Sunrise Experience at the Empire State Building

Image of sunrise in NYC

The Empire State Building in New York City is one of the most photographed buildings in the world. At 102 floors, it may not be the tallest building in the city anymore, but it certainly is the most iconic, having starred in countless movies and TV shows over the years. 

Visiting the Empire State Building is just one of those things you have to do when in New York.

When Bunny last passed by New York on her way to the Caribbean, she decided to take Mr. Bunny, who had never visited the Empire State Building, to a special tour of this world-famous building.

Avoid the Crowds

One of Bunny’s main travel principles is to avoid crowds at any cost. But how to do this when you are visiting one of the most famous landmarks in the world? An astonishing 3,5 million people take in the Empire State Building annually. Bunny shudders just thinking about what kind of queues that creates.

Ahead of her visit to New York, Bunny engaged in some extensive research and eventually found the perfect solution to her dilemma: the Sunrise Experience at the Empire State Building.

Image of flag at ESB
Image of Empire State Building

Sunrise Experience

The Sunrise Experience at the Empire State Building gives you exclusive access to the 86th floor observation deck 30 minutes before the sunrise, and for as long afterwards as you wish. 

The Sunrise Experience is available only on select days of the year, and for a maximum of 100 people at the time. Tickets are sold in advance on the Empire State Building website and currently cost 100 USD per person. 

The timing of the visit depends on the time of the sunrise (obviously). Bunny went in August and was required to be there at 5:45am. Early, yes, but there’s no such thing as too early if it means beating the crowds, Bunny says.

Checking In

The Bunnies arrived on time outside the Empire State Building entrance (between West 33rd Street and West 34th Street on Fifth Ave.), but slightly groggy without their usual caffeine fix. Security guards were there to meet the Bunnies and approximately 50 other people partaking in the Sunrise Experience that morning.

Bunny and the others were soon allowed to enter the famous Art Deco lobby of the building. It was certainly no hardship hanging out in the lobby, waiting for the tour to start. Bunny enjoyed the photo exhibitions, ceiling murals and the famous desk where she just had to take a selfie.

Image of elevator
Image of ESB sign
Image of Bunny in the ESB lobby

Going Up

The Sunrise Experience is not a guided tour, and better that way, Bunny thinks. When it was time to go up, a number of friendly staff members guided Bunny and the other visitors to the observation deck without any special fanfare.

On their way to the lifts, the Bunnies were ushered through a massive waiting area and security checks. This was an indication of what it would be like queueing for the Empire State Building at popular times. Definitely not for Bunny.

Going up, you have to take two separate elevators. Now Bunny is not a huge fan of elevators, or heights, for that matter, but somehow she managed to pull through without major anxiety.

Have the Deck to Yourself

Once you arrive on the 86th floor observation deck, the highest open-air observatory in New York, you will have amazing 360-degree views of the city and its most iconic sights.

There is plenty of room to move around, circle the building a number of times and take pictures from every angle. High-powered binoculars are at hand (no coins required) if you want to have a closer look at anything that catches your eye.

The beauty of the sunrise experience is that the city will be covered in darkness when you first arrive and then gradually wake up to a new day, whilst you’re keeping a close watch from the observation deck. In fact, the lights of most buildings, including the unmistakable Chrysler Building, were still on when Bunny arrived, and this made for lovely pre-dawn photos. After the sun comes up, the city looks much different and it’s like getting two different viewings for the price of one.

Image of Chrysler building
Image of Bunny on the observation deck
Image of One World Trade Centre

The weather was not ideal when the Bunnies visited but the views and the experience were still absolutely mesmerising. The best part was the peace and quiet. In fact, by 7am, the Bunnies were the only ones left on the observation deck, save a handful of security guards working the early morning shift. 

As the Sunrise Experience is essentially self-guided (provided you do not enter any restricted areas), you are free to leave the observation deck at your leisure. 

The deck opens to the general public at 8am. Bunny would perhaps have lingered until then but Mr. Bunny, still missing his morning double expresso, was turning grumpier by the minute. As there are no cafes or restaurants on the observation deck, Bunny eventually thought it best to leave for a well-deserved breakfast and coffee fix before the crowds arrived.

Image of Bunny with the binoculars
Image of the great views
Image of Bunny at ESB

Top Tip

Are you traveling to New York City from Europe? Do the Sunrise Experience on your first morning! Because of the jet lag, you are likely to be up at an ungodly hour anyway and this is a great way to make the most of your early morning.

​102nd Floor Observation Platform

Silly Bunny didn’t even learn about the higher viewing platform on the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building until after her visit. Luckily, she was told that the views are almost the same and, unlike the 86th floor, the higher observation deck is completely covered by glass. This means taking good pictures is much more challenging.

So even though the Sunrise Experience does not include an option to visit the 102nd floor observation platform, you will not miss anything special.

Image of ESB carpet

Practical Tips

The Empire State Building is a very popular site and strict, airport-style, security measures are to  be expected. Please note that the following “everyday” items are not allowed in:

  • Glass items, including bottles and drinking glasses
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Cans, bottles, flasks (basically anything you could use for transporting alcohol)
  • check
    Professional cameras
  • check
    Camera tripods

Bunny was slightly worried about her photo equipment ahead of her visit. She has a nice DSLR (Canon 70D) and a number of extra lenses. Luckily this was not a problem. Apparently “professional cameras” only refer to some heavy-duty movie equipment or something similar.

As for tripods, photographers need not worry: there are plenty of places where you can carefully place your camera on the ledge of the observation deck for more stability and sharper photos.

Top Tip

Want to save money and go with a regular ticket instead? Opt for a late-night visit (Empire State Building is open until 2am every day) between Thursdays and Sundays. You’ll have the added benefit of a saxophone player on the 86th floor observatory. Very romantic, Bunny says.

Where to Stay

The Empire State building is located in the centre of Midtown Manhattan. If you are in New York for a short visit only and plan to visit the Empire State Building, Bunny highly recommends staying at The Refinery or HGU New York

Image of HGU rooftop
Image of Refinery rooftop

Both are excellent hotels that are only a short walk from the Empire State Building. This is a great benefit particularly for the Sunrise Experience as you will not need to add a long commute to the early wake-up call.

Both hotels also have lovely rooftop terraces with a view of the Empire State Building in case you will want to admire the building with a drink in hand following or in advance of your visit.

Conclusions

Image of ESB lobby
Image of NYC skyline
Image of binoculars

It is a very special feeling to stand on top of the Empire State Building at sunrise, watching the most famous city in the world gradually wake up to a new day below you. It might cost you a premium, but it is totally worth it, Bunny says.

Image of Bunny paw prints

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