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Everything You Need to Know About the World Trade Center Observatory

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As of May 29, New York City’s One World Observatory is open to the public. The city’s most-anticipated attraction has been years in the making, and it shows. From the moment you step into the building (enter through 1 WTC’s west entrance and take the escalator down one floor), it’s clear that no expense was spared to make this — by far — the best observatory experience in the world.

You’ll have views of every nook and cranny in the city (and up to 50 miles beyond on a clear day), including all of NYC’s iconic buildings — except, of course, for the new World Trade Center. The observatory offers fantastic views of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and everything in between, but be sure to bring a compact camera with a decent zoom lens, as some of the city’s best-known structures are a couple miles away.

The entrance to One World Observatory, one level below ground at 1 WTC.
The entrance to One World Observatory is located one level below ground at 1 WTC.

Book Ahead

The Observatory folks I spoke with expect to accommodate between 3 and 4 million guests per year, so expect large crowds. And with the priciest tickets available for just $32 ($26 for children ages 6-12, $30 for 65+ and free for little ones 5 and under), I don’t doubt they’ll meet that target. You’ll want to purchase tickets in advance (you’ll need to select a date and time) on the Observatory’s website.

From May 29 through September 7, 2015, the venue is open from 9am to midnight, with the last ticket sold at 11:15pm. Beginning on September 8, you’ll have access from 9am to 8pm, with extended hours during select holiday periods. I visited during the afternoon, but Observatory managers say that the best time to visit is during sunset.

Looking down from the 101st floor of One World Observatory.
Looking down from the 101st floor of One World Observatory.

Security and Elevator Ride

The airport-like security checkpoint should come as no surprise. You’ll need to empty your pockets, remove your belt and walk through a metal detector as your belongings are screened before you can go upstairs. Weapons of any kind (including laser pointers) are prohibited, of course, as are large backpacks, professional camera or video gear (including tripods) and a handful of other items.

It’s worth surrendering your contraband (or leaving it at home) in order to ride to the top. Yes, it’s very much a ride. It takes just 47 seconds to get from below ground level all the way to the 102nd floor, but those seconds pass by more quickly than you’d expect, thanks to a brilliant video display in each of the five elevators. I rode up and down a couple of times just for kicks (note: that required special permission — you’ll probably only be able to ride once in each direction).

The show continues once you exit the elevator on the 102nd floor, but you won’t see the view immediately (see the video above for an idea of what to expect).

Dine on 101

There are three dining establishments on the 101st floor — two are restaurants, with the third being more of a “snack counter” with coffee and reasonably priced snack items, like bagels ($5), salads ($8-10) and desserts ($5-8). There’s also a grill around the corner with tables and an expanded menu that includes flatbreads ($10-12) and sandwiches ($12-15). Finally, there’s a steakhouse called “One,” which, while hardly luxurious, is decently priced considering the view, with starters from $16, entrees starting at $34 ($48 for an 8oz filet), a $75 three-course menu and a $55 wine pairing. There will also be specials that change each week.

One World Observatory
The no-so-luxurious steakhouse at One World Observatory.

Note that you’ll need to buy an observatory ticket to access any of the restaurants, so don’t expect to get off easy by booking a dinner reservation. You can make a reservation at One (the steakhouse) by emailing one@legends.net or calling 212-602-4000 and asking to be transferred to the restaurant.

The Observatory

You’ll exit the elevator on the 102nd floor, and while you’re eventually greeted with an incredible view there, you’ll want to head down to the 100th floor to get the full experience. Unlike attractions such as, say, the Eiffel Tower, you won’t pay more for access to other floors here. You might be tempted by the restaurants on 101 or the gift shop on 100, but your $32 ticket includes unrestricted access to all three levels. Speaking of the gift shop, be prepared for just about every logo item you can image (example below).

A logo throw blanket  (pricing TBA) at One World Observatory.
A logo tapestry blanket ($80) at One World Observatory.

Here’s what you’re really after, though — the views:

View to the north

Views to the north will likely be the highlight, including Union Square, the Empire State Building and Midtown Manhattan.
Views to the north will likely be the highlight, including Union Square, the Empire State Building and Midtown Manhattan.

View to the east

To the east, you'll see the Brooklyn Bridge, DUMBO and the East River.
To the east, you’ll see the Brooklyn Bridge, DUMBO and the East River.

View to the south

Looking south, you can see the Financial District, Governors Island (and off to the right and out of frame, the Statue of Liberty).
Looking south, you can see the Financial District, Governors Island (and off to the right and out of frame, the Statue of Liberty).

View to the west

Finally, looking west you'll see the Hudson river and New Jersey, and with a bit of work you can even catch planes landing at Newark Airport (EWR).
Finally, looking west you’ll see the Hudson river and New Jersey, and with a bit of work you can even catch planes landing at Newark Airport (EWR).

And finally, since you’ll probably want to share photos while you’re still in the Observatory, it’s important to note that cell service (at least with my carrier, Verizon) was poor at best. I did receive some coverage on the west side of the building, but I had trouble getting phone calls to go through. There should be a public WiFi network available.

Worth It?

You can step out onto a realtime view of moving traffic 100 feet below (those are HDTVs under glass — there's no risk of falling here).
You can step out onto a realtime view of moving traffic 100 floors below (those are HDTVs under glass — there’s no risk of falling here).

In short: Hell yes. From start to finish, the experience is very, very well done. Which makes sense — the Observatory has been years in the making, and it’s clear that the producers did their research in order to deliver the best possible experience. It’s far more than simply a high place to see the city; it really is fantastic. That said, while a good value here, $32 is a lot to spend on any one experience, and if views aren’t your thing (or you’re afraid of heights), you’ll probably want to pass. It’s definitely an interesting perspective of the city, but you do have other options, such as a window seat (pick the left side!) on a flight into LGA.

Of course, remember to pay with a points-earning credit card. I wasn’t able to purchase a ticket since the Observatory wasn’t yet open to the public, so it’s not clear whether or not charges will be categorized as “travel spend,” but it doesn’t hurt to try. You can charge your tickets and the rest of your NYC travel and dining-related expenses to cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which offers 2x points on travel and dining, and the Citi ThankYou Premier, which lets you earn 3x points on travel and 2x points on dining.

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