Why I Rarely Go To The Top Of Tall Buildings When Traveling

January 23, 2014 by Anil Polat  

tokyo skytree cloudy

Unwittingly I’ve visited some of the tallest buildings in the world, casually looking up to glimpse where they meet the heavens, but leaving without ever taking a ride to the top. People will ask me, “what was the view from the Burj Khalifa like?” and I’ll tell them that the lobby was very nice. The fountain in front was great but I can’t vouch for the view since climbing to the top of tall buildings is something I almost never do.

That’s not to pass judgement on those who say, I want to go up there but first wait in line all day.

Modern Mountain Climbing

Skyscrapers have become the urban equivalent of mountains for many travelers today and something of a tourism pissing contest for the places that build them. There can come a sense of accomplishment in making your way to one of the highest human-made points on Earth, sharing in the architectural accomplishment of our species as a whole. Yet the tallest view isn’t always the best.

view from galata tower

For example, the Galata Tower hasn’t been close to Istanbul’s tallest building for over 45 years but the view of Levent from Istanbul Sapphire isn’t the one people are crowding to see. (Here are the landmarks to look out for when flying in.) Location is the key and the older the city, the further outside of town mega-structures tend to be.

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Funding The Soaring Heights

Of course unlike mountains, whose entrance fees are usually limited to a set of solid lungs and genetically enhanced sherpas, skyscrapers are built first – funded later. A ride at 36kph (~22mph) on the world’s third fastest elevator to the top of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa runs about $35, the Tokyo Skytree is $20, and Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers $25. Not at all unreasonable prices mind you but adding that the average reservation needs to be made 5 days in advance, for non-planners like myself, there’s a better chance of me climbing the these buildings like French Spiderman than booking ahead of time.

Embrace The Cat’s Eye View

Seeing is truly believing for our Paleolithic minds, so looking at photos from atop Singapore’s Gardens By The Bay isn’t the same as actually riding the long escalators up yourself. While the views from above can be beautiful, it’s below we’re focusing on from the dizzying heights. Altitude is good for perspective and literally expanding our horizons; the interesting stuff is overwhelmingly hovering at quaint eye level.

A few meters off the ground is where anything tangible on Earth constructed by human beings began. Our brains are terrible at comprehending large scales so zoom up to the top of enough tall buildings and they’ll begin to blend into one big “wow” in your memory.

But the food not sushi in Japan, including the takoyaki at Mokuchi next door to the Skytree, I can still taste. The one-slip-from-death climb up the Quito’s La Basilica Church and grip on every ladder step it induced is like yesterday. The views from above, or lack there of, were only pleasant side effects to the sights still in my mind’s eye.

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  1. Brian says:

    For us, tall buildings are no different from any other attraction – they all have to pass a cost + time suck < benefit test. Considering how expensive that elevator ride can be, and how long the lines, we often skip them. And while the view from atop those tall buildings can be incredible (or fogged in) a free skyline view from outside the city is normally just as satisfying.

  2. I’m not big on hitting up tall buildings either. Good views are good views. I’d rather see Paris from Sacré-Coeur, but I also know that the Eiffel Tower is kind of something you should do at least once.

    One thing people can do to avoid those ridiculous costs is to go to bars at the top of buildings that have them. “Insiders” (or whatever) know that the Hancock Tower in Chicago has better views than the Sears Tower (no, I will not call it the new name), and that there’s a bar near the top of the former that you can go up to for free. Just sit down, buy an (overpriced) drink (okay, so it’s not really free), and soak in the views. Better to buy a drink and relax than wait in line, pay more money, and dodge crowds the touristy way.

    My folks just went to Hawaii, and they said they did the same thing at some hotel on Kauai. Drinks were expensive but the views were worth it. And it probably wasn’t the tallest hotel there.

  3. Dave says:

    Have to agree, seem to be a pointless endevour in many cases

  4. Camilo says:

    I think it really depends on the city. There are cities that are beautiful from above (Paris, Firenze, Venezia) and others that are not (Buenos Aires, Berlin).

  5. Sofie says:

    Damn it, I was hoping you weren’t going up on those buildings because you had a fear of heights… like me 😀

    • Anil Polat says:

      haha, if there are any heights I’m confident in, it’s those at the top of buildings. Cliffs and planes on the other hand, I’m not 100% about all the time 😉

  6. Ragnar says:

    “Tourism pissing contest” haha love that. Most of the time I would much rather just be at surface level getting the full hands on experience than admire how pretty it looks from afar. I’ve only been in a tall building just for the sake of a view once, in Kyoto. The view was alright, but, the hills outside the city offered better views, for free and with extra exercise.

  7. Quite an interesting point… My policy is that if it’s more than 20 bucks… next!

    This is one of the reasons I didn’t like Hong Kong much. While I wasn’t there long, there seem to be so many “check out the view from here” places, but the food was fantastic though.

    I wasnt aware reservations were required for any of these. I went to the top of Taipei 101 and it was about an hour wait. Same in Seoul’s N. Tower.