It is truly a wonderful experience spending Christmas in New York. Here’s my journal of the Holidays Season in the city.
- Christmas Lights
- Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
- Christmas Trees of New York
- The Holiday Markets
- Christmas Shopping
- Where to eat
As a cultural center, NYC is full of events all year round. The Big Apple is adventurous, noisy, full of beautiful things to see, do, drink and eat; with each season beating at its own rhythm.
But, comes mid-November and Gotham starts putting on stage opulent windows, colorful lights and decorations, and the Thanksgiving Parade, which marks the start of the Holidays season.
The parade that Macy’s organizes to celebrate Thanksgiving – held on the last Thursday of November – officially marks the arrival of Santa Claus, a clear sign of the season openings
If this would be a recipe, I believe that the information included here correspond to a crack of fresh salt & pepper. Enough to season your Holidays starting point into navigating the tides of events that New York offers: old or new, elegant or kitsch, slow or chaotic, there is something for everyone.
You’ll soon realize that loving this city is as much about the abundance of cultural treasures, its special beauty and variety of skylines, as for the passion that the city has for skyscrapers, its numerous green oasis, and its particular energy.
The city is best enjoyed on foot. Given the New York City traffic, walking is very often the quickest way to get around. Otherwise, the extensive public transport system makes getting around relatively easy.
From the thousands lights decorating the streets of Manhattan to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, the holiday markets and the elegant department stores where to shop and, eventually eat, just to relax a bit… Gotham is a city that can be exhausting, but let it be, it’s worth it.
”One thing not everybody knows about New York is that it’s a walking city: more than any other city in America, it’s a place best explored, most fully enjoyed, and only learned on foot.”(Jessie Kanelos Weiner & Jacob Lehman, New York in stride, an insider’s walking guide)
Christmas Lights and other attractions
Let’s start with the holiday lights. The Big Apple is already a magical place, but at Christmas, from the sidewalks to the shops, parks and gardens, miles of Christmas Lights dress up the city, creating a series of fairytale paths… and other attractions, like the stone Lions protecting the New York Public Library on the 5th, proudly wearing their Christmas wreaths.
Among the routes to take to admire the festive lights, I’ve started with Central Park North.
- The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center is nestled in the northeastern part of Central Park, (110 St. E / 5th Avenue, Harlem). Here you can enjoy Christmas carols, ice sculptures and the Christmas trees located in the middle of the “Harlem Meer” artificial lake, so charming.
- Going towards Midtown, you can stop at the Conservatory Garden, and walking along the Reservoir, I reached the lovely Miss. Alice in Wonderland in good company: with her are the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, Alice’s Cat Dinah and the shy Dormouse.
Keep strolling south, you can stop at Balto Statue, the zoo, and the Wollman Rink.
- Just off the Park, there is the Pulitzer Fountain, part of the Grand Army Plaza, (59th E Street & 5th Avenue), opposite the south-east entrance of Central Park. The decorations are inspired by the north pole, lighted by something like 5000 feet (around 1500 meters) of lights, with polar bears, seals and penguins that chase each other, in a continuous sort of round dance, between icebergs, and a mini ice skating rink. Accompanied by the music of composer Paul Brill.
- From this point on, following Fifth Avenue (down south), it’s a blooming of street decorations, shops, department stores and, of course, the Rockefeller Center, with its tree.
”There are plenty of ways to get around Manhattan, including walking, driving, biking, or taking every combination imaginable of buses, trains and subways.” (Erin Ajello)
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
A little detour outside Manhattan, direction Brooklyn: during the holidays a stroll within Dyker Heights Christmas Lights is a must.
It’s a residential neighborhood, famous for its Holidays Lighting galore. In the most decorated area, residents have taken the concept of lighting to a level that attracts crowds of visitors from all over the world.
Inflatable statues of large and giant size, decorate almost every house in the area: Santas, snowmen, sleds and reindeers, and lots of toy soldiers inspired by “The Nutcracker” opera. All accompanied by an all-Christmas soundtrack that can be heard from speakers scattered around.
The most decorated houses are located between 11th and 13th Avenue, from 83rd to 86th streets: best times to visit is from 4:30 pm.
There are tourist busses offering sights and sounds of the Christmassy area but, for the adventurous, you can reach Dyker Heights by public transportation:
- I’ve got on the D train at Times Square (direction Coney Island/Stillwell Avenue), and got out on 18th Ave. It took around 40 minutes – would be a little longer during the weekend;
- walked towards 86th St. and took the bus B1 (direction Bay Ridge 4th Ave), 6 stops to 12th Ave and there it was. It’s about 20 minutes on foot.
- Prepare the route with your favorite app, and make sure you’ve got an alternative path: not all subway lines are in service during the weekend.
”These were not Christmas light dilettantes here. This was a spectacular spectacular of lawn and house ornamentation. For as far as the eye could see, every house was ringed with lights. Lights of every color, lights of every shape.” (Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares)
Christmas Trees of New York
Between the city Christmas Trees of New York, one of the most searched and visited is the one in Rockefeller Center.
Often called a tourist trap, during the Christmas holidays, the area surrounding the plaza, with its majestic tree, the ice skating rink and the richly decorated windows, are a very special tribute to the seasonal magic.
A must visit for the little ones, who can buy toys from FAO Schwarz, Lego, and Nintendo NY; but also for everyone looking forward to designers shopping. And for the sports enthusiasts there is the skating rink.
About the tree. It’s a 79 ft tall (around 24 meters) Norway Spruce covered by thousands of lights. Decorated with 50,000 multi-colored LED lights on more than 5 miles (nearly 8 km) of wire and then topped with a Swarovski star that weighs about 900 pounds (400 kg) and is covered with 3 million crystals, (from the Rockefeller Center website).
Other trees worth a visit are at:
- New York Public Library – 476 5th Ave (E 42nd St);
- Fox News Building – 1211 6th Ave (W 48th St).
- South Street Seaport – 89 South St (Pier 17).
”New York is a city of art and a city for artists. For eagle-eyed walkers (and those who know where to look), the city’s streets are a gallery unto themselves.” (Jessie Kanelos Weiner & Jacob Lehman, New York in stride, an insider’s walking guide)
The Holiday Markets
To fully enjoy the Christmas holidays in the Big Apple you cannot miss at least a visit to the many the Holiday Markets which, with their displays of souvenirs, decorations and refined handcrafted collectibles, provide inspiration for the seasonal gifts.
The most central are:
- The Winter Village of Bryant Park . A miniature village, right behind the New York Public Library. Built for the holidays, it presents 60 kiosks offering local arts and crafts, mulled wine, savory and sweet, beer… and hot chocolate.
The village surrounds the small park dedicated to the poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), and for the occasion it is transformed into an ice skating rink of about 5000 square meters. Admission is free! It is located between 5th and 6th Avenues, at 43rd and 42nd Streets.
- There is the Urbanspace Union Square Holiday Market . Located between Midtown and the Village, it shares the space with the Farmer market, and the chess players waiting for their opponents, welcoming more than 160 local and national vendors offering their art and craft. Mini boutiques proposing clothing, accessories, stationery, all unique productions created by local artisans, artists and small entrepreneurs.
- Another delightful location is the Columbus Circle Holiday Market , at the southwestern entrance of Central Park. Here, too, you can have a festive experience within the aisles where artisans, designers and vendors propose their creations, chitchatting about their stories. You’ll find from handmade jewelry to souvenirs for unique gifts. There are also many delicacies to taste, from the many cuisines present in the city.
In case you wish to burn some calories, you can always stroll around Central Park and maybe go skating on the ice rink at Wollman Rink!
”When you need a bathroom, among the best places to look for decent, accessible facilities are department stores, libraries, large houses of worship that are open and hotels”(Ellen Levitt, Walking Manhattan)
What else do you do during the holidays in New York? Shopping, of course!
If your budget has withstood the many temptations that the street markets have offered you, get ready for a full immersion of lights, decorations and inviting proposals that Christmas shopping will offer you.
The shop windows, beautiful all year round, are dressed up for the holidays as for very special occasions. Colorful, articulate, provocative and glamorous: minimalism, at Christmas, it’s a no-no.
- Let’s start with Macy’s. Apparently, it was the first shop to decorate the windows for the Christmas holidays, it was 1874; followed by Saks Fifth Avenue in 1914.
It’s the department store that host “ Santaland ”. Santa Claus, aka Santa, comes right after Thanksgiving. In order to enjoy an audience with him, you must first get in line on the eighth floor, (better in the morning), and then enter the mini village that leads to Santa’s office. Just ask, he is really very nice!
At Macy’s you can buy everything: clothing, footwear, beauty products, jewelry and household items; with some spots for quick bites and refreshing snack.
The main entrance is on Herald Square, 34th Street.
- Right across from Rockefeller Center is Saks Fifth Avenue . The first store was opened by Andrew Saks in 1867 in Washington, and in 1924 he took up residence in New York with a joint venture between Horace Saks and Bernard Gimbel. The part of the building that still houses it today was built inspired by the international exhibition of modern decorative and industrial arts, held in Paris in 1925.
Articles of beauty, fashion, furniture, in the 60,000 square meters of exhibition you can find everything. Starting from the vast collection of luxury bags and accessories that you find on the ground floor, there is a rich section dedicated to perfumes and cosmetics on the second floor, and so on. You are spoiled for choice!
If you are in the mood for refreshment, there is L’Avenue at Saks restaurant. Designed by Philipe Stark, it offers a menu of French cuisine and an original selection of cocktails, to be enjoyed indoors or on the terrace.
- At the corner of Grand Army Plaza and 5th Avenue, there is Bergdorf Goodman . Founded by Herman Bergdorf (tailor) and Edwin Goodman (merchant), it was the first couture shop to introduce ready-to-wear collections, with a first assortment of French and American designers.
Known for its elaborate window displays (especially at Christmas), it offers high-end items, also to a younger and more affluent audience.
Tea break is a tradition that you can enjoy at the BG Restaurant between 3pm and 5pm. Located on the seventh floor of the Women’s department (men’s is on the other side of Fifth Ave), it offers a magnificent view of Central Park. The restaurant, with a very picturesque ambiance, is open for lunch and dinner, and, in addition to tea time, also offers a wide selection of cocktails.
“You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why – Santa Claus is coming to town.” (Haven Gillespie)
Where to eat
Spending the Christmas holidays in Gotham means walking from morning till night so: what to do when you are tired and cold? Where to eat ?
Apart from the three shopping locations, one cannot fail to taste other offerings from the many cuisine available in the city.
I love Chinese cuisine and, on my list, where two restaurants that I wished to be visiting: the Nom Wah Tea Parlor and the Golden Unicorn.
Both in Chinatown (two minutes away from each other), they serve an incredible assortment of dim sum, the Chinese ravioli typical of Cantonese tea time. Frequently visited by locals, (usually a good sign), they are ideal locations for traditional and long dim sum sessions.
- The Nom Wah Tea Parlor is the oldest Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. With its vintage look, (it has been open since 1920), the quality of the food and the good value for money have enticed generations of families to return.
Born as a pastry shop, in addition to dim sum, (which you will choose from a well assorted dedicated menu), the place also offers traditional pastries: their mooncakes are famous.
It is at 13 Doyers Street (Pell Street), and opens at 9:30am. Get ready to queue, it’s so popular!
- The Golden Unicorn offers its dim sum between 10 and 15:30. As per tradition, they will be offered to you on heated trolleys, just points which one you want and the waitress will serve them in the classic bamboo baskets: turnip cakes, siu mai, more or less translucent dumplings for all tastes. For the more adventurous there are the braised chicken feet, they seem to be incredibly tender, or the pig trotters.
It’s at 18 East Broadway (Catherine Street).
- Still Asian inspired, the Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Opened at the Pier 17 on South Street, it’s part of the empire of the chef David Chang. It is a minimal chic restaurant with a delicious fusion cuisine offerings inspired by Korean, Japanese, and Italian dishes like the “cacio e pepe” rice cakes preciously garnished with black truffle and parmesan shavings.
- If you want to enjoy a magnificent view of the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River, then you must book at The Green, the restaurant on the roof of Pier 17. A large terrace that for the autumn – winter collection turns into a small winter village, made up of private heated cabins, with transparent walls, for a great view. The menu offers traditional dishes from the southern United States cuisine, from Latin America, and Japan.
The Pier 17 is at 89 South Street, and offers many other opportunities for refreshment.
Most of the restaurants are open for lunch (from 11:30 am), and dinner; but there are lots of places that serving in between. It’s highly recommended to book well in advance, especially if we are talking around the holidays.
Please remember to leave a tip, especially if you plan on returning to eat at the restaurant you enjoyed so much.
To move around the Big Apple, you’ll need the Metrocard, a pass that will allow you to use almost all city transports. The card itself costs $ 1 and is sold at all subway stations (but also at many bus stops). I suggest buying the unlimited pass, the $ 31 one, valid for seven days from the time of purchase, is ideal for getting around the Empire City.
The weather in November and December is often grey and cold, with possible snow, so cover up and remember to dress in layers, the interiors are well heated.
A word of advice, don’t be surprised (or angry) if New Yorkers seem more grumpy than usual, the fact is that it starts getting dark so early.
Dear readers, if you have come this far it is because, somehow, you liked this article, in which case please, share it! It can be a nice travel read for many.
Thanks a lot for your time and kind attention, and Best Wishes for a Very Happy Holidays!