Complete Guide to the Empire State Building Observatory: Views, Experience, Photos

Complete Guide to the Empire State Building Observatory: Views, Experience, Photos

Wondering about the experience and views from the Empire State Building Observation Deck? This complete Empire State Building guide tells you everything you should know before visiting the Observation Deck, including best time to go, how to get discounted tickets, views from the different floors, etc.

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If there is one building that is recognizable in New York City, that would be the Empire State Building. Having been featured on postcards and in many popular films and TV shows, the Empire State Building stands as the symbol of New York City and it is a sight not to be missed on any New York City itineraries.

Not surprisingly, there is an observatory on top of the Empire State Building that gives you a 360 degree view of the entire Manhattan and you can also see parts of Queens, Brooklyn and New Jersey from the Empire State Building.

Since there are 4 other observation decks in New York City (Edge, Top of the Rock, SUMMIT One & One World Observatory), you may wonder how the Empire State Building compares to them and what is the experience and view like from the Empire State Building Observation Deck.

In this post, I will provide you with all the information you need to visit the Empire State Building, including photos of the views from the Empire State Observation deck, the best (and worst) time to visit, whether it’s worth it to go up to the 102nd floor and many more!

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Best NYC Photo Spots: Pier 35 photo spot of Manhattan Bridge

A Brief History of the Empire State Building in New York City

The Empire State Building was funded by GM executive John Raskob along with a few others. At the time, the goal of the building was for it to be the first building with more than 100 stories in the world.

Construction started on March 17, 1930 and it took 1 year and 45 days to finish this 102 story building. The speed of construction was record breaking and it was the tallest building in the world at that time at 1454 feet (443.2m) including the antenna. (Later on the World Trade Center became the tallest).

There are many major companies located inside the Empire State Building, including LinkedIn, Shutterstock and other law firms and corporate firms.

The Empire State Building is one of the most iconic buildings in New York City and you can pretty much see it from anywhere in NYC. One of the prettiest features of the Empire State Building (besides its Art Deco architecture) is the color changing spire every night to celebrate special occasions and match seasonal events.

Given how iconic the Empire State Building is, it is no wonder over 4 million tourists all over the world visit the Empire State Building every year. The best way to visit the Empire State Building is to go to its observation deck, the OG observation deck in New York City.

How to get to Empire State Building in Manhattan

How to get to the Empire State Building Observation Deck

The Empire State Building’s address is 20 W 34th St., located right at the northwest corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan.

Given its super central location, it is very easy to get to the Empire State Building by the subway, bus, PATH, or walking.

The actual entrance to the Empire State Building is on 34th Street. You will see signs that say “Observatory” and lines set up for people waiting outside. It is very close to the Harry Potter Store so you should find it very easily.

Getting to the Empire State Building by the subway

The closest subway station to the Empire State Building include:

  • 34 St-Herald Square Station: subway line D, F M, N, Q, R W
  • 33 St Station: subway line 4, 5, 6
  • 34 St – Penn Station: Subway line A, C, E

Subway fare costs $2.90 per ride, regardless of distance. You can pay for the subway by purchasing a metrocard from the machines at the subway station or by simply tapping your contactless card at the OMNY reader at the turnstile.

Getting to the Empire State Building by the bus

There are numerous bus stations that are close to the Empire State Building, with bus lines such as QM10, QM12, QM15, QM16, QM17, QM18, QM24, SIM23, SIM24, X27, X28, X37, X38, M1, M2, M3, M5, M55, etc.

People will tell you to use Google Maps to get directions but as a New Yorker, I am going to tell you to use the CityMapper app to get directions. The bus and subway times are super accurate (Google Maps is not accurate when it comes to time).

The bus also costs $2.90 per ride just like the subway and you can either use a subway metro card or tap your contactless credit card to ride.

Getting to the Empire State Building by PATH

If you are coming from New Jersey, you will need to take the PATH Train (part of NJ Transit). It is not the same as the subway but you can still use the metrocard to pay.

The PATH Train will stop at 34 St- Herald Sq (same as the F, M, B, D, N, Q, R) and then you just walk a block over on 34th street.

Walking to the Empire State Building

You can use Google Maps to figure out the walking direction to the Empire State Building.

If you are located in Times Square, Bryant Park then it would take about 10 minutes to walk to the Empire State Building.

Hop on Hop Off Bus to the Empire State Building

The Hop on Hop Off bus makes it easy for you to get to the Empire State Building from other popular New York City tourist attractions.

I would recommend Big Bus Hop on Hop off bus and they are part of the New York Explorer Pass and the New York Pass.

Read Next: Is One World Observatory Worth It?

Hours of Operations at the Empire State Observatory

Empire State Observatory has seasonal hours with shorter hours in the winter and longer hours in the summer.

During “low” seasons like in the fall and winter, the Empire State Observatory opens from 10am to 10pm. However during the Christmas and New York week, there is a holiday hour from 8am to 1am daily.

During the summer the Empire State Observatory is open from 8am to 2am everyday.

You should always check the hours of operation on the official website.

View from the top of Empire State Building towards Hudson Yards Edge

Ticket Options of the Empire State Building Observation deck

There are a ton of different ticket options for the Empire State Building Observatory, with some special event and holiday tickets. The main tickets include:

  • Main Deck 86th Floor Observatory (Starting at $44)
  • 102nd & 86th Floor Observation decks (starting at $79)
  • Express passes that let you skip all the lines: $40 more per person on top of regular tickets
  • Empire State Building AM/PM Experience (starting at $64, also included in the New York CityPASS only (not the C3 pass).

At the time of writing (December 2023), there is a sunrise experience on the 86th floor with Starbucks Reserve, but the ticket costs $135. I don’t think it’s worth it.

I bought my Empire State Building Observatory ticket from Getyourguide, it was about the same price as the official website (maybe $1 or $2 cheaper) and I could cancel and modify my ticket up until 24 hours before. The official website does not give you a refund, so I highly recommend purchasing from Getyourguide instead.

Kids 5 or younger can enter for free with a paying adult.

If you are wondering the difference between 86th Floor and 102nd Floor Observatory, read on and I will explain more later!

Empire State Building Observation Deck 86th Floor view and photo

How to Get Discounted Tickets for the Empire State Building Observation Deck

There are a few different ways to get discount tickets to the Empire State Observatory, but most of them depend on your military status or ages (and a few other criteria).

Get a New York Attraction Pass

If you are planning to visit more than just the Empire State Building in New York City, you should consider getting one of the New York Attraction Passes. These passes essentially help you save money on NYC attractions including the Empire State Observation deck.

Depending on which New York City pass you buy, you can save up to 40% on the Empire State Observation deck (and other attractions).

Senior Discount

If you are 62 or above, you can get a slight discount on the tickets to the Empire State Observatory.

Military Discount

If you have a military ID, you can also get a slight discount on the Empire State Observation deck tickets.

Toddlers are Free

Children under 6 can visit the Empire State Building for free! Bring your toddlers and enjoy the view with them.

Combo Tickets

There are combo tickets you can purchase so you can save money on both experiences. Some of my favorite combo tickets include:

On average you can save $5 – $10 using these combos.

What to do and see at the Empire State Building Observatory

Here is a detailed walk through of all the things there is to do at the Empire State Building Observatory by floor. So you can see what exactly is inside the Empire State Building and what to expect during your visit.

Right after you enter the building, you will see a cute photo spot below the stairs. Stop here for a quick photo before walking up the stairs to ticket check.

If you already have your tickets, go up the left stair, otherwise go right and you will go straight to ticket machines.

The security check is also on the second floor. After walking through security, you will see a photo station where the official photographer takes your photo. If you don’t want to take those photos, you can walk right through to the exhibits.

2nd Floor Interactive Exhibits

The 2nd Floor of the Empire State Building is full of exhibits, some are interactive and some are not. These exhibits include photos, artifacts, and multimedia experience. They essentially guide you through the history of the Empire State Building (ESB), its construction, its opening day, famous films that featured the ESB as well as photos of celebrities that visited the ESB.

In chronological order, the exhibits on the 2nd floor of the Empire State Building include:

The Site in the 1920s

This exhibit shows you photos of the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel that stood on where the present day ESB is. You will see the actual survey marker as well as a few “telescopes” that let you take a peek into the past.

Construction

Empire State Building  construction bronze figurine photo

The series of photos and multi-media tells the story of team work during the record speed construction of the ESB. About 3400 workers worked on the building and it was completed in slightly over a year.

There is a photo showing the building construction progression in that year and there are bronze characters you can take photos with.

Opening Day

Empire State Building  opening day exhibit

The official opening day of the ESB was on May 1, 1931. This exhibition shows photos from the opening day including one where FRD attended the opening ceremony from the observation deck (back then there were no railings).

Otis Elevators

Included in the exhibition is a replica of the original elevator cab to the 102nd floor. As you step inside the background graphics change as if the elevator is traveling up.

This exhibition also includes the original relay controller that ran the original elevators (the current ones are run by computers).

Modern Marvel

Empire State Building  Modern Marvel

There are a number of large touchscreen panels that talk about energy efficiency of the Empire State Building.

Urban Campus

Empire State Building  Urban campus

This exhibit displays logos of companies that are currently renting out office spaces inside the Empire State Building as well as the number of square feet they take up. These companies include LinkedIn, Agoda, Shutterstock, JCDecaux, etc.

World’s Most Famous Building

Tons of Hollywood films, TV shows and comics feature the Empire State Building. You will walk into this 180 degree theater (with 72 screens) that showcases the different times when the Empire State Building was featured. I really liked this exhibit, I thought it was super cool.

Kong

Empire State building  King Kong photo

King Kong was the first film that featured the Empire State Building in 1933, therefore it is only fitting to have an exhibit/ photo spot dedicated to King Kong.

After the films, you will come to the famed Kong exhibit, where King Kong’s two hands break through the walls as he climbs to the top of the ESB. Grab a photo here before moving onto the main floor.

Celebrity

Empire State building Celebrities exhibit

Celebrities come to visit the Empire State Building all the time, in fact Oprah Winfrey was at the Empire State Building just a day or two before I visited!

This Celebrity walk through shows you all the famous people that have taken photos at the Empire State Building, who knows maybe you will meet one during your visit.

Elevator to the 80th Floor

After walking through all of these exhibits on the 2nd floor, you will wait in line to enter the elevator that will take you up to the 80th Floor in about 47 seconds.

The ceiling of the elevator has a mini show that was created by Imaginary Forces in August 2016. During the ascend to the 80th floor, the show transports you back in time during the construction of the Empire State Building. During descend, the show features the art deco lobby, preparing you to come back to New York City streets.

80th Floor View & Photos

Immediately after getting off the elevator, you will start seeing the views (through small windows). I wouldn’t worry about taking too many photos here since you will have better views (without the window glare) on the 86th floor.

Empire State building  observatory 80th floor

On the 80th floor you can see all directions except North. You only see the view towards the north when you are leaving.

Stephen-Wiltshire-exhibit-at-the-empire-state-building

There are a few exhibits on the 80th floor as well:

  • NYC: Above and Beyond: This interactive exhibit helps you to come up with a NYC itinerary based on your interests!
  • Artistry in Light: I’m sure you have seen all the different colored lights on top of the Empire State Building every night. This exhibit shows you a short film on the creation of these lights.
  • Photo Spot: There is a bench set up in front of the photo of the Empire State Building for photos. I am not sure if it’s always there but it was there for the holiday season
  • Stephen Wilshire’s Drawing: You will see a long landscape drawing framed on the wall on your left hand side as you walk onto the 80th floor. This drawing is from the famed British artist who took a helicopter tour of Manhattan and drew everything from memory
  • Scenes of NYC: You will see 9 “fake” viewfinders, each of these viewfinders show you different locations in New York City, such as the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, Statue of Liberty, etc. Each viewfinder displays several different locations.

After walking through these exhibits and looking at the views through the windows, you will be lining up to ride the elevator up to the 86th floor.

If you have an express pass or a VIP ticket, you won’t need to wait in the line. This line was much longer than the line downstairs to ride up to the 80th floor. I think I waited for 10-15 minutes and I was there a few minutes after it opened.

The elevator to the 86th floor is much smaller than the one you just rode in. There is nothing special about this elevator.

86th Floor Observatory Outdoor Terrace

The 86th floor of the Empire State Building is the star of the show. This is the classic observatory you’ve seen and heard so much about! You are probably really curious how the view from the top of the Empire State Building looks like.

Empire State Building 86th Floor view

The 86th floor is outdoors with a fence all around, so you can safety take photos and see views of New York City (this means all 5 boroughs) and New Jersey from all angles.

Worried about visiting in the winter? There are outdoor heaters mounted on the wall all around this outdoor deck, but yes it can get quite windy and cold in the dead of winter.

View of Central Park from the Empire State Building

The view is pretty amazing, as you are right in the center of New York City. From the Empire State Building you can see the other 4 observation decks in the city. One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t get a full view of Central Park like you do from the Top of the Rock or SUMMIT One.

102nd Floor of Empire State Building

If you purchased the 102nd floor ticket, then you will take a special elevator up to the 102nd floor.

The main difference between the 86th floor and 102nd floor of the Empire State Building is that the 102nd floor is fully enclosed, with floor to ceiling windows and a spire in the middle. The view is higher so you have a slightly better vantage point.

Keep in mind that the room is quite small since the Spire runs through the middle and the windows have glare so in terms of photos the 102nd floor is not necessarily better.

Secret Floors of the Empire State Building

For 99% of the visitors, their visits will stop either on the 86th floor or the 102nd floor. The last 1% VIPs and special guests get a chance to visit the secret floors of the ESB! There is actually more than one “secret” floor at the Empire State Building.

You may have heard of the 103rd floor where there is only a waist height railing, but there is also the 81st floor (where the lights that make the ESB colorful at night are) as well as the 87th floor (the “Cigar Room”) with floor to ceiling glass windows.

I personally have never been to those floors but if you are lucky enough to be on a VIP tour (not the one that can be purchased on their website) then you will be able to visit one of these floors.

Exiting the Empire State Building

When you come down from the 86th floor, you first have to go back to the 80th floor, where you will finally see the north side of Manhattan from this floor, (Remember how earlier I said you can see all directions except North from the 80th floor)?

You will also be able to purchase your photos on the 80th floor as you exit.

Another cool thing on the 80th floor that you only see when you leave is this touch screen kiosk that displays all the photos people have uploaded on social media using the hashtag #empirestatebldg. As you move your finger across the screen different photos will pop out.

The 2nd floor has a large store where you will find Kong plushies and mugs among other things. It is the perfect place to get some souvenirs for friends at home.

Lastly as you exit to the first floor lobby you will see the famed art deco lobby! Remember to grab your last photo here before heading out.

Empire-State-Building-Art-Deco-Lobby

Read Next: SUMMIT One Vanderbilt Photo and Visiting Guide

Tips to Visiting the Empire State Building Observatory

  • Arrive 20 – 30 minutes before your allocated time slot so your timed entry does not expire
  • The entire experience takes between 90 minutes to 2 hours. If there is a long time, you may need up to 3 hours at the Empire State building
  • If you visit in the winter, be sure to have layers as it gets really hot inside and cold outside
  • Don’t wear a hat on the 86th floor main deck, it could get blown away
  • If you want to do the AM/PM Experience, you should get a CityPASS as it is included in the pass. If you just want to go up once, I recommend getting tickets from either Getyourguide or get a Go City Pass for more flexible exchange/ refund policies.
  • You definitely need to book the Empire State Building tickets in advance as time slots do get sold out especially in the summer and in December.
  • If you are into photography, I recommend bringing both a wide angle lens for inside photos and a zoom lens.

Other Questions You May Have About the Empire State Building

How long do you need at the Empire State Building

You need about 90 minutes to 2 hours at the Empire State Building. It may take up to 3 hours if you have to wait in long lines to enter the building or the elevators.

What’s the best time to visit the Empire State Building

If you want to avoid long lines, early morning right at opening or late night on a weekday are the best times to visit the Empire State Building.

The Empire State Building gets really busy throughout the day, especially around sunset time. You can also expect large crowds during the summer and peak December holiday season.

If you have the AM/PM ticket via CityPASS, you can visit both early morning and late night to get the best experiences.

Is there food and drinks at the Empire State Building Observatory

There is no restaurant or cafe at the Empire State Building observatory, but there is Starbucks Reserve, State Grill & Bar, and Tacombi in the Empire State Building itself.

The good news is that the Empire State Building is within walking distance to Korea Town on 32nd street, where you will find amazing Korean BBQ and Korean restaurants and food courts to eat at.

Of course you will also find many other places to eat around the Empire State building, such as Shake Shack, Black Tap, Five Guys, Royal 35 Steakhouse, pizza, Keen’s Steakhouse, Irish pub, ramen, etc.

Is the 102nd Floor at the Empire State Building worth it?

Given that the 102nd floor is $35 more and that it is very small and hard to take photos with the glare in the glass, I don’t think it’s worth paying extra to go up there.

With the extra $35 you have to pay, you can pretty much pay for another observatory like the Edge or Top of the Rock where you can actually see the Empire State Building.

When I was at the Empire State Building the elevator to the 102nd floor was broken, so people had to wait before ultimately walking up the stairs.

Is the Empire State Building Good For Kids?

I think the interactive exhibits on the 2nd floor could be fun for kids. However the 86th floor outdoor deck has pretty high walls, so you will need to hold your kids up to see the view if you have a kid younger than 5.

In fact strollers have to be folded on observation decks, so if you have a young child you will need to carry the child on the floors.

How much do photo packages post at the Empire State Building

If you took photos with the official photographer, you have an option to purchase the photos on your way out on the 80th floor. Below are the pricing for photo packages at the Empire State Building:

  • Basic Package: One 6×8 photo (physical print): $25
  • Premium Package: Two 6×8 photos + digital copy: $30
  • Deluxe Package: All the photos (different stock photo backgrounds) printed and digital copy: $40

How the Empire State Building Compare to the Other Observatories in NYC

Empire State Building vs. Top of the Rock

Both the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center are in the middle of Manhattan. The Empire State Building Observation Deck is higher than the Top of the Rock (86 floor vs. 70 floor) and the Empire State Building is the more iconic of the two.

The Top of the Rock has one of the best views of any observation deck, with the Empire State Building on one side and Central Park on the other side. There are also more Instagram photo opportunities at Top of the Rock but there aren’t much interactive exhibits there.

Empire State Building vs. SUMMIT One Vanderbilt

SUMMIT One is the newest observation deck in New York City. It is hard to compare the two because they are just so different.

On one hand, The Empire State Building is an old building but it is iconic. On the other hand, SUMMIT One is shiny and new and it is the most interactive observation decks in NYC.

If you want the history and iconic factor, you should go to the Empire State Building. But if you want the trendy sexy vibe or if you have kids, then SUMMIT One would be a better fit for you.

Empire State Building vs. the Edge

Edge is the second newest observatory in New York City. Similar to the Empire State Building, Edge is mostly an outdoor experience with a large beautiful deck overlooking the city.

Edge is only on one floor but it has a large indoor space that gets transformed to different themes each season (from floral displays with swings to a small rink in the winter).

Again, if you want a more centered view of Manhattan or you want the iconic factor, go to the Empire State Building. But if you want more “instagrammable” shots and videos, go to the Edge.

Empire State Building vs. One World Observatory (World Trade Center)

One World Observatory at World Trade Center is the highest observatory in New York City. Located in the new World Trade Center, One World Observatory is popular among those who are visiting downtown Manhattan and the 911 Memorial & Museum.

The views from these two observation decks are drastically different, with One World looking more at Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan.

Personally I found Empire State Building more fun and educational with its exhibits so I would recommend Empire State Building over One World Observatory unless you are already visiting downtown and have the unlimited New York Pass (then you might as well go up).

Things to do near the Empire State Building

The Empire State Building is minutes walk from some of the best attractions in New York City.

Macys Christmas decoration

  • Macy’s Flagship Store: People from all over the world come to shop at Macy’s and check out the famed wooden escalators. During the holiday season families go to Santaland to take photos with Santa at his North pole village.
  • Harry Potter The Exhibition: If you are a fan of Harry Potter then you must not miss the Harry Potter The Exhibition, an immersive interactive tour that takes you into the world of Harry Potter. You can use your bracelet to win points for your house.
  • Candytopia: An interactive (and instagram worthy) exhibit where all things are made from candy. There are activities for kids and adults as well as plenty of photo opportunities. There’s also free candy to eat!
  • Relax in a cafe: There is no shortage of coffee shops near the Empire State Building and some of my favorite ones include Paper Coffee, King’s Street Coffee, Grace Street (more of a dessert shop) and Copper Mug Coffee. Copper Mug Coffee has a secret rooftop deck where you can chill and enjoy the view on a sunny day.
  • Grab a drink at a rooftop bar: Just like coffee shops, there are also a number of cool rooftop bars near the Empire State Building, such as Moxy Hotel, Refinery Rooftop, Cloud Social, Top of the Strand, etc.
  • The Morgan Library & Museum: If you want to do something different then head over to the Morgan Library & Museum, a beautiful library filled with different bibles and other books. It is also an Instagram hotspot due to its beautiful interior.

If you want, you can also easily walk to Times Square, Bryant Park or Flatiron Building and Madison Square Park from the Empire State Building. They are all about 8 to 10 blocks away.

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