When I was a lad in London, there was only one way to see the city: from ground level.1 And I never gave that much thought until the Complimentary Spouse and I visited my ancestral homeland in 2004 and took our first spin on the London Eye.
It was a revelation.
I knew all the landmarks — the buildings, the parks, the major roads, the Thames — but had never seen them from this perspective. New shapes and patterns emerged. The scale and sizes of buildings appeared to change, especially the train stations. Who knew they were so big?
Since that first experience on the London Eye, I have gone out of my way to seek out observation decks and wheels. The higher, the better. Here are my thoughts on the places that took me to new heights.
The London Eye
No need to repeat what I’ve said above. Let’s jump straight into some photos and videos!
In case you’re wondering, my last ride on the Eye was on the same day as my unplanned emergency room visit.
My take: After three whirls, I have little interest in going on the Eye again, but I always recommend it to people visiting London for the first time.
Rockefeller Center (Top of the Rock), New York
I vaguely remember visiting the Empire State Building as a child. I remember there were long lines to get in, and it was crowded, cold, and cage-like at the top. So, I’ve never been eager to return.
In 2006, I found another strong reason to avoid the Empire State Building. That’s when Britt and I went to the observation deck at the top of Rockefeller Center. It was a cold and windy day, so we didn’t stay outside long. We had a great south-facing view. The space where the World Trade Center once stood was still vacant. So, the only major landmark was the Empire State Building. It was beautiful: Not just an architectural masterpiece, but a symbol of resilience in a skyline transformed violently by terrorism.
I realized then that if you go to the top of the Empire State Building, you can’t see the Empire State Building. And what is the New York skyline without the Empire State Building in it? With so many other observation decks in New York, I don’t see the use of visiting that one.
Top of the Rock wasn’t crowded. Tall, clean sheets of plexiglass kept us safe without compromising our views. It was a good experience, but not so amazing that I feel compelled to go back.
My take: In any other city, Top of the Rock would be a must-see. In New York, there are better observation decks.
SkyTower isn’t just the tallest building in New Zealand. At more than 1,000 feet, It’s one of the tallest buildings in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s so tall that it seems incompatible with the rest of Auckland, standing out like a sole redwood in a field of shrubs.
Britt and I visited in 2005 on our first trip together to New Zealand. It was a little overcast, which was disappointing because you can see up to 50 miles away on a clear day. Even with limited visibility, the views were incredible. I walked away with an appreciation for the balance between urban development and natural beauty.
One thing that’s not visible from the observation deck: how hilly Auckland is. I’d say it compares to San Francisco, Lisbon, and Istanbul regarding steepness. I was very out of shape at the time and had to catch my breath every few blocks.
Oh, I forgot to mention that you can go bungee jumping from the observation deck. This is because Kiwis are crazy.
My take: Me haere koe ki reira mena kei Aotearoa koe.2
The Eiffel Tower, Paris
Je suis un crétin!3 When putting this list together, I only remembered the Eiffel Tower at the last minute. I don’t know why. Perhaps the building is so unique that it’s hard to lump it in with anything else.
That being said, the Eiffel Tower has not one, not two, but three observation decks. Britt and I went up one night in the spring of 2008. It was cold and dark. By the time we reached the top level — which is tiny — it had started to rain. Teenagers visiting from Spain were running amok. I was worried about slipping on the wet, slick floor. Honestly, I don’t remember anything about the view. I didn’t even take any photos from up there.
Britt and I have been back to Paris several times since then, and I simply haven’t had an interest in going back up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, even though I know the views on a clear day would be spectacular. I think I’ll just continue to appreciate the Eiffel Tower from ground level.
The gist: Go. You’ll probably have a better experience than I did.
The Space Needle, Seattle
I live 8,000 miles from Auckland but only 2,500 miles from Seattle.4 It’s surprising then that I had been to Auckland twice before my first trip to Seattle.
When Britt and I went to the Space Needle in 2016, it felt like an older, shorter, slightly more run-down SkyTower. The two buildings look alike at first glance, but SkyTower is more than 400 feet taller and is much roomier at the top.
I’m not knocking the Space Needle. The views are incredible. You can see Puget Sound, Mount Rainier, the Cascades, and the Olympic mountain range. But, as an experience, it simply doesn’t measure up to its successor in the Southern Hemisphere.
My take: Definitely worth a visit in you’re in Seattle.
The High Roller, Las Vegas
I gambled on the High Roller — and I lost big. Not long after this observation wheel opened on the Strip, I went to Las Vegas for a conference and made plans to check it out. As soon as we cleared the hotels, I knew I was in for disappointment. There is simply no benefit to being 550 feet in the air in Las Vegas. Casino roofs are indistinguishable from warehouse roofs. The mountains look about the same as they do from the ground — far-off and unimpressive.
On my visit, I shared my capsule with a couple who was clearly hoping they’d be by themselves to make out. I wish they had. At least there would have been something interesting to see.
Actually, I take that back. It was a straight couple. Nothing disgusts me more than heterosexuals flaunting their lifestyle in public. Think of the children!
My take: Not worth the time or the money … and you might end up being a cockblocker.
The Shard, London
I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was to visit the observation deck at the Shard. I was anticipating an experience like my first spin on the Eye — this time, seeing entirely different parts of London from a new perspective.
And do you know what I saw?
Grime. Streaks. And my reflection.
The windows were filthy — they hadn’t been cleaned in who knows how long. And instead of using matte glass, they installed reflective glass. It was such a disappointment.
If only the Shard had a window washer and non-reflective glass, the views would have been spectacular — even on the somewhat gloomy day in May 2015 we were there. To the north were all the new towers of London, such as the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie, and the Cheesegrater. A little to the east was the oldest tower of London — i.e., the actual Tower of London — as well as Tower Bridge and the H.M.S. Belfast.
What a dirty shame.
My take: I won’t go back until someone assures me that the windows have been replaced and cleaned.
The Summit One Vanderbilt, New York
This was so in-fucking-credible that I will save it for a blog post of its own.
John Hancock Center (360 Chicago)
Once, in Havana, Britt and I went to the bank to exchange dollars for pesos. We spent forever in line, the building was run down, customer service was terrible, and we ended up getting nothing of value.
The only difference between that experience and our trip to the observation deck at John Hancock Center is that the observation deck also had overpriced, lukewarm beer for sale.
Really, it was terrible. We were there on a family trip with my brother, my cousins, and all our spouses. After grabbing our tickets, we waited in line in a dark basement for an hour before we even got a glimpse of the elevator. The staff was unfriendly and unsympathetic, even when we asked for a chair for someone in our group who needed to sit down.
When we got to the top of the building, half of the observation deck was closed off for renovation (so much for a 360-degree view at 360 Chicago), and the other half probably hadn’t been renovated since the ’80s.
What about the views? Who the fuck cares? After that experience, all we wanted to do was go back down and find something to drink.
My take: If you give me a choice between a root canal without novocaine and going back to the John Hancock Center, I’ll plug in the drill myself.
Willis Tower, Chicago
When I went here in 2005, it was still called Sears Tower. I guess it didn’t make too much of an impression on me because the only thing I remember is that we had to go down in one of the freight elevators because there was an issue with the passenger elevators. I don’t even have any photos from the top.
I wonder why I don’t recall anything. Perhaps there was a Men in Black incident.
My take: I wish I could remember my experience at Willis Tower and use one of those red flashy Men in Black thingies to erase my memories of the John Hancock Center.
One World Trade Center (One World Observatory), New York
Before Britt and I went to the top of the new World Trade Center in the summer of 2017, we revisited the tragedy of what happened there in 2001 by exploring the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
The museum part is underground, somewhat dimly lit but not gloomy. I left thinking it was too focused on artifacts and not focused enough on people. In hindsight, I was probably drawn to the artifacts because they are less painful to contemplate than the loss of life. A warped steel girder doesn’t have a name, a family, a career, a dream.
But L. Russell Keene III did.
Russell was Britt’s former student. He worked for KBW and was killed on 9/11. His office was on either the 88th or 89th floor of the South Tower. The plane hit several floors beneath him, which meant all the stairwells were cut off. He died, as did 67 other KBW employees in the office that morning.
Before we entered the museum, Britt and I found Russell’s name etched on the memorial. We stood silently for a while. And then moved on.
Not long after we visited the memorial and museum, we were in the elevator to the top of the new World Trade Center. The doors opened and … wow.
Observation decks at the tops of older office buildings usually feel like an afterthought — it’s just a regular floor they didn’t lease out to a tenant. The World Trade Center observation deck is nothing at all like that. It’s a thoughtfully designed, light, airy, multistory space that showcases and celebrates New York. You’re high above the city, and yet somehow feel closer to it.
We could see miles in all directions through the clean and non-reflective5 floor-to-ceiling windows. I stood for a while, just entranced by the cars on the Brooklyn Bridge and the boats on the East River. To our north, the Empire State Building stood proudly over the jumble of buildings in Midtown. The newly completed 432 Park Avenue struck out like a sore thumb. It was the supermodel of condo towers: skinny, tall, expensive, and arrogant. (Since 2017, more supermodels have moved into that area, which is now called Billionaires’ Row.)
One World Trade Center’s observation deck is one of the best. If you’re looking for deep meaning, you’ll find it there. If you’re looking for awesome views, you’ll find them there. If you’re looking for a Swarovski-encrusted necklace in the shape of the building, you’ll find it there (in the gift shop).
My take: Go there. It will take you less time to visit than it took you to read this rambling blog post.
Here are the observation decks I’m looking forward to visiting:
Sky Garden: A lush, airy green space at the top of the Walkie-Talkie in London? Yes, please! We wanted to go on our last trip to London, but we couldn’t get a ticket.6
The Edge: Hudson Yards in New York has the highest outdoor observation deck in the Western Hemisphere.
Gran Torre Santiago: The tallest building in Latin America wasn’t quite finished when we went to Santiago in 2013. The six-story mall at the bottom was open for business, but the rest of the building — including the observation deck — was not.
1 Keep in mind that, unlike New York, there were very few tall buildings in London at that time, and I don’t think any of them had observation decks. The only tall structure I can recall is the Post Office Tower, a communications tower.
2 That’s Māori for “You should go there if you’re in New Zealand.”
3 That’s French for “I am a moron.”
4 Or, if you prefer, I’m 17 time zones away from Auckland and just three from Seattle.
5 You paying attention, Shard folks?
6 Access to the observation deck is free, but you still need to reserve a time to visit.