Rockefeller Center is the symbol of midtown Manhattan and easily one of the best and most widely popular attractions in New York City.
A complex of 19 buildings and plazas, located between Fifth and Seventh Avenues and 48th and 51st Streets, Rockefeller Center was built to be a “city within a city.”
Since its construction, it has proved to be exactly that. It’s home to corporate headquarters, offices, television studios, theaters, shops, and restaurants.
It is, of course, essential to mention that the Art Deco design, both architectural and decorative, of the original buildings is some of the world’s finest, and you’ll want to look attentively to enjoy and unravel all its references.
The rising popularity of Rockefeller Center
John D. Rockefeller Jr. leased the site for Rockefeller Center from Columbia University in 1928, and soon began demolition of the speakeasies, rooming houses, and brothels that occupied the area. He directed his planners to design a commercial center “as beautiful as possible, consistent with maximum wealth.”
Like many of the other currently most popular attractions in New York City, it was a risky venture. The Rockefeller Center is the largest private building project of modern times, undertaken at the height of the Great Depression. Construction of the original 14 Rockefeller Center complex buildings began in 1930 and was completed in 1939.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, four International-style office towers were built on the west side of the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Ave.), expanding the Center’s boundaries. The latest addition to Rockefeller Center was the Lehman Brothers Building on Seventh Avenue, which opened in 2001.
Exploring the whole complex with its 19 buildings can be a daunting and time-consuming task, so here are a few recommendations on what to see in Rockefeller Center. Make sure not to miss all of this, but do explore around, especially around the Art Deco buildings.
Stroll through the Channel Gardens
Standing on the west side of Fifth Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets, enter the famous promenade known as the Channel Gardens (flanked by The English Building and La Maison Française, hence the name).
Down the center of this 200-foot walkway are granite pools and fountains, which are surrounded by seasonal floral displays. By far, the most famous display is the annual Christmas Angels. Proceed west down “the channel.”
Get lost in the crowds in the famous Rockefeller Rink
This sunken plaza before you is home to the ice skating spot called The Rink. Behind the plaza is the gilded bronze statue of Prometheus by Paul Manship.
Admire the most fantastic Christmas tree you’ve ever seen
The steps on either side of the sunken plaza lead up to the private street named “Rockefeller Plaza.” This is where the towering Rockefeller Center Christmas tree stands every year!
See where shows are recorded at NBC Studios
To your left (facing west) are the NBC Studios, from which the program is broadcast live every morning.
Directly ahead is 30 Rockefeller Plaza (crowned by a relief of Wisdom by artist Lee Lawrie), the entrance to the GE Building.
This 70-story skyscraper dominates the Center, and is home to NBC studios (WNBC News, Rock Center, MSNBC, Saturday Night Live, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon are all taped here). Guided tours of the studios are available.
Enter the Top of the Rock Observatory
Atop the building is Top of the Rock Observatory (with arguably the best view of New York!).
Just inside the entrance is a large mural by José María Sert called American Progress, and the ceiling (also by Sert) is Time. (It’s said the giants atop the pillars always face you, no matter where you move through the lobby).
As you keep going up, you’ll find yourself at Top of the Rock, with three levels of observation decks facing all directions of the city at a 70 floors height, definitely an unforgettable experience.
Explore the Rockefeller Concourse
Progressing through the building, you’ll find steps leading down to the Concourse, more than two miles of underground passageways that connect all 19 buildings, as well as the New York subway (here’s our 101 guide on it, by the way).
The Concourse is lined with shops and restaurants, and enables workers to avoid inclement weather.
Discover art pieces at every corner of Rockefeller Center
We have mentioned a few already, but there are hundreds of pieces, murals, mosaics, paintings and sculptures you can find walking around Rockefeller Center (and into its buildings), all from internationally renowned artists.
Over the building’s Sixth Avenue entrance is a mosaic entitled Intelligence Awakening Mankind by Barry Faulkner. The mosaic is made of about 1 million pieces of colored glass.
Visit one of the largest theaters in the world
Across 50th Street lies Radio City Music Hall, one of the world’s largest theaters (6,200 seats!), and an Art Deco masterpiece. The auditorium, lobby spaces and restrooms are extraordinarily beautiful and well worth seeing.
The theater is open for performances (concerts and the annual Christmas Show), private special events, and guided tours. Don’t forget that a performance featuring the Rockettes is one of the best attractions in New York.
Visit the Associated Press Building ( + continue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue)
Walk back along 50th Street to Fifth Avenue. At Rockefeller Plaza, look to your right for the stainless steel panel titled News by Isamu Noguchi on the Associated Press Building.
Reaching Fifth Avenue, you’ll see the magnificent St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Finish your visit at Atlas and the International Building
Take a right on the corner and walk to the entrance of the International Building. Outside, you’ll see the famous bronze statue of Atlas supporting a globe studded with signs of the zodiac made by Lee Lawrie in 1937.
Inside the impressive lobby you will find two central escalators—much like 19th century grand staircases.
For years, the building was home to steamship lines, travel agencies, and foreign consulates, all benefiting from the U.S. Passport Office on the second floor.
The ceiling is covered in copper leaf and the north and south walls by the gleaming sculpture Light and Movement by Michio Ihara.
Rockefeller Center’s official website has a lot of great information, including detailed maps. You may want to combine your visit to Rockefeller Center with one of our amazing New York City Tours. Join us!
Update Notice: This post was updated on November 20, 2023.