A city is best explored by foot. We follow our map, walking from place to place, turning off down tangents when a sound, a sight, or a smell catches our interest. We see doorways. We see ground floors. And sometimes, when we crane our necks back at an angle that no chiropractor would recommend, we begin to get a faint understanding of a city’s full scope. But to really take in the magnitude of a city, to see where it ends or just how far it stretches to the horizon, we need to see it from above. We need to visit an observation deck.
Nearly every city has one – either a designated observation deck that charges money for visitors to get an aerial view, or just a building that happens to offer a great vantage point from which to see the city. Some are tall, some are small, for some the appeal lies in unobstructed views and for some the appeal lies in the total experience. Here are some of the best views worth checking out around the world.
Sears (Willis) Tower, Chicago
Though the Sears Tower (recently renamed Willis Tower) offers stunning views of Lake Michigan and the city of Chicago, many people prefer heading up to the lounge on top of the John Hancock Center (no admission fee, plus drinks!) instead. But with the addition of the new glass-bottomed viewing decks at the Sears Tower Sky Deck, that could change. Now, instead of just looking out at the city skyscrapers, the clear blue of Lake Michigan fringed by golden beaches, and the ant-sized people and cars below, you’ll be able to stand over them, seemingly suspended in air 1,353 feet over the city.
Taipei 101, Taipei
You may not fully comprehend just how big Taipei is until you take the high-speed elevators, which travel over 50 feet per second, up to the 91st floor observatory of the Taipei 101. The tower holds the current distinction of being the world’s tallest building (though once the Burj Dubai is occupied, it will lose the title) and offers sprawling views of the city. As you see Taipei spreading to the horizon, you realize just how big it is, and how very small you are in comparison.
Eiffel Tower, Paris
If Paris were to be summed up in one iconic image, it would be that of the Eiffel Tower. One of the most famous landmarks in the world, it is the tallest structure in Paris. Visitors can ascend to the second level for a view of the area surrounding the tower and the thousands of tourists taking pictures below. Or you can go all the way to the top, about 900 feet above ground, for views of the whole city. In the distance, you can just make out landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre.
Shanghai Oriental Pearl, Shanghai
The Oriental Pearl TV Tower stands 1,500 feet over Shanghai. The tower is composed of spheres of varying sizes suspended at different points along the tower’s height as though they were slowly descending. While the view of the tower is impressive enough, the one you’ll get from inside is even better. Fifteen different observation decks include a restaurant, revolving tearoom, and an outdoor observation deck with a glass-bottomed floor.
Guinness Storehouse, Dublin
At only 7 stories up, the Gravity Bar on the top floor of the Guinness Storehouse is the shortest building on the list. But it is also the only one where you can get a complimentary glass of beer to take in along with the view (after a tour of the brewery). You’ll only be about 130 feet above ground, but as the rest of Dublin’s buildings aren’t much taller, you can still enjoy a nearly unobstructed 360-degree view of the city along with your Guinness.
Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore Duomo, Florence
The 15th century Duomo, or dome, at the Santa Maria del Fiore church in Florence remains the largest masonry dome in the world. Visitors have the option of not just gazing at the dome from below, but of actually climbing up the nearly 500 steps to the top. The climb is narrow, but not too difficult, and the rewarding panorama of the city of Florence below makes any exertion worth the effort.
Iceland’s Hallgrímskirkja church is the largest in Iceland and Reykjavik’s most recognizable landmark, but when it debuted in the 1980’s, it was to mixed reviews. Some praised the unique design, which symbolizes the lava flows that run through the country, while others found it gaudy and ostentatious. If you’re in the latter camp, you might change your mind once you see the views from the observation deck on top. Below you you’ll see the brightly colored houses of Reykjavik, retired whaling ships in the grey-blue waters of the harbor, and snow-covered mountains in the distance. With a view like that, you might forgive any shortcomings of the exterior’s design.
Space Needle, Seattle
On clear, sunny days in Seattle, there’s no better place to be than at the top of the Space Needle. Head up to the revolving restaurant for brunch, or just take the elevators to the 520-foot high observation deck for a panoramic view of the “Emerald City”. To the north you’ll see Lake Union, with its houseboats and sea planes. In the west, you’ll find cruise ships docked in port, ferry boats in Puget Sound, and the lush greenery of islands like Bainbridge Island fading into the background of the Olympic Mountains. As you make your way to the south end of the deck, you’ll see the city below and just beyond that, the snowy peak of Mt. Rainier.
Top of the Rock, New York City
There’s no city in the world like New York. And there’s no view in New York like one from the Top of the Rock, the 70th floor observation deck at 30 Rockefeller Center, which offers sweeping views of New York, including Central Park and the city skyline. The Top of the Rock also boasts views of the city’s most iconic skyscraper, the Empire State Building (which of course you wouldn’t see from the Empire State Building itself). And the Top of the Rock has glass walls enclosing the observation deck, meaning you get unobstructed views from eye level to your feet.
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
The unfinished famous work of Antonio Gaudi, Sagrada Familia’s main draw is not the view it offers. But the view is a nice perk to visiting this architectural masterpiece. For a few extra euros, visitors can take the elevator up into the towers, about 230 feet above ground, and walk out onto the connecting bridges. Unlike on most observations decks, where visitors are kept safely behind glass or enclosed by tall walls that cannot be scaled, here you are virtually unrestricted and open to the elements. While you fight the crush of tourists and try not to drop your camera while attempting to take in the view, the only thing that keeps you from falling to the city below is the few feet of stone that form the bridge’s walls.
From the Washington Monument in DC to the Sky Tower in Auckland and nearly everywhere in between, there are countless places to rise above a city and enjoy spectacular views. Next time you think you’ve seen a city from every angle, make sure you’ve also seen the view from above.
Read more about unique ways to see the world:
- 9 Ways to Take in the World’s Most Beautiful Vistas
- Unique Ways to Explore the World by Water
- 10 Incredible Hotels with Altitude
Willis Tower by thomas.merton on Flickr, Taipei 101 by misterbisson on Flickr, Eiffel Tower by switchhook on Flickr, Shanghai by Pixeloflight on Flickr, Guinness by Ian Wilson on Flickr, Florence Duomo by Tama Leaver on Flickr, Reykjavik by Wrote on Flickr, Space Needle by anneh632 on Flickr, Top of the Rock by qbix08 on Flickr, Sagrada Familia by Andifeelfine on Flickr