Spanning three levels at the top of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, One World Observatory offers dazzling panoramic views over Manhattan's crystal garden of skyscrapers. On a clear day you'll be able to see all five boroughs and parts of surrounding states, as well as the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty – both looking as small as children's toys from this lofty perch atop the One World Trade Center.
The awesome vista of New York is only revealed after the screens showing an introductory video abruptly disappear, revealing the view through immense picture windows. Admiring the city from above is a great way to get a feel for how everything fits together and plan the rest of your New York sightseeing.
The location has a powerful resonance. The footprints of the original World Trade Center towers – preserved today as the National September 11 Memorial Museum – are visible in the shadow of the current One World Trade Center, which stands 408 feet (124m) taller than the original towers.
Highlights of the view
Once the intro video ends and the screens slide back, everyone rushes for the windows to gaze out over an astonishing bird's-eye view of New York. The first thing to look for is the Brooklyn Bridge – the first fixed crossing over the East River, still standing proud after 150 years – lined up alongside the newer Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. Looking southwest, you'll spot the Statue of Liberty floating on her green island off the Jersey shore; there's a reason the statue looks tiny from this height – at a modest 93m tall, it's almost half a kilometer shorter than One World Trade Center.
Facing north, the Empire State Building is instantly recognizable amongst the cluster of first generation skyscrapers in the center of Manhattan. Peer closely and you may also spot the Chrysler Building and the Flatiron Building amidst the taller towers. Note the piers lined up along the Hudson River, where transatlantic steamships docked during New York's golden age. To make the skyscraper-spotting easier, the tower's iPad-based guide – the One World Explorer – allows you to zoom in on the view to highlight individual buildings.
History & Architecture
New York's highest observation deck sits on top of the 94-storey One World Trade Center, built to replace the two World Trade Center towers destroyed during the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The original plans were drafted in 2002 by Daniel Libeskind, the architect behind the Jewish Museum in Berlin, but the structure was redesigned by David M Childs, the brains behind Singapore's Changi airport terminal.
Construction started in 2006 and the tower topped out on 10 May 2013. As well as being the tallest building in America, this tapered tower is currently the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and the sixth tallest building in the world by pinnacle height. The height isn't accidental – the antenna takes the building to 1776 feet (541m), a tribute to the year the American Declaration of Independence was signed.
Architecturally, the tower resembles a rectangular prism twisted through 90° – an optical illusion created by its chamfered edges, which split the facade into a series of opposing isosceles triangles. It was the first major building constructed using the Building Information Model, a digital platform created to manage all the phases of planning, design and construction in a single virtual space.
Reaching the observation deck, 386.5m above street level, is almost as much fun as admiring the view. Starting on the ground floor, you'll pass a giant electronic world map highlighting the homelands of visitors to the tower (with data obtained from ticket scans) and the multiscreen installation, Voices, which tells the story of the people behind the One World Trade Center.
But the real show begins when you board the Sky Pod elevators, whose LED wall panels provide a virtual journey through the evolution of the Manhattan skyline over the past five centuries. These hi-tech elevators zip visitors to the top in just 47 seconds at a speed of 36.5 kmph – one of the fastest elevator rides in the world.
Out of interest, the first tourist to climb the tower was New Jersey free climber, Justin Casquejo, who wriggled through a hole in the security fence while the tower was under construction and reached the top of the antenna aged just 16. He was promptly arrested and sentenced to 23 days community service; he also had to write a 1200-word essay explaining what he had learned from the experience.
Once you reach the observation levels, the first step is the introductory video show before the views are unveiled, but you can also look down on the vista directly from above at the Portal – a circular glass porthole which shows real-time footage of the street below. As you might expect, there are various places to eat and plenty of stands selling souvenirs.
Tickets & other practicalities
The One World Observatory gets busy, particularly at weekends and during the peak tourist season, so it pays to book ahead and skip the line. In summer and during some holiday periods, hours are extended as late as 10pm (with last ticket sales at 8:45pm), but it's best to check the website in advance if you want tickets at a specific time of day. If you don't have a ticket ahead of time, come as soon as they open to avoid a queue.
If you're pressed for time, for $53 you can buy a priority-admission ticket that will let you skip all the lines, plus let you use the digital iPad One World Explorer guides, which automatically identify the skyline sights. Various train and subway lines meet at World Trade Center station but it's worth exiting the subway a stop early at Park Place station so you can approach the tower on foot at street level and get a full sense of its scale.
Hotels near One World Observatory
If you want to stay in Lower Manhattan, you'll pay a premium, but there are some good choices in the neighborhood.