A Tour of Rockefeller Center
This article is a brief history and self-guided tour of Rockefeller Center. Please click the link to skip straight to our guided walking tour of Rockefeller Center. Our tour is offered on a limited basis, but guided tours are also offered daily through the Center itself. Both the Rockefeller Center guided tour and tickets to Top of the Rock are included in the New York City tourist passes. If you are not sure if a tourist pass is right for you, then take a read on our review post on all 3 tourist passes.
For more information on obtaining a guided tour or reaching Top of the Rock, please read our post on discounts for Top of the Rock, as well as discounts for the Radio City Music Hall Stage Tour.
How to Get to Rockefeller Center
Rockefeller Center is in the heart of Midtown Manhattan stretching from 5th Ave to 6th Ave east to west and 48th St. to 51st St. south to north and is serviced by many New York City Subway lines. We recommend using this link to get directions to Rockefeller Center from anywhere in the New York City area. There are several parking garages in the area, but they are expensive. It is best to take mass transit. Read our guide to navigating the New York City Subway.
If you are planning on using a hop-on, hop-off bus service to get around the city, keep in mind all stop at Rockefeller Center. Read our post comparing the different bus tour options.
History of Rockefeller Center
Rockefeller Center was developed and built during the Great Depression of the 1930’s by billionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr (photo: right, next to his father), owner of the Standard Oil Company. Today Rockefeller Center is one of the most visited and iconic NYC destinations, but the center as we know it is quite different from Rockefeller’s original vision. He had been approached by the Metropolitan Opera Company when they were looking to build a new opera house and plaza. The Metropolitan Opera Company had their eyes on this location which at that time was occupied mostly by brothels and speakeasies. Knowing that a new opera house would transform the surrounding area, Rockefeller went ahead and purchased three full city blocks- from 48th St. to 51st St. between 5th and 6th Aves. The expectation being that with the opening of the new opera house other businesses would move into the area and build their own buildings. However, the stock market crash of 1929 caused the opera company to change their plans and back out of the deal, which left Rockefeller owning a large piece of mostly worthless property. He had no choice but to use his own money and develop the land himself. He brought together a power house team of architects, artists, and interior designers and instructed them to build not only the largest but most beautiful commercial complex of its kind.
The first and largest corporate tenant of Rockefeller Center was the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the parent company of NBC at that time. It was known before construction began that the main building would be the home of NBC studios in New York from which they would broadcast radio and television. For this reason, early on in the complex’s construction, the area garnered the nickname “Radio City“. And this is of course how the famous concert hall got its name. As you explore Rockefeller Center you will find a deliberate continuity in the architecture and recurring themes throughout the artwork reflecting the feelings and attitudes of the time; optimism and excitement for the future through progress reaching as high as the stars. It was the hey day of the artistic and architectural style of Art Deco.
Art Deco, short for “Arts Decoratifs”, was the predominant modern style of art and design at that time and reflected the themes and feelings of the era. Looking towards the future was very important in the days of the Depression when the present was quite bleak. There was a need for a sense of optimism, as well as patriotism, and the artwork and designs around Rockefeller Center reflect the kinds of sentiments that were needed at that time. Throughout the layout and the artwork of the complex, when looked at through this context, you can see common ideas and themes that portray definite intention- American progress, a transitioning from the old to the new, the ability of man to conquer nature. And the center as a whole gives its visitors a sense of awe reminding them of the famous family that built it who were viewed in their day as “larger than life”.
A– 1250 Avenue of The Americas (6th Ave. between 49th and 50th St.) Looking across the street to the west side of 6th Ave there are 4 very boxy rectangular skyscrapers that somewhat resemble the Rock Center architecture – they are an expansion of the center that was built in the 1960’s. Heavily criticized as being boring and imposing, they don’t quite reflect the beauty of the original center. This is very much a media center in NYC which includes the Time/Life Building, McGraw Hill publishing, and FoxNews. However facing the entrance to 1250 we see the contrast in decorative style with a beautiful mosaic- “Intelligence Awakening Mankind” – by Barry Faulkner, made of over a million tiny enameled tiles in 250 different colors. During WWI Faulkner had worked for the U.S. Army helping to design camouflage uniforms.
Walk 1/2 block north to 50th St.
B– Radio City Music Hall – Why is it called Radio City? This was the first building to open in Rockefeller Center in 1932 and at that time, was the largest indoor theater in the world with 6,200 seats in its audience. It is known worldwide for its exquisite Art Deco interior, but also as being the home of the famous precision dance team, the Radio City Rockettes. Originally Radio City opened as a grand variety house that featured the famous dancers as well as symphonies, movies, news reels and a whole array of various entertainment. Today it is still the largest and most famous theater in America and is primarily used for big name concerts as well as other events such as the Tony Awards, the NFL draft picks, and of course the Radio City Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes.
On the 50th St. side of the building are three round, painted metal sculptures representing “Dance, Drama & Song” by Hildreth Meiere. Not only was it exceptional for a woman to be among the acclaimed artists of the 1930’s, Meiere also contributed to the war effort during WWII helping the U.S. Army and Navy design maps for which she won an award.
Walk east on 50th St.towards 5th Ave. to the Top of The Rock entrance, south side of the street
C– Top of The Rock lobby/Crystal chandelier– Before you reach the main plaza pause for a moment to step inside the grand atrium at the entrance of Top of The Rock observation deck to see “Joie”, a breathtaking 3 story cascading chandelier by artist Micheal Hammers. This elegant “waterfall” chandelier made up of 14,000 Swarovski crystals was installed in 2005 with the re-opening of the observation deck and resembles the outline of the skyscraper it is in- 30 Rock. Swarovski is also the crystal design company that supplies the Rockefeller Christmas tree with its 550-pound star.
Continue towards 5th ave to the main plaza and cross the street to the left, between 50th & 51st St.
D– The Bank of America Building – was originally built as the Associated Press Building and the entrance artwork reflects the building’s original purpose. “News”, a giant stainless steel bas-relief by Isamu Noguchi depicts five reporters “getting the scoop” using their tools of the trade; a camera, a telephone, a news ticker, a typewriter, and a notepad and pencil. Another reminder of the advancement of humankind and American invention and ingenuity.
Opposite the BoA Building is the west side of the International Building. On the 50th St. side of the exterior is a fascinating relief by Lee Lawrie alluding to the international nature of the building. Since Rockefeller Center was built during the Great Depression it as well understood that the commercial complex would hope to draw international businesses as well as American ones, such as steamship companies, and the decorative International Building expresses that intention. In this panel are seen Mercury, the Roman god of commerce and travel, figures representing art science and industry, the four major “races” of mankind, and various regions of the earth depicted by the ocean and whale’s fluke, palm trees, a mosque, and an Aztec temple. Notice also that the trade ship in the middle is not only traveling from the “old world”, symbolized by a castle and a lion, to the “new world”, smoke stacks and an eagle, but also that it is literally facing towards the west.
Continue walking east towards 5th Ave. DON’T WORRY, we will be coming back to the main plaza later in the tour. At 5th Ave. make a left.
E– Atlas Statue – The largest and one of the center’s most famous statues stands directly in front of the main entrance to the International Building and across 5th Ave. from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and is also by Lee Lawrie whose artwork permeates the complex. Atlas was a figure in Greek mythology who defied the Gods and was condemned to hold up the heavens on his shoulders for eternity. In this incredible combination of ancient myth and modern style, the rings of the universe include the zodiacal signs of the constellations and above Atlas’ shoulders are the symbols for the planets of our solar system. Towards the top and to the north is a fleur de lis shaped pointer directing to the North Star. Mythological themes are prevalent in the decorative works of Rockefeller Center, again reminding us of the past while we continue striving for the future. Also alluding to the idea that the complex’s creators, if not mankind, were as great as the ancient Gods.
Take a moment to step inside the International Building lobby. Interestingly the building was originally intended to be the Deutsche Haus as part of a complex of buildings dedicated to certain European countries and in fact, much of the steel within the International Building was manufactured in Germany during the early Nazi period. However, rapidly growing anti-German sentiment at that time resulted in a re-naming of the building. Directly ahead and one level up facing the entrance is a bust of Charles Lindbergh, considered a pioneer and a hero of that era (sometimes the stairway access to that level is roped off from the public, but the statue can be seen from the entrance level). Lindbergh was the first person to pilot a solo cross-Atlantic flight in 1927, flying nonstop from Long Island, NY to Paris, France alone in a single engine airplane called “The Spirit of St. Louis”. Lindbergh at that time was a superstar and the embodiment of American achievement. His historic flight was still fresh in the minds of the public, and seemed at that time the perfect symbol of man’s ability to conquer nature, and achieve what no one thought could be done. The decoration along the walls of the lobby made of steel leaves suspended and dancing on long wires is called “Light and Movement”, an art installation added in 1978.
When coming back out of the International Building be sure to take advantage of a postcard photo moment- with Atlas in the foreground and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the background. It will likely convince you that no part of the complex’s design was by accident or whimsical. And some have speculated that the giant mythological figure directly across the street from the cathedral was in a way expressing defiance towards the Catholic Church.
Turn right and walk south across 50th St.
F – The British Empire Building/La Maison Francaise (G) – The two buildings on 5th Ave between 49th and 50th street both offer intriguing decoration adorning their facades. On the 50th St. side the British Empire Building shows the British coat of arms, human figures representing various trades of the Commonwealth, and the Sun over the door represents the British Empire itself, over which it was said for centuries that the sun would never set.
G – La Maison Francaise, or “French Building”, on the 49th St. side is adorned with a gold gilded relief depicting the cities of Paris and New York holding hands across the Atlantic Ocean. Again, the scene evokes “old world – new world” imagery and notice the terracotta relief above depicting an Art Deco version of a woman holding the torch of liberty.
Walk back to the promenade in between the British and French buildings and turn left
H – Channel Gardens – This promenade was given its name for the English Channel, the body of water that separates England and France. It is decorated with seasonal floral displays, bronze statues and fountains of tritons and nereids riding dolphins and other fanciful sea creatures. It was sculpted by Rene Chambellan (note– these fountains are sometimes temporarily removed for seasonal decorations or special events). The pedestrian promenade leads from 5th Ave towards the heart of the main plaza and is a great place for window shopping.
Walk straight ahead to the Lower Plaza
I- Lower Plaza/Prometheus Statue– Directly ahead is the tallest building and main centerpiece of Rockefeller Center- the GE Building, also known as 30 Rock. In front of the main entrance are the Lower Plaza and the famed gilded statue of Prometheus by Paul Manship. The Lower Plaza is where you’ll find the city’s most famous ice skating rink from October through March. In the spring and summer, it serves as an outdoor cafe. Above the Lower Plaza is Prometheus, considered to be among the top four most famous statues in America along with Mount Rushmore, the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. and the Statue of Liberty. Prometheus was a Titan in Greek mythology who defied Zeus by giving mankind the gift of fire. Here we see Prometheus descending from the heavens, as suggested by the astrological symbols surrounding him, with a ball of fire in his hand.
The backdrop for the statue at this view point will depend on the season. From late November to early January the world famous Rockefeller Christmas Tree, one of NYC’s most popular traditions, stands directly behind Prometheus. When it is not the holiday season, behind the statue you are looking directly at the main entrance to the GE Building adorned by a spectacular terracotta relief by Lee Lawrie. The relief is called “Wisdom” and will be described in further detail at the finish of this tour, but take a moment to notice it from this perspective. When looking at it in combination with the Prometheus statue, the two separate artworks seem to combine and suggest a famous moment in ancient Greek mythology- Prometheus delivering the fire while being banished from Mt. Olympus by Zeus.
Walk to the left to 49th St. then right continuing towards the main plaza.
J– NBC Studios/Today Show – At the corner of the GE Building facing 49th St. and the plaza you will easily see the NBC Experience Store. This is where NBC’s flagship studios are located in NYC and where many NBC TV shows are recorded including; The Dr. Oz Show, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and Saturday Night Live. Interestingly, this section was built independent and separate from the GE building, although it looks as though it’s attached, so as to minimize vibrations within the television studios.
Across 49th St. is The Today Show studio– the “fishbowl” style of morning news that allows fans to crowd around the windows and wave to the cameras pointing outward while they broadcast live. People arrive very early to be a part of the show every weekday morning from 7am-9am. The plaza next to the studio between 49th and 48th St. is where they host their free outdoor concerts on Friday mornings in the summer, often featuring big name entertainers.
Next to The Today Show on the 49th St. side is Christie‘s, the world’s most famous auction house. If you like art you can take a brief detour here and stroll along the giant windows and view pieces from some of the most famous and renowned artists in the world. Then return back to The Today Show studio.
Walk a few steps towards 48th St. and enter the lobby of 10 Rockefeller Plaza next to The Today Show.
K– Eastern Airlines Building– This building was originally intended to be the Dutch Building, again attempting to commemorate good trade relations with our European friends. But like the Deutsche Haus, the events of WWII caused building planners to rename and repurpose the building when Germany invaded Holland. It became the Eastern Airlines Building and its lobby is adorned with a striking panoramic mural in gold, silver, and deep brick red by Dean Cornwell. This distinctive piece depicts the history of transportation from pioneering the wild frontier to taking the sky. More themes are repeated here that represent the Art Deco tradition- combining classic and modern styles, ancient mythologies and looking towards the future.
Walk down the spiral staircase, then ahead towards the left, you will see signs directing you towards the restrooms. Yay!
L– Lower Concourse – Beyond the restrooms is the Lower Concourse of the GE Building. Directly ahead you will be able to see through the glass walls to the outdoor Lower Plaza, whether ice skaters in the winter or diners enjoying being outside in the summer. There is a sizable food court, plenty of shopping, and many delectable treats to be found in the Lower Concourse.
After the restrooms there is a staircase and escalator on the left side. Go up one level to the main lobby.
M– 30 Rockefeller Center Lobby – Naturally the main entrance to Rockefeller Center’s centerpiece building reminds its visitors of the intentions and visions of the time with impossible to ignore murals and frescoes. The all surrounding artwork is by Spanish artist Jose Maria Sert who used powerful imagery to depict scenes of the past while striving through industry for a better future. The mural directly behind the information desk opposite the entrance is called “American Progress” and includes the images of Abraham Lincoln- a man of action- and Ralph Waldo Emerson- a man of thought.
When looking critically at the works, one might think there were pretty bold artistic choices made for the 1930’s (particularly if you look up), however they pale in comparison to the controversial painting that came before. The original lobby painting was commissioned to the famous artist Diego Rivera, who had strong political feelings. His final work differed somewhat from the original plan he submitted and was clearly anti-capitalist. It depicted scenes of protesters marching with red flags, and even included a portrait of Lenin. The Rockefeller Foundation would have kept the painting had Rivera been willing to paint over the more controversial portions. But Rivera said he would rather see the painting destroyed than to alter it. So Rivera got his wish.
Walk out of the main entrance into the plaza.
N- GE Building entrance/Main Plaza– The main entrance to the GE Building lets out into the main plaza on the west side of the Lower Concourse/skating rink. The perimeter of the rink is flanked by flagpoles and the flags flying around the concourse, like many other decorations around the center, will depend on the day or season. Usually you will see the flags of all the countries that are members of the United Nations. Sometimes instead the state flags of the U.S. are flying. On patriotic holidays such as July 4th the plaza flies American flags, and during Christmas season the flags are all shimmering gold, silver, red and green. Directly ahead of the entrance several paces forward and embedded in the pavement is a large, round, bronze placard marking the spot of the famous Rockefeller Christmas tree- a tradition that started with the construction workers themselves in 1931, before any building in Rockefeller Center was open, when they pitched in together and bought and set up their own tree on that spot while working hard through the holiday season. The first official public tree with electric lights was presented, along with the first Radio City Christmas Spectacular show, in 1933 and both have grown to become known around the world as some of NYC’s best known traditions and attractions.
Turning around towards the GE Building faces you towards the heart of Rockefeller Center.
The building was originally built as the RKO Building as its original intention has always been to broadcast radio and television. In later years RKO was bought by GE and the building was renamed, however, continued its purpose as the home of NBC studios. And once again the building’s design makes a point of expressing its function through art. The impressive and commanding bas-relief above the entrance by Lee Lawrie depicts the figure of “Wisdom” spreading a compass over a beautiful glass screen made from 240 blocks of glass from the esteemed Corning Co., and is flanked on either side by figures representing the “Cycle of Light” and the “Cycle of Sound”. These ideas were certainly the themes and the ideas behind Rockefeller Center from its inception, and how the center from the beginning of its construction gained the nickname “Radio City”.
We hope you loved your self-guided tour of Rockefeller Center and as you continue to explore the complex can now notice and enjoy the clues around you as to the vision of its creators!
Rockefeller Center is one of the most popular public spaces and tourist attractions in New York City. This depression era commercial complex takes up over three full city blocks and is rich with history, public art, and art-deco architecture. Built by business mogul John D. Rockefeller Jr. with his own money, he instructed his team of designers and architects to build the most beautiful commercial complex of it’s kind in the world. That vision resulted in what is still one of NYC’s greatest treasures and gave rise to some of NYC’s favorite traditions including the Radio City Christmas Spectacular featuring the famous dance team the Rockettes and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.
Join Free Tours By Foot on our Rockefeller Center Tour as we explore this beautiful complex, inside and out, while learning about its history and taking a closer look at the beautiful and intriguing artwork that permeates Rockefeller Center.
Sites we cover on the Rockefeller Center Tour:
- Radio City Music Hall
- Atlas Statue
- St. Patrick’s Cathedral
- Channel Gardens
- Prometheus Statue
- NBC Studios/Today Show
- Christie’s Auction House
- 30 Rock/Main lobby
- Ice skating rink
- Rockefeller Christmas Tree
See photos of the tour on our Facebook page and check out our self guided Rockefeller Center Tour. – See more at: Tour of Rockefeller Center | Free Tours by Foot
Reservations: REQUIRED. Click here to reserve. For groups of 6 or more, please visit our groups page before booking.
Where: 1250 Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave.) Look for your guide with the Free Tours by Foot logo on the East side of 6th Ave. between 49th and 50th Streets.
Duration: Approximately 1.5-2 hours. Tour distance is approximately 1.5 miles (2K)
If you can’t make one of our tours, you might consider one of the New York tourist passes, which include free guided tours of Greenwich Village.
Cost: This tour is free to take, and you get to decide what, if anything, the tour was worth when it’s done. A name-your-own-price tour is a tour for anyone’s budget. For more tips on saving money, check out our Guide to New York City on a Budget.