Anytime someone visits NYC we always recommend they check out the Manhattan skyline at least once! After all, NYC and skylines can almost be considered synonyms. Often the next question from visitors is where to see these views and what time should they visit the Empire State Building. And, while the Empire State Building can be iconic, it is crowded and not even one of our favorite views. We have spent the last two years, while living in the city, searching for the best spots to view the skyline. What qualifies as the best for us? Well, we like our viewing spots to be outdoors, uncrowded and unobstructed.
If this is what you are looking for, keep reading to see our top seven spots to see the Manhattan skyline (almost all of which we would consider to be “local” hangout areas, rather than touristy spots).
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Staten Island Ferry
First up we have the Staten Island Ferry. The Staten Island Ferry provides great value to locals and travelers looking to explore New York Harbor. The ferry takes you from Lower Manhattan to Staten Island and provides some of the best views of the downtown skyline we have seen. Seriously, this is not a ferry you want to overlook when seeing the city!
The added bonus is that the ferry is free to ride. Yes, you heard that right! With how expensive NYC can be, this is a nice low budget activity to enjoy. So you do not need to present a ticket to board, or use your MTA card. You also do not need to book your trip in advance. The Ferry is first come first serve, all you have to do is line up at the Ferry Port in Whitehall Terminal before the doors close.
For recommendations of how to access the ferry and what to do on Staten Island, check out our post on the Staten Island Ferry and Snug Harbor.
Roosevelt Island is a quick subway or tram ride away from the Upper East Side but it almost makes you feel like you’re in a different city entirely. Roosevelt Island is a narrow, 1.98 mile long, island that sits between Manhattan and Queens. It has a rich history, including being the primary location for hospitals from 1921-1973. Evidence of this history can still be found on the island today with the ruins of the smallpox hospital still preserved.
For us, one of the biggest draws to Roosevelt Island are the skyline views. They offer a unique view of the Upper East Side, Midtown Manhattan and of the Ed Koch Bridge. Check out Exploring Roosevelt Island to learn more about how to get there and what to do!
For the next skyline view, we are heading down to southern Manhattan and onwards to Governors Island. What can we say, we are suckers for a good island trip! Governors Island is open seasonally, usually from late Spring to the Fall. The Island is only 172 acres and is nestled right below Manhattan. In the American Revolution, this was an important and strategic location. The canons and housing remain on the Island, so we recommend checking these spots out. The island is also closed off to vehicles, which is one of our favorite parts. You can walk or bike around the island, stopping to enjoy the many green spots, hammocks or Adirondack chairs placed throughout. Between the green space and no motorized vehicles, this spot is very popular with locals on warm weekend days.
We highly recommend walking around the Northern half of the island to see the skyline views the best. Local tip: make sure you leave time to sit at the only bar on the island, Island Oyster. The food and drinks are good, but the views of Manhattan are even better!
How to Get to Governors Island?
Getting to Governors Island may seem complicated, but it really isn’t! Governors Island is ferry accessible only and these ferries leave from Pier 11 in Lower Manhattan.
First, make your way to Pier 11. For the subway, your best option is to take the 2 or 3 to the Wall Street station. From here, walk 5 minutes to pier 11’s ferry docks. Train 4 or 5 is another option, you can take this train to the Bowling Green Station. From here, walk 10 minutes to pier 11. Your second option for getting to pier 11 is to take the NYC Ferry. The NYC ferries operate on a pretty regular basis during the spring to fall months and cost the same as the subway at $2.75/ person. Pier 11 is a main port and all the ferries stop here. For schedules and routes, check out the NYC website here.
Second, make your way to Governors Island from pier 11. This is the fun part of the commute! There are two ferries that take you to Governors Island. The ride is only 8 minutes, so don’t blink! NYC ferries and Governor’s Island ferry will both take you from Pier 11 to Governors Island dock. Both cost $2.75 each way. However, if you have already purchased a NYC Ferry ticket to get to Pier 11 then there is no additional costs as you can simply transfer. After a quick 8 minutes you will be on the island. This has to be one of our absolute favorite spots for skyline views, plus the thinned out crowds are a bonus!
Brooklyn Bridge and Dumbo
While the Brooklyn Bridge is far from a “locals only” spot for seeing the skyline, we do have local tips! And honestly, how can we possibly compile a list of Manhattan skyline spots without including the Brooklyn Bridge?! While it is busy, it most definitely is not overrated (in our opinion). We recommend walking across the bridge, but start in Dumbo, not Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge is almost always the busiest on the Manhattan side. So starting on the Brooklyn side allows you to have a little bit of less obstructed and crowded walking.
Also, Dumbo is one of our favorite neighborhoods to visit. Dumbo is a neighborhood in Brooklyn that has the most viewing spots of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline. Couple these views with great food and cobble stone streets and we are sold!
How to Get to Dumbo?
The most common way to get to Dumbo is via the subway. The best option from Manhattan or Brooklyn is to take the F train to York Station. At this point you are in Dumbo and only a couple blocks from Water Street where most of the viewing areas are. The other option is take the A or C train to High Street-Brooklyn Bridge station. If you’re coming from the Upper West Side of Manhattan or certain areas of Brooklyn, this will be your route. This station is at the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge, but you should walk down to Dumbo to see the neighborhood first.
If you are into taking the NYC ferries as much as we are, you have this option as well! The East River ferry will take you to Dumbo from both Manhattan piers and Northern Brooklyn Piers. However, the South Brooklyn ferry also stops in Dumbo for those coming from Southern Brooklyn. To get off, the ferry stop is called Dumbo, so easy to remember!
Top of the Rock
The top of the rock is another location that is far from “locals only”, but hear us out. Going to some of the paid viewing areas to see the skyline is not bad, in fact we do recommend this! The four main paid buildings to see the Manhattan skylines are: the Empire State Building, The Edge, One World Trade Center and Top of the Rock. Of these four options, we recommend the Top of the Rock!
The Top of the Rock has three viewing platforms that wrap around the whole building. So, you will also get to see Central Park in its entirety. Then on the south facing side, you can see the Manhattan skyline WITH the Empire State Building in it. This is one of big pros, as we feel the Empire State Building is so iconic, we want it in the photos! The viewing platforms are also more open than other ones. The first level is all glass windows, so the views are not obstructed with wiring. Pro tip: there are gaps between these windows, so you can stick your camera lens through to get those skyline photos without a glare. The second and third viewing levels are completely open, except for a wall up to hip height. This is where you can get photos without the windows or wiring, which none of the other options have!
How to Get to the Top of the Rock?
Top of the Rock is located in the Rockefeller building, which is located at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan. The most convenient way to get here is by train, or walking if you’re close by. The Rockefeller building has a subway station in its basement, this is where the B,D, F and M train stop. This subway station is called the 40-57th St- Rockefeller station. Another option is to take the N, R or W train to the 49th St-Times Square station and walk the few blocks over. Or, you can take the E or M train to the 5th ave-53rd St station and walk the few blocks over. Overall, it’s quite accessible!
Currently, the Top of the Rock is by reservation only so they can limit the number of people going up for social distancing. We recommend planning at least a day in advance so you can get the time slot you prefer. The times are from 11 am to 7pm. The tickets are $36-38 dollars each. Local tip: check the sunset time and book your entrance time for 35-45 minutes before this time to see the sunset in an epic location!
Now this is *technically* a mode of public transportation, but honestly it provides some of the best skyline views. The NYC ferry system is provided by the MTA, meaning it’s public transportation. The benefit of this? It costs the same as subways at $2.75/ person.
Our love affair with the NYC ferry really blossomed in the beginning of the pandemic. From the spring to the fall of 2020 we did not ride the subway once, in fear of crowds, contained spaces and spreading the virus. So, we biked A LOT and took the ferry A LOT. The ferry has both indoor and outdoor seating. Outdoor seating is on the top of the ferry and is the most popular, so we recommend getting to the ferry stop ~10 minutes early to snag one of these seats. Also, the ferry is bike friendly. For an extra dollar on your ticket (making it $3.75) you can ride with your bike. The ferries all have bike racks at the front, right when you enter. The racks are high up, something Janessa has struggled with, however there are ferry employees that can help!
We always caught the ferry from the East 93rd St ferry port as it’s close to us in the Upper East Side. The Soundview Route from 93rd St to Pier 11 was our most commonly used. However, 34th St offers the ability to connect to other ferries, including the East River ferry that takes you to Dumbo and the Astoria ferry that takes you to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Randall’s Island is another island located in the Upper East Side that offers sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline. Similar to Roosevelt Island, it is located in the East River, however it is further east and north so the views are more inclusive of Manhattan. The Island itself is 2.1 km, so not very big. The best area to go is the southern side. This is where you will have the best skyline views, with green spaces and picnic tables. There are no food options here, but bring a picnic and it’s a great way to spend a sunny afternoon! We biked around the island, however there is also a walking trail and it’s car accessible.
How to Get to Randall’s Island?
By far the best way to access Randall’s Island is by car. If you do not have a car (like us) we recommend biking over. You can access the island via a foot bridge off of 103rd street east, which is also bike friendly. Or you can access via the RFK bridge, but this seems far less enjoyable. If you want to rely on public transportation there is a bus that takes you in, the M35 is the one and only. Another option is taking the 4 or 6 to 103rd Street station and walk over on the foot bridge. Overall, the limited options of getting to the island is a draw back. However, it’s all worth it one you arrive! For more information, check out how we Explored Randall’s Island!
Before we go, if you are looking for a spot to grab a drink or quick bite to eat while taking in the Manhattan skyline views- we have those too!
Bonus: Rooftop Bars with Skyline Views
Now, if you’re hungry and looking for a great spot to see the skyline, there are several options for you! Rooftop bars are very popular in NYC. This is mostly likely thanks to the incredible views from just about any rooftop in Manhattan, but it also gets you above the street level (read: avoid garbage, smog, people, etc.). With limited ground space, Manhattan is home to building upwards, with buildings getting taller and more extravagant by the year. While this is faaaar from all encompassing, these are our five favorite spots for rooftop fun!
Timeout Market Rooftop in Dumbo, Brooklyn:
Many local food options, with a causal rooftop spot. The outdoor patio offers one of the best views of the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan skyline.
The R Bar:
Indoor area that offers sweeping views of Time Square.
Located in the Hyatt Hotel, this bar offers drinks largely and views of Time Square. A convenient location and large rooftop patio can lead to a relaxing afternoon in the sun.
The Haven Rooftop in Midtown:
Great menu and outdoor spot, just off of Times Square.
A rooftop bar filled set up for large groups (for when we can enjoy this again!). From the comfy chairs, cabanas and great menu, this is a great spot to relax and enjoy a sunny day.
Planning a trip to NYC soon? You don’t want to miss our FREE Three-Day Guide to NYC! We detail the best way to experience NYC like a local, while also experiencing New York’s top attractions. Click below to download your free guide!