Every year I say there is nothing quite like Christmas in New York. For about a month, the city transforms itself into a winter wonderland, with pop up holiday shops, carolers, and good cheer. There are a few if any other cities that compare to the vibes in NYC during this time of year.
Scroll through for some of my favorite New York City holiday traditions!
Starting all the way downtown, Brookfield Place, though a bit isolated, certainly holds its own. In fact that’s perhaps part of its charm. With plenty of Christmas Trees out on display (plus an artistic lighting installation), the area is hardly lacking in festivities. Plus a skating rink that overlooks the Hudson River? Sign me up.
Bonus – avoid crossing the west side highway when walking to Brookfield Place by walkthrough through the underground tunnel via the Westfield Mall and take in the views of the Oculus from the upper balconies
MTA Nostalgia Shoppers’ Special Train
Many folks out there might not know this, but for the last few years the MTA has been keeping up one of my personal favorite traditions – running 1920s subway cars on the M line on Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I try to make it a point to ride this every year – and each year I find more people dressed up in their 1920s outfits to match! We’re talking zoot suits and peacock feathers and pearls here. This year’s schedule and details are available through the MTA’s website. I recommend starting at one of the end points (in Manhattan it starts/ends at the 2nd Avenue F line stop in the East Village/Lower East Side, though runs the rest of the route on the M line), so you can be sure to catch it based on the schedule. The cost to ride the train is as much as you’d pay for a standard subway entry fare (that’s $2.75 these days, though I hear it’ll be $3 soon).
Holiday Shops at Bryant Park
This open air holiday market has been running since 2002, and has gotten better each year. This year, the park is chock full of craft vendors and food vendors, plus boasts their own skating rink and Christmas tree. Entrance to the rink is free, but skate rentals will run you $20. When you’re all shopped out, be sure to pop into Byrant Park Grill for a glass of wine or warm mulled cider and a relaxing view of the park. People watching gold here.
Department Store Displays
Bloomingdales’ tagline is “a store like no other in the world”, and well, the department stores in New York City do their holiday displays like no other in the world. Walk up Fifth Avenue for some great shopping and take in the festive displays. You’ll find some great stores starting in the Flatiron area in the 20s, and walk up to the 40s and you’ll hit the always solid Lord and Taylor. Another 10 blocks up is Saks Fifth Avenue on 50th street, and keep heading up to 57th for the world famous Bergdorf and Goodman’s. You’ll have to steer off 5th Avenue to Lexington for Bloomingdales on 59th street – and not to forget Macys on 34th and 6th (which takes up an entire city block) and a bit of a throwback in time being housed in an art deco building.
Christmas Trees on Park Avenue
This is obviously not for those prone to pine and other pollen related allergies, but if you find yourself on the Upper East Side, don’t forget to stroll down Park Avenue, where Christmas Trees are decked out on the Park Avenue malls between 54th and 97th street. The tree lighting ceremony kicks off the season on the first Sunday in December, and takes place outside of rick Presbyterian Church on 91st and Park (which is another visit worthy site in itself!).
Last but never least and one of the many icons of New York city, Rockefeller Center. The official Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting practice began over 80 years ago in 1933 – the year 30 Rock opened. The tradition has only grown in pomp and circumstance throughout the years as nationwide interest grew. You might even say it’s an American tradition, with the lighting ceremony broadcast on live television in the last few years. If you’re willing to brave the crowds, the tree is quite the sight to see. Beautifully adorned and lit, the massive tree will surely put you in the holiday spirit. You can avoid the holiday mob by visiting after December 25th if possible – the tree stays up typically through the first week of January and is no less beautiful then.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Located right next to Saks Fifth Avenue, stop by this stunning cathedral to admire the Neo-Gothic-style architecture. And while you’re inside, don’t forget to stop by the nativity scene, which, in 2011 gained a new member – a dog. While I don’t traditionally go to mass, many people do find it to be a memorable experience given the beautiful surroundings, impressive architecture both in intricacy and scale as well as the ambiance itself. If you are interested in timing your visit to see the many different masses the cathedral hosts, check out their official website.
Mecca to the foodie – if you at all love to eat, cook or to just ogle at amazing culinary delights, Chelsea Market is a must. This bustling food market is not only home to plenty of places to pick out some delicious finds, you’ll find a craft market or two with handmade or unique goods, which are great for gift-giving. Bonus: in the market, there is no shortage of Instagram-worthy holiday displays to admire. There’s also something about the bustling holiday vibe in there – it’s crowded, but in a good way (if that at all makes sense).
For a taste of the holiday spirit and stunning Christmas tree without the 30 Rock crowds, stop by the Seaport, which boasts its own Norway Spruce Christmas tree, dressed up to the nines for the holidays. This year, don’t forget to stop by 117 Beekman Street for an indoor holiday shopping market, featuring independent designers and local vendors, hosted by Hester Street Fair.
Neighborhood Holiday Festivities
Walking through the many downtown neighborhoods, you’ll find the holiday spirit all around – from dressed up brownstone steps to tiny holiday pop up shops and everything in between. Our favorites: quaint West Village brownstones, Holiday Shops at Union Market, frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity, or a beer at Rolf’s, the German bar that looks like the mothership of all Christmas decorations.
An Ending Note…
New York is truly a world city and you’ll never be left wanting for things to do. I guarantee that you’ll miss out on a few things that you didn’t have time to tick off your list – but The City has this way of drawing people back for more, no matter how many times you’ve been before. But there’s even something just that much more special during the holidays. The tone is set as you fly into the snow covered metropolis and see the impressive Manhattan skyline for the first time as you come out onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and stays with you until the moment the wheels on your departing flight leave the ground.