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NY Rockefeller Center in Christmas

Christmas in New York is a world apart. If you're lucky enough to visit the Big Apple at this magical time of year, Rockefeller Center will be the epicentre of your Christmas. Here's why.

Cecilia Gaitán

Cecilia Gaitán

7 min read

NY Rockefeller Center in Christmas

Enjoying the Christmas lights at Rockefeller Center | ©Johnell Pannell

One of the essential things to see and do in New York at Christmas is to visit Rockefeller Center. It is a privilege to be able to see its majestic tree, its lights, ice skate on the temporary ice rink that occupies its plaza or even escape to see the Rockettes at Radio City, very close to the Rockefeller.

I'll tell you a little more in detail what you'll find at Rockefeller Center if you go at Christmas so that you can feel the magic of one of the most awaited times of the year by New Yorkers. Get your camera ready!

1. Delight in Rockefeller Center's Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center| ©Elías Andrés José
The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center| ©Elías Andrés José

Touring Manhattan at Christmas time is a spectacle. And one of the icons you can't miss this season is the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

This is not just any spruce, but belongs to the "Norway spruce" species, brought especially from Connecticut, Pennsylvania or New York itself. And it meets certain requirements, such as being over 50 years old and measuring at least 20 metres.

Every year, in mid-November, the assembly of this tree, which has already won the hearts of all New Yorkers and visitors, begins. It is decorated with more than 50,000 multicoloured LED lights and crowned with a star covered in more than 3 million Swarovski crystals, which the company has been designing since 2004.

The lights are officially switched on the Wednesday of the week following Thanksgiving and the tree is lit from 6am until midnight. On Christmas Day, the tree is lit 24 hours a day and on New Year's Eve from 6am to 9pm.

You can see it until early January, when it is removed and turned into firewood to be donated to a non-profit organisation.

Origin of the tree

The tradition of installing a Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center began back in 1931. The workers who were working on the construction of the building complex decided to put up a fir tree and decorate it with ornaments made by their own families.

This initiative was the genesis of what is now one of the **city'**s major tourist attractions. And in 1933, the first lighting ceremony was held, which today draws crowds.

The anecdote: the tree of solidarity

The great tree at Rockefeller Center does not extinguish its magic even if it turns off its lights. Its spirit goes beyond Christmas as it has a charitable purpose.

Since 2007, once the holidays are over and the decorations are taken down, the tree is donated to the Habitat for Humanity foundation. This organisation is in charge of burning the wood and using it to build and recover homes for families without resources.

Without losing sight of the environment, Rockefeller Center selects fir trees in their last life cycle, so that they can then be used for this charitable purpose, didn't you know?

Book your tickets for the Top of The Rock observation deck

2. Go wild at the incredible lights switch-on ceremony.

The lighting ceremony| ©iStock
The lighting ceremony| ©iStock

One of the most anticipated and exciting moments of Christmas in the Big Apple is the lighting of the lights on the Rockefeller Center tree. This ceremony is known as the Christmas Tree Lightning and is a spectacular show with giant screens and live music. Each year it features different celebrities such as Mariah Carey, John Legend and Diana Ross, among others.

If you want to attend this ceremony, you should keep in mind that it is free, so I recommend arriving 3 or 4 hours early to find a good spot.

Useful information to make sure you don't miss it

  • When: The first Wednesday after Thanksgiving (check the calendar to see what day it falls on).
  • Where: In Rockefeller Center Plaza, next to the statue of Prometheus and The Rink. Between 48th and 51st Streets and 5th and 6th Avenues.
  • Hours: Usually starts between 19:00/20:00 and lasts until 21:00/22:00.
  • How long can I see the lights: From early December to early January, from 6 AM to midnight.
  • Other options: If you can't make it or want to see what it's all about, NBC, which has its offices in Rockefeller Center (where the Top of the Rock is located), broadcasts the ceremony live every year.

Book a Brooklyn Christmas Tour

3. Ice skating at Rockefeller Center

The skating rink| ©Tim Hufner
The skating rink| ©Tim Hufner

At the end of October, as soon as Halloween is over, the New York City holiday spirit is in full swing. And one of the signature attractions of the festive season that opens its doors is Rockefeller Center's famous ice skating rink, "The Rink".

The Rink is very busy and at Christmas time there are usually long queues. So if you want to go, I advise you to buy your ticket in advance. You can do it through the official website.

The rink is open from the first week of December until the end of April the following year. And its opening hours are from 9 am to midnight.

No doubt it is a wonderful experience that will make you feel like you are in a movie at Christmas time. The huge ice rink, at the foot of the giant tree, Christmas carols playing over the loudspeakers... Christmas spirit at its best.

Prices and times to go to The Rink

Prices for access to The Rink vary depending on the day and time, whether it is in high season or not. The cheapest times are early in the morning and late at night before closing time. But you should know that this varies during the festive season, so I recommend you to check the website carefully as it will indicate the corresponding price depending on the day and time.

How much does it cost to ice skate at The Rink?

  • Adults (13 years and over): 17 € to 47 €.
  • Children (6 - 12 years): 17 € to 47 €.
  • Children under 6 years old: 7 € to 19 €.
  • Skate rental: about €8.70 (10 USD) and the ticket office is free of charge.
  • Access as a spectator: you can buy a "Chaperone" ticket for free and it is valid as an adult accompanying the skater.

Ceci's Traveller Tip

The best time of day to go ice skating at Rockefeller Center is early in the morning. It won't be crowded yet and tickets are the cheapest.

4. Immerse yourself in The Rockettes, a must-see Christmas show at Rockefeller Center

The Rockettes| ©iStock
The Rockettes| ©iStock

New York offers many Christmas attractions and traditions. One of them is going to see The Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center.

The Rockettes is a company of dancers, which has been putting on a 90-minute show for the Christmas season, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, since 1933. This is the quintessential Christmas show and a must-see if you go to New York. Impeccable choreography, impressive sets and special effects in the best American style bring out the best of the Christmas spirit on stage.

They are performed from mid-November to the beginning of January, with 2, 3 and even 4 performances depending on the day.

I recommend that you buy your tickets to the Rockettes at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in advance at Hellotickets, as demand is very high.

Useful information to make sure you don't miss it

Book your guided tour of the Radio City Stage

5. Climb to the Top of the Rock

The Top of the Rock| ©iStock
The Top of the Rock| ©iStock

If you're visiting New York at Christmas and you're touring the Rockefeller Center area, don't miss the climb to the Top of the Rock. Seeing Manhattan from above, with Central Park and its skating rink in the background is unforgettable, and even more so if you're lucky enough to see the city covered in snow!

Weather the weather is good or bad, you can enjoy the views from its indoor observation decks and you can even climb to the Top of the Rock at night to see the Big Apple illuminated from the top of Midtown. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Well, I can also recommend this guide to the best places to eat near the Top of the Rock to keep you warm and energised before or after the climb.

Book your ticket to Top of the Rock

6. Stroll through the Channel Gardens and enjoy the windows of Rockefeller Center at Christmas time

Rockefeller Christmas Decoration| ©Freestocks
Rockefeller Christmas Decoration| ©Freestocks

Another of the attractions that Rockefeller Center prepares for the holidays is the decoration of its gardens.

The Channel Gardens connect Rockefeller Center's main plaza with 5th Avenue. These gardens separate the British Empire Building and La Maison Française. Hence the reference of its name to the English Channel, which links the United Kingdom with France.

At Christmas time these gardens and their ponds are all decorated with luminous statues of angels playing trumpets, nutcrackers, giant balls and various figures full of lights. You won't get tired of taking pictures!

Christmas in New York is magical and special. That's why I recommend you just walk and walk and don't get carried away by the cold of winter in New York. Admire its shop windows, its streets, its buildings and all the staging that the city displays for this emotional date.

The Rockefeller Center area is one of the most visited during the Christmas season. There, from Radio City Music Hall and all along 6th Avenue, between 45th and 50th Streets, giant and spectacular decorations are installed that are well worth seeing.

A fact: the Saks Fifth Avenue shop is famous for the Christmas decorations they put up every year and the images they project on their façade, which is thrilling!