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Which is Best: Empire State Building vs. The Top of the Rock

We had a lot of free time on our recent spring break trip to New York City. My kids wanted to visit some of the more popular tourist attractions, like Times Square and the Empire State Building. On our first full day, we headed to the Empire State Building to take in the gorgeous view (see this post for my tips for visiting the Empire State Building).

Toward the end of our vacation, we visited Rockefeller Plaza and we decided to visit Top of the Rock. We enjoyed both of our visits, but it only makes sense to do one of them on your family vacation since there are so many other great things to do in NYC with kids.

So, which one is best choice to visit with kids on your trip to the Big Apple – the Empire State Building or The Top of the Rock? Here is my opinion – we prefer Top of the Rock, but there are good reasons for considering each of these beautiful landmarks. You can get great pictures at both of them.

This post contains affiliate links. A purchase through one of these links may result in a commission paid to us. All opinions are my own. We paid for our admission to both the Empire State Building and the Top of the Rock.

Tower viewer on observation deck

Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building

The Empire State Building

The Empire State Building is an iconic tourist attraction that I think everyone needs to visit at least once. It’s crowded, however – because of its icon status, it gets visitors from all over the world at all times. While you can avoid the crowds by visiting earlier in the day, there is no true “slow” time or best time to avoid crowds.

We visited right when they opened for the day. While we were able to enjoy all of the views that the Empire State Building had to offer, we did have to wait at times to squeeze in places and there were some long lines. The standard admission (which is comparable in price to the Top of the Rock), is for the 86th floor, where you get 365-degree views of Manhattan through outdoor observation decks.

A VIP experience, as well as a top deck upgrade (102nd floor), are available with your ticket purchase. For our visit, we purchased the standard admission. It was definitely enough for us to get to the 86th floor, and I didn’t feel any need to go up to the top deck. While the 86th floor offers outdoor views, the 102nd floor has floor-to-ceiling windows.

NYC skyline with view of Empire State Building

Currently, reservations are required and you’ll need to choose a time slot. This can help you save time on your visit to the top of the Empire State Building. Several ticket options are offered in addition to general admission, including an express pass, a premium experience, and an AM/PM ticket where you can get sunset tickets as well as morning tickets.

Sign above main entrance to Top of the Rock

Top of the Rock

On the last day of our New York City vacation, we decided to visit Top of the Rock. It’s located in a much more touristy location, so you can combine your visit with our popular things to do in NYC, like Rockefeller Plaza and Fifth Avenue. Because our visit was a last-minute decision, we arrived at midday, rather than first thing in the morning. 

We found the Top of the Rock to be crowded as well, but not nearly as crowded as the Empire State Building. We were able to access the elevators to the top quickly, and while we did wait in line, it moved fast.

Top of the Rock Observatory is located at the top of Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan. Your tickets will take you to the 67th floor, the 69th floor, and the 70th floor, and it’s worth visiting all three. Floors 67 and 69 have clear glass around individual outdoor terraces, so you do need to walk around a bit to get the different views.

The top floor is open-air, so you get a better view around and can get some great photos. There’s also a new experience, called the Beam, which recently opened.

While the Empire State Building is indeed higher than Top of the Rock, we did get great views from the Top of the Rock. In addition, we were able to see the Empire State Building from the Top of the Rock. So those pictures definitely look more like quintessential NYC and I think it was the best view.

Because it was a shorter line with fewer crowds, we had more time to see other things in the city that day. We didn’t have to spend quite as much time both in line purchasing tickets or going to the top.

So, in the battle of Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building, which one did we prefer? As I stated, I think it’s worth going to the Empire State Building at least once if you haven’t been. It’s an iconic building that should be on any family travel bucket list.

But, we probably had a better experience at Top of the Rock and felt it had the best observation deck. So, that will be our choice if we decide to go to one of them again. The smaller crowds, combined with the slightly better views, make it a better experience for families.

Our opinion, when deciding to go to the Top of the Rock or Empire State Building is to go to the Top of the Rock.

In addition to these two landmarks, keep in mind that if you are in lower Manhattan, you can also get great views at the One World Observatory.

If you are looking for discounts while you visit these attractions, check out the New York CityPASS. It’s a great way to get discounts on Empire State Building tickets and Top of the Rock tickets.

The New York CityPASS includes admission to the following:

  • Empire State Building
  • American Museum of Natural History

Then, you can choose to add on three of the following. You won’t need to decide which three when you purchase.

  1. Ferry Access to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
  2. Top of the Rock Observation Deck
  3. 9/11 Memorial & Museum
  4. Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises
  5. Intrepid Museum
  6. Guggenheim Museum

Do you have a favorite between Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building?

More resources: Read our New York City Travel Tips post here to read hotel, attraction, and restaurant reviews, tips, and ideas.

the Rockefeller center in New York City, the rainbow room/observation deck sign in New York City, the view from the top of the Empire State Building in new york city

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