Growing up in Australia, with a festive season vastly different from the ones we see in most Christmas movies, always had me dreaming of experiencing that Christmas movie magic in real life one day. Those cozy scenes of families sitting around a crackling fire, dressed in questionable Christmas jumpers, with hot chocolate in hand, are hard to relate to when it’s 30 degrees (86 F) plus outside.
Elf, Serendipity, Home Alone and Miracle on 34th Street were all filmed in New York, making it the obvious choice for our quest for a Christmas season with a chilly twist. And we found no shortage of opportunities to indulge in the spirit of the season with New York strewn with more twinkling lights and Christmas cheer than anywhere I’ve ever been. It left me in no doubt that everyone should, at some stage, immerse themselves in a New York Christmas. And when you do, here’s a list of the most Christmassy things to do.
DYKER HEIGHTS, BROOKLYN CHRISTMAS LIGHTS
Imagine the Griswolds owning a suburb and decorating each house for Christmas and you’ll have an insight into the light displays we found in Dyker Heights. Many homeowners pay lighting professionals to decorate their houses and the results are magical. House after house, street after street, the displays just get bigger, brighter and better. Just when we thought we’d seen a display that couldn’t be topped, we’d turn the corner and be in awe all over again.
Many bus tours operate from Midtown Manhattan but we chose a Free Tours by Foot tour (name of company) which was the most economical option at US$19 per person (tip additional/optional). We met our guide in Brooklyn and travelled as a group by subway. Exiting the subway we were infused with Christmas spirit with our guide playing Christmas carols as we walked while giving us a commentary about what we could expect.
Streets are filled with Christmas cheer as families wander around taking in the incredible lights. Children are wide-eyed, excited and keen to get photos with the many stunning backdrops. Crowds build as the evening progresses, so touring in a wheelchair would be slow but possible. If travelling to Dyker Heights independently, arriving early would make it easier to get around,
Accessible tours are available and you can read more about the Dyker Heights Christmas light tours offered by Free Tours By Foot here.
OUTDOOR ICE SKATING
My ice-skating loving girl packed her skates in her suitcase and carried them around New York fulfilling her dream of skating at the many pop-up rinks in the city.
In Central Park we skated with the iconic Manhattan skyline as a backdrop at the famous Wollman Rink. The rink has been open since 1949 and is the largest of the outdoor rinks we experienced.
ROCKEFELLER PLAZA ICE RINK
The Rockefeller Plaza ice rink had a queue that snaked around for quite a distance making us query if it would be worth the wait.
That concern soon disappeared once we were skating below the famous, and dazzling, Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree and fountain. A more dazzling location I cannot imagine.
BYRANT PARK ICE RINK
Meeting friends who have a son who uses a wheelchair we were thrilled to find one rink in New York is accessible and allows wheelchairs on the ice, which meant we could all skate together.
An inclusive attitude made this rink a clear winner, including their accessibility information on their website which includes the following information –
Both manual and motorized wheelchairs are permitted on the ice. Adaptive sleds are available free of charge.
Users who wish to enjoy the ice using our adaptive sled can be pushed by a member of their party or by one of the rink’s Skate Hosts. To request Skate Host assistance ahead of time, you may call 917-438-5170, though it is not required.
There are accessible park entrances mid-block on 40th and 42nd Streets, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. There is an accessible route that connects the 6th Avenue side of the park up to the Skate Pavilion.
THE RADIO CITY ROCKETTES
When a friend heard we were travelling to New York in the lead up to Christmas she kindly gifted AJ and I tickets to the Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular. The show is a New York institution for families and Radio City Music Hall is a beautiful theatre.
The Christmas spectacular involves dancing, singing, 3D animation and lots of Christmas themes. It’s lovely to see children dressed up for their visit to the theatre and many we chatted to told us it’s an annual outing.
The show is great for young and old, just as long as you’re ready to embrace the holiday spirit.
You can read more about the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular on the website here.
ROCKEFELLER PLAZA TREE
Even for non skaters, a trip to see the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree is a must.
We felt dwarfed by the magnificent towering 23 metre (77 ft) high Norway Spruce Christmas tree festooned in 50,000 odd twinkling lights topped with a Swarovski Star. If you pay for one photo at an attraction while visiting New York, make it the Rockefeller Christmas Tree.
The decorations and detail around the plaza make it a major tourist attraction so arrive early to avoid the worst of the crowds.
SAKS FIFTH AVENUE LIGHT DISPLAY
Saks Fifth Avenue department store is just around the corner from the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree and the music and light show projected on its facade compliments the rest of the decorations in the area beautifully.
The window displays are illuminated with fairy lights and themed windows make the store front a sight to see.
Santacon is one of the most bizarre events I’ve ever seen. It’s described as a “nonsensical Santa Claus convention that happens once a year to spread absurdist joy.” We watched on with a combination of amusement and disbelief at the antics which started in the morning, long before the Santas had any drinks under their big black belts.
For one day only, in support of charity, the city turns into a festival of red and white. People of all ages dress up in Santa suits, Christmas themed jumpers (sweaters) for all round shenanigans. You can check the date for future Santacons on the website.
GRAND CENTRAL TERMINAL
No-one should miss visiting beautiful Grand Central Terminal.
The building, which houses the rail network, puts the ‘Grand’ into Grand Central. The main concourse has a vintage charm with high vaulted ceilings, Tennessee marble floor and gold and nickel-plated chandeliers. It’s a reminder of an era when travel was an experience to be savoured rather than the modern rush to get to a destination.
Like most buildings in New York, Grand Central Terminal is decorated for the holiday season but for young children and train buffs, it’s the New York Transit Museum’s Grand Gallery which is the main attraction at this time of year. It plays host to a miniature electric railroad running over, through, and beneath some of New York’s landmarks.
We also think the New York Transit Museum has some of the nicest souvenirs you can buy in the city. Less touristy and better quality.
Travelling to New York in the lead up to Christmas is a magical experience, one we’ll never forget. At every turn we found a seasonal surprise including carollers in the subway tunnels, musicians playing their instruments as they boarded the subway, and the most exuberant Salvation Army charity collectors I’ve ever seen. New York is an eclectic city filled with characters, but the festive season takes this up a notch. Even the most die-hard Grinch will find it difficult to stay bah humbug about Christmas when exposed to New York’s Christmas cheer.
You can see more of our New York travels in the video below
You can read more about our New York adventures, where we played and stayed on the following links