There’s nothing like New York at Christmas.
rom grown adults giggling on ice-rinks to glittering department store windows, from Christmas trees are sold on streets in the boroughs to festive Broadway shows, it’s a guaranteed mood-lifter.
New Yorkers may grit their teeth and push through the out-of-towners, but even they know that there’s magic in the air – and the return of full-on festivities after the pandemic makes it all the more special.
6.5 million people are expected to visit the city between Thanksgiving and New Year’s alone this year, according to NYC & Company – providing a welcome post-pandemic tourism boost.
“Every day was like a Sunday,” as one Uber driver put it this week, recalling an eerily quiet New York. But this weekend, a host at The Rockefeller Center described it as “the most Christmassy city I’ve ever lived in”.
Heck, even the skyscrapers look like giant Christmas trees. Feast your eyes on our gallery (above), or get stuck in with these highlights…
Christmas at the Rockefeller Center
• Skating at New York’s iconic rink starts from $21pp (including skate rental) and rises to $65pp at the most in-demand times. And it’s not just for Christmas… you can rollerskate here from April to October. It’s surprisingly small, but brilliantly atmospheric. rockefellercenter.com
• Fancy a splash? A VIP ticket (from $47-$113pp) has private seating, hot chocolates, cookies and a little bit more instruction on hand if you’re into an upgrade. You can extend the skating to 90 minutes, too.
• Don’t forget to look up. ‘Scrapers soar, Stars & Stripes flutter and the plaza’s 82ft tree is a beacon in the Big Apple. It’s a Norway Spruce trucked in from Queensbury this year, and bedecked with tens of thousands of LED lights.
• The tree has a rich history. During the Great Depression, workers lined up beneath it as the Rockefeller Center was being built, and you may remember it featuring on TV as a focal point for the city in the days after 9/11.
• The Rockefeller Centre feels like a Christmas crossroads, but it’s upping its game for all seasons. You’ll notice several new restaurants (designed to win back more local New Yorkers), and it’s planning a revamp of its ‘Top of the Rock’ observation deck.
• They will include a rotating “skylift” and an experience based on the famous ‘Lunch Atop of a Skyscraper’ photograph (above). It will see guests seated and strapped into a moveable beam to recreate the experience from the image…
Wow Factor: Window displays
• Department store windows are a holiday tradition in NYC, kicking off after Thanksgiving. People travel from all over to see the Midtown and Herald Square extravaganzas – and though the stores committing to the effort have dwindled over the years, those that do go all-in.
• Bergdorf Goodman started working on its handcrafted displays (above) last February. ‘Magic in the making’ is the theme, featuring displays based on dressmaking, scrapbooks, woodcraft, papier-mâché, paper sculpture and more. bergdorfgoodman.com
• Sak’s Fifth Avenue emblazons its whole façade with a stellar, sequenced show of lights. This year, it was launched by Elton John, who arrived in a purple golf buggy… as you do. His music provides the soundtrack to 600,000 flashing lights, and you’ll spot some of the singer’s costumes among its window displays, too. saksfifthavenue.com
• Last time I saw Bloomingdale’s Christmas windows, they were based on PT Barnum’s circus and freak shows… you could take photos of yourself and see them whirl around the windows. This year, outsized representations of things like wrapping paper, scissors and toys aim to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. bloomingdales.com
• Macy’s 2022 displays follow the adventures of Tiptoe the blue reindeer. Last year, she overcame her shyness and learned to fly. This year, the windows see her visit a cast of woodland friends. macys.com
Score with seasonal shopping
• Holiday markets and seasonal stalls pop up all over Manhattan and the boroughs at this time of year, from Bryant Park to the Brooklyn Flea.
• Union Square has a Christmas market featuring 185 vendors from New York City and beyond with unusual gifts. It’s a unique vibe that you can find along Broadway at 14th Street. unionsquarenyc.org
• If you’re gift shopping, you’re in the right city (though the exchange rate, city taxes and tips can take the wind out of many sales). Spots like The Strand Bookstore and the MoMA gift shop are unique, or head to Soho for its street stalls, vintage shops and high-end boutiques. strandbooks.com; store.moma.org
• Macy’s, with ten fabulous floors stocked chocabloc with fashion, is at the heart of the New York Christmas experience. In recent years, a $400 million makeover brought upgrades including the World’s Largest Shoe Floor, which showcases 250,000 pairs of women’s shoes in displays inspired by the city’s neighbourhoods. macys.com
• FAO Schwarz has a flagship store at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, with over 20,000 square feet of toys and gifts. Elsewhere, the world’s first official Harry Potter flagship store is in the Flatiron District. faoschwarz.com; harrypotterstore.com
• Outlet villages of course offer rich pickings at any time of year – Woodbury Common is an hour from Port Authority by bus ($42 return).
Christmas shows and events in New York
• Queues stretch down the street for Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular (to Jan 2). The Radio City Rockettes have wowed audiences for almost a century, with costumes, festive songs, synchronised high kicks and more performed over several shows daily… some costume changes take place in as little as 78 seconds. rockefellercenter.com
• The city’s perennial Christmas staple is The Nutcracker (to Dec 31), performed by NYC Ballet since 1954, at the Lincoln Center. Despite its longevity, the show wasn’t an immediate success, but a televised version in 1958 brought the magic into people’s homes… and a classic was born. lincolncenter.org
• Family shows on Broadway include The Lion King and Wicked, with perennial favourites ranging from Hamilton to Aladdin and The Phantom of the Opera. Expect to pay from $75 or so for tickets. For same-day discounts, see the TKTS booth (tdf.org) on Times Square.
• The American Museum of Natural History has a 13-foot Origami Holiday Tree celebrating its 50th anniversary this year… a ‘Gems of the Museum’ theme sees 50 specially created gold-coloured models for the golden anniversary.
• Shine Bright at Hudson Yards has over two million twinkling lights… sparkling on 725 trees, 115 miles of string lights and 16-foot illuminated set pieces in the shape of hot air balloons arranged through the Public Square and Gardens. hudsonyardsnewyork.com
• And one more ice skating tip – Bryant Park has a 17,000 square-foot rink at its winter village, with free admission but skate rental priced from $15-$55. Visitors can also enjoy the holiday shops, events and activities.
Central Park in the snow
• Boom! This is an iconic NYC sight; count your lucky stars if you catch it.
• The Wollman Rink at Central Park (centralpark.com; from $15-$35) allows you the magical sensation of floating beneath the skyscrapers of Manhattan in the early evening darkness. 90-minute sessions run to March 15.
• Yes, it’s touristy, but if you abandon yourself to a carriage ride, the romance soon seeps in. Expect to pay around $65 (+tips) for 20 minutes.
• Central Park is enormous, so don’t try to see it comprehensively on foot. Rent a bike, or grab a pedal-cab and pick your stops – they range from Strawberry Fields (the John Lennon memorial) to Gapstow Bridge and the Central Park Zoo.
• See centralpark.com and centralparknyc.org for more.
Christmas movies in NYC
• Before you travel, watch a classic. You’ll be chomping at the bit.
• If Elf (2003) isn’t your No.1 Christmas movie, then you’re a cotton-headed ninny muggins. It sees Will Ferrell save the Christmas spirit with adventures in the Empire State Building, Rockefeller rink and Central Park. It even spawned its own Broadway musical.
• Miracle on 34th Street (1947) is a Macy’s staple in monochrome. Santa always rides at the end of the Thanksgiving Parade.
• Home Alone 2 (1992)… Macaulay Culkin is New York during Holiday Season. What could possibly go wrong? A young(ish) Donald Trump makes a cameo in a scene at another New York Christmas classic – The Plaza (it’s lobby, sadly, is not open to non-residents this year).
New York Christmas Travel Tips
• NYC ain’t cheap. The exchange rate isn’t doing the euro any favours as I write (€1=$1.06), there’s an 8.875pc sales tax on most purchases, and you need to factor tips of 20pc or more into any meals you eat, taxis you take or services you avail of. It adds up, so have your budget worked out in advance.
• Don’t underestimate the size of Manhattan – get to grips with the Subway as early as possible, and use a metro card (7 days unlimited travel, $33).
• The CityPASS (citypass.com/new-york; $129) offers a 42pc discount on six of the Big Apple’s biggest attractions, including the Met and 9/11 Memorial & Museum.
• Visit in January! The holiday season continues, but hotels are cheaper, the place is crawling with sales, and it’s easier to get tickets for Broadway shows.
• NYC hotel week returns from January 3 to February 12 (23pc off 140+ hotels). It kicks off the ‘Winter Outing’ season, which also brings NYC Restaurant Week, NYC Broadway Week and NYC Must-See Week.
On his latest Christmas trip to New York, Pól travelled as a guest of NYCgo.com and United (united.com), which flies direct fromDublin to Newark.
On a previous trip, he travelled with American Holidays, staying at the Hotel Metro (hotelmetronyc.com).
See nycgo.com/holiday for more New York Christmas tips.
This story has been updated since it was first published.