May 14, 2008 -- There's no better introduction to New York than a visit to the Empire State Building.
The apex of the New York skyline, both literally (at 102 stories and 1,504 feet) and figuratively, the view from its observation deck is at once instructive and exhilarating.
From your bird's-eye perch, you orient yourself geographically and see, with a clarity not possible on the ground, the miracle of Manhattan, that runt of an island that couldn't get much wider or longer, and so did what no other city before it had done and expanded to the skies, becoming a dense, pulsating city of boxy stalactitelike towers set on a painfully narrow strip of land.
Quick facts about the Empire State Building:
It opened in 1931 after just 14 months of construction (total cost: $25 million)
Tallest building in the world from 1931 to 1970, when the World Trade Center took the title. It is now the seventh tallest building on the planet
The oddly shaped spire at the top was meant to be a landing port for blimps, but high winds kept dirigibles from being able to anchor here
Every Valentine's Day, 14 couples are married for free on the observation deck
Getting there: The Empire State Building is located at 350 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street (tel. 212/736-3100; www.esbnyc.com
From within New York City, the easiest way to get there is to take the B, D, F, N, R subway trains to the to 34th Street/Herald Square stop. For information on how to get to New York City by train or by car click here.
For information on finding a good airfare, click here.
Costs: $18 adults, $16 seniors and kids 12-17, $12 under ages 6-12, free to military in uniform and toddlers.
Hours and strategy for visiting: The Empire State Building keeps longer hours than any other tourist attraction in the city, opening at 8 a.m. and closing at 2 a.m. to accommodate the close to 4 million visitors who troop through yearly. As you may have heard, the lines here can be epic. In fact, you'll have stood in four separate lines before you reach your goal of the 86th floor or 102nd (extra $15) observation deck. On very crowded days, this can take up to 2½ hours. Some ways to "game the line" include:
Arrive promptly at 8 a.m. or during the dinner hour, which are relatively uncrowded times.
Plan to visit on a Tuesday or Wednesday, the least popular days of the week. You'll encounter the biggest crowds on Saturday and Sunday, followed closely by Monday and Friday.
Bite the bullet and buy an "Express Ticket" (pricey, but possibly worth it), which will allow you to jump to the head of all of the lines and get to the top in 20 minutes flat.
Purchase and print out a ticket from the Empire State Building Web site, which will allow you to skip the ticket line (though not the lines for security or the elevators). Purchase of the City Pass brings the same perks.
If it's the view you're seeking and not just the experience of being at the Empire State Building, consider Top of the Rock, which has instituted timed tickets and therefore never has a wait.
Where to stay in New York City: Among the many dozens of options, we recommend the following three:
Expensive: Hotel Plaza Athenee
Moderate: The Inn on 23rd Street
Budget: Chelsea Lodge