The month of December is considered to be an exceptional month worldwide, especially in New York City (NYC). This period known as the holiday season period stretched from late November to early January. The holiday season is named so due to both Christmas and New Year, adding to these also the Jewish holiday of Hanukah symbolized by candles' lighting. This is the month when activities are affected by Christmas events as well as the end of the civil year festivals and parties welcoming the New Year. By NYC I refer to Manhattan borough only unless otherwise noted.

NYC is so special in December because of the endless holiday's decorations all over, the special atmosphere felt in the air, and the shopping activity all over driven by significant discounts, targeted also for gifts tradition. Indeed, this atmosphere is common to other cities in the USA as well as other cities around the globe but it is the magnitude and the variety that characterize this city and make it preferred over all other cities. It is a known fact that NYC is the ultimate world capital of shopping, now add to it the effect of Christmas that encourages buying gifts, and you get additional motivation to visit the city during December.

NYC is "wrapped" in a sense of holiday in December and is already decorated from the end of November. In many places along the streets, squares and parks, the trees are covered with special miniature colored light bulbs. A beautiful scene especially in late afternoon and after sunset. Shops' windows and internal spaces are decorated by various holiday's themes. Some of the shops invest fortune in decorations. It may give the impression there's hidden contests between the big ones as who will have the best decorations to attract the crowds to come and visit the store, maybe buying too. In many indoor and outdoor places, a nice holiday type music can be heard around, adding to the special atmosphere. Christmas trees (in variable sizes) are sold in streets corners and various squares while their prices range from $40 through hundreds of Dollars each. For those who wish to save, there are trees made of plastic and offered by various shops around town.

Where to Visit and What to Do?

Following is a list of recommended places that can be visited independently, be impressed by the Holiday atmosphere, lights decorations, shops windows, and million other visitors and shoppers. It is impossible to visit all in one day but these can be divided by time availability and priorities. All the places listed below refer to Manhattan only except of Dyker Heights in Brooklyn.

From North to South:

Lincoln Center, Josie Robertson Plaza – Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree placed in Lincoln Center plaza (10 Lincoln Center Plaza, Columbus Ave, at W 64 Street) is one of the nicest trees in the city, beautifully decorated and lit, sided next to an illuminated fountain. A beautiful scene that visiting there is not an option – it's a must!

Fifth Ave between 58th street to 52nd street

Strolling along the street looking at shops' windows as well as stepping into some of the brand name stores (to be impressed by the internal spaces and the decorative designs specially prepared for this season).

Following is a list of stores worthwhile paying attention to:

  • Bergdorf Goodman – 754 Fifth Ave, at 58 St.
     This one considered to be a top league fashion store carries top level brand names fashion dresses, shoes, jewelry and more. The store front window is considered to be one of the nicest designed in NYC, a real piece of art work (to my opinion). Don't miss that one!
    Louis Vuitton – 1 E 57th St. at Fifth Ave.
  • Tiffany and Co. – 727 Fifth Ave.
     Displays fine jewelry combined with designed holiday motifs.
  • Gucci – 725 Fifth Ave, between 57 & 56 Streets.
  • Dolce & Gabbana - 717 Fifth Ave, between 56 & 55 Streets.
  • Cartier – 653 Fifth Ave, at 52 St.

Along this strip on Fifth Ave there are additional fine stores such as Bvlgari, Armani, Prada, and others, decorated as well but the ones listed above are exceptional.

Rockefeller Center – Fifth Ave.

A complex of 19 commercial towers between 48th and 51st Streets facing Fifth Ave and stretches West to Sixth Ave.

Visiting Rockefeller Center area in December is a must! Considered to be the epicenter of New York City's holiday celebrations. The place is lit and decorated exceptionally in a spectacular manner. The main attraction is the huge Christmas tree placed there every year for already many years. It is the tree that mostly known all over the country. It rises to a height of about 30 meters and lit by about 50,000 tinny bulbs and other decorations.

In addition to the tree all Rockefeller area surrounding and plaza are decorated as well by holiday type elements and special lighting. This place is real tourist center that attracts many from all over USA and the world. The plaza used as a café/restaurant during the summer turns into ice skating rink that let the ice skaters' sense as of special experience, while many spectators surround the plaza and watch them performing their slide maneuvering sometime cheering them.

Among the plentiful lights that illuminate the area of Rockefeller Center one can see the lights of “Saks Fifth Avenue” building (615 Fifth Ave, between 50 & 49 streets). The building front is illuminated by colorful lights that keep changing, providing a light show. This is in addition to the Shop's window having their unique decoration for the holiday.

Rockefeller Center – 6th Ave
 Rockefeller center spans to 6th Ave (named also “Avenue of the Americas”). It is recommended to reach the corner of 6th Ave and 50th Street. The view of 6th Ave from this corner is spectacular. Numerous of trees are lit with thousands small bulbs mixed with shiny balls and other decorative elements. The view is just breathtaking.

Additional site seeing on Sixth Ave is the “Radio City Music Hall” (1260 Sixth Ave, at 50th St.). There's an illuminated Christmas tree placed there as well as the building front. Radio City Music Hall has hosted the Radio City Christmas Spectacular as an annual holiday musical production since 1933 featuring the famous Rockettes dance team.

TIP: when the cold/rainy weather outsides bothers it is possible to cross to 6th Ave indoors via the extended lobby of NBC Tower (just behind the Tree) in front of the plaza stretched all the way to Sixth Ave. When doing it this way don't miss the fantastic ceiling mural of painted by Diego Rivera, the Mexican painter. When standing under the mural just walk from one side to another and observe the dynamics of this art work.

St. Patrick Cathedral

Located just across the street across the street from Rockefeller Center, facing the Atlas statue (the east side of Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets). A decorated Neo-Gothic-style Roman Catholic cathedral, one of the prominent landmark of New York City. It is the seat of the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Inside there's an installation displaying Jesus's nativity story, the birth place in Bethlehem.

During the month of December there are concerts given in the cathedral that are nicely combined into the general holiday atmosphere. It is recommended to follow the schedule.

In addition, a mass is conducted there on Christmas Eve, one of the important in the city. It is recommended to follow after the schedule.

3rd Ave between 48th St to 49th St

A nice city area to visit all year-round, especially in December when the Avenue is lit and nicely decorated for the holidays. I like to visit here a lot because of the fact that in addition to the decorated trees there are two vertical murals on both sides on the same building – the first one is on the wall facing 3rd Ave corner of 48th St. displaying Albert Einstein riding his bikes. The second one is on the wall facing 3rd Ave corner of 48th St. featuring a fire fighter carrying while hugging a survivor. An awesome quite emotional piece of art that was created by the artist named Kobra.

Grand Central Station

The famous train station (both out of town and subway) located at 42nd street at the corner of Park Ave. The station is an impressive architectural landmark in NYC marks its 105th anniversary (1913), and 40 years since saved by Supreme Court intervention (to add a tower on top of the terminal) and 20 years since it was rebuilt. The place deserves a visit all year-round (there are guided tours as well), makes it even more worthwhile to go there not only during December. The busy station appearance and atmosphere are changed accordingly with holiday type decorations, non-stop events and sensations provided by the shops, various sales booths, and excellent food provided on bottom floor (free toilets as well). Among others there's an annual food market opened in the old waiting hall that is used for special/private events all year-round.

New York City Public Library

The great public library (Fifth Ave. and 42nd Street) is recommended to visit all year around and December as well. In the Luxurious entrance hall (Astor Hall) a nice Christmas tree is positioned and in the souvenir store (located on the same floor level) suggests their standard stuff in addition to gifts associated with the holiday on sale. While there, it is recommended to go upstairs to the huge reading rooms, quite impressive considering the number of readers sitting there and the “sound of silence”.

The next recommended site to visit is Bryant Park, located at the back of the library, therefore my advice is to visit the two places at the same time. 

Winter Village at Bryant Park

Bryant Park located at the back of the “New York City Public Library”, 41 W 40th St, between Sixth and Fifth Avenues.

The park hosts the Christmas market, sponsored by the Bank of America. There are about 150 booths/kiosks spread around and offer wide products, gifts, souvenirs, arts & craft, food and beverages.

The park includes also a big decorated and Christmas tree and a free ice skating rink (open daily 8am-10pm). The holiday season is definitely felt here.

TIP: If you happened to be on the Sixth Ave, it is recommended to continue West bound on 42nd Street (or 41st St) to the Times Square (located where Broadway crosses Seventh Ave. The place is busy and full of lights all year around.

Macy's Department Store at Heralds Square

Continuing South along Broadway, you'll end up in Herald Square (Broadway & 34st St.) where you can visit Macy's flagship Department store chain. It is considered to be the largest department store in the USA and second largest in the world. The store is beautifully decorated and it is recommended to go downstairs and visit the downstairs Macy's Souvenir Arcade.

Macy's is noted for its elaborate animated holiday and Christmas window displays in many locations across the U.S., but most notably at the Herald Square location.

TIP: International shoppers can get a discount card at the Visitor's Center, which is good for 10 percent off many purchases.

The Union Square Holiday Market

East 14th St, at Union Square West-North Corner

Similar to the holiday market in Bryant square, the market in Union Square includes over 100 booths offering various items for the holiday, souvenirs, farmers market, special food, decorations and more.

The farmer market named Union Square Greenmarket is opened all year-round (Mon, Wed, Fri, and Sat).

Winter Garden at Brookfield Place (Downtown)

At 230 Vesey St. at West Street (next to One World Trade Center, Ground Zero, Hudson River).

In the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place (a small shopping mall) , there's an impressive holiday colorful light installation named Luminaries. Installation design is based on the season's traditions of sharing, giving, and community. The special designed lamps hanging from the ceiling keep changing their color and intensity.

For those interested, there's also an ice-skating rink as well.

Dyker Heights Christmas Lights in Brooklyn

The recommended area to visit the Christmas lights is between 11th and 13th Avenues, and 83rd to 86th Streets in Brooklyn.

In this quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn, a tradition of houses' decorations for Christmas has been evolved in latest years. The decorations are quite invested, creative and very impressive although don't cover all the houses in the area. The decorations may cost thousands and are displayed for quite some days. It looks as there's a hidden contest between the house owners as to have the most attractive decoration in the neighborhood.

However, getting there is a bit challenging. For those who come from Manhattan it is not an easy trip. It can take almost an hour and a half (each way) regardless weather by subway or car. Getting there by subway is by the D line, getting off at “79th Street” station, and from there it takes about 15 minutes' walk. Once getting there one can be a bit disappointed from the number of houses involved. Still, whoever decides to make the effort and invest the time to reach there may win a special experience.

To summarize my point, I do recommend visiting Dyker Heights in Brooklyn but with one reservation – it's not a must. That is, whoever has the time and motivation, while not deterred by the “difficulties” involved commuting to the place, and also by the fact that the decorated houses are not just located next to each other, it may be a worthwhile experience reaching there.

Shopping in December

Shopping in NYC is a must for those who are into it. It combines both entertainment and pleasure. It is not relevant to all but even non-addicted shoppers will agree to that statement.

Among all months, the month of December is the preferred one for shopping due the fact it is the holiday season and there's a big demand for general shopping (self-treating) and particularly gifts. Sales competition is increased and there's lots of discounts offering by the retailers in both streets stores as well as in the internet online stores. Sales volumes are increased by hundreds of percent.

Many of the stores are decorated for the holiday and they offer merchandize good for both Christmas and winter season. Christmas themes can be heard everywhere as well as Santa clauses are noticed all over.

It should be noted that the sales festival during the month of December happen just after “Black Friday” and “Cyber Day” sales, lasting for few days at the end of November. Yet, shoppers are not confused and they continue buying deep into December.

End Note

Personally, I do recommend to visit Manhattan independently, crisscross walk through the avenues and the streets, feel the rhythm of the city, enjoy the atmosphere and the special decorations and lighting all over during the evenings.

Having said that, there are companies that offer guided holiday evening paid tours in NYC, below the links of two of them:

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