By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Opening day at the One World Observatory -- May 29, 2015 -- talk about your high expectations. After all, I knew that I was headed into the tallest watchtower in the Western Hemisphere. And 102 stories later, I would not be disappointed.
As a tourist draw, and on stature alone, the Observatory certainly rivals other famous towering New York City buildings, like Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Plaza and the Empire State Building.
But this structure is part of the homage to the Twin Towers that were toppled by terrorists on 9/11, to the people who died there and to those who would build again. And, as such, it's in a league all its own.
One World Trade Center is remarkable both inside and out. The glass-fronted façade -- jutting more than 1200 feet into the sky -- mirrors the busy world around it dramatically, even artistically. And the views it offers from within, thanks to the newly opened Observatory, are breathtaking.
To guarantee entry, tickets should be bought online at least a day in advance; I bought mine five days out. Entries are doled out at specific times, at 15-minute intervals. Adult tickets are $32, with discounts available for seniors and kids. Those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and those who worked on rescue and recovery are admitted for free. There are VIP packages available at an extra cost, with perks like VIP entry, and flex tickets (allowing you to enter at any time on a specific date) are slightly cheaper on weekdays over weekends.
When I visited, the lines were long, as I expected. I got there about 45 minutes ahead of the noon time stamped on my ticket, though, and found myself entering the building pretty much on time. The lively and helpful attitude of the staff, even on a high-volume and high-stress day like this, was refreshing.
Upon entry, visitors descend one floor to security screening: pockets get emptied, belts come off, shoes stay on.
A contoured wall of dozens of TV screens -- playing a video named "Voices" featuring personal anecdotes by men and women who built One World Trade Center, set to uplifting music -- leads to an underground tunnel of solid bedrock. The facts and figures projected onto the stone walls illustrate the building's sheer prowess: 45,000 tons of structural steel and 5.4 million cubic feet of concrete were used on what is the strongest building ever erected in the United States.
The lower level elevator lobby welcomes guests to five Sky Pods. Known as some of the fastest elevators in the world, they make the trek to the 102nd floor in less than 60 seconds. During the surprisingly smooth ride, the top-to-bottom monitors that line the elevator walls play digital exterior images of the quickly-shrinking city below.
At the top, visitors enter the See Forever Theater and stand before a wide wall of staggered screens. As lights dim, they play images of New York City by day and by night. And as music crescendos, they rise, to reveal floor-to-ceiling windows and sweeping views of the greatest city in the world. The group I was in burst into cheer and applause.
From here, it's all about taking in the sights. Floor 102, known as the Horizon Level, is a great vantage point. But a quick walk or escalator ride down to Floor 101 and, especially, Floor 100, gives guests 360-degree perspectives of New York City toward the north, south, east and west, and for miles and miles (and miles).
You're going to take a lot of pictures up here. This is a moving viewpoint to be sure.
There's a gift shop on Floor 100, eateries offering gourmet options on Floor 101 and an events space on Floor 102.
The ride down on the Sky Pods offers more high-tech bells and whistles - the moving LED visuals make me feel like I'm rotating downward rather than simply descending to the ground floor. Within moments, I'm back out on the Manhattan concrete, back to where I'd started. But my appreciation for this city -- and for its resilience and unstoppable resolve to build again -- has reached new heights.
For tickets, go to www.oneworldobservatory.com.
This story was originally published on Travelzoo.com.
Gabe Saglie is a senior editor at Travelzoo based in Southern California. You may have seen Gabe on a TV near you - he visits newsrooms across the U.S. to share travel deals and tips with viewers. Travelzoo has 250 deal experts from around the world who rigorously research, evaluate and test thousands of deals to find those with true value.