Never is New York City more magical than at Christmas, from its shimmering lights flickering from every window to sugary delights scenting the air. Even locals can’t resist the lure of a spin around the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center or an indulgent trip for tea at the Plaza. We’ve compiled our favorite traditions that make December special. Grab a cup of hot cocoa and set out for the busy sidewalks dusted with snow into the undeniable appeal of this merry metropolis.
The Holly and the Ivy
Forage for the holly and ivy—and so much more—in the bloom-filled Flower District on Chelsea’s 28th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Amble the fragrant stretch of sidewalk for evergreens, amaryllis, and paperwhites as far as the eye can see. Scoop up a fresh-cut floral bundle, some creative containers at Jamali, and then set out to see how the masters manipulate their own bounty into artful displays. Make time for the Metropolitan Museum of Art to admire the compositions by Dutch floral designer Remco van Vliet. The floral maestro creates five towering arrangements throughout the Great Hall each week, requiring an abundance of magnolia and ilex berry during the holidays. After coming down from the ladder, van Vliet often swings by one of his favorite galleries or picks up something from the Met gift shop. “My girlfriend’s name is Iris,” he says, “so I think I’ve bought her everything from there that has an iris on it.” Then head to Fort Tryon Park for the Cloisters, the Met’s medieval arts branch, decked in boughs of holly, ivy, herbs, and apples in keeping with the historical accuracy of the Middle Ages.
Frosted Window Panes
This is a city that knows how to adorn itself for the holidays, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the city’s most fashionable store windows, from the avant-garde at Bergdorf Goodman to the classic at Lord & Taylor. When the curtains lift on the elaborate displays beginning in November, it’s an official marker for the start of the season. Brave the cold and join the crush strolling down snowflake veiled Fifth Avenue for a glimpse into the most elaborate scenes. Like peering inside a fanciful snow globe, our favorite windows to ogle include Tiffany & Co., which has sparkled in years past with a flurry of snow and diamond jewels against a posh city scene. Consider this the only time of year we actually want to do windows!
O Christmas Tree
The most flamboyant signs of the holidays come from the city’s towering Tannenbaums. Kids from one to 92 will enjoy gazing up at Manhattan’s prized perennials dressed with millions of glimmering lights for the season. The city’s most sought-after tree can be found at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. During an elaborate lighting ceremony the first week in December, the Rockefeller tree twinkles with multicolored lights, topped with a sparkling Swarovski crystal star. Head to historic Washington Square Park for organized yuletide carols around the Christmas tree beneath the arch, and stroll past the decorated neighboring townhouses. Pay a visit to Park Avenue, whose trees are dressed in their Christmas best with sparkling white lights, a 70-year-old tradition that honors fallen heros from World War II. The New York Palace hotel fills its famous Madison Avenue courtyard with a 30-foot tree bedazzled with lights, making it a picture-perfect backdrop for next year’s Christmas card. And for your own tree, there’s no better place to hunt for all the trimmings than at Tinsel Trading, a favorite of Martha Stewart’s. You’ll want to get lost amid the gobs of ribbon, glittered ornaments, and colorful vintage trim.
We Need a Little Music
Maybe it’s the familiar melodies or the pomp and circumstance of getting dressed up for a night on the town, but it just isn’t Christmas without a trip to the theater—and the city lights gleam brightest on the big stage. Reserve seats at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater for an enchanting blizzard of New York City Ballet’s ballerinas performing The Nutcracker. Go to the epicenter of seasonal flair at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for famed Rockettes and their signature high kicks set against lavish sets and festive costumes in this year’s winter wonderland theme. Wrap up your Manhattan day with an evening show, such as the glorious Handel’s Messiah performed by the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, where the “Hallelujah” chorus always earns a standing ovation.
We dare you to resist the childlike temptation to press nose and hands to the windows of the city’s best boulangeries. Indulge in another version of “Land of the Sweets” at Ladurée for the delicately crumbly pastel or gilded macarons and bûches de Noël. Upper East Side sweets stalwart Serendipity 3 is home to the new-school tradition of frozen hot chocolate, and location of the John Cusak and Kate Beckinsale Christmas rom-com of the same name. The pastries at Madison Avenue’s Sant Ambroeus practically melt in your mouth. We love the Milanese panettone with a dollop of mascarpone, and the cookies, packaged neatly in a gold tin, are a long-celebrated tradition among the ladies-who-lunch set.
Here We Come a-Wassailing
We consider the season an invitation to sip our favorite winter libations, from mulled wine and hot toddies to eggnog and cider. On a cold winter’s night, warm up at the iconic 21 Club.Hold court among vintage pastel mural walls and checkered tablecloths with hot buttered rum in hand at this New York institution. For more than 70 years, the Prohibition-era speakeasy has invited the Salvation Army band into the dining room on Christmas Eve to lead lunchtime diners in caroling. Tucked in nearby Gramercy Park is the tchotchke-laden watering hole and restaurant, Rolf’s. The French-Bavarian brasserie transforms into a magical Black Forest thick with boughs and ornamental balls well worth the journey for a hard cider. Go a-wassailing—make that cocktailing—at the Carlyle’s storied Bemelmans Bar for piano-player crooning and classic cocktails from a cozy leather banquette, even on Christmas day.
Check-in to a Grand Hotel
The city’s finest hotels pull out all the stops, boasting over-the-top décor and guest rooms to trump your Aunt Sadie’s. Take the Peninsula New York, the high-gloss showplace where you want to curl up with a glass of wine by the lobby fire and never more. Silver carousel reindeer greet guests atop the awning, and poinsettias and garlands designed by Renny & Reed cover every available railing and surface. Devote an evening to the St. Regis, where two large-scale toy nutcrackers stand guard at the entrance. Settle in for a long winter’s nap at the Plaza, which pays homage to the season with luxurious garlands, an 18-foot Douglas fir, and a three-course Christmas day feast at the Oak Room—where Eloise most certainly takes her dinner.
Good Tidings She Brings
Wander through New York’s winter wonderland with an expert by your side: Christmas historian and veteran tour guide Sibyl McCormac Groff, known as the “Spirited New Yorker.” All throughout her 75-minute tour, beginning at the Park Avenue Plaza and hitting essential sites such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the holiday markets, Groff weaves in plenty of lore about the advent of the Christmas tree, lights, and the carols written in her fair city. “There’s something about the feeling of Christmas in New York that you don’t find anywhere else,” she says. “I renamed it ‘Gothamtide,’ because so much of the history and traditions about Christmas are rooted in New York.” Happy Gothamtide, indeed.
WHERE TO STAY: THE CARLYLE | 35 E. 76th St. (at Madison Ave.) | 212.744.1600 | THE NEW YORK PALACE | 455 Madison Ave. (at E. 50th St.) | 212.888.7000 | THE PENINSULA NEW YORK | 700 Fifth Ave. (at W. 55th St.) | 212.956.2888 | THE PLAZA | 768 Fifth Ave. (at W. 58th St.) | 212.759.3000 | THE ST. REGIS | 2 E. 55th St. (at Fifth Ave.) | 212.753.4500
WHERE TO SHOP: BERGDORF GOODMAN | 754 Fifth Ave. (at W. 58th St.) | 212.753.7300 | THE HOLIDAY WORKSHOP | 2 E. 55th St. (at Fifth Ave.) | 212.675.8601 | JAMALI | 149 W. 28th St. (at Seventh Ave.) | 212.244.4025 | LORD & TAYLOR | 424 Fifth Ave. (at W. 39th St.) | 212.391.3344 | RENNY & REED | 505 Park Ave. (at E. 59th St.) | 212.288.7000 | TIFFANY & CO. | 727 Fifth Ave. (at E. 57th St.) | 212.755.8000 | TINSEL TRADING | 828 Lexington Ave. (at E. 63rd St.) | 212.730.1030
WHERE TO INDULGE: LADURÉE | 864 Madison Ave. (at E. 70th St.) | 646.558.3157 | SANT AMBROEUS | 1000 Madison Ave. (at E. 78th St.) | 212.570.2211 | SERENDIPITY 3 | 225 E. 60th St. (at Third Ave.) | 212.838.3531
WHERE TO SIGHT-SEE: THE CLOISTERS | 99 Margaret Corbin Dr. (in Fort Tryon Park) | 212.923.3700 | THE MET | 1000 Fifth Ave. (at E. 82nd St.) | 212.535.7710 | ROCKEFELLER CENTER | 30 Rockefeller Plaza (at Fifth Ave. & W. 50th St.) | 212.332.6868 | ST. PATRICK’S CATHEDRAL | 460 Madison Ave. (at E. 51st St.) | 212.753.2261 | WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK | 15 Washington Square N. (at Fifth Ave.) | 212.408.0100
WHERE TO ATTEND A PERFORMANCE: AVERY FISHER HALL AT LINCOLN CENTER | 10 Lincoln Center Plaza (at Columbus Ave. & W. 64th St.) | 212.721.6500 | DAVID H. KOCH THEATER AT LINCOLN CENTER | 20 Lincoln Center Plaza (at Columbus Ave. & W. 63rd St.) | 212.870.5500 | RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL | 1260 Avenue of the Americas (at W. 50th St.) | 212.247.4777
By Alison Miller | Photos by Brooke Slezak