Rockefeller Center is undoubtedly the most crowded place in New York City during the holidays. 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 besides gazing at the twinkling evergreen and battling tourists in this 22-acre complex. 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 some fun things to do at Rockefeller Center this winter.
Hit the ice at the famed Rockefeller ice skating rink. Photo courtesy of Rockefeller Center
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 (or after the holidays), 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.
There might be a wait to get in the Lego store, but kids think it's worth it. Photo by Jody Mercier
2. 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 songs and dance.
3. 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 concourse-level Swarovski shop. Another fun tree-lighting fact: The 45,000 multi-colored lights adorning the 2017 tree would amount to five miles worth of lights if unwound and stretched across the streets of NYC.
4. 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 go fast, so make your reservation early.
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Visit American Girl Place for some holiday style. Photo by Jody Mercier
5. Duck into the glittering American Girl Place on the northern edge of Rockefeller Plaza. There's loads of opportunities for interactive play. You can also treat your daughter to a doll-and-me spa treatment or fancy tea in the on-site cafe. How fun is that?
6. 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.
A quick elevator ride to the Top of the Rock offers one of the best views of the city. Photo by Steve Gardner via Flickr.
7. Head to the Top of the Rock observation deck to experience breathtaking views of the NYC skyline. Don't forget your camera. These are some of the best views in the City!
8. 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 more unique? The office buildings on Sixth Avenue abound with festive outdoor holiday displays. Always something to see in this neighborhood!
9. Game your heart out with a visit to Nintendo NYC, where on-display gaming systems allow fans young and old to play for free.
10. 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.
Radio City shines bright at night. Photo by Glyn Lowe via Flickr
11. Go behind the scenes of your favorite TV shows on an NBC Studio Tour. Guests get access to shows such as 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.
12. Hit the stores for some retail therapy or holiday shopping. There are more than 100 shops to choose from, selling everything from toothpaste to Tumi luggage.
Watch the nighttime holiday light show at Saks (directly across the street) or gawk at its over-the-top holiday windows. Photo courtesy of BFA for Saks Fifth Avenue
13. Check out the festive windows and spectacular light show at Saks across Fifth Avenue, or visit the nearby, refurbished St. Patrick's Cathedral, which offers a self-guided audio tour app.
14. Enter (or exit) 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 the tree. At the Concourse, watch skaters from one of two fancy restaurants or grab a bite at one of the faster, food court-type 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. Find more eats (and sweet treats) at these area restaurants.
Banana pudding, cupcakes, and other delicious treats are worth the wait at Magnolia Bakery. Photo courtesy of the bakery
15. Speaking of food...be sure to try the banana pudding at Magnolia Bakery. It is not to be missed and a great reward for braving the crowds!
16. And in the best news ever, renowned toy emporium FAO Schwarz is finally open in their new location. Be greeted by the iconic toy soldiers and take a whirl on the giant piano before you stock up on amazing holiday gifts. There's even a Build A Bear workshop on site.
Note: All of Midtown gets crowded at the holidays, sometimes insanely so. 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.
This article first published in November 2010; it is updated annually. Amy Meader Sullivan contributed additional reporting.