When it comes to views in New York City, you’ll be spoiled for choice. The One World Observatory may have the edge for height, and the Empire State Building has the been-there appeal but for views of midtown, it’s hard to beat Top of the Rock – the open-air crown of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, center-piece of the Art Deco Rockefeller Centre complex. This impressive complex of vintage skyscrapers stands homage to the vision and prosperity of industrialist and philanthropist, John D Rockefeller, who at one time owned 90% of America’s oil industry.
Designed in homage to the mighty ocean liners that plied the Atlantic to New York, this 70th-floor open-air observation deck has been open to the public since 1933. It beats the Empire State Building on several levels: it’s less crowded, has wider observation decks (both outdoor and indoor) and offers a view of the Empire State Building itself, alongside dozens of other landmark towers in the heart of Midtown. There’s something to be said for being amongst the skyscrapers, as opposed to looking down on them from above!
The Top of the Rock experience
Looking past the pun in the name, the Top of the Rock is a great way to get an overview of the historic heart of NYC. Before ascending, visit the fascinating 2nd-floor exhibition for insights into the life of the legendary philanthropist behind the art deco complex, then let the express elevators whoosh you up to the open-air deck. Glass screens – a modern addition – keep visitors safe while taking photos over the edge of the tower (there are camera-sized gaps so the glass won't ruin your snaps). Head to the raised plinth at the centre of the deck for an uninterrupted view across the New York skyline.
The signature vista is the view southwest towards the Empire State Building, which stands proud from the surrounding towers when viewed from this vantage point. Looking due south, you’ll see the Chrysler Building, and facing north, you’ll have a grandstand view of Central Park. If the haze is low, you’ll see New York’s second major cluster of skyscrapers in the Financial District & Lower Manhattan looking remote and distant at the far end of the island.
New York’s first skyscraper, the Wilder Building, was constructed in 1888 with just 11 floors, but by the 1930s, Midtown was awash with sky-piercing towers topping out at 100 storeys or more. Not content with one skyscraper, oil mogul John D Rockefeller constructed 14 monumental office buildings between 1931 and 1940, creating a major hub for business as America emerged from the Great Depression.
Occupying a patch of land that was originally selected for the Metropolitan Opera House, 30 Rockefeller Plaza became the heart of Rockefeller’s city within a city. The tallest tower in the Rockefeller Center complex, the skyscraper opened its doors in 1933 as the headquarters of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The hit TV shows Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon are still filmed in the building and you can tour the studios.
30 Rockefeller Plaza was immediately imprinted on New York’s consciousness. Charles Clyde Ebbets’ iconic photograph, Lunch atop a Skyscraper – showing workers eating sandwiches on exposed steelwork high above New York – was taken in 1932 during construction of the 69th floor. Rockefeller himself used several levels of the tower as the offices for his Standard Oil Company and charitable Rockefeller Foundation.
Behind the legend, John D Rockefeller was a complex character. The man who would become the wealthiest man in America grew up in poverty in Cleveland, Ohio, before building an almost unimaginable fortune on American oil, timing things just right as the nation shifted from using oil for lighting to burning it inside internal combustion engines.
Rockefeller was widely applauded for his donations to churches, universities and colleges, and for funding the eradication of hookworm in the American south. However, he was ruthless in his business practices; the investigative journalist Ida Tarbell exposed all sorts of dubious workplace practices inside his corporations, including the destruction of records and profiting from insider training.
Tickets & Practicalities
General tickets are the cheapest option but this can involve a bit of waiting in line before you get to the view. Buy online ahead of time or come early on the day. The VIP ticket costs double but it rushes you past the queues. The interesting Rockefeller tour ($25) is a worthy add-on, taking in the highlights of the Rockefeller Center.
If you’re over 21, note that similar views can be had from the Rockefeller's 65th-floor Bar SixtyFive…and you don't need a ticket to Top of the Rock to get in.
Hotels near Top of the Rock
If you want to stay bang in the heart of Midtown you’ll need a Rockefeller-sized budget.