Jaw-Dropping Observation Decks: How They Measure Up

From glass floors to open air platforms, observation decks are taking the travel experience to dizzying new heights.

Bernard O'Riordan

It’s like walking on air. That’s the only way to describe what it’s like when you’re standing on a glass plate some 450 metres above street level at Tokyo Skytree.

It’s somewhat unnerving when you realise the only thing between the rubber of your shoes and the pavement below is a few shards of hardened, reinforced glass.

Well maybe that’s overly dramatic, but that’s the thing about high rise viewing platforms: they evoke a dizzying array of emotions in all of us. Some people love the adrenaline rush that comes with having their head in the clouds while others want to test their fear of heights.

For most though, it’s about soaking up sights that only come at a great height.

The good news for altitude-loving travellers is that we are witnessing an unprecedented race to the sky when it comes to building the tallest and most impressive towers.

There are now so many observation decks in every corner of the world that it’s almost impossible to keep track, let alone come up with a definitive top 10.

Not even the horrific images associated with September 11, 2001, have dampened the public’s appetite for standing atop a skyscraper.

“The little island of Manhattan, set like a jewel in its nest of rainbow waters, stared up into my face, and the solar system circled about my head.”

– American author Helen Keller, from the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

New York City now has more high-rise observation towers than you can poke a stick at – from the One World Observatory (or Freedom Tower) and Top of the Rock, to the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.

When it opens on March 11, 2020, the highly-anticipated EdgeNYC will be the City’s new jewel in the clouds with a triangular viewing platform.

EdgeNYC will be the highest observation deck in New York City, as well as the western hemisphere when it opens.

It will be a 60-second elevator ride to the 7,500-square-foot outdoor viewing area, which extends out 80 feet from the 100th floor and overlooks the city skyline and the Hudson River.

Up until 2008, the world’s highest observatories were found in North America, the only exception being the Eiffel Tower.

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But across Asia and the Middle East architects are really reaching for the stars with a crop of record-breaking mega builds planned over the next five years, from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok to Beijing and cities across China.

Most notable will be the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia which is likely to become the first building to break the one-kilometre height when it’s finished in 2021.

With each new build come a new style of observation deck that will be taller than any others ever built. The Jeddah Tower, for instance, will shatter records with its observation deck perched on the 157th floor.

Not only will these skyscrapers become instant tourist attractions, but they’ll house bars and restaurants and hotels that cater to the rich and famous.

But it’s not just height that counts: some of the most amazing observation decks make a mark by appealing to the adrenaline junkie in most of us. Some offer bungee jumping, augmented reality, or exciting rides. Others just take your breath away with glass floors or tilting walls.

Some of our favourite sky-high haunts include Philadelphia’s One Liberty Observation Deck, Stratosphere Las Vegas, Seattle’s Space Needle, Melbourne’s Eureka Skydeck and the Sky Point Observation Deck on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Even iconic landmarks like the Grand Canyon and the Sydney Harbour Bridge provide a bird’s eye view that is hard to beat.

Here’s 10 observation decks that will take your breath away. But be warned, most of these lofty views come with a sky-high price tag.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai


There are so many superlatives attached to the Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai: it’s the world’s tallest man-made structure, it has the most floors of any building, it has the highest occupied floor and the world’s highest altitude art gallery. But surprisingly, its observation deck on the 148th floor (555.7m) is not the world’s highest. That honour goes to Shanghai Tower (583m). The Burj Khalifa also has a lower-level deck on the 125th floor that boasts 360-views and a five-star premium lounge.

Opened: 2010
Deck Height: 555.7 metres

Shanghai Tower, Shanghai


Located at Pudong in the financial district, Shanghai Tower stands 632 metres high and ranks as China’s tallest building. The exterior spirals upward like a snake, twisting about one degree per floor to offset the wind effect on higher altitude. This helps it to withstand frequent typhoons. Visitors can take the express elevator to the observation deck on the 119th floor – a trip that takes 55 seconds. From the 121st floor deck, which is enclosed by a glass curtain wall, you can reportedly see for 48 km.

Opened: 2015
Deck Height: 583 metres

The Shard, London


Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano and inspired by a church steeple, the 244-metre-high Shard is Western Europe’s tallest building. The three-tiered viewing platform spans floors 69 through 72 (level 72 is open-air) and on a clear day the heart-thumping views stretch for 64 km. A high-speed elevator whisks you up 70 floors in a minute, and smart telescopes tell you what you’re looking at on a digital screen. We love the fact that if London’s trademark clouds block your view of three or more of the city’s major sites – including the London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Gherkin, Tower Bridge, or One Canada Square – your return visit is free.

Opened: 2013
Deck height: 244.8 metres

Sky 100, Hong Kong

The Sky 100 Hong Kong Observation Deck – the highest indoor observation deck in Hong Kong – marks its seventh anniversary this year. Sky 100, on the 100th floor of the International Commerce Centre (ICC) building in west Kowloon, is totally enclosed with floor-to-ceiling glass. While the views across Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island are spectacular, the glare and reflections off the glass can be a nuisance when trying to get the perfect Instagram shot. For the same views with a dash of comfort and style, try booking a window booth at the Ritz Carlton Lounge & Bar on the 102nd floor of the ICC.

Opened: 2011
Deck Height: 393 metres above sea level.

Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo


Tokyo Skytree is the tallest structure in Japan and it’s a landmark attraction that can be seen for miles around. The tower has a three-story observatory 350 metres above ground levels, while the tower’s upper observatory, which also features a spiral, glass-covered skywalk, is 450 metres from the ground.  On a clear day you can gaze over Tokyo’s mind-boggling urban sprawl, with good views of the Sumida River, the Kanto region as well as Mount Fuji. The nearest station to Skytree is Tokyo Sky Tree Station (formerly Narihirabashi Station) on the Tobu Skytree Line. It’s also home to souvenir shops, cafes and an indoor theme park, the One Piece Tower.

Opened: 2012
Deck Height: 451.2 metres

One World Observatory, New York


Visitors are whisked to the 100th floor of the One World Trade Center in the SkyPod, a particularly fast lift that takes less than 60 seconds. Floor-to-ceiling LED technology in each lift gives a time-lapse of the development of New York’s skyline from the 1500s to today. There’s a fair bit of up-selling by staff (including iPad rental) before you’re allowed to see the sights. But when the curtain finally goes up, the 360 views are jaw-dropping. On a clear day you can see for 80 km in any direction, taking in the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, Staten Island and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the Bronx and Central Park uptown.

Opened: 2014.
Deck Height: 386.6 metres.

360 Chicago


360 Chicago, formerly known as the Hancock Observatory, upgraded its 94th floor with the Tilt attraction on the south face of the building. This is a moving platform with eight individual bays that tilt outward from the top, from 10 to 30 degrees over the side of the building. There’s also an open air screened-in area and a full bar on same floor. The company that runs Tilt Chicago also owns the Observation Deck at Montparnasse Tower in Paris and the iconic 360 Berlin.

Opened: Building opened 1969. Tilt attraction open 2014.
Deck Height: 313.8 metres

Empire State Building, New York


Despite its 40-year reign as the world’s tallest building between 1931 and 1970, the Empire State Building is now something of a minnow in the world of high rises. But it’s 86th floor observation deck is still one of the most-popular and most-visited viewing platforms around, with stunning views of Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and many more iconic landmarks. Whenever I think of the Empire State Building I remember that 1993 hit, Sleepless in Seattle (pictured). The observation deck was where star-crossed lovers Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) and Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) met up at the end of the film.

Opened: 1931
Deck Height: 369 metres

Sky Tower and Sky Jump, Auckland


Sitting atop the highest man-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere, Sky Tower’s 219 metre-high Sky Deck allows travelers to look 80 kms over Auckland City. It also has a 360-degree rotating restaurant and a Sky Jump ride – a 192 metre drop from the deck that can reach speeds of over 80 kms.

Opened: 1997
Height: 219.4 metres

Top of the Rock, New York


They say Top of the Rock delivers New York’s best panoramic city view, not only because of its sweeping views over Central Park and lower Manhattan, but because it also allows you to snap the Empire State Building up close. Top of the Rock is a six-level observatory atop the Art Deco 30 Rockefeller Plaza with the upper decks 260 metres above street level. A timed-ticket system lets you visit when it suits you and is designed to eliminate the aggravation of waiting in line. It’ll still be busy though. No doubt Top of the Rock is a  premiere location, but a bad encounter with rude staff on Christmas Day 2014 ruined what should have been a highly memorable visit for me.

Opened: Reopened November 2005
Deck height: 260 metres

© 2020 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved. 


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