam-packed New York really is. It’s a different feeling seeing NYC from thousands of feet high. There’s this certain buzzing energy even as you watch all the small movement below that leaves you both at peace and raring to go and explore some more.

I managed to squeeze in a visit to both Top of the Rock and The Empire State Building during my visit to New York since they were included in my New York Pass. Both were brief visits, and both were regrettably nowhere near sunset. My Dad booked a lot of Broadway shows which coincidentally started at the same time as the sunset, or 8PM.

During my next trip back, whenever that may be, one of my missions is to go and plant myself at one of the upper decks to take pictures of the gorgeous New York skyline during the Golden Hour. I reckon my dilemma during that time will be choosing between Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building, which I figured could be a legitimate concern for some people who have very limited time in this big city. (And if you’re reading this after 2021, there’s a new contender in this battle in the form of the SUMMIT One Vanderbilt. I hope I get to visit it one day!)

This post isn’t really about pitting the two against each other, but talking about the Empire State Building and Top of The Rock side by side could maybe give you a little idea about the differences between the two.


Despite the abundance of iconic places, I can’t imagine going to New York without a visit to the Empire State Building. It’s a 102-storey art-deco style beauty that you can immediately spot from most places in Manhattan, but more so when you hit Midtown. While the building itself may be a towering presence that is impossible to miss, on the ground it was a little hard to orient myself as to where the entrance was located. My Dad and I eventually found it haha!

At the two-storey high lobby, the art deco feels are even more pronounced. And yes, I’m sure you’ve seen this lobby a gazillion times in TV shows and movies. The ceiling is prettily decorated with 24-karat gold and aluminum planets and stars designed to look like gears– an homage to the Machine Age. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost my picture of the ceiling!

The most famous piece of art is actually the one above the Front Desk, where the Empire State Building itself is rendered with beams of light radiating from its mast. This is as Art Deco as you can get. I actually want one of these!

TRIVIA: The Empire State Building is home to some 1,000 business and thus has its own Zip Code, 10118. Over 21,000 people work here too, making it second to none other than the Pentagon in terms of number of employees.

You can ride the escalators from here to the ticketing counter, and thankfully the line wasn’t long yet since we were in at an off-peak hour. Tickets for the 86th floor Main Deck go for $32, and this is the same that’s included in our New York Pass. If you want to go all the way to the 102nd Floor, you have to pay $52. I honestly didn’t feel like it was necessary to go all the way to the top, but I noticed they have some other packages on their website which seem interesting but are just too expensive for my taste.

You go through security and a dizzying maze of displays before you can arrive at the elevator, but it takes only about 1 minute to get to the 80th floor. I was immediately drawn towards the tall windows lining the walls, ready to receive my first taste of New York from high up.

Do you see all those cars and people down below? It feels so surreal watching them move about; kind of like watching a mechanic miniature of people living their lives. I love how the road goes straight until it forks at a shape that perfectly accommodates the triangular Flatiron Building– symmetry in all the busy Manhattan chaos. I got so enchanted by this almost-clockwork scene that I forgot to take a hyperlapse.

It almost seems as if New York has a colour code on their buildings. I’m not complaining though. I love how they come in these different shapes too. So picturesque! It’s a little harder to snap photos here though because of the reflectiveness of the glass, so you have to work the angles.

Macy’s Herald Square is right around my hood, and by that I mean like two blocks from my hotel. Every time I see this picture I imagine a snowy New York cityscape. Somehow snow and brownstones are the perfect match, though I am very doubtful of my abilities to survive a New York winter.

If you want to see New York sans the glass windows, you can actually skip this area and go straight to the elevator queue going up to the 86th Floor. That’s where the Main Observation Deck is. You’ll probably also have the option to use the stairs to go up, but just a piece of advice: Take the stairs only if you’re in great shape. And if you don’t have bad knees. 😀

I know it seems like it’s just 6 floors, but those stairs are wickedly long and the steps are large enough that climbing it feels like double the effort. I used to be an athlete and still work out religiously so I was able to get up there with no problems, but I did see quite a lot of people struggle. And since you did pay $32 to get up to the Observation Deck, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with waiting for the lift.

I mean, how else will you manage to survive if the sight takes your breath away some more? Even on the most dreary days, it’s still quite amazing to behold. Right off the bat, I spotted some iconic buildings like the new One World Trade Center in the distance. The Manhattan Bridge kind of melded into the bluish tinge of this overcast day though. And of course I couldn’t let pass the chance to snap photos of my favourite Chrysler Building. The Brooklyn Bridge was just right behind it!

I really enjoyed the experience of coming up here. I wonder if I’d say the same if I arrived at peak hours, but I’ve already resolved to see and photograph the New York sunset next time I return so I guess I’ll have to brave it. In truth, not everyone can say they’ve gone up the iconic Empire State Building. Not everyone gets a chance to drink in this sight. So even though I looked like an Asian boy in my too-short haircut at the time, I couldn’t wipe the silly grin off my face.

Living in Midtown, a few blocks away from the Empire State Building, I usually take a moment to look at its bright evening lights on my way back to the hotel. Problem is I’m a little too sleepy by that time so I don’t venture out to take photos anymore. Something I also have to adjust when I come back. I also need to catch one of these insane light shows.


Here’s the thing: If you want a complete view of the New York City skyline, there’s really only one place you can go to get it. I’m talking about capturing New York WITH the Empire State Building in it. Obviously you cannot do it when you’re standing inside the Empire State, so where do you go?

Top of The Rock at the Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center is a huge complex located between 5th and 6th Avenues in Mahattan, and you can spend a whole lot of time just running about here alone. Aside from shopping and dining, the main attraction here is the 30 Rockefeller Center– home to Saturday Night Live. I was initially planning on going for the NBC Studio Tour but had to scrap the idea out due to time constraints. So to the Top of The Rock we go!

The ticketing process at Top of the Rock seems a bit more organized. They give you a ticket based on the time you want to visit, and you cannot go inside until the window of time indicated in your ticket is open. You can stay at the observatory for as long as you want after that. Again, we used the New York Pass here, but the value of the ticket is also $32 just like at the Empire State.

The Observation Deck at Top of the Rock spans only from the 67th to 70th floors, and instead of metal bars, one part of the deck is covered in glass while the other half facing Central Park isn’t.

By now you might be thinking, how am I supposed to take a good picture of the glass-covered side of Manhattan? Well there’s actually another upper viewing area here which you can reach via stairs or elevator. With this one you can take the stairs!

This elevated area is not very big but the 360-degree view is perfection. I also got intimidated by the size of Central Park from here. I mean, with everything already in their minuscule forms, how could that expanse of green still be so ginormous? Still, it’s nice to have a break from all the skyscrapers; and to see a space of refuge from all the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.

The 4 Times Square Building looks pretty futuristic doesn’t it? That’s the one with the H&M sign on, but what I was really trying to capture here was the LED ball on top of 1 Times Square Building. (This was the farthest my lens would allow.)

I’ve always found the New Year’s Eve balldrop event so symbolic. That lighted sphere plunges down the flagpole for 60 seconds beginning at 11:59 PM (Eastern Time of course) and arrives at its destination at exactly midnight. What a way to usher in the new year!

Although a little lower, the Observation Deck here at Top of The Rock still provides a perfect view of the New York skyline. And most importantly, this is the place to get that quintessential “I went to New York!” postcard picture or selfie. Hello there, Empire State Building!

The skies started to get really dark and it didn’t take long before rain started to fall over my umbrella-less head, so I quickly snapped my last photo and my Dad and I went back inside. We also couldn’t fully explore Rockefeller Center because we had another show to catch on Broadway, so we ran through the rain to a nearby eatery and had dinner while waiting for the rain to stop.

The thing that saddened me the most was that I didn’t get a chance to taste anything from Bouchon Bakery. Food blogger problems, right? 😀

In what was a horrible blue-grey day, New York still offers a wonderful view. I was really sad about this weather because just look how DREARY the pictures came out! Still, as a sucker for cityscapes I can’t say I left empty-handed. The main advantage of going up Top of the Rock is being able to capture the Empire State Building itself in your photos. All the other sights are pretty much on even footing whether you shoot them from Top of the Rock or the Empire State.

Frankly speaking, if I had to pick JUST ONE, I would go up Top of The Rock again just because I really want to get a shot of New York at Golden Hour and have the Empire State Building in my photos. But if I had a lot of time and budget to spare, I think I’d climb up both of these towers again on different days. I would also love to get a Golden Hour shot of New York City with the iconic metal rails of the Empire State in the mix.

I’m excited for this “next time” already.



350 5th Ave, New York, NY 10118
Hours: 8AM to 2AM
Tickets: Starts at $32 for adults, plus more options
Website | Facebook | Instagram


30 Rockefeller Plaza New York, NY
Entrance on 50th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
Hours: 8AM to 12AM
Tickets: $32 for adults, $26 for children 6-12 years, $30 for seniors
*The last ticket is sold at 11pm and the last elevator goes up at 11:15pm
Contact No: +1 212-698-2000
Website | Facebook

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