It’s a tradition almost as old as department stores themselves: visiting the holiday window displays in New York City. The practice began in 1874, when Macy’s started decorating its windows. Now, every year, from just before Thanksgiving until just after New Year’s Day, the windows of Manhattan’s major department stores — Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co., Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s and others — double as works of art. There are light shows, animation, dioramas and even mice made of marshmallows (we’re looking at you, Saks Fifth Avenue). It’s a little bit Broadway and a little bit MOMA, with no cover charge. Two New York insiders shared advice on how to navigate the windows this holiday season.

Plan carefully to avoid crowds

Nearly 5 million visitors are expected in New York City during the holiday season, so you will see some bustle, especially in the heavy tourist areas around the major department stores.

“Depending on the day, it can get pretty congested. It can feel a little rushed,” says Aisha Thomas, chef concierge at Gramercy Park Hotel. She tells guests that if they really want to avoid the crowds, they should go early in the morning (she walked by Macy’s at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday and there was no line) or, for better views, late at night. “It just feels a little whimsical and magical at that time,” she says.

The displays are lighted 24 hours a day, and most of the major department stores keep late hours during the holiday season, often closing between 9 p.m. and midnight. Kim Klein, director of public relations for NYC & Company, the official destination marketing organization for the five boroughs of New York City, adds that another sweet spot to beat nighttime crowding is just after sunset, and some days of the week are better than others.

“Consider visiting on weeknights over weekend nights for less crowding,” she says.

Plan a holiday crawl

Draw a route in advance, or you risk extra-sore feet while backtracking to hit all the sites. Thomas suggests starting at Bloomingdale’s on the Upper East Side (1000 Third Ave.) and heading to Barneys New York (660 Madison Avenue) before making your way down Fifth Avenue. There, you’ll pass Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany & Co., (as well as St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center, where the Christmas tree and ice skating rink are a worthy holiday detour) and Lord & Taylor.

“Then come down and take a right on to 34th Street from 5th Avenue and come into Macy’s,” she says. “You get that full holiday experience.” The total route is about two miles.

Dress warmly and wear layers

It’s New York and it’s winter, and that could mean, well, just about anything. Klein recommends wearing warm clothes and comfortable shoes, and to avoid driving.

“Access our holiday displays by foot or by taking our public transportation system to help avoid any car traffic,” she says.

It’s New York, after all, and between the subway, the bus and your own two feet, you can get just about anywhere, lights, action and all.

For insight on individual window displays, NYC & Company has published a guide here, along with other holiday tips for visitors. From your computer or smartphone, take a stroll past the windows with the help of Google’s Window Wonderland.

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