The secret to skipping New York’s holiday crowds
The entrance on 5th Avenue offers the most dramatic vantage point of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. (Henny Ray Abrams/Associated Press)
During the holiday season, two of New York City’s major draws – the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and ice skating rink – also tend to be the most crowded. To enjoy both without the crush of people they typically attract, it’s going to take some sacrifice and an alarm clock.
Early mornings, by far, provide the best tree viewing opportunities. Every day, from the time the tree is lit at 5:30 am to the time when the sun rises at approximately 7:15 am, there’s a nice window to see the tree’s 30,000 lights twinkle minus the masses. If darkness is not a prerequisite, the weekday hordes don’t start arriving until about 9:30 am, but then they don’t stop for the next 12 hours. On the weekends, Rockefeller Plaza is mayhem until the tree is turned off at 11:30 pm, providing less opportunities to see the tree glimmer without elbowing your way through the mobs.
The 74ft-tall Norway spruce is located between West 49th and 50th Streets, with the entrance on 5th Avenue offering the easiest access and the most dramatic vantage point. This path also puts you on a direct collision course with the ice skating rink, located at the base of the tree.
The Rockefeller ice skating rink is open from 9 am to 10:30 pm Monday to Thursday, and 8:30 am to midnight Saturday and Sunday. But like the tree, the rink is best enjoyed during the early hours when it first opens to the public. Not only are the crowds smaller, but the ice is also at its smoothest. Due to all the foot traffic and its small size, the surface can get dicey pretty fast, making the actual act of ice skating all the more difficult, especially for amateurs. The rates for adults are $10 for skate rentals and a $21 entrance fee during the holiday season.
For those less concerned about costs and ice quality, the rink does offer a pricey alternative: pay $75 per person (includes admission and skates) and you’ll be able to skip the line to get on the ice. This option is only available via an online reservation system before you arrive, assuming the slots aren’t sold out.
If you don’t want to be confined to Rockefeller Center’s smallish arena, there are two cheaper options within walking distance: the iconic Wollman Rink in Central Park and the festively reoccurring Citi Pond in Bryant Park. Though larger in size, both of these rinks also fill up pretty fast, so if you are going to skate there, treat it like Rockefeller Center and plan on arriving about half an hour before they open. Otherwise, your day on the ice will end up feeling a lot less like skating and a lot more like roller derby.
Bucky Turco is the New York City Localite for BBC Travel. He's also the editor of animalnewyork.com.