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NYC Trio: Rockefeller Center, Top of the Rock, and Fifth Avenue

July 2, 2020
Rockefeller Center Plaza with Christmas Tree

Ice skating. High-end shopping. Beautiful views. Elegant art. There are a lot of things to love about Rockefeller Center. Like many of the best sights in New York, what appears on the surface is only one small fraction of everything that goes on daily.

My earliest memories of New York are at Rockefeller Center plaza. I remember the bright lights from the windows, the sound of skates gliding across ice, and the giant buildings that seemed to disappear into the sky. Even though I was only a kid, I could feel the energy in the air — walking the sidewalks of the plaza made me feel like I owned New York.

When I returned to NYC later as a resident and tour guide, I learned so much about the history and business associated with the area that it felt like I was seeing it all again for the first time. For a lot of visitors, Rockefeller Center is a five-minute walk around the ice skating rink or a photo opp in front of the tree. These are both great, but if you think that is the only reason to visit — think again.

How Rockefeller Center Started: A Change of Plans

30 Rockefeller Center; Rockefeller Center Plaza

The story of Rockefeller Center begins in the early 1800s with New York City’s first collection of exotic plant species: the Elgin Botanical Garden. This attraction, while unique, was only temporary, and eventually the garden shut down and the land was passed to Columbia University.

Rockefeller Center in the 1920s

In 1927, the Metropolitan Opera Company was eyeing the area for a brand new venue, so they turned to John D. Rockefeller Jr. Son of the founder of Standard Oil, Rockefeller was a member of one of the wealthiest families in the world. He and his wife, Abigail, were art lovers (and rich), making them the perfect benefactors for the opera company and the new venue.

Unfortunately, financial tragedy struck just as the contract was signed between Columbia and Rockefeller. The 1929 stock market crash and the resulting Great Depression led to the opera house pulling out of the deal. Rather than trying to get rid of the land, Rockefeller used the opportunity to pursue another venture. He turned his sights on building a collection of office, retail, and entertainment spaces for businesses around the globe, something the city had never seen before.

Shaping the Space: Where Private Meets Public

When Rockefeller set out to build an integrated commercial center there was an idea that he mentioned over and over again — the idea of private business intersecting with public life. That’s why the Radio Corporation of America was the perfect tenant.

Having prospered during the Great Depression, this national radio network used the space to produce some of the earliest NBC radio programs. NBC Radio eventually transformed into the NBC TV we all know today.

Today’s Radio City Music Hall gets its name from the Radio Corporation. The building isn’t the mass media hall Rockefeller intended, but it’s still a well-known New York City landmark (more on this below).

Visiting Rockefeller Center as a Tourist: What to See

Prometheus Statue; Rockefeller Center Plaza

Not only is Rockefeller Center a thriving center of business, it’s also home to one of the city’s most amazing art collections. Taking a walk around the plaza and through the lobbies of many of the buildings, you’ll see murals, mosaics, and statues. Many of the buildings themselves are art pieces, built in the Instagram-worthy Art Deco style.

The artistic charm is also evident around the main plaza. Next time you stop to admire the ice skating rink (if it’s winter) or outdoor dining area (if it’s summer) take a look around at the fountains, granite pools, and sculptures that surround you.

There are gardens, too. The Channel Gardens gradually cascade from Fifth Avenue down to the level of the plaza, featuring colorful flowers that change throughout the year. The center of the plaza is covered with hundreds of international flags and down below, overlooking the rink, is Prometheus, a giant gold statue inside a fountain.

As you’re standing and admiring all of this artwork, I bet you didn’t realize that just below your feet are miles of passages interconnecting all the buildings in the center. The Concourse is a hub of dining and shops that many locals use as a shortcut through the plaza when crowd levels are heavy. For travelers, it’s a convenient place to grab a bite to eat or use the restroom if needed.

For entertainment, Radio City Music Hall, home to the Rockettes, is right here. Even just seeing the inside of the theater is a treat. The theater opened in 1932 and remains one of the most beautiful theaters in the world. Read more in our guide to Radio City Music Hall.

Your NYC View From Top of the Rock

View from Top of the Rock Observation Deck

The real centerpiece of the plaza is 30 Rockefeller Center. Nicknamed 30 Rock — like the TV show of the same name — the building has had quite an interesting journey.

It was the first building built in the complex in 1933, originally the home of NBC Radio and the personal offices of the Rockefeller family. Today, both “Saturday Night Live” and “The Tonight Show” are filmed inside. Just across the street is Studio 1A, which hosts “The Today Show.” You might have noticed groups of people standing outside first thing in the morning watching the news anchors and waiting for their chance to wave on-camera

At the very top of 30 Rock is an observation deck called Top of the Rock. The area used to be the place to go to get amazing views while avoiding the crowds at the Empire State Building. Well, the secret is out and the crowds have risen. Still, it’s the only observation deck in the city with views of Central Park, the Hudson River and all five boroughs. It’s a surprising place to find such a great view as the building is far from being the tallest in New York. Here, you can see the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, One World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty all in one glance.

Shop Till You Drop at the Fifth Avenue Shops

Fifth Avenue

Crossing through all of Manhattan, Fifth Avenue is one of New York’s most well-known streets. Once one of the most desired residential areas in Manhattan and lined with mansions, it’s now full of the world’s most expensive retail spaces and home to some of the best shops in the city. These shops line the section of Fifth Avenue that passes right next to Rockefeller Center, so you can easily do some shopping after your visit to the plaza.

Fifth Avenue Shops: A Short History

As Times Square grew in size and popularity, many of the residences taking up the blocks near Rockefeller Center were unhappy with the types of businesses popping up in the area. After deciding the location was no longer “tasteful,” they packed their bags and headed up north near Central Park.

The mansions they left behind turned into some of the most glamorous shops in the world. The movement started with names like Lord & Taylor and Saks. Lord & Taylor opened their Fifth Avenue location in 1914 and became the center of the fashion wave. The building was an inspiration for department stores throughout the city, including Saks. For many years, the Saks location sat right next to Macy’s at 34th Street, but the decision to move uptown led them to open up a new shop in the 1920s, right across the street from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center Plaza. Their sleek, minimalistic, and stylized display windows set the standard for other shops in the area and began the oh-so-popular trend of window shopping.

Where to Shop on Fifth Avenue Today

No other street in Manhattan has so much upscale shopping all in one place. Each store is unique and fun to explore, even if you can’t afford what’s inside. Slow down a little and admire the displays or the decoration. The prices might be high but, trust me, you don’t need lots of money to enjoy yourself.

If you want to do more than window shop but only have a small budget, you’ll still find plenty of brands that you’ll recognize and aren’t too expensive — places like H&M, Sephora and Zara, for starters. If you’re willing to stretch your budget a bit, check out Coach or Free People. And if you’re looking to splurge? Visit Saks, Versace or Louis Vuitton for the classic Fifth Avenue experience.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year at the Rockefeller Center

Christmas decorations in a fountain

New York City is especially beautiful during the holiday season, and the center of it all is Rockefeller Center. If New Year’s Eve is the biggest day of the year for Times Square, then the lighting of the Christmas Tree is the biggest for Rockefeller Center.

Starting in the early 1930s, the tree is one of New York’s most amazing traditions. People come from around the world just to see it. If you’re visiting the city in December or early January, it’s a must. The crowds are intense (hundreds of thousands of people a day), but it’s worth it. Stay awhile and watch the ice skaters whiz around in the rink — or better yet get in line and join them.

Don’t miss the recurring outdoor light show at Saks on Fifth Avenue. When you’re done, cross the street and you’ll be amazed by some of the most decorated window displays in history. There is no way you can visit and leave without feeling the holiday spirit.

What to Do Near the Rockefeller Center in NYC

Saint Patrick's Cathedral

Since Rockefeller Center is located right in the heart of Midtown, there are plenty of sights to see within walking distance.

Across Fifth Avenue, you’ll find Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a neo-gothic Roman Catholic cathedral and the largest of its kind in the United States. Head inside to admire intricate stained glass windows and breathtaking architecture. Across the street from the entrance is Atlas, a statue of a Greek Titan holding a giant sphere. It’s the largest statue in all of Rockefeller Center.

Follow Fifth Avenue downtown to the Diamond District on 47th Street or the New York Public Library on 42nd. From there, you can head west to Broadway and the heart of Times Square or head east to Grand Central Terminal and head inside to the main concourse. If you’re willing to walk a bit, head up Fifth Avenue to 59th Street to see the globally famous Plaza Hotel. Just beyond the hotel is the southeast corner of Central Park.

Your Frequently Asked Rockefeller Center Questions

Atlas Statue; Rockefeller Center Plaza

How much does it cost to go to Rockefeller Center?

Visiting Rockefeller Center Plaza is free, but to visit Top of Rock will cost you $32-$38. It’s recommended to buy your tickets ahead of time online.

How many floors are in the Rockefeller Center?

At 70 floors (or 850 feet) high, 30 Rockefeller Center is much shorter than the tallest buildings in New York City, but it’s height and position in the city’s layout still make for excellent views from the Observation Deck.

Which is better: Top of the Rock or the Empire State Building?

Both buildings are important to New York’s history, but the observation deck experience between the two is very different. The Empire State building is certainly better known and slightly taller. Plus, because it’s further downtown, you’ll have a better view of neighborhoods like the Financial District and Greenwich Village. Top of the Rock gives you the benefit of being able to see the Empire State Building from the observation deck and has a much better view of Central Park.

The barriers around the edge of the Rockefeller deck are panels of clear glass rather than the fencing of the Empire State Building. As mentioned above, there’s also multiple floors to visit at Top of the Rock instead of just one. This can mean better pictures and less time spent trying to push past people to get a perfect view.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you, depending on which building you’d like to pay to visit and which view you want to see. Both ticket prices are equal.

More Than Meets the Eye

Radio City Music Hall

While “overrated” is a common word used to describe many of New York’s most popular sites, it’s not one for the Rockefeller Center. As you’ve read, there are so many details and places to explore. And it’s the kind of place you can visit more than once since it’s ever-changing. That’s New York for you — always something new to discover if you just know where to look.

Hopefully next time, whether it’s your first visit to Rockefeller Center or your 50th, you’ll see the area differently and rediscover the greatness of this mini-metropolis.