Our guide to a Christmas fairytale in New York

Miracle on 34th Street has a lot to answer for in New York. Come Thanksgiving, there’s magic in the air and this city unashamedly becomes an all-singing, all-dancing tinsel town that could give Lapland a run for its money. It’s busy, it’s brash, and it’s most definitely kitsch, but NYC’s Christmas spirit is infectious. Visiting the Big Apple between Thanksgiving and New Year is your ticket to the greatest festive show on earth. 

Life-size angels serenade the skyscrapers, carol-singing, bell-ringing Salvation Army buskers coax smiles from reluctant commuters, and Christmas markets vie with ice rinks for tourist dollars. Visitors can expect baubles the size of taxi cabs and sparkly taxi-cab baubles, world-famous Christmas trees, and enough lights to mimic a midnight sun. 

Here’s how to find Christmas nirvana in New York City.

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NYC is heaving in the run-up to Christmas. Book tables for dinner, book tables for drinks and prepare for queues and crowds. Rug up, because although average temperatures in December are around 7C it’s not uncommon for cold snaps to send the mercury plummeting below zero; last year was the coldest Thanksgiving Day in New York since 1901 and parade-goers shivered in temperatures of -7C. 

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

The city comes to a standstill to celebrate Thanksgiving, which falls on 28 November this year. Around 3.5 million people descend on Manhattan for its annual Christmas-fest of floats and helium-balloon characters. The parade starts promptly at 9am on 77th St and Central Park West, snaking south to finish at Macy’s Herald Square on 34th St (look for flyers with the full route).

Rocking around the Christmas tree

New York’s guilty pleasure for Christmas trees began in 1933, the year Rockefeller Center opened. The annual lighting of the tree (typically in the first week of December; this year it’ll be on 4 December) is such a popular ceremony that road blockades go up around Rockefeller, police are brought in to manage crowd control and hotel prices spike. Each year the chosen Norway spruce ranges from 65ft to 90ft and travels into NYC on a custom-made trailer from somewhere in the USA.  

There are plenty of other Christmas trees to admire, too. New York Public Library, Bryant Park, Washington Square Park and the Empire State Building all hoist up giant spruces around the last week of November. For more than 40 years, the American Museum of Natural History has adorned its holiday tree with origami decorations (this year the theme is dinosaurs). The annual tradition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a 20ft spruce hung with baroque angels and presided over by an incredible 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene. 

Baubles, windows and lights

Midtown Manhattan is the epicentre of NYC’s Christmas fetish. Fifth and Sixth Avenues in particular are canvases for one-upmanship – look out for giant candy canes hanging from mantles, regal trumpeters at office doorways and oversized light installations.  

In fact, you could simply comb Fifth Avenue from 40th St to Central Park and have a ball. Its holiday icons include New York Public Library’s marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, decked in wreaths, and the nativity scene inside St Patrick’s Cathedral. Saks Fifth Avenue strings up enough bulbs to illuminate the entire block after dark, while Tiffany cloaks its façade in diamond sparkle. Bergdorf Goodman’s Christmas dressers are the flag-bearers of festive good taste.

Ice rinks  

So quintessential are New York’s winter ice rinks that they need no introduction. Manhattan’s three main ones are at Rockefeller Plaza, Bryant Park and Central Park. All are quieter on weekdays. The Rink at Rockefeller (open until 20 February 2020) is iconic but tiny and the queues are terrible. The Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park (until 29 February 2020) is NYC’s only free rink, combining ice-skating with a Christmas market and cafe selling hot chocolate and pretzels. Wollman Rink at Central Park (until 1 April 2020) is the biggest and most picturesque, boxed in by skyscrapers and trees. 

Present shopping 

New York’s holiday markets are blissfully low on Germanic festive tat and well worth exploring. They’re crammed with local designers selling the type of gifts that your family may actually thank you for, as well as NYC-themed Christmas cards and tree baubles. The Grand Central Terminal Holiday Fair, which inhabits part of the lavish Vanderbilt Hall, focuses on socially conscious businesses and handmade gifts using locally sourced materials. The market at Bryant Park is more food-oriented, while the one at Union Square is good for well-priced quirky gifts. Most markets finish on Christmas Eve. 

The holiday markets at Union Square (NYC & Company)

Black Friday sales run for the weekend after Thanksgiving (28 November this year) and can usually snag you discounts of 15 to 20 per cent on the high street.

Festive tipples

New York doesn’t do things by halves, as you will see when you arrive at the window of Rolf’s German Bar in Gramercy Park, where a thick canopy of icicles, fir cones, dolls and baubles aglow with 100,000 lights weighs down the ceiling. Fair warning: this is a tourist trap, with queues to get in at 6pm any night of the week around Christmas, and it’s an eye-watering $18 for a glass of mulled wine. But it’s good, tacky fun. 

For something a little less arduous to get into, try Lillie’s Victorian Establishment in Union Square – a lively Manhattan boozer with especially lovely Christmas decorations. If you want festive cocktails on the roof of NYC, head to Bar SixtyFive at the Rockefeller Center; book a table to sit down. 

Christmas showtime 

First performed in 1933, the high-kicking Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular at Radio City is a New York institution. It’s essentially a chorus line with 21st-century technology: kitsch and unmissable. Grab your free santa hat on the way in, admire the Art Deco foyer of what was the world’s largest theatre when it opened in 1932, and take a drink under the 50ft crystal chandelier that only comes out at Christmas. Multiple daily performances mean tickets are easy to get hold of, and the show runs until 5 January 2020. 

There’s also the New York Botanical Gardens Holiday Train Show (until 26 January 2020) in the Bronx, where model trains chug their way through a Lilliputian streetscape of New York city landmarks crafted out of plant material. Equally whacky is the Gingerbread Lane at the New York Hall of Science (until 12 January 2020) in Queens, which holds the Guinness World Record as the largest gingerbread village. For the first time in more than a decade, Bronx Zoo will host a holiday lights walk-through this year (until 5 January 2020).

The classic Christmas show is George Balanchine’s blockbuster version of The Nutcracker with the New York Ballet at Lincoln Center (29 November 2019-5 January 2020). The list could go on: dozens more events are covered on the NYC Go website.

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways, Norwegian, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, American Airlines, Delta, Finnair and Lufthansa fly direct from the UK to New York. Fares start from around £250 return.

Staying there

Boutiquey Broome, occupying a converted SoHo townhouse, creates a festive atmosphere each year with a giant Christmas tree in its inner courtyard. Doubles from £209 per night this December.

Around the corner from Bergdorf Goodman, Fifth Avenue and the Rockettes at Radio City, Parker New York is a Hyatt with subtle style, a secret burger joint and an attractive price tag in Christmas season. Doubles from £185 per night this December.

Go all out for Christmas at the unashamedly modern Four Seasons New York Downtown, right in the heart of the revitalised Financial District. Expect the usual glamorous Christmas tree in the lobby and hangover-inducing post-Christmas party drinks at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT, which gleams in red neon from the lobby. Doubles from £712 per night this December.

 

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