Visiting the Empire State Building is extremely popular with travelers coming to New York City. During peak travel season and on weekends, this can mean long waits to get to the 86th-floor observatory, but with these insider tips and advice, you can save yourself time and make the most of your visit to the Empire State Building.
Buy Your Tickets Online and Wait in Fewer Lines
Getting to the Empire State Observatory requires waiting in three lines: one for security, one for tickets, and one for the elevator. There's no skipping the security line, but you can skip the ticket line by buying your tickets online in advance. You can even skip the line for the elevator and security if you buy an Express Pass (though it costs more than double the price of a regular ticket).
Don't Miss the 102nd Floor Observatory
For a long time, you could only go as high as the 86th-floor Observatory at the Empire State Building, but now, you can head even higher up to the 102nd Floor Observatory. While the 102nd Floor Observatory isn't open air the way the 86th floor is, being 16 stories further up gives you a great view New York City -- you'll be able to see all the New York City area bridges and Central Park. Because the area is glassed in, you'll get better pictures from the 86th Floor, but the view is extraordinary! You can't buy tickets to the 102nd Floor Observatory online, but you can buy tickets at a kiosk on the 86th Floor (so you can still skip the ticket line) or at the regular ticket booth.
Begin or End Your Day at the Empire State Building
If you're trying to squeeze a lot of activities into a short period of time, it's good to keep in mind that the Empire State Building opens at 8 a.m. and the last elevator ascends at 1:15 a.m. (the Observatory is open until 2 a.m.). This makes the Empire State Building a good choice for beginning or ending your day since it's open before most other attractions and closes after many other attractions.
Consider the Weather
The views from the Empire State Building are best on clear, dry days. Check the weather in New York City and take that into consideration when planning your visit to the Empire State Building. Of course, the first clear day after a few rainy days will be popular with other visitors as well, so prepare for long lines.
While you'll have access to interior areas while visiting, the best views are from the outside. If it's cold, plan to dress warmly, as the wind can make it feel even cooler at the top of the Empire State Building. Likewise, the sun can be strong atop the Empire State Building, so take that into consideration, especially during the summer when you might want to wear a hat or bring sunblock.
Should You Visit During the Day or at Night?
The views from the Empire State Building are impressive at anytime, but keep in mind that during the daytime (especially on a clear day), you'll be able to see the layout of the city and geography of the surrounding area in greater detail, while nighttime viewing offers the excitement of the city's lights. You can experience the best of both worlds by timing your visit during sunset, where you can watch the sunlight fade and the city's glowing lights emerge.
Allow Plenty of Time for Your Visit to the Empire State Building
Even if you buy your tickets online, there's no avoiding the line for security clearance or the maze of walking to get to the elevators so plan at least 2 hours for your visit to the Empire State Building. There isn't much to do on the security line, but they've designed it so the line moves most of the time and they've also put together some interesting displays about the energy-savings measures that are being done at the Empire State Building. On weekends and when the weather is especially beautiful the lines can be even longer. The lines tend to be shortest if you arrive very early in the day.
Skip Firework Viewing From the Empire State Building
While it may seem like a good idea to head to the Empire State Building observatory to view fireworks on the Fourth of July or other holidays, you may actually want to plan to avoid planning your visit for those days. On July 4th, they actually close the Observatory before the fireworks and sell about 300 special "July 4 Fireworks tickets" which includes refreshments and restrict the crowd to about 1/4 of the usual maximum. Call the building directly at 212-736-3100 to book these tickets, which are available on a first come, first served basis, and generally go on sale in early June.
Be Prepared for the Security Check
Every visitor to the Empire State Building must pass through security screening, so be aware. Glass and bottles are not permitted in the building. Cameras and camcorders are permitted, but tripods are not. There is no coat/luggage check at the Empire State Building, so whatever you bring into the building, you will have to carry with you throughout your visit.
You Can Only Get Married on Valentine's Day
The Empire State Building is only available for weddings on Valentine's Day, and you'll have to apply and be chosen to participate. Applications are typically due by November 30.
Keep the Kids Entertained
Kids love to see the views from the Empire State Building, but very few of them love waiting in lines. You might want to spring for the express passes to avoid the hassle or bring along some activities to keep them occupied during the wait. You can also review some of the education materials from ESBNY to help your children prepare for their visit and get excited.