Who does Christmas spirit better than New York? The famous poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ was inspired by a winter ride in downtown Manhattan in 1823, and the elf in the film Elf (with Will Ferrell) traded a spot in the North Pole for some Big Apple holiday time. Unsurprisingly, some of New York’s Christmas landmarks have turned into well-worn touristy ruts, and worth every second, but there are a few things you simply should not do.
DO go to Rockefeller Center Plaza (aka the Capital of NYC Christmas), and see the big tree (here since 1931, now boasting 30,000 lights), and snap a photo or two. It’s worth fighting the crowds, particularly after dark when the lights bounce off the bare shoulders of the golden Prometheus statue. Lights click off at 11:30pm through Christmas, then at 9pm through New Year’s Eve.
DON’T skate the ice rink here. It’s tiny, expensive ($19 + $9 rental), and lines regularly take 90 minutes to get ice time. Save the skating for January (when there’s no wait, and mid-week rates are $3.50 cheaper) or go to Central Park’s bigger, slightly cheaper ($15 + $6.25 rental), equally as atmospheric Wollman Rink.
DO go to FAO Schwartz, and try to tap toes on the giant floor piano keyboard at New York’s most famous toy store.
DON’T just drop by, particularly on weekends, when lines curl around the block. Go when it opens, preferably on weekdays (9am Sunday to Thursday, 8am Friday or Saturday) to avoid (most) of the crowds. Otherwise, and it feels sad to say it, kids really do love that Times Square Toys’R’Us and its indoor Ferris Wheel.
DO go see Macy’s elaborate Santaland - a stunner of a scene of Christmas trees, elves, toy trains and snow-filled wonder. It’s also home, per its hotline (tel +1-212-494-4495), to the ‘one real Santa Claus,’ at the very place that that marketing boon of a film Miracle on 34th Street was set in 1947.
DON’T go on weekends, or mid-day any day. Show up before it opens (9am during the week through Christmas Eve) and you’ll only have to wait five minutes. And, heaven forbid, don’t tug on Santa’s beard. That thing’s real!
DO see a holiday show. St John the Divine’s Winter Solstice is a beloved, and rather secular (this year December 16-18, and featuring Armenian musicians), concert series, while Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular is the show every NY kid sees growing up, with dozens of dancing Santas and the line of Rockettes a-leg-kicking.
DON’T forget the other boroughs. Brooklyn’s BAM is going irreverent on the ‘Nutcracker’ this year, with ‘Hard Nut’ through December 19, while the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx has one of the city’s great Christmas traditions, the Holiday Train Show, with a quarter-mile toy train track passing NY icons like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Yankee Stadium and St Patrick’s Cathedral.
DO window-shop. Boutiques and department stores across the city dress up for the season.
DON’T stick with hipster downtown. Midtown simply does it better. Have a walk up Fifth Avenue from Rockefeller Center, to FAO, and detour to Madison to see the modern, funny antics of Barney’s on Madison Ave and 62nd St.
Originally published as “Christmas in New York City: 5 dos and don’ts” © 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved.