I’ve been in New York City for nearly 3 years now. The tourist stuff hasn’t been high on my to-do list. They all seem like something I can get around to anytime, so I’ve been procrastinating. However, this past weekend I finally went to the top of the Empire State Building.
The most important tip is spend the extra money for an express pass. The express pass is a must! Without it, the wait would be insufferable. It’s about $20 extra, but well worth it. There is no separate express pass line, though. This was one of my misconceptions going in. Upon arriving at the Empire State Building, the line just to get inside stretched around the block. It’s just the one line. However, using your super duper express pass, you can just show the doorman and walk right through. No waiting whatsoever!
Once you’re inside, there’s a new line, just up the escalators, for security. Again, using your express pass, you can by pass the entire line. Go through the supposed metal detector (They said I could keep my billfold on me, and I explained that it was magnetic, but they said it didn’t matter), and you’re up to the line to buy an audio tour device.
The audio guide is $8 (that was for two of them) and comes with an interesting foldout map of the views. The audio guide itself was delightfully entertaining and somewhat informational. I don’t remember the voice actor’s name, but he sounded like a real local. His authentic accent lent credit to his New York attitude and knowledge. The most memorable line was for the view looking out north. He advises you to look over at the building that says MetLife on it, then adds, “This is not one of my favorite buildings.” No further explanation is given about that opinion.
All in all, the audio tour was enjoyable, but I wouldn’t say it’s worth spending more than two bucks for. There are only about 9 snippets of information, most of which is probably on the Wikipedia page.
After choosing to buy or not to buy the audio tour, you get in the line for ticket scanning. This lets you into another line for the elevator to the 80th floor. You can skip to the front of both of these lines by showing your express pass. Now, I think it’s worth mentioning that this is the only time your ticket is scanned. So, in theory, you could reuse any old express pass (perhaps a printout of a counterfeit) to skip every single line except the ticket scanning one. If you try this, please let me know how it works out. I’ll have family visiting soon, and I’m hoping they’ll give it a shot with my old express passes. (Disclaimer: I’m not responsible for your unethical and possibly unlawful behavior at the Empire State Building which may or may not have been inspired by this blog post.)
So, now we’ve cut in line to get on the elevator. This takes you up to the 80th floor. Your ears will pop. Once on 80 it’s time for another line for another elevator. Using the express pass, get on the next elevator right away and go to the 86th floor. This is where a standard ticket gets you. You can walk outside from here and look out in all directions. It’s very crowded and busy. If you get a good spot, make the most of it. Fortunately, people are generally moving often, so you won’t have to wait long for an opening along the edge.
Remember to get a picture looking up at the tip of the tower!
The highest you can go is to the 102nd story observation deck. It’s tiny. Very tiny. And completely enclosed. A bit of a let down, as it’s no better view than on 86. But you get to say you went to the top! So, if you’re just looking for a Foursquare badge or something, maybe the extra cost is worth it.
I’d also recommend going before sunset. This lets you get a clear, lighted view of the city followed shortly by the nighttime view. The city lights are quite impressive. You shouldn’t have to choose between day or night. Stay up there long enough to see both. And there’s no time limit. You go back down when you’re ready, or when they close up (typically at 2:00 am).
On the way down, you get to use your express pass again! So, you can quickly exit into the gift shop and buy overpriced trinkets for your loved ones.