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Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour

Bill Malchisky  December 27 2010 03:00:00 AM
Whether you are planning to take advantage of the snow in Manhattan this week to see the lights, or are planning a future visit, here is a route path to take so you can get into the Christmas spirit---New York style---without wasting time (something New Yorkers loathe). If you have more than one afternoon to see everything, then I will add some bonus items below. I have lived in NYC or worked there and commuted since 1995 and frequently provide unique tour experiences for friends and colleagues in New York. I designed this for a friend new to the area and was well received. Overall, the pace is comfortable, maximizes usage of mass transit, and allows you to see Manhattan during the holiday season--which is truly a gift. There is nothing like New York City during the Christmas holiday season.

I am starting from Grand Central Terminal. The Information booth in the Main Concourse, is a good central meeting point. GCT has excellent subway access from both the east-side and west side of Manhattan, as well as the commuter lines in Connecticut and New York State, plus with 35 restaurants, several bars, and many shops; so, if one member in your party is late, no one need be bored while waiting.

First, each member of your group should purchase an MTA One-Day Fun-Fare Unlimited pass for $8.25 (2010 price). This gives you unlimited subway and bus rides, plus bus-to-bus, subway-to-bus, and bus-to-subway transfers till 3 AM. If you are coming-in from Manhattan or New Jersey, then purchase this en route to GCT to save you some expense. On the Metro-Card machine, it is located under the "Unlimited Ride" menu branch.

What to see in Grand Central: One of my favorite things to do is shop in GCT. The annual Holiday Fair is a gem. Over 70 shops setup in the Vanderbilt Hall (main exhibition space, street level, south entrance) and provides unique quality gifts that always make an impression. My favorite booth on the Northeast entrance hallway...near Track 16, is from Johnny Walker, and is an annual staple in GCT.

On to the tour...if  you are thirsty or hungry, load-up here. I'll make suggestions along the route as well. I started this tour at 11 AM and we finished up at 6p...all very comfortable, and rewarding, with time for a relaxed late lunch--to save time and avoid crowds.
On weekdays, the subways do run more frequently, so your time to wait for trains will be less.
If you decide to stop in Apple's FAO Store or FAO Schwartz, you'll need to leave at least an hour earlier, or you'll risk missing the museum trees later in the day--which close before 6p.

There is a lot to see and do in New York--particularly if you have never been. It is important that the day's theme be maintained, or you can easily get side-tracked and at the end of the day, see very little and feel overwhelmed as you spent three hours in two establishments and had so much more that you had hoped to see. Thus, if you are going to see holiday decorations...see those at each place, then move onto the next place. If you desire to see historical items or architecture, then do that at each place on those respective visits. It does make a difference.

Now, that your group is together and you utilized the facilities...let's get to it!

* Head up the escalators on the North-end towards 45th Street...there is a nice tree in the lobby before the building exit, Turn left at 48th street and walk west towards Madison Ave then walk up Madison Ave to 50th Street. Half-way up that block on the right is the Villard House courtyard. Enter the iron gate and observe the lighting fixtures and tree. It is a stunning component of New York architecture.

* Notice that the Villard House is behind St. Patrick's Cathedral. Walk west down 50th or 51st Street and stop inside. They have a great manger scene there. It would not be Christmas sans a visit to this amazing catholic cathedral--the largest Neo-gothic styled one in North America.

* Just to the south of St. Pat's on 50th Street is Saks Fifth Avenue. The have wonderful holiday windows and have a lavish interior decor (enter on 50th, then turn right and exit on Fifth Avenue to see the windows

* Across Fifth Avenue is Rockefeller Center and yes, showcases the famous tree. Take a few minutes to enjoy it.

* Next, find your way back to Fifth Avenue, turn left to walk north on Fifth Ave; note: traffic on 5th Ave goes one-way south; the shops on this road are most definitely in the holiday spirit; my favorite is Cartier--the building is wrapped in a red bow and ribbon, and is on 52nd St. On 54th, you'll see University Club, with The St. Regis Hotel on 55th St

* Stop by Trump Tower at 56th Street -- they have a wonderful waterfall inside with an excellent Christmas tree as well; stop and get a hot coffee if you need to warm-up a bit

* Continue north on Fifth Ave till you get to 60th Street. As you pass 57th St, you'll begin to notice a more focused concentration of the older architecture in Manhattan.  Tiffany's is at 57th St, at 58th St, you will see the famous FAO Schwartz, on your right. Next door, north side of the street, you will also pass the famous Apple glass cube store on your right (co-architected by a fellow RPI Alumnus); it will be crowded, so you can stop by at any time...but try to avoid being distracted :)  The Plaza Hotel and Bergdorf Goodman will appear on your left on 59th Street

* Turn right onto 60th St and walk east till you get to Madison Ave. Barney's New York will be on your right...walk along the building to see the wonderful windows there

* Walk to 59th Street and turn left, to walk east down 59th till you get to Lexington Ave (just past Park Ave); Bloomingdale's will be on the far corner; view their windows as well

* Conveniently located is the subway...down the stairs and take the Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour Downtown; follow the signs to the Downtown Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour trains. Note: starting at 59th, the Lexington Ave line subways are stacked---as the bedrock is much lower below street level in that part of the city---so the Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour local is on one level and below that is the Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour; south of 59th, these trains share a common platform. Exit the train at 42nd Street and transfer to the Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour train towards Times Square. Exit at Fifth Ave/Bryant Park

* At street level will be Bryant Park. There you will see Celsius the great new outdoor bar, built on the park, plus dozens of shops (inside individual huts) and surrounding the new free skating rink. This is a gem and new in 2010. Enjoy the skating if you wish, or have a glass of champagne or hot cocoa at Celsius

* Back down into the subway, and take the Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour train East towards Queens (or away from Times Square) -> transfer at 42nd street and continue on the Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour Downtown -> Exit at Fulton Street -> cross Broadway

If you are hungry or need to hydrate, walk south two blocks south on Broadway (with the flow of traffic) to Maiden Lane, then turn left onto Maiden lane. On your right will be Alfanoose; they make the best falafel in the city--bar-none. Ask for yours with everything and enjoy it. Very authentic and gets rave reviews. It is also vegan/vegetarian friendly and will help guide you if anyone in your party has food allergies. From here, walk east (away from B'way) towards Water St. Turn left and walk north on Water Street till you get to South Street Seaport

If you don't stop for nourishment, then walk east, down Fulton Street till you enter South Street Seaport, but it's worth a visit to Alfanoose

* South Street Seaport has a great tree just off Water St., at the main entrance. On Friday and Saturday evenings (6p & 7p) they offer Christmas Carolers performing in-front of the tree (if you'd like, you can easily return for the performance, via the subway); you can also walk across the street to see the Brooklyn Bridge from the edge of the Seaport

* Next, walk back to Water Street, cross the street and turn left, to walk south on Water Street -> turn right onto Wall St.

* Walk down Wall Street till you see Broad St. on your left; the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) faces Broad Street; between 15 Broad Street and the NYSE, you will find what for years has been a well-kept holiday secret (really only known to those that work there) ...the NYSE Christmas Tree. They put it right in the street. When I worked there in the mid-90's, the cars actually would drive around the tree. It changes every year, and is a fun piece to see. From here, you can either get the Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour subway Uptown on Broadway at Wall St, or walk south on Broadway till you see the famous charging bull, which will have a wreath on its neck for photos (if you want to wait) -> Catch the Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour Uptown on the opposite end of the park from where the bull resides

* Exit the subway at 86th street; Walk west towards Fifth Ave; Note: traffic on Lexington Ave goes one-way downtown (south) -> As you cross Park Avenue, stop to observe the 2.5 mile run of trees...you will be in the middle of it. Two trees per block, on each end of each intersection for 2.5 miles...makes for a great cab ride at night as well

* Now keep walking towards Fifth Ave -> turn left and walk south on Fifth Ave four blocks till you get to the Metropolitan Museum for their 22' foot blue spruce tree done in the Neapolitan Baroque crèche style; it's a stunning tree. They light it at 4:30 PM. which means that you can see the tree and village seen sans a spotlight; Note: you will pay a museum entrance fee here, but it is up to you to decide what that is; I base my contribution on how long I will be there, to be fair and support The Met

just outside The Met, the food vendors sell bottled water for $1, so if you are thirsty this is a bargain and provides portable hydration

* Next, to the west side we go! Walk south down Fifth Ave to 79th Street -> turn left and cross Fifth Ave and catch the M79 bus. Use your Metro card on the bus. You will go one stop---thru the park---to Central Park West. You will now be across the street from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH closes at 5:45 PM. and offers free admission late in the day). The Rose Center is the illuminated glass cube showcasing planets and can serve as a directional guide--the AMNH entrance in on Central Park West. The AMNH has a great tree! Each ornament is a prehistoric animal displayed as origami artwork. The figures are incredibly complex and quite stunning. This is a tree where you will want to really focus on it for a while. See if you can find the scuba diver and penguin hatchling.

* Go to the lower level of the museum and catch the Subway. Decision point:
(1) If you want to see one more set of great windows, then catch the Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour train to 34th St/Herald Square and enjoy Macy's windows;
(2) Catch the next train Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour or Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour train Downtown...from the AMNH stop, you can transfer at 59th St/ 42nd St to go to dinner.

If you have tickets for Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Show, you can catch the Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour train to Rockefeller Center and exit at 50th Street

So, at this point, you are done...head to dinner, your hotel, or other fun activity.

If you still have some energy and want to see a bit more try this option...

Bonus option:
a five minute walk east on 34th Street (towards 5th Ave) from Macy's is the Empire State Building; be sure to get tickets in advance here, as the lines can be long -- then when you are done, walk north four blocks on Fifth Ave (against the flow of traffic) and go to Lord & Taylor to see their great windows

Extra Day:
If you have more time then there are two options:
(1) For the most outrageous and well-done competitive holiday lights (some pictures here), go to Dyker Heights in Brooklyn: take the Brooklyn bound Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals TourImage:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour train to 18th Ave, or the Brooklyn bound Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour train to 86th Street...Staten Island also has some neighborhoods like this as well. The neighborhood residents are very competitive and start building their holiday structures in early November.

(2) Head to the New York Botanical Gardens in Queens. They have a New York City replica made of plants and a fantastic holiday model railroad exhibit. The best way to get there is via Metro-North Railroad's Harlem line, from Grand Central Terminal. Buy a ticket from GCT to Botanical Garden stop--you are right across the street from the exhibit and is a 20 minute ride. Save money by buying Metro-North tickets in advance. Note: MNRR charges a lot to purchase on-board--buy at the ticket machines or via the ticket counter--which will also tell you the next train departure
Or, you can take the Image:Christmas in New York: The Locals TourImage:Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour subway train to Bedford Park Blvd, but it's a bit of a hike (20 minutes) from the subway stop to the gardens, so make sure you have the time to walk there if you go this route. Check-out this site for all the transportation details. Washington , DC has a similar exhibit with all of the monuments built with vegetation too, and I found it to be time well spent. The NYC version is worth a visit if you have the time.

Evening enjoyment:
The New York City's rendition of The Nutcracker Suite is well done

Tip: Here is the current subway map, for your reference

Merry Christmas
and Happy New Year! I hope you enjoy your time in New York City. Send me any questions you might have. Have a great day!


1Dan Soares  12/27/10 6:55:23 AM  Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour

What a well done piece Bill. I lived and worked in NY for 14 years.

Also a must see if you are on 5th Ave and around Central park is the FAO Schwartz store to satisfy the inner child in each of us :-)


2Bill Malchisky  12/27/10 9:49:56 AM  Christmas in New York: The Locals Tour

Thanks, Dan. Added it plus a notation in the beginning about ensuring you leave earlier to allow for that, enjoyable side adventure. Appreciate the comment.

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