Now, nobody's suggesting you should definitely skip the Empire State Building. Its slender outline has been a landmark since 1931, and its needle – originally built as a mooring mast for airships – has played a starring role in scores of books and films, from James and the Giant Peach to King Kong. The Empire State is a New York icon, that's for sure, but its observation deck isn't necessarily the best place to take in the Manhattan skyline. Before you book your Empire State ticket, consider these alternatives.
Top of the Rock
The Empire State's closest rival, at least physically, is the observation deck above 30 Rockefeller Center, otherwise known as Top of the Rock. The two buildings have a lot in common. Both are art deco marvels, products of the skyscraper boom of the early 1930s. On a clear day, both offer panoramic 360 degree vistas of Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs. But Top of the Rock edges it on a few key measures. The queues are significantly shorter, for one, and there's less of a hard sell for audio tours and souvenir photos. The recently renovated observation deck is considerably more spacious than its rival, and the view stretches further north, including Central Park. Best of all, there's one thing you'll see from the Top of the Rock that you won't from the Empire State Building: the Empire State Building.
The Roof Garden at the Met
Imagine floating high above the canopy of one of the world's greatest parks. Now imagine it at twilight on a summer evening, a cocktail in one hand. Sounds pretty good, right? Experience it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art roof garden, a seasonal wine and cocktail bar with an amazing southward view of Central Park and the city beyond. The roof garden is quietest during the day, when coffee and soft drinks are on offer – though be aware that the roof doesn't offer much in the way of shade. It's most popular on warm summer evenings, the lowering sun illuminating the treetops and casting a golden glow over the towers of Fifth Avenue. Access to the roof is included in your Met Museum entrance fee; cocktails are pricey, but well-made and surprisingly strong.
Long Island City & Roosevelt Island
The confusingly-named Long Island City (LIC) is actually located at the southern end of the borough of Queens in New York. The area is an increasingly desirable place to live, not least due to its knockout views of midtown Manhattan, including the Empire State, Chrysler and United Nations Buildings. Take it all in from Gantry Plaza State Park on the LIC waterfront, then explore the area's best attractions, like modern art mecca MoMa PS1 and its wonderful in-house restaurant, M. Wells Dinette. For an even more close-up view of Manhattan, jump on the aerial tram from the Upper East Side to Roosevelt Island. The ride over, swinging high over the East River, is spectacular; the views from the island are even better. And all for the same price as a subway fare.
Liberty Helicopter Tour
It'll cost you a bit more than the tram to Roosevelt Island, but there's really no better way to see Manhattan than out of a helicopter window. Channel your inner Donald Trump in a Liberty Helicopter tour of the island, past the gleaming spires of New York's most iconic buildings. The company offers a number of flight options, of which the Big Apple Tour is the best seller. Taking off from a waterfront helipad near Wall Street, the 15 minute trip takes you around the Statue of Liberty and past Governors and Ellis Islands, and then up the Hudson River to the George Washington Bridge and back. Sights include the Financial District and One World Trade Center; the Empire State, Chrysler, and Woolworth Buildings; and Central Park.
Brooklyn Bridge, the Park, & the Promenade
What's wonderful about crossing Brooklyn Bridge in New York isn't just the view, it's following in the footsteps of millions of New Yorkers who've made the same journey before you. The world's first steel-wire suspension bridge opened in 1883, spanning the East River from City Hall on Manhattan to historic DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) in Brooklyn. Its pedestrian walkway runs high above the traffic lanes and gives you an outstanding view of Manhattan's Financial District, the Brooklyn waterfront and the Statue of Liberty. Once on the Brooklyn side, take some time to explore the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which has revitalised the former industrial waterfront area. Or climb the hill to the peaceful Brooklyn Heights Promenade, one of the city's best places to sit and take in the Manhattan skyline. No matter how many times you see it, it's still a thrill.