New York City (CNN) — This urban space seamlessly integrated into the fabric of midtown Manhattan, Rockefeller Center isn't one singular distinguished landmark.
Located between bustling Fifth and Sixth avenues and 48th and 51st streets, it's really a maze of prestigious buildings and attractions.
Built during the Great Depression by Standard Oil heir John D. Rockefeller Jr. in a notorious district of speakeasies and brothels, it anchored the city's building industry and employed thousands of laborers during its three-year construction phase starting in 1930.
In the depths of the Great Depression, the massive building project was a godsend to construction workers and their families around New York.
The now-iconic Rockefeller Christmas Tree was first raised without fanfare by those grateful workers in 1931, and it has been an annual tradition for decades.
Rockefeller's modern vision
Rockefeller's vision was to create a progressive urban symbol beyond anything that had previously existed. As planned, his eponymous complex did include commerce, entertainment and greenery, as well as then-uncommon luxuries such as an underground shopping concourse and an underground parking garage.
In addition, Rockefeller Center's visible collection of sculptures, motifs, fountains, mosaics and murals would set a new standard for public art. It does not include a mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who was commissioned to paint a mural for the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. His finished work prominently depicted Vladimir Lenin, and the controversial piece was destroyed.
Rockefeller Center's history and legacy loom large.
Standing on the pedestrian promenade surrounded by lush plant installations and an even thicker crowd feels like being in the center of the world. It's so close to Radio City Music Hall you can practically hear the click of the Rockettes' tap shoes as they perform stratospheric kicks in perfect unison during the annual Christmas Spectacular.
Viewing the famed Christmas tree is New York City tradition on par with visiting the Statue of Liberty and the Yankees, but a visit is an essential part of the Big Apple experience anytime of the year.
Rockefeller Center Tour
The guided Rockefeller Center Tour is an excellent way for visitors to get their bearings. This 75-minute tour offers an overview of the architectural gems and impressive artwork. The upbeat guides pepper the presentation with historical and current facts in a thoroughly entertaining manner.
Tours are given daily from 10 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., scheduled every half hour excluding 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets cost $25.
Watch 'The Today Show'
"The Today Show" on NBC is broadcast live each Monday-Saturday starting at 7 a.m. Visitors to Rockefeller Plaza may peek at the partially exposed street-level Studio 1A through the large windows.
During each broadcast, the anchors head out onto the plaza to mingle with the crowd. Those holding eye-catching posters and signs may garner the attention of the camera operators for a few seconds of television notoriety and occasional banter with the show's hosts.
To participate, RSVP on the website, pass through security and check-in with the Today Show ambassador. There is no cost for this rain or shine event. Arrive before 6:30 a.m. for a prime spot.
Studio 1A is located at 49th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues.
Top of the Rock Observation Deck
For unobstructed views of the New York City skyline and beyond, don't miss Top of the Rock. With decks on the 67th, 69th and 70th floors, visitors have their pick of sky-high panoramas.
On a clear day, Central Park, the double-decked George Washington Bridge and the steep cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades towering over the Hudson River are visible to the north. Look south for a sweeping vista of the Big Apple's iconic skyscrapers, including an up-close look at the Empire State Building and a glimpse of the Chrysler Building.
During the ear-popping elevator ride up, visitors are welcomed with a brief history lesson, with images of Rockefeller Center from the 1930s to present day projected on the glass ceiling.
Before entering, ticket holders go through a comprehensive security screening. No weapons, food or drinks are allowed. Tickets cost $34 for adults, $28 for kids 6-12, free for kids 5 and younger. Open 8 a.m. - midnight with the last elevator going up at 11:15 p.m.
The Rink at Rockefeller Center
This outdoor ice-skating rink is a midtown fixture. It enjoys a lengthy season from October to April, so it's not unusual to see skaters in shorts.
Under the golden glow of the bronze sculpture of Prometheus and surrounded by a United Nations of flying flags, the oval hosts over a quarter of a million skaters annually. Olympic figure skating champions such as the late Sonja Henie and Sarah Hughes have performed triple toe loops and double flips on the glassy surface.
Bathed by the lights of the Rockefeller Center tree during the holidays, expect a big crowd and a chaotic Grand Central Station-style atmosphere in December. There's more room to glide around the ice during the rest of the season. For plenty of space, the early morning session tends to draw a sparse crowd.
When it's too warm to skate, the rink is transformed into the Summer Garden & Bar at Rock Center Café, an upscale open-air lounge serving house-crafted cocktails and nibbles.
The rink is open daily in season, 8:30 a.m. - midnight. There's room for 150 skaters and general admission is on a first-come, first-served basis. Adult general admission is $25, rising to $27-$32 during the holidays. Kids 10 and under pay $15. During the height of the Christmas crowd, consider purchasing a reserved skating session with a VIP ticket, ranging from $60 to $150.
The bronze statue Atlas dominates the Rock's sculpture collection, weighing in at 14,000 pounds and standing 15 feet tall atop a 9-foot high pedestal. It can be found at the main entrance forecourt of 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10111.
Decorating the plaza's Channel Gardens are six fountainhead sculptures playfully spouting streams of water. The female fountainheads are Nereids, mythological daughters of the Greek sea god Nereus, while the male figures are attendants to the sea god. For art with a more abstract feel, head to the lobby of the International Building. It's home to the contemporary sculpture Light and Movement by artist Michio Ihara. It consists of some sixteen hundred gold-hued metal leaves, each attached to a vertical cable. A soft haze of light is reflected through the prism of the moving metal, giving the otherwise business-like lobby a distinctively warm glow.
Light and Movement is located on the north and south walls of the main lobby of 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10111.
Rockefeller Center is a shopper's paradise with over 100 diverse retail outlets. For those with a sweet tooth, there are several gourmet chocolate shops to tempt them.
Teuscher Chocolates import their confections from Switzerland. They pride themselves on using the finest natural ingredients with no chemicals or preservatives added. Don't even think about not sampling one of the decadent Champagne Truffles, its creamy Dom Perignon center enrobed with ganache and milk or dark chocolate. The light dusting of powdered sugar is perfection.
Where to stay nearby
Lotte New York Palace is a grand hotel steps from Rockefeller Center. Known for its spectacular views, it graciously blends the landmark Villard Mansion with a modern 55-story tower.
As an official partner of the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes, discounted packages are available to guests for the holiday show.
Lavish public spaces, guest rooms loaded with creature comforts and a doting staff are part of its year-round charm.
Where to eat nearby
In a city that's a food-lover's fantasy, Rockefeller Center doesn't have a reputation as a culinary hot spot. Recently, The Sea Grill has taken its menu to the next level, hiring Chef Andy Bennett, previously executive chef at Michelin-starred Rouge Tomate.
For a taste of bygone New York, Mendy's Kosher Delicatessen hits the spot. Jewish deli classics include a steaming bowl of rich chicken broth with fluffy matzo balls and a hulking pastrami sandwich served on chewy rye bread. Wash it down with a Dr. Brown's Cream Soda.
Bar SixtyFive at Rainbow Room on the 65th floor has vintage charm to go with its dynamic views. Potent cocktails suit the Mad Men vibe. The fragrant Silver Slipper, made with vodka, crème de violette, vermouth, lemon juice and decorative silver leaf, won't disappoint. Jackets and collared shirts are expected for male patrons. Open on Monday-Friday, 5 p.m. to midnight, Sunday from 4 p.m. - 9 p.m. Closed on Saturday.
To get to Rockefeller Center, take the B, D, F and M to the 47th-50th Streets Rockefeller Center stop. The 1 train to 50th Street, the N, Q and R trains to 49th Street and the 6 train to 51st Street are nearby alternatives.