World's Coolest Observation Decks
That’s what it feels like when you step inside one of the glass boxes that protrude from the 103rd-floor Skydeck at Chicago’s Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. After all, the seamless, apparently unsupported glass floor is the only thing between your toes and the urban mosaic 1,300 feet below. Even if you’ve been to hundreds of observation decks, the effect of the Ledge is still unnerving.
And really, a skyscraper observation deck should make you feel like you’re flying. Decks, at their best, are a mechanism for transforming the engineering genius of super-tall buildings into pure visceral magic. Emerge from the elevators at the top of places like Toronto’s CN Tower and you get a double hit: a dizzying view and a powerful sense of immersion in the building’s unprecedented scale.
Fortunately for altitude-loving travelers, the demand for that total skyscraper experience is seemingly endless. There are currently so many observation decks opening that it’s hard to keep track.
At the beginning of the year, we all heard about the grand opening of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa—at 2,717 feet, it’s the world’s tallest building by more than 1,000 feet—and its 124th-floor observation deck. However, most of us probably overlooked the completion of China’s Nanjing Greenland Financial Center (world’s seventh-tallest building) and its deck. By year’s end, we’ll have seen the opening of a deck atop Hong Kong’s new 108-story International Commerce Centre (world’s fourth-tallest building) and the 2,001-foot-tall Guangzhou TV & Sightseeing Tower.
Meanwhile, older, shorter towers have been jazzed up with inventive new features such as the vertigo-inducing glass Ledge or organized bungee jumping off towers in Auckland and Macau. The assumption is that tourists don’t just want to ride the elevator, peer through the coin-operated binoculars, and go back down. They want to revel in the height.
“We’re in an experience economy,” explains Randy Stancik, general manager of Chicago’s Skydeck. “Everybody wants a story to tell—something that can be photographed, that could be Facebook friendly, that could be sent out on Flickr.”
Admittedly, in this country, we’re still a little behind the curve. There’s no bungee jumping off Seattle’s Space Needle, and the tallest new building in the U.S., Chicago’s 98-story Trump International Hotel and Tower, completed in 2009—number nine in the world—doesn’t have a proper deck. (It does have an awfully nice terrace bar on 16, though.)
However, the views from today’s giants tend to isolate tourists from the cities that are so very far below—it’s a bit like peering out the window of an airplane. So it’s worth remembering that the highest deck isn’t always the coolest one. It’s hard to beat the simple pleasure of seeing the city from a less lofty perspective like, say, the top of the world’s 14th-tallest edifice, the Empire State Building. —Karrie Jacobs
Guangzhou TV & Sightseeing Tower, Guangzhou,China
Scheduled to open to the public in November, this astonishingly skinny, shockingly tall (2,001 feet) tower has two primary functions: to support a TV antenna and to show tourists a good time. Attractions include a guided open-air climb up 600 feet along a winding staircase through a jungle of structural steel, a tiered sundeck at the very top where weary climbers can lounge on bleachers, and yes, the World’s Highest Ferris Wheel.
Observe This: Supposedly the two revolving restaurants won’t be serving soup because the tower’s swaying motion will turn attempts to eat it into a Charlie Chaplin routine. —Karrie Jacobs
Burj Khalifa,Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Note that while the observation deck at the newest world’s tallest building (around 2,717 feet) is called At the Top,it’s not. It’s on the 124th floor of 163. What it offers is massive double-height windows, an open-air terrace, and an unparalleled perspective, which tends to make the real Dubai look a lot like the architectural models you see on display over town.
Observe This: Buy tickets online well in advance if you want to visit at sunset. Note that a special $108 ticket will allow you to cut the line. —Karrie Jacobs
The Willis (formerly Sears) Tower,Chicago
How do you make the observation deck of a 37-year-old skyscraper that hasn’t been the world’s tallest since 1998 feel new again? You attach a series of magnificently scary glass boxes, collectively known as the Ledge, to the venerable Skydeck. The illusion that you’re standing unsupported 103 stories above the ground is a real crowd-pleaser.
Observe This: The boxes are hung from a moving steel frame that allows them to be retracted into the building to make way for the window-washing rig. —Karrie Jacobs
Shanghai World Financial Center, Shanghai
On the 100th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center Observatory, the top tier of a three-layer observatory is 1,555 feet up and still the world’s highest. Architecture geeks will love it for the fact that it spans the building’s most distinctive feature, the rectangular cutout that makes the whole building resemble a giant bottle opener.
Observe This: Check out the elevator artwork by Toshio Iwai on the way up. —Karrie Jacobs
Grand Canyon Skywalk, Arizona
Whose idea was this? Cantilevered way, way out over the Grand Canyon’s west rim, with the Colorado River some 4,000 feet below, this U-shaped glass bridge is arguably the world’s highest observation deck. It’s certainly the most mind-blowing one.
Observe This: Deck visitors have to don paper slippers over their shoes to keep from scuffing the glass. —Karrie Jacobs
International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong
Sky 100, atop this newly completed 108-story tower (currently the world’s fourth tallest), will give visitors the opportunity to look back at Hong Kong Island from the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour. When the deck opens later in 2010, you can skip the multimedia exhibitions and visitor resource center. The thing here is the view, pure and simple, a panorama of one of the world’s most spectacular-looking cities.
Observe This: Try to visit sky 100 at Christmas, when Hong Kong office towers are decorated with multistory holiday lights. —Karrie Jacobs
SkyTower, Auckland, New Zealand
SkyTower, at 1,076 feet the “tallest man-made structure in New Zealand,” doesn’t hold any world records, but it is home to two high-adrenaline attractions: Sky Jump, an opportunity to BASE jump while safely attached to a wire, and Sky Walk, a stroll around the tower’s pergola while snuggly harnessed and tethered to an overhead rail.
Observe This: A similar Skywalk is available at the Sydney Tower in Australia, and the Macau Tower in China features bungee jumping. —Karrie Jacobs
CN Tower, Toronto
Toronto’s famous television tower, 1,815 feet high, was the world’s tallest structure (taller than the tallest skyscrapers) until the Burj Khalifa came along. It is also the home of the original observation-deck glass floor, 256 square feet of it, installed in 1994. But unlike on Chicago’s Ledge, here you can clearly see the structural members that support the thing.
Observe This: In 2008, they added North America’s first glass-floored elevator. Traveling up to deck level at 1,136 feet, it’s also the world’s highest glass-bottomed elevator. —Karrie Jacobs
The Empire State Building, New York City
What this 80-year-old, 102-story landmark (the world’s tallest until the World Trade Center stole its title in 1972) has that newer, taller towers don’t is an unsurpassed location in the middle of Manhattan. The 86th-floor observatory has an outdoor promenade that gives visitors a full sensory immersion in New York City’s sights, sounds, and smells.
Observe This: Yes, you can pay $15 extra and continue on to the 102nd floor, but the 86th is really much nicer. —Karrie Jacobs
Theme BuildingObservation Deck, Los Angeles International Airport
No, it’s not very high up—only 68 feet—but this 1961 tribute to the flying saucer is inarguably cool. It just reopened for the first time since 9/11, after a $12.3 million renovation with a new security apparatus and structural upgrades (no more falling stucco). The outdoor observation deck offers a 360-degree view of flights arriving and departing at LAX.
Observe This: Try the very Jetsons-y Encounter restaurant on the level just below the deck. —Karrie Jacobs
Granted, the world is full of crazy-looking, Sputnik-inspired TV towers, but the 1,207-foot-tall concrete shaft that the East Germans planted in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in 1969 has an especially curious history; it allowed East Germans to see, among other things, the city on the other side of the Wall—although longtime Berliners swear that the interpretive maps up top used to depict West Berlin as a blur.
Observe This: To make the elevator ride down more of a challenge, stop in at the “highest bar in Berlin” and try the 360 Cocktail: Smirnoff vodka, Triple Sec, Gordon’s Dry Gin, vanilla syrup, lime juice, and cranberry juice. —Karrie Jacobs
Jin Mao Tower,Shanghai
The Jin Mao, 234 feet shorter than its neighbor, the Shanghai World Financial Center, looks like a supersize pagoda. Its 88th-floor observation deck offers roughly the same stunning urban panorama as you can get at the tower across the street, with one key difference. The Jin Mao Skywalk also offers a view inward, into the tower’s uniquely vertiginous atrium, to the hotel lobby 32 stories below. This spiraling interior view has been known to make even the hardiest observation-deck enthusiast weak in the knees.
Observe This: Jin Mao Tower management is contemplating capping the atrium with a glass floor for added vertigo. —Karrie Jacobs
UshikuDaibutsu, Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan
How many Buddhas have observation decks in their chests? When it was finished in the mid-’90s, this 400-foot-tall depiction of Amitabha Buddha was the world’s tallest bronze statue. It’s about $9 to take the elevator 22 floors up for a look at the surrounding countryside from within the Buddha of Infinite Light. Now that’s a divine view.
Observe This: If you plan to take public transportation, be sure to visit early. The last bus leaves at 4 p.m. —Jeff Koyen
Aurland Lookout, Norway
It may look like an oversize bowling alley designed by Ikea’s masters of minimalism, but this observation deck is in Norway, not Sweden. The “truncated bridge into mid-air” thrills visitors with a breathtaking view of one of the west coast’s largest fjords. Specifically commissioned to showcase Norway to visiting tourists, the Aurland Lookout—opened to the public in 2006—has quickly become one of the country’s iconic (and most-lauded) structures.
Observe This: The edge-of-the-earth sensation is heightened by the clear-glass barrier at the overlook’s edge—and the handrail that continues down toward the forest’s floor, nearly 2,000 feet below. —Jeff Koyen
Torre Jaume I, Barcelona
Many visitors to Barcelona take the Port Vell tram to Montjuïc for a picturesque view of this lovely Mediterranean city. But savvy passengers know to get off along the way—inside the Torre Jaume I aerial lift pylon. At one time the world’s tallest such structure in the world (think: ski lift tower, but set in the middle of a major city), Torre Jaume I served as a lookout and machine-gun post during the Spanish Civil War. Today, it has one of the best bird’s-eye views of Barcelona.
Observe This: A one-way tram ticket costs about $13. Begin or end your trip at Torre San Sebastian, a smaller support tower that includes a restaurant at its top. —Jeff Koyen
Clingmans Dome, Great SmokyMountains National Park, TN
Not only is Clingmans Dome the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s also Tennessee’s top peak and the second-highest apex east of the Mississippi. In theory, this overlook affords 100-mile views across seven states. But even the park service admits you’re unlikely to be that lucky: on most days, air pollution limits the view to just 22 miles. It’s still glorious.
Observe This: Clingmans Dome is open throughout the year, but the access road closes from December 1 to May 31. Visitors are still welcome to hike or cross-country ski to the overlook. —Jeff Koyen
The Space Needle, Seattle
When it comes to iconic skylines, few cities have benefited from a single structure as much as Seattle has from the Space Needle. Good thing it offers a truly magnificent overlook of the Pacific Northwest’s most vibrant city. Sure, you’ll be lucky to see anything more than nearby buildings and the street below, thanks to Seattle’s famously overcast skies, but what a view nonetheless.
Observe This: Head straight to the observation deck—the Needle’s revolving restaurant, SkyCity, is famously hated by Seattleites. —Jeff Koyen
The Tyrol Overlook, Mount Isidor, Austria
Most observation decks rely on their precarious positions to thrill visitors. At nearly two miles above sea level, Austria’s Tyrol Glacier certainly has the height. And this mountaintop viewing platform is also completely open to the elements, which can be harsh. So bundle up: it’s a 10-minute hike to the overlook, after a cable-car ride. If the platform reminds you of the Winter Olympics, that’s no accident. The firm that designed it also works on ski jumps.
Observe This: The overlook is covered by snow for all but the warmest summer months. That doesn’t mean the deck is closed. It’s just more precarious—and more thrilling. —Jeff Koyen
StratosphereTower, Las Vegas
In typical Las Vegas fashion, the Stratosphere Casino offers more than just gambling thrills. High atop this 1,149-foot-tall observation tower (America’s tallest), three amusement park–style rides whip up, down, and around—all in the open air. If you’re looking for something less intense, but no less picturesque, book a table at Top of the World, the Stratosphere’s 360-degree revolving restaurant 800 feet above street level. Then, head up to Level 107 lounge for cocktails—and the best view of Sin City.
Observe This: For one $29.95 ticket, thrill-seekers can brave all three rides—then catch their breath on the outdoor observation deck. —Jeff Koyen
The Infinity Room at House on the Rock, SpringGreen, WI
Once a regional curiosity, the House on the Rock has become an American road-trip favorite thanks to its eccentric attractions (which include the world’s largest carousel and an anatomically incorrect nautical exhibit). For vista-seekers, the real draw is the Infinity Room, an enclosed, pointed platform whose 3,200 windows provide a gorgeous view of the surrounding forest. Why “Infinity”? The room starts at a comfortable 30 feet wide, but tapers to just one inch at the end. When you stand at the entrance, the optical illusion is unnerving.
Observe This: HOTR, as it’s known, includes a resort, restaurant, and spa. You’ll need a relaxing massage if you dare to explore every exhibit at this eccentric American classic. —Jeff Koyen
Tour Montparnasse, Paris
Eiffel Tower too crowded? Oui, oui, monsieur. For a spectacular, open-air view of Paris without the crush of camera-happy tourists, head to the top of France’s tallest skyscraper, the 59-story Maine-Montparnasse Tower in the 14th Arrondissement. While the modern building itself won’t win any design awards, visitors to the 56th floor’s restaurant and observation deck are treated to gorgeous 25-mile views of the city.
Observe This: Endear yourself to Parisians by saying the Tour Montparnasse offers the best view of Paris—precisely because you can’t see the much-loathed building. —Jeff Koyen
Holtriem Windpark, Westerholt, Germany
There are many energy-generating wind turbines in the world, but few offer viewing opportunities for intrepid climbers. Here, in this small village 100 miles northwest of Bremen, inside one of the wind park’s 210-foot-tall towers, panorama junkies can climb 297 stairs for an unsurpassed view of northern Germany. The coolest part? Feeling the whoosh of the massive 100-foot-long blades as they swing past, just yards away on the other side of the glass.
Observe This: One former tour guide warns that children may be frightened by the turbine’s noise—and the tower’s tendency to sway in the wind. —Jeff Koyen
Calgary Tower, Calgary, Canada
Like Seattle’s Space Needle, the Calgary Tower is a now-retro-cool product of 1960s modernism. Built to celebrate Canada’s centennial in 1967 (and to spur an urban renewal project), the tower remains Canada’s second-largest building (after Toronto’s CN Tower). For more than 30 years, visitors have zipped up the high-speed elevator for a panoramic view of Alberta’s largest city—then enjoyed lunch at the Sky 360 revolving restaurant.
Observe This: Don’t miss the glass floor that extends from the deck’s north side. Control your agoraphobia for a view of downtown—620 feet directly beneath your feet. —Jeff Koyen
Jubiläumswarte Lookout Tower, Vienna
Not unlike lighthouses in the U.S., Europe’s lookout towers have devoted fans who obsessively catalogue the structures and share their “wish lists.” Some are modest brick buildings that date back centuries. Others, like this gem on Vienna’s outskirts, are decidedly modern—and, to the untrained eye, perhaps even ugly. But climb up this tower’s 183 winding steps for a view of Vienna (1,500 feet above sea level), and you may become a fan of these often overlooked overlooks.
Observe This: Admission is free, but the observation deck is closed during winter. —Jeff Koyen
The Skybridge at Petronas Towers,Kuala Lumpur,Malaysia
A new observation deck in Tower 2 of Kuala Lumpur’s iconic, ultramodern Petronas Towers provides the best view of this bustling city. It’s even better than the view from the Skybridge, which connects the twins at levels 41 and 42. The price of admission varies according to taste. Though no longer free, the basic Skybridge ticket is just $1; you’ll spend a few dollars more to reach the top. For $110 per person, the premium package includes a meal at the exclusive Malaysian Petroleum Club.
Observe This: The KL Tower’s observation deck is billed as being higher. That’s technically true, but only because KLT sits on a hill. If you have time for just one sky-high view, opt for Petronas. —Jeff Koyen
Vienna Donauturm, Vienna
Whereas similar 1960s-era structures were built in conjunction with World’s Fairs and national celebrations, the Vienna Donauturm was erected as part of…a horticultural expo (the 1964 International Viennese Gardening Show, to be exact). Today, the Donauturm is Austria’s tallest freestanding structure—and one of the world’s tallest towers. After a speedy 35-second elevator trip to the observation deck, visitors can gaze out on this cosmopolitan capital city from both open-air and glass-enclosed overlooks, nearly 500 feet high in the sky.
Observe This: Also thinking about a cruise on the Danube and a spin on the giant Ferris wheel? Combination tickets are on sale at the tower’s shop. —Jeff Koyen