In a dense metropolis that is full of skyscrapers, is another New York City observation deck really needed? Well, as it turns out, it is. But not the old-fashioned elevator to the top of a tall building lookout. No, no, no. The Summit One Vanderbilt observation deck takes the traditional approach and turns it on its head. Sure, you are transported high above the Big Apple in a building that towers over Bryant Park and Grand Central. But then there is a bit of a twist.
Instead of a bland room with floor-to-ceiling windows and maybe some outdoor space, visitors get an immersive and interactive experience. Mirrors cover practically any surface that isn’t a window and shiny silver balloons float by. Summit One Vanderbilt is a fun observation deck for the Instagram age.
Behind The Artsiest NYC Observation Deck
Summit, the observation deck atop the One Vanderbilt building, is still relatively new, having opened in the fall of 2021. The location, accessed via the Main Concourse at Grand Central, is amazingly convenient. And in a city of tall buildings that are always competing to set new records and precedents, the building One Vanderbilt measures up.
But what really makes Summit One Vanderbilt stand apart from other NYC observation decks is Air, the special experience created as a permanent installation by artist Kenso.
The intent is for an immersive experience that is continually changing. It changes with the weather. It changes with the time of day. It changes with events outside: ice skating at Bryant Park or a cloud floating by.
Experiencing Summit One Vanderbilt
If you merely want to experience the city from above, there are plenty of NYC observation decks to pick from. Some are rather iconic. But Summit One Vanderbilt is a truly unique experience, starting from when you arrive. Assuming, that is, that you can find the entrance.
Tucked off the Main Concourse at Grand Central with only minimal signage indicating the entrance, it’s not the most obvious entryway. But once you’re there, have your tickets ready. Employees whisk you through a check-in process that involves a wrist band, digital photos, and a pair of protective booties to slip on over your shoes. Once you’re upstairs on the mirror-covered observation deck, the need for the booties becomes apparent.
The entire visit to Summit is a production and an experience. Even the elevator ride. During the notably brief ride up to the 91st floor, the lights flicker to complete darkness and thunderclaps sound. The mood is set! Then the elevator doors open and the bright natural light is a dramatic shock to your system.
There are a few areas to explore in this public area which is Air. Most prominent is the multi-level viewing area where the upper floor is largely open. The large room has stunning floor-to-ceiling windows with incredible views over Midtown and the mirrored walls bring the outside in and the inside out. The floors are also covered in most spots with mirrors, making for a sometimes dizzying adventure.
In another area, fans circulate shiny silver balloons through the air and visitors help them along, too, batting at them like beach balls. Combined with the mirrored walls, it feels like you are floating amidst a sea of balloons.
In a small area where the walls are a simple white, the plainness acts like a palate cleanser. “Clouds,” a mirrored work by Yayoi Kusama dominates the floorspace and intrigues. Towards the end of the experience, there is also an outdoor balcony area although it is quite windy.
Summit One Vanderbilt Tickets
Timed tickets for the experience can be purchased online. It is worth noting that there is a price difference between daytime and evening tickets.
And keep in mind what time of day you select. Sunset may seem like the ideal time to enjoy the observation deck. But with the bright sunlight streaming into the mirror-filled rooms, it was actually blinding to the point of being disorienting and not very enjoyable. A slightly overcast or cloudy day could be far more inviting.
Tickets are timed for arrival, but not for departure. Once you have arrived, there is no rush to leave. This is both a plus and a minus. There tend to be some visitors who come dressed to the nines, ready for countless photo opportunities. So it can become crowded as visitors try to get their turn to take the “perfect” shot.
In the end, the irony of Summit One Vanderbilt is that the main focus of this observation deck isn’t what is outside the windows, but what is inside.
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All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own. This post contains affiliate links.