New York -- The first time I went to the top of the Empire State Building, many years ago, there was no railing. You could poke your head over the stone wall on the 86th-floor observatory and look straight down.
What a sight that was! The yellow taxis moving up and down Fifth Avenue looked like toy cars, and people on the sidewalks resembled ants on a purposeful mission. Midtown's skyscrapers spiked upward like a forest of stone trees. And on a clear day, you could see forever -- to the Watchung Hills of New Jersey, to the Connecticut shore, far up the Hudson River.
Today, a high steel fence atop the stone wall of the observatory keeps you from peering over the edge (and keeps the suicide-minded from making fatal leaps), but the thrill is just as vivid.
There is something extraordinary about seeing this great city from on high. Away from the cacophony of sounds that assault you on the city streets, you get an almost ethereal view of this metropolis.
A soft, constant murmur from the far-off traffic forms a pleasing background to the engrossing view. On one side rises the Chrysler Building, with its distinctive Art Deco cap. The gray monoliths that make up Rockefeller Center form a clot to the north. You can spot the glassy Trump Tower, the Met Life and Citicorp buildings. You can follow the winding path of Broadway and look up Fifth Avenue to the great green expanse that is Central Park.
It's an exhilarating experience, one that I found you can enjoy from several sites and in several ways.
Many people simply like to scan the cityscape from on high, and they're the ones you see mesmerized on the lookouts atop the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center. Others enjoy dining with a view, while some go to the rooftop of the city to get married or even to reenlist in military service.
Once, the Empire State Building stood alone as New York's prime high-up viewing platform. Since 1972, however, the twin-towered World Trade Center has eclipsed it in height, though not in popularity. Because of its location among midtown's cluster of tall buildings, the Empire State's observatory still attracts more visitors (3 million a year than the World Trade Center's (1.8 million).
"It's not necessarily the height, but the position," explained John Colbert, a visitor from Cheshire, England, as he gazed down on the cityscape visible from the Empire State.
"We're right in the center of Manhattan, with an all-around view," said Laura Fries, who runs the observatory. "And don't forget, riding up an elevator 80 stories is something few visitors have experienced."
Many famous people have toured the observatory, among them Queen Elizabeth II and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but perhaps the most famous "visitor" was King Kong, the huge ape who climbed up the outside of the Empire State building in the legendary 1930s movie,"King Kong." Actress Fay Wray, who was clutched in Kong's big paw in the movie, still visits the building; she was back two years ago for the film's 60th anniversary.
Today's visitors aren't likely to see Ms. Wray, but in summertime there's a good chance they'll spot a Kong of sorts: Between July 4 and Labor Day, a resident Kong in a monkey suit greets visitors to the observatory.
Since "King Kong," scenes from more than 90 movies have been filmed at the Empire State. Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant were to meet there in "An Affair to Remember." Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan really did come together there in "Sleepless in Seattle." Sailors Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin sang and danced there in "On the Town."
More recently, the building has been the site of an annual "run-up" for athletic types. In this event, competitors run up the 1,575 steps from the lobby to the 86th floor. The record time of 10 minutes, 13 seconds, was set in 1993 for men; the best female time, set in 1990, was 12 minutes, 27 seconds. Those are records I'd never want to challenge.
This summer, the Empire State marks the 50th anniversary of a tragic event that made headlines all over the world -- the day when an Army Air Corps bomber, lost in fog, crashed into the 79th floor of the building. Thirteen lives were lost when the plane slammed into the building and set fire to several floors, but the basic structure was unharmed.
World Trade bombing
Another tragic event befell the newer World Trade Center in February 1993, when terrorists detonated an enormous bomb in the basement of the complex, killing six people. All damage has been repaired; visitors today see no sign of the explosion.
Indeed, the bombing accelerated some renovation work that was already under way. The 820-room Vista Hotel between the Trade Center's twin towers, decided after the bombing to close and go ahead with its entire $60 million renovation.
Visitors to the Trade Center's two observatories start their thrills with the elevator, which zips from bottom to top at 22 feet per second.
From the enclosed observatory on the 107th floor of the Trade Center and the open roof of the 110th floor, the views are breathtaking.
Because the Trade Center is situated near the tip of Manhattan, the views here are of Lower Manhattan's cluster of tall buildings, including the Woolworth Building (once New York's tallest), 60 Wall Tower and the newer World Financial Center, which numbers among its tenants American Express and the Wall Street Journal. Also relatively close are the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
On a clear day
I visited the observatories on an exceptionally clear day, and it was amazing how far I could see.
Toward the northeast, I spotted the waters of Long Island Sound, and beyond it the Connecticut shore. Sandy Hook, at the mouth of New York Bay, stood out in perfect clarity.
At night, both at the Empire State and the World Trade Center, the views from on high take on a new dimension. Lines of lights outline such landmarks as the George Washington and Brooklyn bridges. Streets become rivers of red and white -- red from the taillights of cars, white from the headlights. Millions of the lighted squares that are windows in high-rise apartments and office buildings make beautiful patterns.
Dinner with a view
Such views are what lure many diners to New York restaurants that have a high-up view. Oddly, considering the number of high-rises in the city, there are only a handful of rooftop restaurants.
The most celebrated of these is Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room, situated on the 65th floor of the GE Building. This is a breathtaking two-story room whose circular dance floor revolves under a huge crystal chandelier. Silver lame tablecloths cover the tables, and guests can look out through 24 floor-to-ceiling windows.
Romantic? Yes, indeed. Going to the Rainbow Room is like stepping into a 1930s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. The prices, however, are definitely 1990s style, averaging $90 per person for dinner.
On the same floor are two other Rainbow venues, the Rainbow Promenade Bar and the Rainbow & Stars cabaret, with live entertainment.
Until the Rainbow's latest renovation (1985-1987), the 69th-floor roof of the building was operated as an observation deck. Because of changes made on the Rainbow floors, the roof was closed off. However, it may reopen again later this year in a more limited role.
"We are negotiating to take it over and use it for private parties by next September," said Andrew Freeman, a Rainbow spokesman.
The Rainbow management also has taken over the famed Windows of the World restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center's Tower One and plans to reopen it by December after extensive modifications.
Restaurants such as these are fairly expensive, so it was nice to discover a rooftop restaurant with a lovely view and not so lofty prices.
The Top of the Tower at the Beekman Tower Hotel rests only 26 floors above the street, but it has an excellent view of midtown's skyscrapers. Main courses run as low as $16.50 (for chicken medallions on leaf spinach or chicken pot pie), and a pianist performs after 9 p.m.
Another long-time rooftop restaurant is the Top of the Sixes, 39 floors above Fifth Avenue. Views are to the north, east and south in this L-shaped room. Entrees range from roasted chicken at $21 for lamb and veal at $28.50.
A block or so away, on the roof of the 23-story Peninsula Hotel, is the Pen-Top Bar and Terrace, a good spot for after-work cocktails. It serves no meals but offers good views of Fifth Avenue.
The Top of the Tower, like other high spots, also is a popular wedding site and has a department that caters especially to that need.
At the Empire State, weddings are popular the year around, and on Valentine's Day the observatory stages 34 weddings for free. It also rents out a large 80th floor room for receptions and other private parties.
Along with weddings, the 86th floor observatory is also the site of frequent military reenlistments.
Several other buildings have high-up lounges -- among them the Chrysler and the Met Life buildings -- but they are private clubs.
Still, there are enough high places open to the public to satisfy almost anyone looking for a view, a wedding site or rendezvous.
Ask Barbara Colbert, who accompanied her husband, John, to the Empire State observatory.
"I love looking at cities from a great height," she said. "You see so much more."
Indeed you do. And most of the time, after having your head in the clouds, you'll come back to earth with a greater appreciation of the city.
SOME VIEWS FROM ABOVE
* Empire State Building: The 86th-floor observatory (1,050 feet up) has a glass-enclosed area surrounded by an outdoor terrace. On the 102nd floor (1,250 feet), inside the blimp-mooring tower, is a closed observatory. Open 9:30 a.m. to midnight daily.
Admission: $4 adults, $2 children under 12, seniors and military personnel. Information: 350 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10118; (212) 736-3100, Ext. 355.
* World Trade Center: Enclosed observatory on the 107th floor, 1,310 feet above the ground. The open rooftop observatory is on the 110th floor, 1,377 feet up.
Admission: $6 adults, $3 children 6 to 12, and $3.50 seniors. Information: (212) 435-4170.
* Rainbow Room: Open Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight; Sunday, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.; closed Monday. Average dinner check is $90 per person. Entertainment charge is $15 ($20 on Friday and Saturday).
Information and reservations: 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10112; (212) 632-5000.
* Top of the Tower: Open from 5 p.m. daily. Piano entertainment from 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Information: Beekman Tower Hotel, 3 Mitchell Place, New York, N.Y. 10017; reservations, Michael Aprilakis, (212) 980-4796.
* Top of the Sixes: Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday. Good views of Fifth Avenue, north and south.
Information: (212) 757-6662.
* Pen-Top Bar and Terrace: On the roof of the Peninsula Hotel, it has both indoor and outdoor venues and good views of Fifth Avenue. No meals served. Closed Sunday.
Information: (212) 247-2200.