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.