New York City Walking Tour: Fifth Avenue's Best Shopping
This week, Fodor's takes you on a tour of the best stops—and shops—along Fifth Avenue in New York City. To see other great routes through our favorite NYC neighborhoods, check out The 6 Best New York City Walking Tours Slideshow.
For over a century, NYC's fabled Fifth Avenue has been synonymous with wealth, privilege, and luxury. Some aspects have changed since the Great Gatsby days: The mansions and private clubs of the Vanderbilts and Carnegies have given way to massive flagship stores and busloads of visitors. But an address on Fifth Avenue is still highly prestigious and many famed traditions still endure, like the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, window shopping at Tiffany’s, and tea at the Plaza. Start this almost one mile walk at the outdoor plaza of Rockefeller Center, located between 49th and 50th Streets, just west of 5th Avenue. See the interactive map below for turn-by-turn directions.
Built between 1932 and 1940 by John D. Rockefeller Jr, who was both the project's developer and sole financier, Rockefeller Center comprises fourteen Art Deco-style buildings, shops, and open spaces that form a town square of sorts in the center of Manhattan. Though its purpose was commercial, Rockefeller commissioned the Center with culture in mind, and you’ll notice numerous works of public art scattered about, most famously the gigantic bronze Prometheus statue that presides over the sunken Lower Plaza and the 15-foot Atlas that lords over Fifth Avenue. Also adding color to the scene are some 200 fluttering flags, which change throughout the year. Structurally, the most notable building here is the soaring GE Building. Built in 1933, the stately tower is best known as the headquarters of NBC. It houses the studios of Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and the network’s various news shows plus serves as the setting for 30 Rock. Atop its 70 floors is a publicly accessible observation deck called Top of the Rock with spectacular 360-degree views of the city. Across 49th street is the ground-floor, glassed-walled studio of the Today Show, where people start lining up as early as 5am to be part of the crowds behind Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer. The famous Christmas tree draws even more people in winter, when skating on the Lower Plaza rink is an essential Manhattan holiday experience.
Address: 30 Rockefeller Plaza, between 48th and 51st Sts.
Learn More: Fodor's Rockefeller Center Review
Saks Fifth Avenue
Across from Rockfeller Center sits one of Manhattan’s premier department stores, the flagship Saks Fifth Avenue. Here you’ll find a destination that’s equally glamorous today as it was when it first opened in 1924. The 10-story giant, which spans a whole city block, offers everything from Chanel and Louis Vuitton boutiques to more accessible labels like Juicy Couture and Marc by Marc Jacobs. Its massive shoe department, which spans the whole eighth floor, even has its own zip code. Well-heeled women fly in from around the world to visit the famous 5th floor bridal salon where appointments are most definitely required. Come winter, the building’s façade is adorned with oversized, lit-up snowflakes, creating one of the city’s most memorable holiday sights.
Address: 611 5th Ave., between E. 49th and E. 50th Sts.
Learn More: Fodor's Saks Fifth Avenue Review
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
The grandeur of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the biggest and best-known Catholic cathedral in the United States, offers a dramatic foil to the surrounding commercial hustle. The white-marble Gothic Revival-style church was completed in 1888, 30 years after the first cornerstone was laid, and is entered via massive bronze doors that weigh over 20,000 pounds. Visitors are welcome to attend Mass, which takes place five times a day during the week and seven times on Sunday, but you can also walk around at your own pace between services. If you do go in, bear right on your way to the altar to find a small bronze shrine to Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American to be canonized. In contrast to the marble statues that dominate the apse, the green and copper hues exude a subtle beauty. From the altar, face the entrance and look up to see the cathedral’s great 7,000-pipe organ below a striking blue rose window designed by American artist Charles Connick. Free organ recitals take place periodically; if you’re a fan, ask if there’s one scheduled during your visit. At this writing, the Cathedral is undergoing an extensive renovation, estimated for completion in 2014.
Address: 5th Ave. between E. 50th and E. 51st Sts.
Learn More: Fodor's St. Patrickâ€™s Cathedral Review
Even among the surfeit of glitz that is Fifth Avenue, the Armani flagship stands out as an over-the-top shopping experience. Mayor Bloomberg himself attended the opening party in 2009, though that may have been because Giorgio Armani donated $1 million to the city’s public schools to mark the occasion. It’s worth popping into the boutique just to climb the futuristic, white curving staircase nicknamed "Guggenheim Two", thanks to its resemblance to the rotunda of the famed uptown museum. On the fourth floor sits a slick, modern Italian restaurant and cocktail bar that stays open after store hours; its menu prices, not surprisingly, match the merchandise downstairs.
Address: 717 Fifth Avenue, between E. 55th and E. 56th Sts.
Trump Tower is a monument to the ostentatious affluence of a classic New York character, Donald Trump. Whether you love him or hate him, it’s worth wandering inside the building’s soaring public atrium to have a look. Completed in 1983, the scene is a freeze-frame of that decade’s shiny excess, with acres of pink and peach marble, hanging gardens, mirrored surfaces, and a huge cascading wall of water. Also keep an eye out for the many bold-faced names who occupy the building’s lavish apartments, including the winners of the Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA contests who live here during their year-long reign. The Trump Tower is also home to a television studio where Trump’s reality show The Apprentice is filmed.
Address: 725 5th Ave., at E. 56th St.
Learn More: Fodor's Trump Tower Review
Tiffany & Co.
"I’m just crazy about Tiffany’s," says Holly Golightly of her favorite store in Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s, "Nothing very bad could happen to you there." Indeed, the blue-box jeweler may be synonymous with the luxe life, but its granite exterior, tiny window displays, and worn wood interior make it seem almost understated in comparison with its glamorous neighbors. The store originated as a stationary seller in Lower Manhattan in the 1830s; in 1845, it published the first mail-order catalog in the U.S., and a decade later, one of the founders switched the company’s focus to jewelry. This flagship store opened in 1940 and isn’t as imposing as it looks. Once you venture past the first floor, there are numerous accessories and gifts available for under $100. The famous 287.42-carat Tiffany Yellow Diamond on the second floor does not fall into that category, however. Only two women have ever worn it: One was Audrey Hepburn, in publicity photos for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in 1961. No matter where you are inside, be sure and look up at the high ceilings—you’ll rarely see so many security cameras outside of a Vegas casino.
Address: 727 5th Ave., at E. 57th St.
Learn More: Fodor's Tiffany & Co. Review
For a certain type of New York woman, there’s nothing more sacred than the holy trinity of B’s: Bendels, Bloomingdales, and Bergdorf. Each of the landmark department stores has something unique to offer: In the case of Bergdorf, it’s superb hair and nail salons, possibly the most comprehensive cosmetics department in existence, and exquisite window displays that could be mistaken for high art, especially around the holidays. The store claims far more humble beginnings than its glitzy reputation would suggest, mind you. Herman Bergdorf, a French immigrant, opened a tailor shop in 1899 and later took on a young apprentice, Edwin Goodman. Goodman ultimately bought out Bergdorf and moved the operation uptown to its present location, a former Vanderbilt mansion, in 1928. He designed the store’s interior to resemble the homes of his wealthy customers, and it feels wonderfully intimate and cosseted as a result. Unsure as to whether his customers would follow him uptown, Goodman also broke up the space so he could rent it out to individual retailers, like the jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels, which is still here today. Remarkably, Goodman needn’t have been concerned. Even during the Depression, business boomed. This was partly due to an important innovation: In the late 1920s, Bergdorf’s was the first store to sell ready-to-wear fashion, which meant customers could buy clothing off the rack, and skip time-consuming fitting sessions. The collection proved enormously successful; the store expanded to encompass an entire block and now also includes a separate men’s store across the street, on the east side of Fifth Avenue.
Address: 754 5th Ave., between W. 57th and W. 58th Sts.
Learn More: Fodor's Bergdorf Goodman Review
Fittingly enough, the city that never sleeps has an Apple store that never closes. Indeed, the massive flagship store, which shares the same plaza as FAO Schwartz and the General Motors skyscraper, is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The store’s singular design garners as much attention as the latest products for sale. Created by the firm of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, whose non-Apple projects include Seattle’s City Hall and the visitor center at Grand Teton National Park, the street-level focal point is a giant glass cube that seems to float amidst the crowds. A spiral glass staircase and transparent cylindrical elevator access the subterranean store beneath the plaza. There, nearly 300 employees—more than any other Apple store in the world—wait on twice as many customers.
Address: 767 5th Ave., between E. 58th and E. 59th Sts.
Learn More: Fodor's Apple Store Review
Even on a busy day, this storied toy store still manages to cast a spell on kids and adults alike. It’s spacious and even elegant–you’ll still find many classic toys here that don’t require batteries, and lots of worthy distractions like a Design-Your-Own Muppet station; a Barbie foosball table priced at $25,000; and whole sections devoted to Legos, Playmobile, Harry Potter, and more. Employees dressed as toy soldiers and animals roam the store and will happily pose for photos. Don’t miss the giant floor piano on the second floor made by famous by Tom Hanks in Big; stop in for a tap dance and reward yourself with a bag of candy on your way out.
Address: 767 5th Ave., at E. 58th St.
Learn More: Fodor's FAO Schwartz Review
The Plaza Hotel
While the Apple store across the street offers a glimpse of the city’s future, the Plaza Hotel is a place to relive New York’s past. After seeing the place portrayed in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and reading about it in books like Eloise, actually walking into the real hotel may feel a bit surreal. Henry J. Hardenbergh, the architect behind the Upper West Side’s famous Dakota apartment building, styled the 19-story hotel to resemble a French chateau; it originally contained 800 rooms and several sprawling, 14- to 17-room apartments for notable families like the Goulds and the Vanderbilts. Decorative materials were shipped over from Europe and 1,650 crystal chandeliers were hung, all contributing to the building’s staggering $12.5 million price tag when it opened in 1907. The first rooms cost around $2.50 a night—or about $60 today. But you’ll pay far more to stay here now: The hotel recently renovated and increased its prices to upwards of $700/night. Don’t despair: Afternoon tea in the renowned Palm Court is much less expensive, and allows for fantastic people-watching under an exquisite stained-glass ceiling. It’s a fitting end to a Fifth Avenue walk.
Address: Fifth Ave. at Central Park South
Learn More: Fodor's Plaza Hotel Review
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Photo Credits: Fifth Avenue: Cristian Baitg/iStockphoto; Rockefeller Center: Rockefeller Center via Shutterstock.com; Saks Fifth Avenue: wdstock/iStockphoto; St. Patrick's Cathedral: Photodisc; Armani Fifth Avenue: Cristian Baitg/iStockphoto; Trump Tower: Trump Tower Atrium by Paul Lowry Attribution-NonCommercial License; Tiffany & Co.: Cristian Baitg/iStockphoto; Bergdorf Goodman: Bergdorf Goodman by Attribution-NonCommercial License; Apple Store: New_York_190 by Anders Carlsson Attribution-NonCommercial License; FAO Schwarz: Courtesy of FAO Schwarz; The Plaza Hotel: Fairmont Hotels & Resorts
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