I’m going to say what no polite travel writer does: a big part of the allure of seeing the view from atop the western hemisphere’s tallest building (at 1,776 feet) is the knowledge that you may be tempting fate by doing so. The skyscraper was built as a nose thumb to the terrorists who had twice attacked the World Trade Center on this same acre of ground. That’s meant that the building’s office space is still only a bit over half-rented. But the observation deck should be a big hit because, along with the tremendous views, visitors can show their patriotism by choosing this eagle’s eye perch over the Empire State Building or the Top of the Rock. That point is brought home by the introductory video detailing the pride the men and women who built the building took in their work (touchingly, one of the construction workers did the same job on the Freedom Tower that his father had on the Twin Towers). The other side of the coin (whether the place is safe) is addressed when you head into final part of the lobby: a tunnel the developers dug into the bedrock, and kept purposefully rough-hewn, filling it with signs (in lights) about the durability of the rock foundations and the fact that the building contains 5.4 million cubic feet of concrete "making this the strongest building ever constructed". Is this meant to reassure patrons or hype up the excitement? I’ll leave the cynics among you to decide.
Legends, the concessionaire behind the Observatory, also lures customers with some pretty whiz bang features, like elevators that not only shoot passenger up 102-stories in an ear-popping 47 seconds (making these among the fastest elevators in the world), but have walls that turn into video “windows”, through which riders see a computer-generated visual history of the city, from meadowlands through the skyscrapers of today. (Be sure to look right so that you can see the Twin Towers, which are just a brief blip in this 500-year timeline). At the top are more videos of the city and “ambassadors” who use what’s called the “Citypulse,” a wheel of video screens (the guide operates them via armband), to discuss the culture and life of the city. On the wheel are colorful photos, interactive maps and live twitter feeds (it’s not as compelling as it sounds, unfortunately). And I think the designers here made an error in taking guests to the top level for the introductory video, and then having them go down two stories for the actual observatory, with its 360-degree views. We’ve all paid to see the view from the highest point in the Americas, so why are we being told to descend to see it?
As for the marquee attraction, the view: well, how could it NOT be fabulous from this height, and through 30-foot tall windows, to boot? On a clear day, one can see 50 miles in all directions. That being said, as a matter of personal taste, I prefer the view from the Empire State Building, as you have Manhattan all around you, making it more of a buzzing, visceral experience. (At the ESB and at Top of the Rock, guests also can go outside, and there’s something thrilling about feeling the whoosh of the winds that high up).
Some notes: On site are three eateries (take-out, grill and fine dining), and a souvenir store. As at the Top of the Rock (but not at the Empire State Building) tickets are timed, which should mean minimal waits. Do get your tickets well in advance of your visit, though, as many dates sell out.
- Pauline Frommer