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The Complete Empire State Building Guide: Know Before You Go

July 7, 2020
Empire State Building

The Empire State Building is on most visitors’ must-do list when coming to New York City. It’s world-famous, and over 4 million people visit each year.

Thanks to that popularity, big crowds can lead to long lines and some complexity for your travel plans. To ensure you have the best experience when you arrive, I’ll share handy tips and tricks from my experience as a tour guide to help you avoid common frustrations.

Planning ahead for your Empire State Building visit

Empire State Building Observation Deck

The Empire State Building observatory is open 365 days a year, 8 a.m.-2 a.m., with the last elevator going up at 1:15 a.m. Purchased tickets allow you to go up to either the 86th floor observation deck or the 102nd floor for an extra charge. You can wait to purchase tickets when you arrive, but to avoid waiting in an extra line, purchase your tickets online ahead of time. Prices range from $31-$36 with kids’ admission (those under 6) free.

At the top of the Empire State Building

The elevator ride is quick, less than one minute. When you arrive at the top, you’re on your own and free to roam around. On a clear day, visibility from the deck is up to 80 miles. You’ll be able to spot several of NYC’s most famous landmarks. These include:

You can even see five different states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Delaware.

Restrooms and binoculars are available on the 86th floor, but there are no restaurants or other eateries. The gift shop is on the 80th floor and can be visited anytime during your stay.

There is no time limit to your visit. The entire experience usually takes around an hour. If you wish to come back to see the view again at night, you can purchase a night pass and return later that day without purchasing a second ticket.

Getting through security

Everyone will go through airport style security. Items that are not permitted to the observation deck include glass, alcohol, professional cameras and equipment, markers, musical instruments, luggage, costume masks, and more. There are no lockers available so make sure to leave these items at home.

Be sure to use the restrooms on the second floor before getting to security or else you’ll be waiting for a while. If you bring a stroller, you’ll need to be able to fold it in order to enter the elevators.


The Empire State Building is handicap accessible and motorized or non-motorized wheelchairs are available if needed. Ramps are present throughout the observatory, and guests will also find lowered viewing walls and binoculars.

There’s also a multi-language, interactive audio tour guide app available to download before your visit or while on-site.

What to do if you hate waiting in line

Empire State Building

To avoid the heavy crowds, you should go either right when the observatory opens at 8 a.m., around 3 p.m., or really late, around midnight — crowds tend to be thinnest at these times. It’s also a good idea to avoid weekends. If you can handle the cold, winter (except right around Christmas) is by far the least crowded and will have fewer visitors throughout the day.

If you’re unable to go at these hours, you can book the VIP Express Pass that allows you to skip all the lines to get to the top. The cost starts at $69 per person.

Looking for an even more exclusive experience? You can book the Premium Experience Package and get a 90-minute all-access guided tour through the building and skip-the-line privileges to the 86th and 102nd floors. Or consider the Sunrise Experience, which gives you priority entrance before the general public to watch the sunrise over the city.

How to Get There

The street address that you can plug into GPS for the Empire State Building is 20 W. 34th Street. It’s located between 5th and 6th avenues.

If you’re coming by subway, take the 1, 2, or 3 train to the 34th Street/Penn Station stop or the B, D, F, M, N, Q, or R train to the 34th Street/Herald Square stop. The building is only two blocks east of Penn Station, if you are taking Amtrak or NJ Transit into the city and want to walk right over.

Guide tip: The observatory entrance is right on 34th Street. Look for the number 20 and the word “observatory” over the doorway. The other entrances you may see on 5th Avenue or 33rd Street are private and not accessible to guests.

The Empire State Building from the ground

Empire State Building from the Ground Floor

If you don’t want to splurge on the ride up, you can still enjoy excellent views of the Empire State Building without paying a fortune. The NYC ferries take you from Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn and drop you off on 34th Street for only the cost of a subway swipe ($2.75). The trip provides excellent views of the Manhattan skyline with the Empire State Building in ideal position. Check the NYC ferry schedule for departure times and route information.

Even if you don’t go to the top, you should put aside some time to see the building up close. The Art Deco lobby is beautiful and can be accessed free of charge. If you’re willing to purchase a ticket and skip the observation deck, you should check out some of the exhibits on the 2nd and 80th floors. As one of the largest office buildings in the world, there is a lot to discover about the history and architecture. Visit their website for more information on which exhibits are open today.

The 102nd floor: An insider’s perspective

Binoculars at Empire State Building

One of the biggest questions people ask is if it’s worth it to spend the extra money to go up to the 102nd floor observatory. Prices for the upgrade are $62-$68 and includes admission to the 86th floor as well. Most people find the view from the 86th floor to be spectacular, so it must be even better 16 floors higher, right?

I say, not really, and if you do any amount of research on TripAdvisor, Yelp, or Google, you’ll find most people agree.

If you hate waiting in line, bad news: You’ll have to wait in yet another long line at the 86th floor to enter a cozy elevator that only fits a small number of people at a time. When you finally get to the top, you’ll be in a relatively small room, enclosed with glass, surrounded by other visitors trying to get the best view. Plus, the glass in the way causes a reflection which leads to less-than-stellar photos. You’ll also miss out on the breeze from outside.

Plus, the view from the 102nd floor and the 86th floor looks pretty similar, since you’re already so high up. To be honest, the only real benefit is that there’s a chance of it being less crowded. If you get lucky, maybe you’ll happen to visit on a day where not many people upgrade and you get the space with a lot less people.

Odds are, you’re better off saving your money and staying on the 86th floor. You’ll get fresh air, more space to move around and better pictures.

The secret floor of the Empire State Building: The 103rd

View from Empire State Building

The 103rd floor is one floor above the official “top floor” accessible to the public. It has a balcony that is open to the air and protected by a short ledge and knee-high railing.

The tiny balcony is reached by taking a series of elevators past the inner workings of the building with the final approach to the top via a narrow, steel stairway.

Originally, this floor was supposed to be used as a mooring mast for airships attached to the spire. Airships were once considered the future of modern air travel. Unfortunately, this floor is now closed off to the general public. Only celebrities like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and notable dignitaries have had the privilege of taking pictures up there.

If you want to take vertigo-inducing photos in privacy at the highest floor, it appears you’ll first need to put out some hit songs. The 103rd floor of the Empire State Building is one of New York’s most difficult-to-access hidden views.

What to do near the Empire State Building

Empire State Building Lobby

Being in such a busy location, the Empire State Building offers plenty to see in almost every direction. The location stands right at the edge of Koreatown, a tiny neighborhood filled to the brim with authentic Korean-style eateries. If you’re looking for good food at prices that aren’t too steep, stop by New Wonjo or Woorijip before or after your visit.


Heading uptown, you’re only 10-15 minutes away on foot from three major sights: Times Square, Grand Central Terminal and the New York Public Library. If you’re not too tired, you could even head down to the Empire State Building after your Broadway show to catch the view late at night.


Just past Koreatown is Madison Square Park and the picturesque Flatiron Building. While the park is better to see during the day, if you happen to be heading that way at night, stop by Eataly at 23rd and 5th for casual dining, food shopping, or a couple scoops of gelato.


Less than a block away from the Empire State Building is Herald Square. This area is often filled with people shopping or dining, so it’s a good option for either. Go inside the largest Macy’s in the world which takes up an entire city block.

Answers to your Empire State Building questions

Empire State Building at Night

Why is the Empire State Building famous?

There are many reasons for the fame surrounding the Empire State Building.

When it first opened in 1931, it was the tallest building in the world at 1,454 feet. It was also built in record-breaking time (one year and 45 days) during the Great Depression, a time of financial hardship for many American people and businesses.

The observation deck atop the building was an added bonus, but for many years it was very difficult to convince tourists to visit and businesses to rent space — until the 1933 “King Kong” was released and featured the memorable scene of Kong climbing to the top of the building. This image became so famous in pop culture that millions of people flocked to the building.

And in case you didn’t know, the name of the building comes from the nickname for New York, the Empire State, due to its wealth and resources.

Who chooses the colors of the lights?

At night, the building is lit up with bright lights and displays up to 16 million varied colors that change instantaneously. The colors are determined by the staff each night, often reflecting holidays or important events.

A typical night will feature the “signature white” color but you’ll see red, white, and blue to recognize Independence Day, rainbow lights on June 28 in honor of NYC Pride, or red and green with Candy Cane stripes for Christmas. These are just a few of the ways the building uses light to celebrate.

Should I propose at the Empire State Building?

You wouldn’t be the first! But really, it’s a sweet gesture. There’s even a saxophone player on the 86th floor, Thursday through Saturday after 10 p.m., who takes special requests and can help set the mood.

Fun fact: The building doesn’t allow private wedding ceremonies, so each year a Valentine’s Day wedding contest is held to select one couple to get married at the building on Feb. 14.

The heart of New York City

New York Skyline

New York City is full of famous attractions, and the Empire State Building is definitely near the top of that list. I find it so impressive that after almost 100 years, with all the skyscrapers that have been built in this city, it’s held onto its legacy of fame. Seeing it for the first time, even if just from the outside, is a highlight for many visitors.

If your trip to NYC is already packed with things to see, don’t fret. You’ll be amazed at how much ground you can cover in just a few hours in this tightly packed city with a tour of NYC’s biggest highlights. And you can get that perfect photo of the Empire State Building along the way.