The Best of New York for the Holidays

The Big Apple goes all out, from enormous Christmas trees to holiday markets and stunning window displays. Here's where to find the charm:

New York City is ablaze during the holiday season. From baroque to jazzy, from avant-garde to kitsch, Gotham bequeaths holiday glitter for just about everyone’s taste. In addition to trees, there are ever-evolving window displays, light shows, model trains and holiday markets. At this time of year, the phrase, “Bright Lights, Big City,” takes on a whole new meaning. And most of the fanfare won’t cost much, if anything at all.

Big Bushes

Rising 70 to 100 feet tall and reached by a path of illuminated, trumpet-blowing angels, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree (30 Rockefeller Plz., btw Fifth & Sixth aves., btw 49th & 50th sts., 212.588.8601, through Jan. 7) is the grandfather of holiday evergreens and never fails to thrill, even after 81 years. The tree-lighting ceremony, a celebrity-studded event interspersed with musical numbers, takes place on Dec. 4. Keep the kids up late and head to 30 Rock in the evening (lights out isn’t until 11:30 pm most days throughout the season), if you want to avoid the most intense crowds and really get to gaze.

Once you’ve had your fill of fir, head west to the stretch of giant office towers on Sixth Ave., aka the Avenue of the Americas, from W. 47th to W. 52nd sts. Each building seems to compete with the next for the most ingenious, outsized decorations in its front plaza: giant red ornaments, gargantuan Christmas lights, skyscraper-high toy soldiers, a humongous toy train.

Fifteen blocks uptown, Lincoln Center rivals Rockefeller Plaza for holiday spirit. The dominant tree of the Upper West Side, with thousands of lights and ornaments, is lit on Dec. 2 during the 14th annual Winter’s Eve at Lincoln Square festival (212.581.7762). The celebration starts at 5:30 pm in Dante Park, a patch of green across from Lincoln Center (Broadway & W. 63rd St.), and stretches along Broadway, from the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle to W. 68th St., with performances from Broadway and jazz artists, food from local eateries and ice sculpting.

Elsewhere in Manhattan you can enjoy some of the most creative conifers without encountering Jurassic Park-size crowds. The South Street Seaport Christmas Tree (actually a steel structure covered in greens, adorned with thousands of LED lights), for instance, makes its post-Superstorm Sandy comeback with the opening of a brand-new skating rink (11 Fulton St., at Front St., 212.732.8257). After a twirl on the ice—the rink is free, though there is a skate-rental fee—grab a drink or a bite to eat at any of the restaurants surrounding the Seaport.

The giant tree in Washington Square Park (Fifth Ave. & Waverly Pl.), just under the famous Stanford White-designed arch, is another Downtown crowd-pleaser. Uptown, take a stroll on Park Ave. (212.705.4237), anywhere from E. 54th to E. 96th St., to inhale the scent of 104 balsam firs, each strung with 25 strands of white lights, that occupy the central meridians Dec. 8 through mid-January. The tradition of planting and illuminating them started back in 1945, in memory of World War II soldiers. Today, they salute all veterans, in a tree-lighting ceremony conducted outside the Brick Presbyterian Church (Park Ave. & E. 91st St.).

Visual Displays

No matter what the temperature, a giant snowflake always floats over 57th St. and Fifth Ave. this time of year. First hung in 1984, the UNICEF Snowflake is adorned with 16,000 Baccarat crystal prisms and, while it looks lighter than air, it weighs 3,300 pounds. Of course, it’s not enough for Big Apple holiday lights to just twinkle. Back at The Shops at Columbus Circle (Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle, btw W. 58th & W. 60th sts., 212.823.6300), one dozen 14-foot stars dangling from the ceiling of the central atrium put on Holiday Under the Stars, an illuminated show choreographed to seasonal tunes through Jan. 3, from 5 pm to midnight each night. After a three-year hiatus, the Holiday Light Show in Grand Central Terminal (Park Ave., at E. 42nd St.), shown against the giant windows of the main concourse, is being revived in 2013 in honor of the station’s 100th anniversary. You can catch the six-minute-long display every half hour daily from 5 to 11 pm, through Dec. 26.

The Shops at Columbus Circle

The grand department stores of the city put on quite a show, too, giving a whole new meaning to window-shopping. These do get crowded during the day, so prepare to navigate through long lines and red ropes to get an up front glimpse of some of the most elaborate holiday tableaux in the world. Remember, the wait is half the fun, especially if you can snag a hot chocolate at a local diner or some warm chestnuts from a street vendor. Best to start at Macy’s Herald Square (151 W. 34th St., btw Broadway & Seventh Ave., 212.465.0500), whose windows always feature scenes from the classic film Miracle on 34th Street, among other displays. Then make your way over to Fifth Ave. and up to Lord & Taylor (424 Fifth Ave., btw 38th & 39th sts., 212.391.3344), known for its miniature animated figures in nostalgic holiday scenes. Ten blocks north, you’ll hit Saks Fifth Avenue (611 Fifth Ave., btw 49th & 50th sts., 212.753.4000), which is partial to doing storybook-themed windows. Don’t forget to duck inside: The entire ground floor is transformed into a winter wonderland of snow-dusted pine branches.

Not to neglect the city’s legendary three “b”s of retail: Henri Bendel (712 Fifth Ave., btw 55th & 56th sts., 212.247.1100), Bergdorf Goodman (754 Fifth Ave., btw 57th & 58th sts., 212.753.7300), and, one block east, Barneys New York (660 Madison Ave., btw E. 60th & E. 61st sts., 212.826.8900), which annually vie for the most hip, humorous window displays in town. Past themes have featured everything from The Great Gatsby to Cirque du Soleil—along with examples of the emporia’s most elegant and original fashions and accessories, of course. And let’s not forget a fourth “b” farther east: Bloomingdale’s. This year, the Upper East Side flagship (1000 Third Ave., at E. 59th St., 212.753.2000) displays oversize presents celebrating holiday shopping around the world.

Holiday Gift Markets

Borrowing from its Northern European counterparts, NYC has embraced the idea of outdoor holiday markets. With their tented stalls and vendors selling hot spiced cider and sweets, they often evoke a feeling more Prague than Gotham. One especially elaborate affair is the Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park (W. 40th to W. 42nd sts., btw Fifth & Sixth aves.). Along with 125 holiday shops (through Jan. 5), the scene features a free skating pavilion (with a fee for skate rentals) and the Celsius restaurant, both through Mar. 2. A 54-foot-tall decorated Norway spruce presides over all.

Near the southwestern entrance to Central Park is the Columbus Circle Holiday Market (Central Park W., at W. 59th St., Dec. 4-24), featuring crafts vendors and local food carts representing a range of cuisines from Turkish to Mexican. Its Downtown cousin is the Union Square Holiday Market (E. 14th St. & Union Sq. W., through Dec. 24). After meandering its merry maze of stalls, head a few blocks north to Rolf’s German Restaurant (281 Third Ave., at E. 22nd St., 212.473.8718) to witness one of the most elaborate showcases of Bavarian decorations ever.

You can shop under a different kind of sky at the Grand Central Holiday Fair. Held in Grand Central Terminal’s soaring, chandeliered Vanderbilt Hall through Christmas Eve, the market is a showcase for New York City-area artisans this year; the 76 vendors offer foods, jewelry, clothing, art and even pet toys. Afterward, make your way to the New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex and Store in the Shuttle Passage next to the Station Master’s office to see the Holiday Train Show (through Feb. 23). This year’s exhibit features vintage miniatures and posters from the museum’s collection, along with Lionel model trains running on a multitrack layout through New York City and environs—complete with a replica of Grand Central Terminal itself (where else would they depart from?).

At holiday time, music always seems to fill the air. In New York, it fills hotel lobbies, too. A few blocks from Grand Central, the Intercontinental New York Barclay (111 E. 48th St., btw Lexington & Park aves., 212.755.5900) hosts choral concerts Dec. 2-23, from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. The Holiday Vocal Arts Celebration groups range from Voices of Gotham, a barbershop chorus (Dec. 4), to the Broadway tune-loving Big Apple Chorus (Dec. 10) to the Renaissance Street Singers (Dec. 19).

Bright Lights, Big Brooklyn

For the most over-the-top neighborhood home decorations, head for the subway, grab the D train to 18th Ave. in Brooklyn or the R train to 86th St. in Brooklyn, the closest stops to Dyker Heights. The neighborhood has long been known for its not just keep-up-with, but-gotta-beat-the Joneses Christmas decorating mania. Stroll from 11th Ave. to 13th Ave., and from 83rd to 86th sts., where you’re likely to see Baby Jesus, Santa Claus, nutcrackers and flying reindeer—all on one lawn! Some displays include recorded Christmas carols, animated decorations and even a live Saint Nicholas, when weather permits.

All these delights without opening your wallet: The Big Apple is never more generous than during the holiday season. Take that, Ebenezer Scrooge.