Post overview: Christmas at the Rockefeller Center
Let’s play out a hypothetical. You land in New York during the week of Christmas and you only have a few hours to seize as much holiday magic as possible, where do you go?
Easy, tell the cab driver to take you to the Rockefeller Center.
I like to call the Rockefeller Center the Capitol of Christmas. There is no single place in New York City that offers as many festive attractions in such a short vicinity to one another.
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Let’s dive into what makes Christmas at the Rockefeller Center so dreamy.
Visiting New York City? If you haven’t decided where to stay (yet) check out our helpful guide on Where to Stay in New York City (The best neighborhoods for first timers +2 to avoid). Don’t have time? Here’s our favorite hotel in NYC, hands down.
Rockefeller Center at Christmas
Visit the Rockefeller Christmas Tree
The crown jewel of Christmas at the Rockefeller Center has to be the iconic Christmas tree. The tradition dates back to 1933, officially, but unofficially construction workers put up the first tree in 1931.
And think of the significance of the tree way back then, during the Great Depression. It’s no wonder that nearly a century later Christmas at the Rockefeller Center is still a tradition New Yorkers hold dear to their hearts.
This year the tree lighting takes place on November 29, 2023. Besides the Macy’s Day Parade, the tree lighting is the unofficial kickoff to the holiday season in New York City.
A new tree is selected every year with an impressive requirement: the tree must be at least 75 feet tall. It’s decorated with more than 50,000 lights and topped with an exceptionally bright Swarovski star.
The tree is lit daily between 5AM and 12AM, and trust me when I say visiting while it’s dark out will be a highlight of celebrating Christmas at the Rockefeller Center. The lights add a vibrant life that’s unforgettable.
Address: 45 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10111
Ice Skate at the Rink At Rockefeller Center
A trip to the Rockefeller Center during Christmas can (and should) include some time on the ice. There isn’t a more iconic ice skating rink in New York (except maybe the one in Central Park) than the one in Rockefeller Plaza.
Opened on Christmas Day in 1936, the ice rink was a temporary way to attract shoppers during the Great Depression to the struggling, high-end retailers located in the newly constructed Rockefeller Center.
To no ones surprise, the ice skating rink surpassed all expectations and became so popular it’s still a staple of the holiday season, nearly 100 years later.
Guests are allowed to bring their own skates, but rentals are available in case you couldn’t squeeze yours into your carry-on. The Rink opens on October 21, 2023 so there’s plenty of time to partake in this beloved Rockefeller Center Christmas pastime.
Local’s tip: If you’re visiting New York City for a couple of days I’d suggest putting off ice-skating until the end of your trip. This way any unfortunate falls and bruising won’t put a damper on your time in New York. 😉
Address: 600 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, New York, NY 10020
Admire the Saks Fifth Avenue Light Show
Of all the impressive Christmas lights you’re bound to see while visiting the Big Apple, none will compare to the spectacular display of the Saks 5th Avenue Light Show during Christmas at the Rockefeller Center.
The lights play in tandem with classic Christmas music, dazzling children and adults alike. The experience takes the New York City holiday spirit to a whole new level!
The songs play at regular 10-minute intervals from 5pm to 11pm. Stick around and enjoy a few rounds, it’s one of the best free things to do at the Rockefeller Center during Christmas.
Now admittedly Saks Fifth Avenue isn’t a part of the Rockefeller Center. However, it’s directly across the street and the light show can be seen from the Rockefeller Plaza.
Cheer on the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes
When it comes to iconic Christmas shows in New York City, none is more beloved than the The Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes. The reason the show makes an appearance in this article is because Radio City Music Hall is directly behind the Rockefeller Center.
The 90-minute performance is awe-inspiring and guaranteed to impress even the most-bitter scrooge (we all know one!). The choreography is on point and the dancers’ high kicks seem to defy the laws of physics.
A lot of folks assume that catching this famous Rockefeller Center Christmas show requires having kids in tow, but that is not so! Even folks without kids (*raises hand) will enjoy it immensely.
The Christmas Spectacular dates back to the 1930’s and although the world has changed a lot over the last nearly 100 years, the Rockettes’ status as an elite dance company has not.
The dance group has performed for troops stationed overseas during wartime, a presidential inauguration and even a Superbowl halftime show. Christmas at the Rockefeller Center wouldn’t be the same without them!
Shows begin on November 17th, and are held multiple times a day until January 1st. Tickets can be had for as little as $50. Doors open an hour before showtime and you should plan to be there as soon as they do.
Peruse the Fifth Avenue Window Displays
New York City doesn’t do anything halfway, and their holiday window displays are no different. Luckily the Rockefeller Center is a nucleus of these brilliant Christmas displays because it’s located on Fifth Avenue.
In case you didn’t know, Fifth Ave is one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world! So the retailers spare no expense in orchestrating tantalizing displays meant to draw in customers and beat the competition.
Luckily viewing is free and you can easily spend an hour or two meandering up and down the avenue enjoying all the best displays.
If you’re hoping to partake in this treasured Rockefeller Center Christmas activity I suggest visiting Bergdorg Goodman, Cartier and American Girl for some of the best displays.
Attend Christmas Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral
If you’ve never been to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, allow me to be the first to say she’s a real beaut.
Right across the street from the Rockefeller Center, the gothic cathedral stands majestically, surrounded by a sea of Christmas decorations.
And one of the best things to do for free on Christmas Day at the Rockefeller Center is to try to make it to church for one of the holiday masses. The mass is a hot commodity so tickets are dished-out via a lottery.
Whether you’re attending the mass because you’re a devout believer, to appease your mother in law, or to experience something new it doesn’t really matter. I’m not here to convert you. Rather I just want to tell you that the service is beautiful and a once in a lifetime experience.
Anybody who grew up going to church will feel right at home! Plus, this Christmas activity is just a stone’s throw away from the Rockefeller Center. Just note the lottery closes on November 22nd, so enter now!
For more information regarding mass times and how to enter the lottery visit Saint Patrick’s Cathedral’s official website.
Take Your Kids to the Numerous Toy Stores
Visiting the Rockefeller Center for Christmas with kids is a blast for a variety of reasons. Parents will love the endless photo-ops. The kids on the other hand will go hog-wild at the plethora of toy stores in the area.
Take FAO Schwarz for starters. In operation since 1862, FAO Schwarz is officially the oldest toy store in America. The 20,000 square foot toy store is like a labyrinth of fun your kids will go bananas for.
Or you can visit the Lego flagship store. It boasts life-sized Lego creations that will inspire both kids and adults alike. I should also mention the American Girl Place, which is chock-full of dolls and equally accessible.
Needless to say I’m just scratching the surface. If you’re visiting the Rockefeller Center for Christmas your kids will love visiting the Nintendo, Disney and M&M stores which are all within walking distance.
Soak in the Views at Top of the Rock
While celebrating Christmas at the Rockefeller Center you’re going to want to visit Top of the Rock. It’s one of (if not the) best observation decks in New York City.
Not particularly flashy or trendy, Top of the Rock just has the best views plain and simple. Situated on the rooftop of 30 Rockefeller Plaza it’s smack dab in the middle of the most popular attractions in NYC.
From its terrace on the 70th floor (850ft) you’re granted unfettered views of NYC’s most jaw-dropping landmarks: Central Park, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building.
If you’re visiting the Rockefeller Center around Christmas time you might get to see the city covered under a blanket of fresh snow. Or if you visit during sunset you’ll get to see the lights bring the city to life!
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Make a Pit-Stop at Lotte New York Palace
Any Gossip Girl fans visiting the Rockefeller Center during Christmas are going to want to swing by Lotte New York Palace. It’s not uncommon to see fans gathered out front, hoping to catch a glimpse of Chuck Bass. 😉
The real star of the show however is one of the most elegant Christmas trees in NYC adorning the front courtyard.
The decorations always feel regal. It’s hard not to feel like one of Manhattan’s socialites while taking photos in front of this magnificent Christmas tree. Last year (2022) it was under scaffolding, but it should be gone in 2023.
Even better, Lotte New York Palace is only a five minute walk from the Rockefeller Center making it a must-stop during Christmas time.
If you’re a die hard Gossip Girl fan and are looking for the full holiday experience consider booking a night at Lotte New York Palace. But fair warning, it’ll cost you a pretty penny.
Address: 455 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10022
Take Advantage of Endless Shopping Opportunities
It should go without saying, but shopping is basically a part of the New York City’s DNA. Luckily if you’re visiting the Rockefeller Center during Christmas you won’t have to travel far for one of the most retail-rich environments.
The Rockefeller Center itself is home to countless popular stores. There’s Anthropologie, McNally Jackson Bookstore, Alo Yoga, Aritzia, Brooks Brothers, Catbird Jewelry and so, so many more.
Half the draw to the Rockefeller Center during Christmas are the stores themselves. Christmas shopping is an Olympic sport in America, but luckily the Rockefeller Center can be a one-stop shop.
The Downside of the Christmas Rockefeller Center
With so many reasons to visit the Rockefeller Center during Christmas there’s only one reason I’d tell you to steer clear. The crowds, there’s hordes of tourists and locals alike that can be suffocating.
The best way to avoid the swarms is to visit really early (like first thing), especially on weekdays.
During the day they’re not too bad. However, right around sunset (and especially on the weekends) it’s like a convoy of double-decker busses drop off tour groups by the thousands.
The crowds aren’t reason enough not to visit, rather just something to prepare for. You can’t miss visiting the Rockefeller Center during Christmas, so try to schedule your pit stop for a time when there are less crowds.
Rockefeller Center Christmas (Post Summary)
- Rockefeller Christmas Tree
- The Rink At Rockefeller Center
- Saks Fifth Avenue Light Show
- Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes
- Fifth Avenue Window Displays
- St. Patrick’s Cathedral
- Abundant Toy Stores
- Top of the Rock
- Lotte New York Palace
- Endless Shopping Opportunities
Christmas at the Rockefeller Center (Map)
If this article didn’t convince you that Christmas at the Rockefeller is great then I have failed! I know you’ll love it though. 😉
Happy holidays and enjoy New York!