Itinerary: New York at Christmas Time

Every December, I travel to a different city and immerse myself in the local Christmas culture.  New York was my city of choice this year.

As I packed for my trip, the temperature in my California beach town was in the 80s.  I scoured my closet to find gloves, a scarf, a winter coat, and earmuffs. I call these my “travel clothes,” and we are reunited once a year like long-lost friends for my annual visit to winter.

Image of a Christmas Light Sculpture

Christmas Decorations On a New York Street

Day 1: Thursday – A Christmas Spectacular

The first item on my festive agenda was to see the Rockettes “Christmas Spectacular.”  My sister and her family, who are from Boston, were joining me on this trip.  They fancied themselves a little too sophisticated for the Rockettes.  To be clear, my sister did not say this explicitly.  The conversation when something like this:

Maureen: “When can we go to see the Rockettes?”

Sister: [Long pause.] “Wellllll, we will be very busy in New York.”

Maureen: “The Rockettes have multiple shows a day. A ton of times. We could see it anytime from 9AM to 10:00 PM. Your choice.”

Sister: “Oh, I don’t know. Let’s keep that plan flexible.”

Undaunted, I arrived a day before the family and hogged all the holiday cheer to myself. My friend from 5th grade (thank you for the reunion, Facebook), agreed immediately to join me for the Rockettes. She had seen them perform in the spring, and she was enthusiastic. There would be no eye-rolling, sighing, or snootier-than-thou attitude from her.

Image of the outside of Radio City Music Hall signs.

Radio City Music Hall, Home of the Rockettes

When we arrived, the front of Radio City Music Hall was packed.  Children were dressed in their holiday best, and the crowd was in a mood to have fun.  As promised, the performance truly was spectacular.  The high-tech production had the audience “oohing” and “ahhing,” and the choreography was more impressive than I had anticipated.  Most importantly, in this over-stressed and over-anxious world, the show delivered 90 minutes of unfiltered Christmas magic.  I would see the Rockettes every year if I lived in New York.

Image of Rockefeller Center Ice Skating Rink

Rockefeller Center Ice Skating Rink

After the Rockettes let out at 9:30 pm, we walked across the street to take photos of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, the most iconic of all New York Christmas images.  Late on a Thursday evening, there was plenty of free space to stroll and take pictures. I even was able to watch the fantastic Saks Fifth Avenue light display across the street with lots of elbow room.

Image of angels and the Rockefeller Christmas Center Christmas Tree

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Full of holiday spirit, I walked back to my hotel in the 24 degree weather, and bundled up for a long winter’s sleep. Ahhh, New York!

Day 2: Friday – Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Decadent Adventures

Some of you may know that the Tiffany & Co. flagship store on 5th Avenue opened the Blue Box Cafe in November 2017.  Yes, that’s right.  You can now have breakfast at Tiffany’s.  I went to herculean efforts to secure reservations for this experience, but I shall recount that story at another time. Needless to say, it was Fab.U.Lous.

I was unprepared for the gloriousness that is Tiffany & Co. at Christmas.  The first floor of Tiffany & Co. featured multiple Christmas trees and a giant wreath decorated in Tiffany-blue boxes.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s or not, you should really step into the store this time of year.

Image of Tiffany building lit up for Christmas

The Tiffany Flagship Store Decorated for Christmas

My sister and her family arrived from Boston, and we walked up 5th Avenue to admire the famous seasonal window displays. We are not big shoppers, but it was hard not to be captivated by the scenes at Saks, Bergdorf, Cartier, etc. We also went into the stores—not to buy the $650 scarf my sister accidentally admired—but to see the Christmas decor inside. I love California, but our department stores at Christmas are a bit pathetic next to the grandeur of 5th Avenue. Please try harder, California.

Knowing I was in town for only a short while, the skies obligingly opened up with the prettiest snow shower.  Yes, it was windy and frigidly cold, but I had managed to find and pack all my winter clothes.  So, I was overjoyed to see my first snowfall in five years.  My Boston family was, shall we say, unimpressed?

Image of snow in Central Park.

Snow in Central Park

To cheer them up, I steered us to the Plaza Hotel in front of Central Park. I know that the Plaza is lovely at any time of year, and it does not disappoint at Christmas. The stern doorman attempted to turn us away without a room key, but I was undeterred. While taking off my coat and gloves, I politely and confidently said that my party and I were expecting to have drinks at the Plaza.

We headed towards the lounge area where “Holiday Spiced Eggnog” was served. I feel that the Plaza and I differ in our definition of eggnog.  I tasted no nog, but much liquor. My nephew asked me what type of alcohol was in the eggnog, and I said, “I imagine every kind.” Sipping a warming beverage in the Plaza Hotel while the snows falls softly outside the window is a little piece of heaven.

Image of decorated Christmas trees on an awning.

Christmas Trees on an Awning Near the Plaza Hotel. That’s What We Do Here.

Fortified by our time in the Plaza, we walked along Central Park towards the Columbus Circle Holiday Market.  If you have ever dreamt of going to a quaint Christmas market in Europe, then the Columbus Circle holiday market would be a good substitute.  Meander through the rows of adorable booths to find artistic gifts and traditional german food delicacies, such as bratwurst and marzipan.   Add a new layer of snow, and it is difficult not to sigh in happiness.

Image of holiday market stalls at Columbus Circle in New York

Holiday Market at Columbus Circle

Day 3: Saturday—Christmas Mice 

I am exhausted just thinking about how much holiday merry-making we fit into Day 3. Pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable, because this is going to be a long one.

We started out at the Union Square Holiday Market. Although it is much larger than the Columbus Square Market, it still felt authentic. We arrived around 10:30 AM, which was excellent timing, as it becomes much more crowded later in the day. As I mentioned, we aren’t big shoppers, but the atmosphere of the market was interesting and fun. We leisurely sampled food and strolled through the stalls until we reached the farmers’ market on the other side. All six of us (my sister’s family and I) thought it was great fun, and how often do six people agree on anything?

Image of Union Square Holiday Market

Union Square Holiday Market

In a stunning turn of events, I realized we were near Gramercy Tavern at 11:30 am, which is when it opens.  This restaurant appears on every list of New York restaurants with the best holiday decorations. However, the Tavern does not take reservations. I had absolutely no hope of successfully guiding a group of six people to this restaurant as a pre-planned activity, so I crossed it off the list.

Image of Gramercy Tavern

Gramercy Tavern

Lo and behold, in a Christmas miracle, we were ushered straight to a prime table with an outstanding view of the entire restaurant. The atmosphere was festive, the food was sublime, and the wait staff was outstanding. If you can manage it, get yourself to Gramercy Tavern during the holidays at opening time, and enjoy a feast for the stomach and eyes.  (P.S. My nieces ordered the seasonal hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows, and it was extraordinary.  They told me to tell you that.)

Image of Gramercy Tavern Hot Chocolate

Gramercy Tavern Hot Chocolate & Focaccia

The MET (Metropolitan Museum of Art) beckoned in the afternoon.  I met up with a college friend and her daughter, and roamed from room to room for 2.5 delightful hours. I didn’t realize that this was going to be a bona-fide stop on my Christmas tour until we reached a breathtaking Christmas tree decorated with angels and surrounded by an intricate 18th-century nativity set.  For some reason, I hadn’t read about the tree in my pre-trip planning. Only later did I find out that the museum hosts a tree-lighting ceremony every evening that we just missed! Oh, faulty research, how I despise you.

Image of a Christmas tree in front of Grace Church.

I don’t have a picture of the MET tree, but this is a tree in front of the 200-year-old Grace Church.

At 5:00 PM, we joined a close family friend to see a play called The Dead, 1904 based on a James Joyce story. The play starred Melissa Gilbert of Little House on the Prairie television fame. Yes, I know. For ladies of a certain age, you are finding it difficult to contain your Little House excitement. Feel free to take a moment to collect yourself before resuming your reading.

The play is “immersive,” meaning that it takes place in an old mansion owned by the American Irish Historical Society, and the audience follows the characters from room to room.  The audience also eats a tasty holiday dinner along with the actors as part of the performance.  One truly feels that they are stepping back into Christmastime in the early 1900s by attending this play.  I don’t know if the Irish Repertory Theater will stage it again next year, but you should seriously considering getting tickets if you have the opportunity.  There are two shows per night for those of you who fancy eating later.

After the show, we stopped by Bryant Square.  The modern, holiday market there features fun food, cocktails, shops, an ice skating rink, and a large Christmas tree.  Although it was enjoyable, we somehow preferred the more traditional holiday markets at Union Square and Columbus Circle.

Image of Bryant Park Holiday Market

Bryant Park Holiday Market

At my insistence, all seven of us – me, my sister’s family, and our family friend – then journeyed to see the Christmas tree at Washington Square Park. This portion of the evening will be titled, “The Most Disappointing Part of the Entire Trip.” First, The Christmas tree is supposed to be under the famous arch at Washington Square Park. I am from California, and even I know this. Instead, there was an art installation under the arch. What happened, New York?   What happened?

It felt like the time my 6-year-old niece was expecting chocolate cake at a party, and she burst into tears when she was served a plain, poppy-seed cake with no frosting. The tree, which is impressive when seen under the arch, looked like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree standing forlornly in the middle of the park. A total bait-and-switch. Then, the following conversation ensued:

All: Looking sadly and quietly at the Washington Square Park Christmas tree.

Sister: “Eek! What was that? What was that?”

Maureen: “What are you talking about?”

Sister: Pointing to a spot nearby, “Are those RATS?”

Maureen: “I think those are a lot of rats. Many, many rats.”

Family Friend: “I don’t think the big one can be a rat. Maybe a possum.”

[Family friend walks over to investigate.]

Family Friend: “Yep, it’s a rat. A really big rat.”

Sister: “Ewww. Ewww. Ewww.”

Family Friend: “Just think of them as big Christmas mice.”

Then, we all posed for a smiling picture in front of the Washington Square Park Christmas tree with really, really big Christmas mice frolicking in the snow nearby.

With that heart-warming description, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Image of Christmas Ornaments in New York

Christmas Display in New York

Practical Tips:

When to Go
I usually plan my Christmas culture trips for early December to avoid crowds.  Due to scheduling conflicts, I wasn’t able to visit New York until mid-December, from Thursday, December 14 to Sunday, December 16.  The city was crowded, but not unmanageable.  By timing your events properly, making reservations when possible, and having a good attitude, you can have a great time.

Rockefeller Center
By Saturday night, Rockefeller Center was a horror show of massive crowds. Summary: Weeknight, yes. Weekend, no. You also can visit the first thing in the morning, even on weekends, to experience the tree in relative calm.

Bryant Park
I actually visited Bryant Park twice on this trip.  The first time was Friday night at 9:00 pm after most of the shops closed, but the food stands and ice skating rink were still open.  There were fewer people there then and I really enjoyed the decorations.  I went back with my family the next day at 7:00 pm, and it was a bit too crowded for me.

Image of Bryant Park Christmas Tree

Bryant Park Christmas Tree

Ordering MET Tickets
There was a gigantic line at both the coat check and the ticket desk. I pulled out my phone, ordered tickets online, and within minutes exchanged my mobile ticket for an entrance sticker at the information desk. I carried my coat and walked right in to the museum with no further wait.

Traveling from Newark Airport to New York
Even a native New Yorker asked me how the train from Newark to Manhattan works. It is completely uncomplicated. There are huge signs in the Newark airport directing you to AirTrain, part of the New Jersey Transit system. Simply follow the signs. They lead to an electronic kiosk for New Jersey Transit, where you can buy a single ($13) or roundtrip ($26) ticket to Penn Station.

From there, airport personnel wave you up the escalator to the waiting airport shuttle, which drops you at the Newark Airport train station. The signage is so clear, and there are so many people to help you, that it seems fairly impossible to mess things up. The train arrives; you take it three stops to Penn Station; and you are in Manhattan! I arrived at Newark at 3:58 pm and was at my hotel near Grand Central Station by 5:30 pm. If you are traveling with multiple people, a cab might be only slightly more expensive. However, I can’t imagine that any mode of transportation will be faster at rush hour than the train.

Image of Penn Station Christmas Decorations

Penn Station Christmas Decorations