Standing 1,250 feet over Midtown Manhattan, the Empire State Building was constructed during a race to erect the world’s tallest building. As the roaring twenties drew to a close, two automobile giants shifted their competition from the streets to the skies while stealing the record-holding title from Paris’s Eiffel Tower. Ultimately, Walter Chrysler’s “monument to me” overtook the Eiffel Tower as the world’s tallest building. But the Empire State Building, financed by General Motors executive John J. Raskob, surpassed the Chrysler Building less than a year later and proudly held the title of world’s tallest building for nearly 40 years.
While the Empire State Building is no longer the world’s tallest, the steel and stone structure remains one of the globe’s most iconic skyscrapers. Over the years, we watched an animated King Kong scale the Art Deco Building with ease and held our breath as Christopher Reeve’s Superman swooped down to keep the 200-foot-tall radio tower from tumbling into the street below. We laughed when Elf pressed all of the buttons in the elevator and announced, “It looks like a Christmas tree.” And we swooned when widower Sam (played by Tom Hanks) got a second chance at love with Annie (Meg Ryan’s character) in Sleepless in Seattle.
But what is it really like to visit the Empire State Building and glide up an elevator to the observation deck? Here are 13 important things to know before you go.
Note: I have visited the Empire State Building several times, once while enjoying a sponsored New York CityPASS.
1. The Lobby Is Also A Work Of Art
Embracing the glamorous modern-meets-fashion Art Deco style that was popular in the roaring twenties, the lobby of the Empire State Building is a sight to behold. When you step into the soaring lobby, look up to see a gilded mural of celestial beings that seems to hint at the views that await you many stories up.
2. There Are Actually Two Observatories
Immortalized in movies like An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle, the open-air viewing deck that wraps around the 86th floor of the Empire State Building is one of the most iconic spots in the Big Apple. But did you know that there is a second observatory? For an additional fee, ascend an additional 16 floors to the 102nd-floor observatory. While this higher deck is fully enclosed, the floor-to-ceiling windows offer unfettered panoramic views of the horizon.
3. Buy Tickets In Advance
With so much to do and see in America’s most visited city, you don’t want to stand in line for long. Speed things up by purchasing your tickets to the Empire State Building observation deck in advance. Tickets are available for purchase on the Empire State Building website. Or, see the Empire State Building along with five other popular attractions by purchasing a New York CityPASS.
4. Speaking Of Lines
You’ll stand in several lines when you visit the Empire State Building. First, there is security. Then, you’ll need to get your tickets. (Even if you’ve purchased them in advance per the recommendation above, you’ll still need to retrieve your on-site paper ticket from one of the kiosks.) Then, there is the line to start your visit, first winding through the second-floor exhibits and then to the elevator.
Pro Tip: If your time is more precious than your money, see the Empire State Building with a Premium Experience ticket. Not only will you get to skip the line on your way to the 86th-floor observatory, but you’ll also enjoy a customized 90-minute guided tour that includes additional sights and experiences.
5. A Sense Of Security
When visiting the Empire State Building, you’ll need to go through a security check. The experience is similar to airport security, with a walk-through metal detector and bag check. There is no coat check or baggage holding area at the Empire State Building, and only carry-on size luggage is allowed. So if your first stop in New York is its most beloved skyscraper, it’s best to drop these items off at your hotel or vacation rental first. Naturally, weapons aren’t allowed to join you on the observatory deck, and neither are glass bottles or tripods.
6. Don’t Rush Through The New Exhibits
Unveiled in July 2019, be sure to take your time exploring the new 10,000-square-foot interactive exhibit space on the Empire State Building’s second floor. See what this stretch of Fifth Avenue looked like before the skyscraper was built and the original Waldorf Astoria Hotel stood on this spot, and put yourself in the workboots of one of the “sky boys” -- the construction workers who helped erect the building in a record time of 410 days. Or explore the high-rise’s celebrity side with clips of the building in movies, shows, and commercials and a wall of photos documenting the famous people who have visited over the years.
7. Go Early (Or Late)
With more than four million visitors a year, the Empire State Building is one of the most visited attractions in New York City. While there’s nearly always a bit of a wait, minimize your time in line (and maximize your enjoyment) by going early. The observation deck is open 365 days a year and heading up in the first two hours of the day may help you beat the rush. You can check the building’s hours here.
For spectacular nighttime views, see the City That Never Sleeps after dark. The crowds start to die down around 9 p.m. If you plan to see the sights of New York City via a CityPASS, your ticket includes two visits to the 86th-floor observation deck, which lets you see the Big Apple by day and then return during the evening for a nighttime view.
8. Look Up As You Ascend
It only takes a minute to zoom to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. If you tend to feel a bit claustrophobic in elevators (like me) and are afraid of heights (also me), the folks at the Empire State Building have an interactive video in the ceiling of the elevator to help distract you during the 60 seconds it takes for the gleaming doors to slide shut behind you and reopen to an amazing view high above the city.
9. On A Clear Day, You Can See Forever
Well, if forever is Massachusetts! When taking in the panoramic views of Midtown Manhattan on a clear day, you’ll see a variety of notable landmarks. Look for the acres of green space in Central Park, the soaring Freedom Tower (also known as One World Trade Center), the blinking billboards of Times Square, and the Statue of Liberty as she welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” You’ll also look at the Empire State Building’s Art Deco twin, the Chrysler Building, directly from the observation deck’s eye.
But past those landmarks, your bird’s-eye view on a clear day also lets you look beyond Midtown to Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
10. Linger As Long As You Like
While I recommend allowing at least two hours to visit the Empire State Building, visitors can linger as long as they’d like (closing time permitting). So don’t rush through the second-floor exhibits, and take your time enjoying the views from the observation deck.
11. A Guiding Light
With the ability to display more than 16 million colors, the LED lights that encircle the top of the Empire State Building aren’t always their signature white. When we visited in October, the skyscraper displayed horizontal bands of red, white, and green to honor Italy on Columbus Day. On July 4th, look up for red, white, and blue lights celebrating America’s birthday. And on September 11th, the top of the tower is bathed in blue light, commemorating the tragic attack on the twin towers of the city’s World Trade Center.
Pro Tip: The Empire State Building’s “secret” LED light decoder ring is published here.
12. Fully Accessible
Although there are 1,872 steps between the Empire State Building lobby and the 102nd-floor observatory, the building is fully ADA compliant. Enter through the handicap-accessible entrance at 20 West 34th Street, where ramps and elevators can accommodate both motorized and non-motorized wheelchairs throughout your visit. On the 86th-floor observation deck, you’ll find that several sections of the wall are lowered for breathtaking views from a wheelchair, including those through the famous coin-operated viewing binoculars.
13. Share Your Snaps
When visiting one of the most photographed landmarks in New York, you’re likely to snap a lot of photos. And your friends at the Empire State Building want to see your shots! Log onto the Empire State Building’s free high-speed Wi-Fi and tag your pics with #EmpireStateBuilding and #ESBFan to share your fun with the rest of the world.
Pro Tip: Prep for your visit to the Empire State Building by watching one or more of these television episodes and movies starring the silver skyscraper.