One of the most iconic images of Christmas in New York City, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, is a must-see.
This post covers tips on how to attend the tree lighting ceremony as well as tips for visiting throughout the holiday season.
- How to Get Here
- The Lighting Ceremony
- Best Viewing Spots
- Saks Fifth Ave. Light Show
- Christmas in NYC
- Guide to Rockefeller Center
HOW TO GET HERE
The tree is located in the middle of the Rockefeller Center complex between West 48th and 51st Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
Regardless of how you choose to arrive, we recommend using this Google Maps link for directions to the tree.
For information on the best spot to take that perfect picture, see our tips section below.
How to Get Here?
- B, D, F, and M trains to the 47-50th Street Rockefeller Center stop.
- 1 Train to the 50th Street stop and walk along 50th Street in the direction of the cars to Rockefeller Center between 5th and 6th Ave.
- N, Q, or R trains to the 49th Street stop and walk along 49th Street against the traffic to Rockefeller Center between 5th and 6th Ave.
- E or M to the 5th Avenue/53rd Street stop and walk south on 5th Avenue in the direction of the cars.
- 6 train to 51 Street Station and walk in the direction of cars until 5th Avenue and make a left turn onto 5th Avenue. Walk one block down.
- Take the M1, M2, M3, M4 or M5 bus to 50th Street. Buses run north and south.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is lit on the first Wednesday after Thanksgiving at roughly 9 p.m. (21:00).
In 2023, this is November 29.
Note that the exact time has yet to be officially confirmed by Rockefeller Center, but in past years the lights have switched on at 9 p.m.
There are no tickets to attend the lighting. Attendance is first-come, first-served.
Before the lighting, beginning at 7 p.m., there are festive performances by top singers and bands, as well as the Radio City Rockettes.
Last year's live entertainment included Gwen Stefani, Blake Shelton, Jimmie Allen, Andrea Bocelli along with Matteo Bocelli and Virginia Bocelli, David Foster and Katharine McPhee, Brett Eldredge, Mickey Guyton, Alicia Keys, the Muppets of Sesame Street, Dan + Shay, and more.
We recommend that you arrive by 3 pm, and absolutely no later than 4 pm, though going early is even better since the event is always very crowded.
See below for our tips on where to stand to have a view of the tree and the live performances.
The Tree Lights Up Every Night
Visiting what may be the most famous Christmas tree around the globe is one of our top free, seasonal things to do at night in NYC.
You can see the tree at Rockefeller Center from some point at the end of November, and it will likely come down at some point in early January, usually the first week of the new year.
The tree will be lit daily from 5:30 pm - 12 am.
On Christmas Day, December 25, the tree remains lit for a full 24 hours.
On New Year’s Eve, December 31, the lights will be lit from 6 am to 9 pm.
The best location for that perfect picture is from Fifth Avenue at the entrance to the Channel Gardens.
This is part of the Rockefeller Center complex. The entrance is on 5th Avenue between West 49th Street and West 50th Street.
Our Guide to Rockefeller Center has information and a map of the complex and can help you find your way around.
You could also see the tree with us on one of our Holiday Lights Tours of Manhattan.
Where to Stand to See the Tree Lighting:
The tree is located in front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The area with views of the tree is very small and will be very crowded.
Again, go early, by 3 pm at the latest if you want to be in a prime location.
You can see the tree from these locations:
- On Rockefeller Plaza, a short street that is located between West 48th and 51st Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues and also surrounds the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink (in orange in the image below)
- In the Channel Gardens, a very narrow pedestrian walkway entered from 5th Avenue between West 49th and West 50th Streets (in green in the image below)
- You can also see from a segment of 5th Avenue that is between 49th and 50th Street (red star in the image below)
Where to Stand to See the Live Performances
The live performances take place in front of the Prometheus Statue in the lower concourse square, which is surrounded by Rockefeller Plaza (in orange in the image above).
In the photo below, you can see people on the lower level, standing near the stage, lit in red. These people are “VIPs”.
This area is not open to the general public.
To be able to see the performers you must be in the first few rows of people along the north, south, and east perimeters of the rink.
If seeing the performers is a priority you should aim to get there by 12 pm or earlier.
Good to know:
- The celebration is open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis. You do not need a ticket.
- Aim to get there by 3 pm, and no later than 4 pm or you may not be able to find a spot to see the tree.
- Street closures for vehicles between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and 48th to 51st Streets begin at 3 p.m. that day, so taking mass transit is advised.
- Security: No umbrellas, backpacks, or large bags are allowed into the event. There are many places where you can store your bags for a few hours. See our post on Where to Store Luggage in New York City
- If you can't make the lighting in person, it is broadcast on TV live on NBC (local channel 4) from 7 pm - 9 pm. It is also streamed live from NBC and other live-stream sources.
If Rockefeller Center is out of your budget or just not your scene, there are a number of great places to skate, some for free even (provided you have your own skates).
See our post on Where to Go Ice Skating in New York City.
There is no shortage of things to do at or near Rockefeller Center. Here are our suggestions:
Visit the Top of the Rock
Get unparalleled views of New York City at the observatory.
Note: Top of the Rock admission is included in all 3 New York City tourist discount cards.
If you aren't sure that Top of the Rock is the view you want, read our post comparing the 3 best observatory decks: Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, or One World Trade Center Observatory.
Take a tour of Radio City Music Hall
This majestic and lush theater can be viewed on a paid tour.
Learn more about the tour, ticket costs, and discounts by reading Radio City Music Hall Stage Door Tour.
Take a walking tour
We invite you to join our pay-what-you-wish guided walking tour of Midtown Manhattan which includes Rockefeller Center.
See St. Patrick's Cathedral
Located right across the street from Rockefeller Center, this historic and impressive cathedral is worth a visit.
You can also take a St. Patrick’s Cathedral Tour.
Visit the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
Just two blocks away, this is one of the premier modern art museums in the world. Here's how you can visit it for free!
Check out our MoMA post for the details.
See the insanely over-the-top holiday lights of Brooklyn's Dyker Heights neighborhood.
Shop at the many Christmas Markets in New York City.
Take our New York Holiday Lights Tour (see video below).
See a holiday show!
Look at our Guide to Christmas in New York City for even more information!
HISTORY AND FUN FACTS
Although the first official Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony was in 1933, the first Christmas tree at the Center was erected by demolition workers who were building Rockefeller Center in 1931.
This first tree was just 20 feet tall and was decorated with handmade garlands, cranberries, and even a few tin cans.
Remember, 1931 was a year in the midst of the Great Depression in America.
But if all the workers could get hold of were tin cans, they were not going to let any obstacle prevent them from celebrating Christmas. (A great history of Rockefeller Center can be found here.)
- The tree must be at least 65 feet tall and 35 feet wide, but the preferred height is usually between 75 and 90 feet tall and proportionally wide.
- The tallest Rockefeller Tree in history was in 1999: 100 feet tall!
- The most common species of tree selected each year is the Norway Spruce. Because this tree doesn’t typically grow to this size in the New York area, most of the trees are cultivated in peoples’ yards.
- A helicopter flies over New Jersey and Connecticut to scour the area for potential candidates.
- There is no monetary compensation offered for the tree if yours is selected. It is a donation and considered an honor to have your tree as the official Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.
- The tree is only decorated with lights and a star.
- There are over 30,000 lights on the tree (about 5 miles of strands!)
- The star used on the current trees was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind in 2018. This three-dimensional Swarovski star weighs approximately 900 lbs. and features 70 spikes covered in 3 million Swarovski crystals.
- The tree now uses LED lights. As compared to the old incandescent bulbs, the LED lights save enough energy every day to power a 2,000 sq ft home for a month!
- The tree stays up until the Christian Feast of the Epiphany (the official end to the Christmas season).
- The tree is recycled after it is taken down. Over three tons of mulch can be made from the trees.
- In 1942, during World War II, in honor of the war effort, the traditional large tree was replaced with three smaller trees, decorated in red, white and blue.
- The Rockefeller Christmas Tree is seen in the films Home Alone 2 and Elf, as well as several others.
- Since 2007, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree has been donated to Habitat for Humanity once the season is over. It is milled, treated, and made into lumber, which is then used to build homes for people in need.