Christmas in New York: The City's Best Holiday Window Displays
If your idea of the holidays involves glittering lights, bright colors, jingle bells, and the sort of magic that only exorbitant budgets can make possible, then New York City beats the North Pole every time. From right before Thanksgiving until right after the New Year, Manhattan’s big retailers go all out to create eye-popping Christmastime window displays at their flagship locations on Fifth Avenue or nearby, competing with ever more elaborate vignettes, whether motorized, interactive, artsy, or elegant. A merry union of commerce and creativity, it’s a tradition that can fill even the grouchiest Grinch with a sense of childlike wonder. Follow along on our walking tour of the jolliest spots.
But first, a word of warning: Expect intense crowding along this route, especially during weekends and at mid-day. Sidewalks may be stuffed with rows of shoulder-to-shoulder tourists, and you might have to wait in a line to see some windows. Foot traffic can be marginally less hectic early or late in the day and on weekdays, but no matter when you go, the crowd-averse will need to exercise patience. 'Tis the season to test your commitment to peace on earth and goodwill to humankind.
Start your holiday window gawking where the tradition began. Macy’s has been wowing shoppers of all ages with elaborate yuletide displays since the 1870s—an annual project that now takes nearly a year of planning, three weeks of installation, and more than 200 decorators, graphic artists, sculptors, animators, carpenters, electricians, and audiovisual pros. The store’s six windows along Broadway are among the most high-tech (and animated) in the city, with falling snow, twirling critters, bustling city scenes, and interactive elements (in 2016, you could touch a panel to find out where you fell on the naughty-nice spectrum). Expect also a starring role for Santa since, after all, this is the spot where he performed his Miracle on 34th Street. Each year, the store’s windows along that thoroughfare tell the famous tale of “Yes, Virginia."
Pictured above: part of 2017's display
From Macy’s, head east toward Manhattan’s main retail corridor, ritzy Fifth Avenue (if you get turned around, locate the Empire State Building on the skyline and walk in that direction). Turn left at Fifth, remaining on the left side of the street, and continue a few blocks until you reach the grand Italian Renaissance-style landmark building that’s home to Lord & Taylor. Like the Macy’s displays, Lord & Taylor’s five animated windows qualify as bona fide New York City holiday icons—the store has been staging these spectacles since 1937 and will continue to do so even as its retail floor space diminishes (WeWork is converting most of the building into communal workspaces). In the days before the unveiling each November, the swirling snow globes, smiling elves, and cute woodland creatures on display are dramatically raised to street level via old-fashioned hydraulics. Hanging garland and twinkling lights create an atmosphere akin to an enchanted forest.Pictured above: part of 2017's display
If you take this tour in the evening, you won’t have any trouble spotting Saks Fifth Avenue on the right side of the street as you continue northward. Roughly every 10 minutes after 5pm, an extravagant light show (pictured) fills 10 stories of the building’s façade with an explosion of color and flashing winter designs, all timed to booming Christmas carols. Imagine a cross between the Bellagio fountain show in Las Vegas and Clark Griswold’s holiday décor in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation—only without the water or threat of electrocution. At street level, Saks’s windows typically convey a kind of fairytale luxury, as in 2016’s Nutcracker-themed display (which looked like the world’s fanciest candy shop) and 2017’s collaboration with Disney commemorating the 80th anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Now pause to feast your eyes on the most iconic symbol of a New York City Christmas: the tree at Rockefeller Center, located just across Fifth Avenue from Saks. Stationed amid an ice rink, Art Deco skyscrapers, and statues of gods, the tree is lit every year in a public ceremony held on the Wednesday after Thanksgiving (the 2012 event is pictured above). Most years, you’ll find a Norwegian spruce that stands roughly 70 feet tall and serves, according to the Rockefeller Center website, as a “holiday beacon for New Yorkers and visitors alike.” That may sound grandiose, unless you see pictures of the tree decked out in red, white, and blue after September 11 or standing next to a long line of workers during the Great Depression, and you suddenly realize you’re humming “Joy to the World” and there’s a lump in your throat.
Speaking of pictures, the ones you snap will almost certainly have a horde of strangers crowding the frame: An incredible 500,000 people pass through this plaza each day during the holiday season. Looking to avoid crowds? Haha, you're adorable. Still, the smallest multitudes swarm the plaza early in the morning (before 10am) and late at night (after 10pm). The ice rink stays open from 8:30am to midnight.
Leaving Rockefeller Center, turn left to reach the fancy-schmanciest portion of Fifth Avenue, home to high-end accessories purveyor Henri Bendel (on the left side of the street, between 55th and 56th) and legendary jewelry retailers Tiffany & Co. (across the street, between 56th and 57th). Window-wise, Henri Bendel specializes in quirky creations that turn the store into a kind of offbeat art installation. At once sophisticated and playful, designs have incorporated Belle Epoque nutcrackers, graffiti murals, and 3D paper sculptures. Tiffany’s, meanwhile, beautifully showcases its wares in elegant, small-scale windows (one is pictured above) where strings of pearls double as Christmas tree garlands and sparkling diamonds serve as stars, chandeliers, or even the ice in a frozen pond. Tiffany’s signature shade of robin-egg blue is, of course, the go-to accent color.
Cross 57th St. and travel one block north of Tiffany's, keeping on the left side of the street, and you'll come to our final Fifth Avenue stop (but not the last stop on the tour), Bergdorf Goodman. This long-lived luxury department store for the 0.01% pursues a policy of "fantastical storytelling" in its holiday window displays. In practice, that means bold colors and a somewhat hallucinatory ambiance with few discernible links to any December holiday. You might find a bright green, high-fashion take on a natural history museum (as in 2016) or a flashy salute to New York cultural institutions that’s heavy on neon and chrome (2017). Prominent space is given to gowns, shoes, jewelry, and outerwear going at prices higher than the per capita GDP of several small countries.
Having exhausted the department store supply on Fifth Avenue, turn right on 60th St. (Central Park will be on your left) and you'll come across Barneys at the intersection with Madison Ave. Of all the windows you’ve peeped on this tour, these promise to be the most delightfully weird. The luxury retailer is known for end-of-year collaborations with high-profile creative types who not only come up with five surreal window concepts, but also limited-edition merchandise to raise money for a worthy cause. In the past, this has resulted in displays showing Minnie Mouse getting a runway makeover, Lady Gaga reimagined as a couture insect, a talking steampunk owl courtesy of film director Baz Luhrmann, and, from Jay Z’s year, a sportscar-esque sleigh ride with a dressed-to-the-nines Santa and Mrs. Claus. One of 2017's windows, depicting a futuristic "Mushroom Singularity" envisioned by design duo the Haas Brothers, is pictured above.
At 60th and Madison, make a right and then at the next block a left onto 59th St., which you'll follow for a couple blocks before bringing your journey of window appreciation to a close at another landmark of NYC shopping, Bloomingdale’s at 59th and Lexington Ave. Like Macy’s (which now owns both chains), Bloomingdale’s has roots in the mid-19th century, but its attitude is less traditional and more upscale than its corporate cousin, in keeping with the flagship store’s stylish Art Deco exterior and reliably inventive holiday window displays (part of 2017's vintage circus design, promoting P.T. Barnum biopic The Greatest Showman, is pictured above). The place tends to look the way we imagine Jay Gatsby would have had his Long Island mansion decorated for Christmas—lots of gold, crystal, mirrors, and light, creating a cosmopolitan mood that’s festive but not especially cuddly. We mean that in a good way; what’s New York without a little cool sophistication?