New York City’s Five Boroughs Sparkle with Holiday Lights and Cheer

Christmas lights, Meryl Pearlstein
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It’s the most wonderful time of the year. New York City is alive with lights, fanciful displays and joyous music throughout. Shop facades are decorated, department store windows outdo themselves with innovative style and color, and even the sidewalks are adorned with little gift packages adorned with lights.

Here are some suggestions for where to go in the five boroughs to take in the lights.

BROOKLYN

Although the entire borough is lit up neighborhood by neighborhood, set your GPS for Dyker Heights, the doyenne of everything Christmas.

Dyker Heights ©Meryl Pearlstein

The Lights of Dyker Heights

It’s hard to imagine Christmas without the over-the-top lights displays of the houses in Dyker Heights in Brooklyn. Started in 1986 by Lucy Spata as a give-back to brighten up the neighborhood, the decorated homes and yards have attracted busloads of tourists to the streets each year.

It’s an immediate way to lift your spirits as you marvel at the passion and creativity here. The main area is 83rd through 86th streets between 11th and 13th avenues. Plan for crowds as this is one of the most popular highlights of the Christmas season in New York City, although due to COVID, you may have a somewhat easier time viewing the inflatable Santa’s, motorized displays and thousands of candy canes and elves, as walking tours are replacing buses

Street ornaments ©Meryl Pearlstein

STATEN ISLAND AND QUEENS

These two boroughs welcome you to two festivals of lanterns. Tickets are required for both.

Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Gardens has a brilliant display of more than 1000 winter lanterns, sculpted into figures of all sorts. It’s a party, too, with a live DJ, lots of food, interactive display amid the eight acres of luminaries. You’ll also come away with a holiday gift, your own personal wish lantern. 

In Queens, Queens Country Farm Museum is transformed into another lantern and figure wonderland for the first time with luminaries taking on shapes appropriate to the farm: flowers, farm animals and tractors. A festive atmosphere reigns throughout with music, food and lots of space to enjoy the lights. 

MANHATTAN

Manhattan is no stranger to visitors when it comes to Christmas cheer. From the glittering tree at Rockefeller Center to the showcase lights on buildings and in store windows and the row of white-light adorned trees along the median on Park Avenue and oversized Christmas ornaments and wooden soldiers along Sixth Avenue, there’s something to snap a photo of wherever you turn.

Holiday Windows and Sidewalks

Saks Fifth AVenue ©Meryl Pearlstein
Bergdorf Goodman gingerbread house ©Meryl Pearlstein

Take a walk down Fifth Avenue where you’ll see some of the department stores’ most elaborate holiday windows. Plan to spend some time in front of Saks Fifth Avenue where this year’s windows were inspired by drawings from children. The windows in front of Bergdorf-Goodman, as always, are a stylefest of imagery with adventure, fashion and fantasy themes, strikingly arranged in tones of black and white, red and white, and rainbow montages and encouraging you to be “in the now.” 

American Girl ©Meryl Pearlstein

Individual stores like American Girl and the Lego Store have their own window displays decked out with all kinds of merriment. And the exteriors of stores like Cartier twinkle with fully lit décor all wrapped up in red ribbon.

Fifth Avenue ©Meryl Pearlstein

Additionally, park yourself in front of the glorious Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and watch the music-and-light spectacular that happens every 15 minutes on the façade of Saks Fifth Avenue across the avenue. For about three minutes, the entire façade changes with lights and decorations with music that will entice and have you humming “So Happy Together” or Beethoven’s Ode to Joy over and over again.

FAO Schwarz teddy bear ©Meryl Pearlstein

And this year, there’s a special bonus. A variety of stores have created magical displays right on the sidewalk in front of their establishments. There’s a Microsoft cube in front of the Microsoft store, a giant teddy bear in front of FAO Schwarz, gift packages in front of Cartier, Christmas ornaments across from Tiffany’s and much more. You’ll need to walk up and down both sides of Fifth Avenue to see them all.

Microsoft cube ©Meryl Pearlstein

Brookfield Place

The mall’s annual Luminaries tradition invites participation with an interactive installation in the Winter Garden. Each hour, you’ll enjoy a special light show featuring music by groups like The Bird and the Bee and Pentatonix. A canopy of colorful lights is formed from hundreds of lanterns suspended among the palms. Below, contactless wishing stations let you send a motion-activated wish to the lanterns prompting a magical display of lights and colors. And you’ll be doing a good deed, too. For each wish that you make, Brookfield Place will donate $1to an organization that’s near and dear to me, ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants), which supports New York City restaurant employees facing economic challenges as a result of the pandemic. This year, a new experience called Maestro! allows you to conduct the canopy with a gesture-controlled instrument.

Hudson Yards ©Meryl Pearlstein

Hudson Yards

If you can tear yourself away from the outside plaza at Hudson Yards or down from The Edge (which is also decked out with holiday lights and a garland), you should venture inside the Hudson Yards mall where Shine Bright at Hudson Yards, a twinkling, floor-to-ceiling display of more than two million lights illuminates The Shops indoor and the Public Square and Gardens, The Edge and The Vessel outside. Floating hot air balloons and Christmas trees add to the twinkling magic. 

Empire State Building courtesy Empire State Building

Empire State Building

Look up – it’s a candy-cane wrapped spire of the Empire State Building. But here’s a little bonus. You can watch the changing colors of the Empire State Building along with the lights of downtown NYC on their ESB Live Cam. Two cameras give you two always-changing views. I could watch these for hours.

THE BRONX

NYBG GLOW ©Meryl Pearlstein

NYBG Glow

Each year the New York Botanical Garden schedules its beloved train show for the holidays with New York City vignettes and buildings created out of flora and fauna foraged from nature. Further brightening up the landscape, NYBG Glow shines bright into the night with its outdoor color and light experience surrounding the Haupt Conservatory. As you explore, colors, dazzling lights and nighttime illuminations in the reflecting pool and area create a winter wonderland that looks even more beautiful on a snowy evening. Adding to the festivities are ice carving displays, roaming dancers and musicians. Expect a Hip Hop Nutcracker performance of the re-imagined Tchaikovsky classic as well. Timed-entry tickets are required for entry.

The Bronx Zoo courtesy The Bronx Zoo

The Bronx Zoo Holiday Lights

Nearby, the Bronx Zoo doesn’t disappoint with their seasonal celebration of lights. There you’ll see illuminated animals and flowers, ice sculptures, a decked-out Christmas tree and light-strung buildings as you wander along “a safari” path through Africa, Asia, Latin America, North America and the Ocean. Costumed characters, stilt walkers and projections onto buildings add to the sparkle. A returning favorite, the Luminous Garden is filled with larger-than-life plants and animals.

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