New York at Christmas

View of the Empire State Building from Herald Square

Despite having visited New York multiple times (you can read my guide to the city here), it had always been at Easter or during the summer. As a teacher, I was only able to take trips in the school holidays and it usually worked out that the Christmas break began right before Christmas itself and then continued into the New Year meaning unless I wanted to be away for Christmas Day – which I didn’t – there was never time to fit in a short break before Christmas and make it back in time.

So as soon as I made the decision to take a break from my teaching career, the first trip I booked was a mid-December visit to New York City. We made the decision to stay outside of Manhattan for the first time, just across the East River in the borough of Queens, to cut costs. We ensured the hotel was just a short walk from the nearest subway station and therefore it took us no longer to get to and from midtown Manhattan than it would have staying in lower Manhattan. The main problem our location caused us was getting to and from the airport as we were flying into Newark, New Jersey, west of Manhattan. We pre-booked a taxi service for our arrival but were met with unexpected costs from toll roads and bridges to get to Queens so for the return trip, we cancelled our booking with the same service and instead got the subway into Manhattan then a yellow cab to Penn Station and used the NJ airport express train to get to the airport from here. Taking luggage on the subway wasn’t ideal but the journey not only cost a lot less than the outbound taxi but also took a lot less time!

We arrived at our hotel late afternoon and after checking in, caught the subway straight into the city getting off at the Rockefeller Centre for our first glimpse of the famous tree. Being a Sunday evening at this point, Rockefeller Plaza was ridiculously busy with huge crowds of people trying to get in and out while police controlled the various entrances and exits to the area. Deciding to come back when it would be quieter, we instead walked down towards Times Square and went for dinner at one of my favourite places to eat in the city, Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This is the restaurant where all of the waitstaff are wannabe Broadway performers and entertain diners with a song in between serving them and is a really fun place to eat!

Off to Santaland in Macy’s

We had purchased a New York Pass each valid for the duration of our stay and wanting to make the most of it, decided to head to one of the few places open late, Madame Tussaud’s, to make use of our card. To be honest, I’ve never really understood why so many people flock to these wax museums around the World – just hang out at a stage door and you can meet the actual celebrities! – but if it’s included on a pass then as long as you go in the evening when it’s quiet it can be a fun way to spend an hour.

One of our must do Christmas activities for the city was a trip to Macy’s Santaland to meet the man himself. I had researched beforehand and heard that it got very busy, especially on weekends but was open til reasonable late and that the best time to go was after 8pm so after leaving Madame Tussaud’s, we walked down to Herald Square and made our way to the top floor grotto. Luckily, the wait time was around 20 minutes and within 10 minutes we had entered the grotto area and were surrounded by gingerbread houses, enchanted trees, dancing snowmen and elves making their way up and down the line checking everyone was having a good time.

I hadn’t been to a Christmas grotto since I was a kid but I’d still say that this was one of, if not the, best grotto I’d ever been too and passing slowly along the line, it didn’t feel like we were queuing at all as there was so much to see and take in. All too soon, we reached Santa’s house and were taken in to meet Santa Claus. Surprisingly, we were allowed to have photos with Santa taken on our own cameras, rather than being forced to buy the official ones and we were given a Santaland badge as a souvenir of our visit!

Macy’s
The Manhattan skyline from the boat to Liberty Island

Before leaving Macy’s, we spent some time looking around their Christmas store where the millions of tree decorations were already heavily discounted and we made a few purchases. Then it was back on the subway to head back to our hotel in Queens for the evening.

The Statueof Lierty

The next day, we had a rest from Christmas and instead took the ferry across to Liberty Island as this was included on our New York passes. The pass gave us access to the island and audio guides but did not allow us entrance into the pedestal or to climb the Statue itself. We were glad we had wrapped up warm as it was freezing out on Liberty Island! We spent some time exploring and listening to the commentary on our audio guides before catching a second ferry over to Ellis Island. Although I had visited Ellis Island and its immigration museum before, I hadn’t spent a great deal of time there so this time, I took more time exploring and found the museum to be really interesting.

Once back in Manhattan, we spent some time exploring downtown and visited the 9/11 Tribute Museum This small museum, separate to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, presents stories from people that were actually there such as survivors, responders and volunteers and is definitely worth a visit.

Store display in Little Italy

After dinner at Denny’s, we walked the short distance to China town then wandered through Little Italy where Mulberry Street was decorated for Christmas and we found some Christmas stores to look around. Then that evening, we headed to Broadway to see a show.

Day 3 and we decided to make use of our tourist passes along the museum mile. We started off at the Museum of the City of New York, a museum I hadn’t visited on my previous trips to the city. The museum houses ever-changing exhibits showcasing its collection of art and artefacts from the city’s past and was an interesting way to spend an hour.

Looking up at the roof inside the Guggenheim
Classical sculpture in the Met

Next up was the Guggenheim to scratch our heads at the displays of modern art and then onto the Metropolitan Museum of Art where a huge Christmas tree stood in the main atrium. From here, we walked across Central Park to the Museum of Natural History where a Christmassy looking dinosaur had been erected outside!

The famous Rockefeller Centre Christmas Tree

As we left the museum and walked down towards the south end of Central Park, we stumbled across a small Christmas market at Columbus Circle and spent some time wandering through, browsing the stalls.

All museumed out, we decided to return to Rockefeller Plaza to see if the crowds had died down from the weekend. Luckily, it was a lot quieter now and we could get close enough to the famous Christmas tree to take some photos with it. It is just as impressive as it looks in all the photos and movies!

Bryant Park
Christmas Tree and market stalls in Bryant Park

Next stop on a jam-packed day was Grand Central Terminus where we found another Christmas market – the Grand Central Holiday Fair – in full swing! Across the road from the station, at Bryant Park, the Christmas spirit was in full swing and an ice rink and Christmas tree had been erected along side another Christmas market. Unable to resist purchasing something any longer, we picked up a few more trinkets to take back for our tree at home!

Houses decorated for Christmas

For that evening, we had booked ourselves on an organised Christmas lights tour which would take us out of Manhattan to a Brooklyn neighbourhood where competitive residents dress the houses, gardens and anything else they can find in an array of bright lights and glowing ornaments!! It was a fun tour and some of the displays were jaw-dropping. Along the way, the coach stopped regularly so we could walk up and down the streets admiring the decorations and take photos. One house even had a Christmas song on rotation being broadcast on an unused frequency and invited cars to tune in as the watched its Christmas lights ‘dance’ in time to the song!

Once we’d been dropped back in the city, we decided to make the most of what was left of the evening with a late night trip up the Empire State Building.

I knew from past experience that it was always a lot quieter late at night and as expected we didn’t have to queue to get in and once at the observation deck, we had plenty of room to move around. New York always looks amazing lit up at night so it’s a good time to go all round!

Tiffany’s, 5th Ave

After an extremely busy day, we decided to take it a bit easier the following day and spent most of the morning on Fifth Avenue to see the stores’ Christmas windows.

The Rockefeller Centre

We then made use of our tourist passes by jumping on a walking tour of the Rockefeller Center which was really interesting giving us some access to parts of the complex you can’t otherwise enter as well as pointing out a lot of the art and sculpture in and around the building, much of it which I must have walked past many times before but never really noticed.

St Patrick’s Cathedral opposite the Rockefeller Centre

Top of the Rock

The weather today wasn’t great and was getting colder and cloudier by the second but as it was our last full day in the city, we decided to use our passes to take a trip up to Top of the Rock. We were warned by the staff that it was currently zero visibility at the top but as it was the only time we’d have to go, took a chance and luckily, it had cleared enough that there was some kind of view from up there. While at the top, it started to snow although when we got back down to ground level, it hadn’t quite reached the pavements of Manhattan just yet!

Rockette costumes

To get out of the cold for a while, we used our passes to take another walking tour, this time, a tour of Radio City Music Hall. This again gave us behind the scenes access to parts of the building you ca’t otherwise enter as well as giving us some history of the building. At the end of the tour, we got to peer into the live Christmas Spectacular show going on and then to meet one of its stars, a Rockette. It really made me wish I’d bought tickets to see the show while in the city for Christmas but maybe I’ll get the chance again one day.

Dinner at Dallas BBQ

That evening, after dinner at a branch of Dallas BBQ, we went to see an off-Broadway show. These shows tend to be held in much smaller theatres but ticket prices are a lot less than the bigger shows and there’s usually some really good productions on!

The Rockefeller Tree at night

As it was our last night in the city, we finished the evening off with one last visit to the Rockefeller Centre, this time, to see the tree all lit up at night. While there we also happened to catch the Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas Laser Light show which was beamed onto the walls of the building!

The Freedom Tower in Downtown Manhattan

Display at the 9/11 Museum

We had one morning left in the city before catching our flight home and we’d booked tickets to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. This was a really moving experience and despite allowing ourselves the recommended few hours to go around the museum, we ran out of time in the end and had to rush through the later part of the museum.

Christmas time in New York had been everything I was expecting and more and had definitely put us all in the Christmas spirit! It’s something I would definitely recommend doing if you can!

Watch a video montage of my Christmas trip to the New York City here:

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