For a day or a weekend sparkling with the season's spirit, there's no topping the Big Apple, with a twinkling Norway spruce towering over the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center, storytelling department store windows and the breathtaking Santaland.
With the aroma of roasting chestnuts, the sight of choreographed light shows and the spectacle of Gaga's Workshop, you can't help but get swept up in the excitement of the season — and you might get your Christmas shopping done, too.
You'll have money to spend, because other than about $30 for parking, most of the sights are free. Yes, you can splurge and see the Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, but there's a way to save a few bucks on those tickets.
So slip into comfortable walking shoes and take a walking tour of the city's Christmas spectacles.
Start at Macy's Herald Square at 34th Street and Broadway, the setting for the classic movie "Miracle on 34th Street." The story is told each year, in scenes depicting Kriss Kringle winning over 6-year-old Susan Walker, and his lawyer proving in court that there is a Santa Claus. This year, the display has been moved from windows along two sides of the landmark department store to the eighth floor, near Santaland.
Ride the wooden escalators, which date to 1902, instead of waiting for the more modern elevators to reach the eighth floor. Perky elves direct you to a seat on the Macyland Express and along a path through the Enchanted Forest, surrounded by decorated trees, model trains, ice-skating polar bears and bags of toys. The trail ends at the North Pole, where the elves will take your picture with Santa.
"Mrs. Claus likes to see everyone who's visiting him," they explain. You can buy their photo, but they'll also capture the moment with your camera for free. And you'll get a little gift (we won't spoil the surprise).
Back on the street, grab a hot dog with sauerkraut from one of the many vendors. Walk east to Fifth Avenue, then north to 38th Street, where Lord & Taylor has been decorating its windows with holiday displays since 1938.
This year's display — "What is Christmas Made Of?" — is inspired by thousands of drawings by children in Women in Need Shelters and local schools. Each of the five windows along Fifth Avenue has about 20 drawings, with mechanized figures acting out traditional holiday activities like picking out a Christmas tree or building a snowman.
Keep strolling north along Fifth Avenue for some window shopping and people watching. If you have young girls in the family, head into the American Girl Place at 49th Street to shop for a doll and accessories.
Across 49th Street, Saks Fifth Avenue has attracted crowds since 1949. This year, vignettes in 12 windows tell the story "Who Makes the Snow?" in which a young girl looks for the source of bubbles and snowflakes. The story comes to life on the store's facade each night with a light show, which runs two minutes and can be seen every 15 minutes from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Across Fifth Avenue, you can easily spend a day at Rockefeller Center. The main attraction is the 74-foot Christmas tree, which is from Mifflinville, Pa., this year. It's illuminated by 30,000 lights and topped by a Swarovski crystal star.
Watch the ice skaters, or rent skates for $10 and circle the rink for 90 minutes for $12.50 (children under 11 and seniors) to $21 (adults).
If you'd rather be entertained, make your way to Sixth Avenue and West 51st Street for the show at Radio City Music Hall, featuring the traditional "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and a new 3-D video game adventure. Tickets cost $45 to $165, but look for discount coupons handed out around Rockefeller Center.
By now, you're probably hungry and running out of gas, but there's still a cluster of seasonal sights near Central Park that are worth the eight-block walk. So reward yourself with a late lunch or early dinner at the Stage Deli of New York or Carnegie Deli, both on Seventh Avenue between 53rd and 55th streets.
The legendary restaurants are known for their triple-decker sandwiches. Leave room for cheesecake and wash it all down with an egg cream. The Carnegie does not accept credit cards, but there's an ATM machine out front.
Now you're ready to walk off all those calories.
Head one block west to Eighth Avenue, then north a few streets to Columbus Circle to see Time Warner Center's Holiday Under the Stars. A dozen 14-foot stars hanging from the ceiling of the Great Room are lit up from 5 p.m. to midnight, choreographed to holiday songs by Wynton Marsalis and members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Make your way back to Fifth Avenue, walking along 59th Street past horse-drawn carriages ready to take you for a ride in Central Park.
At 58th Street, doormen dressed as toy soldiers welcome the child in all of us to FAO Schwarz. Three floors are packed with toys for children of all ages and interests. Check out the gourmet cupcakes at the cafe, then head back to Fifth Avenue to see the high fantasy windows at Bergdorf Goodman.
The five main displays are in the women's store on the west side of the street, but there are a total of 35 windows in that store and the men's store across Fifth Avenue. Don't miss the bank of windows in the women's store along 57th Street — many tourists never notice them. This year's theme is Carnival of the Animals.
Now it's decision time. The windows at Barneys and Bloomingdale's are always a treat, but they'll take you farther from your car. If your feet are up to it, keep going — you can always take a cab downtown.
At Barneys, you'll think you're walking into the mouth of a giant, monsterlike Lady Gaga as you enter the store from 60th Street. Head to the fifth floor, which has been transformed into the singer-songwriter's interpretation of Santa's Workshop, with eight stations, including a jewelry shop that looks like an oversized Lady Gaga-turned-spider and a boudoir in the shape of a giant wig. The store's windows along Madison Avenue are a Gaga-themed collage inspired by music, fashion, astrology and the elements.
Return to a more traditional celebration of the season at Bloomingdale's, at 59th and Lexington, where the windows feature the store's shopping bags through the years. Smile as you peer into the windows — a camera will take your picture for the display and the store's Facebook page.
As you head back downtown, check out Henri Bendel's New York-themed window on Fifth Avenue at 56th Street. The centerpiece is a mannequin dressed as a fashionable Statue of Liberty, including a dress made of 3,000 jelly beans.
The sidewalks and streets, just as lively at night, are invigorating — you won't want your holiday tour to end. Don't worry — the dazzling displays will fill you with holiday spirit the whole season long.