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World's coolest observation decks

Image: Grand Canyon Skywalk, Arizona
Cantilevered way, way out over the Grand Canyon's west rim, with the Colorado River some 4,000 feet below, this U-shaped glass bridge is arguably the world's highest observation deck.Dutch Dennis
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You could be standing on air.

That’s what it feels like when you step inside one of the glass boxes that protrude from the 103rd-floor Skydeck at Chicago’s Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. After all, the seamless, apparently unsupported glass floor is the only thing between your toes and the urban mosaic 1,300 feet below. Even if you’ve been to hundreds of observation decks, the effect of the Ledge is still unnerving.

And really, a skyscraper observation deck should make you feel like you’re flying. Decks, at their best, are a mechanism for transforming the engineering genius of super-tall buildings into pure visceral magic. Emerge from the elevators at the top of places like Toronto’s CN Tower and you get a double hit: a dizzying view and a powerful sense of immersion in the building’s unprecedented scale.

Fortunately for altitude-loving travelers, the demand for that total skyscraper experience is seemingly endless. There are currently so many observation decks opening that it’s hard to keep track.

At the beginning of the year, we all heard about the grand opening of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa — at 2,717 feet, it’s the world’s tallest building by more than 1,000 feet — and its 124th-floor observation deck. However, most of us probably overlooked the completion of China’s Nanjing Greenland Financial Center (world’s seventh-tallest building) and its deck. By year’s end, we’ll have seen the opening of a deck atop Hong Kong’s new 108-story International Commerce Centre (world’s fourth-tallest building) and the 2,001-foot-tall Guangzhou TV & Sightseeing Tower.

Meanwhile, older, shorter towers have been jazzed up with inventive new features such as the vertigo-inducing glass Ledge or organized bungee jumping off towers in Auckland and Macau. The assumption is that tourists don’t just want to ride the elevator, peer through the coin-operated binoculars, and go back down. They want to revel in the height.

“We’re in an experience economy,” explains Randy Stancik, general manager of Chicago’s Skydeck. “Everybody wants a story to tell — something that can be photographed, that could be Facebook friendly, that could be sent out on Flickr.”

Admittedly, in this country, we’re still a little behind the curve. There’s no bungee jumping off Seattle’s Space Needle, and the tallest new building in the U.S., Chicago’s 98-story Trump International Hotel and Tower, completed in 2009 — number nine in the world — doesn’t have a proper deck. (It does have an awfully nice terrace bar on 16, though.)

However, the views from today’s giants tend to isolate tourists from the cities that are so very far below — it’s a bit like peering out the window of an airplane. So it’s worth remembering that the highest deck isn’t always the coolest one. It’s hard to beat the simple pleasure of seeing the city from a less lofty perspective like, say, the top of the world’s 14th-tallest edifice, the Empire State Building.