Rockefeller Center is undoubtedly the most crowded place in New York City during the holidays as everyone, whether they live in town or are just visiting, goes to see "The Tree." But then what?
There is actually quite a bit for families to do in the 22-acre complex besides gazing at the twinkling evergreen and battling tourists. Rockefeller Center is a great holiday destination with plenty of shopping, eating and culture for kids of all ages. Squeeze it in as part of a Holiday Windows Walk, check it out while you wait for the Rockettes to start kicking, or grab a bite after your show — we've got great suggestions for no-reservation, family-friendly restaurants nearby.
Read on for 13 fun things to do at Rockefeller Center this winter.
1. Take a twirl on the most famous ice rink in the city. This is an essential NYC holiday experience. Go early in the season and early in the day to avoid the lines. Or wait until the tree is down in early January and take a quick lunchtime skate at a bargain price. Visit the website for skating rates and reservations.
2. Get an up-close view of the giant Swarovski crystal star that graces the top of the Christmas tree. There's a duplicate on the north side of the plaza. The real star weighs almost 600 pounds and sports 25,000 crystals but you can get a miniature ornament-sized one for your own tree at the nearby Swarovski shop.
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The Swarovski crystal star is even more impressive up close.
3. Strike a pose. Hire a photographer or tag a passerby and have them snap a shot of you and yours in front of the tree. Looking for something slightly more unique? The office buildings on Sixth Avenue abound with festive outdoor holiday displays.
A tiny train (complete with steam), Christmas ornaments and a giant string of lights are three of the possible backgrounds for an off-beat photo op.
4. Learn about fire safety at the FDNY Fire Zone, located at 50 Rockefeller Plaza, adjacent to Radio City Music Hall. General admission is free to this fire-safety learning center, where kids play with interactive exhibits, climb aboard a fire truck and meet a real fireman. For $6, you can view a multimedia fire simulation presentation. During the week, school groups get priority in the morning, so call before heading out.
5. Head to the Top of the Rock observation deck to experience breathtaking views of the NYC skyline. Don't forget your camera.
6. Take a tour for an inside look at Rock Center's art, architecture and history. Prefer to do it yourself? See how many of these pieces of art you can spot along the way.
7. Visit The LEGO Store for a little playtime and be sure to check out the mini version of Rockefeller Center made entirely from LEGO bricks. Pop outside and drop your change in the Salvation Army bucket, where bell ringers entertain the crowds with festive song and dance.
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The Lego Store has plenty of kid-level displays.
8. Go behind the scenes of your favorite TV shows on an NBC Studio Tour. Guests get access to shows like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live and more. If you prefer theater, take a Stage Door Tour at Radio City Music Hall. Tours run daily, even during the holidays.
9. Channel your inner gamer in a visit to Nintendo NYC, where on-display gaming systems allow fans young and old to play for free.
10. Visit Rock Center via the subway. I bring my son through the massive underground labyrinth of the Concourse. It's fun to surprise him as we walk through the buildings and exit into the plaza to see the tree. At the Concourse, watch the skaters from one of two fancy restaurants or grab a bite at one of the faster, food court places and eat at the windowed seating area. There is also an ATM, post office and clean bathrooms on the Concourse level, along with perhaps two of the city's most crowded Starbucks.
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Concourse-level tables provide a great, warm spot to watch the skaters.
11. Hit the stores for some retail therapy or holiday shopping. I love the beautiful imported duds for infants and toddlers at Hippototamus but there are more than 100 shops to choose from, selling everything from toothpaste to Tumi luggage.
12. Where better to have breakfast with Santa than underneath the most famous Christmas tree in the country? Break bread with Santa at Rock Center Cafe or The Sea Grill, then go for a twirl at the rink. Seats usually go fast so make your reservation early. Or try some of the other great food here. Get a cupcake to go from Magnolia Bakery or take a seat in the tiny chocolate salon at La Maison Du Chocolat.
13. On your way out, be sure to check out the festive holiday windows and light show at Saks across Fifth Avenue, or visit the nearby (and recently refurbished) St. Patrick's Cathedral, which offers a self-guided audio tour app.
Note: All of Midtown gets crowded at this time of year, sometimes insanely crowded. Visit on a weekday for the smallest crowds, the earlier or later the better. Resist the urge to go during the holiday break, unless you are really, really brave.
Hanging around Rock Center during the holidays? Discover more holiday fun in our Mommy Poppins Holiday Guide.
This article originally published in November 2010.