There’s something about being far above the hubbub of the Big Apple’s streets, especially in the summertime, when humidity levels soar and the concrete feels like it’s emanating heat waves.
“Being on a New York City rooftop gives you this special pleasure of feeling part of the city, inside it, but at a distance,” says Ray Chung, director of design at The Johnson Studio, the firm behind the rooftop lounge at The Wit Hotel in Chicago, among other projects.
“Walking down the streets is one thing, but being able to let your guard down and see the city reduced in size – all the while still breathing the same air and still hearing the buzz of the city – it can be intoxicating,” says Chung.
Drinks just taste better 10 stories up, especially when a cool night breeze is blowing.
So what exactly makes for a good rooftop bar? Chung says there are several key factors. “One of the most important moments … is the first view coming off the elevator,” he says. “Where else do you get to have such a theatrical reveal – doors opening in slow motion to the top of the city?”
Of course, space planning, comfortable seating, spectacular views and a creative and varied menu are important as well, the latter in particular.
“Unique food and drink offerings are becoming a given,” says Chung, “and a top-notch bartending crew can be a draw on its own. But really, as long as there’s a view and fresh air, people will come.”
Here are some of the best rooftop bars in Manhattan.
1. PHD Terrace at Dream Midtown
PHD Terrace at the Dream Midtown hotel is newly renovated and has doubled in size, with expansive views of Times Square and midtown Manhattan.
There’s a menu of small bites, such as the BLT deviled egg and Murray’s meatballs served with house-made pickles.
Bottle service is available for the high rollers in the house. Otherwise, try one of the specialty cocktails like the Hot to Trot (tequila, cucumber, jalapeno) or the Singani Sour (made with the Bolivian spirit Singani 63, lemon and grapes).
For a group, the Mega Mule ($185) – a giant Moscow Mule made with either vodka or tequila – is a fun option.
2. Empire Rooftop
In the Lincoln Center area, the 12th floor of the Empire Hotel is home to the Empire Rooftop, a new property from the team behind the fabulous and sadly shuttered Campbell Apartment (which recently reopened under new ownership).
The lounge spans 8,000 square feet with east- and west-facing terraces, two bars and a fireplace.
The menu has a range of small plates on offer, including Koreatown fried chicken wings, fried mac and cheese and Moroccan spiced lamb sliders.
Cocktails include a barrel-aged old fashioned, the signature Empire Sunset (made with rum, vodka and citrus) and carafe cocktails, including a pineapple-jalapeno margarita and Prohibition Punch.
3. Roof at Park South
The Roof at Park South is located on top of the Park South Hotel, offering views around the Gramercy and Flatiron neighborhoods of Manhattan.
The food and beverage programs are top-notch as well, with a drinks menu from beverage director Ted Kilpatrick and food from James Beard Award-winning chef Tim Cushman.
That means you can snack on yellowtail poke tacos, fried artichokes and a Cajun poached shrimp cocktail, while sipping decadent drinks such as Dukes’ Martini (“freezing cold Plymouth gin” with a bit of caviar for garnish) or Miami Vice (layers of pina colada and strawberry daiquiri).
4. St. Cloud Social at the Knickerbocker
Sometimes, the best way to see Times Square is from high above the teeming crowds. St. Cloud Social, atop The Knickerbocker, is named after the hotel that was originally at the site where The Knickerbocker is now located.
The focus here is on luxury – there are sky pods in the corners that you can reserve for private parties, a cigar lounge and small plates from chef Charlie Palmer.
The menu is seasonal, but right now expect to find a Maine lobster roll, short rib sliders and a charcuterie plate. Cocktails include the Rake, Shovel and Hoe (gin, Irish whiskey, lemon) and three different types of margaritas, each one made using a different tequila and flavorings.
5. STK Rooftop
STK Rooftop is really more of an al fresco steakhouse than a rooftop bar, but the views, food and drinks found here make it worth your while.
The Rooftop is part of STK Downtown, and you can watch the light fade on the Hudson River and the High Line from this perch.
This year, there is a new slushie cocktail (also available at STK Midtown Patio), called the Frozen Mule – essentially, a frozen version of a Moscow Mule.
The menu is packed with prime meats, raw bar options and classic steakhouse sides. You can also come for brunch at STK Rooftop, while enjoying a sunlit view of downtown Manhattan and menu items like a fried chicken sandwich or tater tots with caviar and crème fraiche.
6. Bar SixtyFive at Rainbow Room
Rockefeller Center is one of New York City’s most popular destinations, frequented by tourists from all over the world. Way up at the top of the Rock, adjacent to the iconic Rainbow Room, is Bar SixtyFive, which at 65 stories above the city streets offers unparalleled views in every direction.
The atmosphere here is on the swanky side – men are asked to wear suit jackets or collared shirts, and there’s a $65 per person minimum for outdoor seating.
The cocktail menu keeps pace with a range of expertly mixed classics like a Manhattan or the 1915 Gin and Tonic, as well as contemporary creations such as Sage and Apple made with vodka, sage and New York State maple syrup. If you’re hungry, you can order snacks or large plates like the Szechuan peppercorn filet of beef.
7. The Jane Rooftop
The building housing the Jane hotel played a part in the downtown NYC music and arts scene of the ’80s and ‘90s. Back when it was called Hotel Riverview and the accommodations were shabbier, the ground floor theater hosted productions of rock musicals like “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “tick, tick… BOOM!”
The building is still going strong, and The Jane Rooftop – which was once RuPaul’s apartment – offers amazing views of the Hudson and downtown waterfront area.
The octagonal bar and outdoor terrace is open to both guests and drop-ins, and you can find food and craft cocktails like the Little White Lie (gin, apricot brandy, Lillet and lemon).
8. Upstairs at The Kimberly
This penthouse lounge sits 30 stories above Midtown Manhattan atop The Kimberly hotel.
There are three separate indoor and outdoor areas, amazing views of the city’s bustling streets spreading out in all directions and an excellent food and drinks menu. The dress code here is business casual, so arrive looking smart.
The beverage menu reads like a book of poetry, with cocktails like the Chrysler, Rum Service and Mistress described with eloquent flourishes that draw you in. Case in point: the “alluring ruby red” Mistress “unfolds into a mysterious and flawless blend of citrus, Pisco, elderflower and a whisper of licorice.”
This rooftop bar is open year-round, but the summer months are surely the best time to visit.
Jonah Flicker is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who covers food, drink, travel and lifestyle for a variety of outlets. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @gustatoryonline.