NEW YORK — 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, story-telling 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 Kris 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.
In the windows along 34th Street, you can hear and read the story, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," a newspaper's response to an 8-year-old girl's letter. And new this year is Make-A-Wish, a series of window displays that take you on a magical and whimsical journey to experience the season's wishes and dreams.
Next, head inside to visit 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 Christmas trees, model trains, ice-skating polar bears, bags of toys, and child-sized lollipops and candy canes. 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 — sorry, I don't want to spoil the surprise.
One floor up, browse the decorations for sale in the Christmas Shop.
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 the traditional holiday activity: picking out a
Christmas tree, trimming the tree, ice skating in Central Park, building a snowman, and waiting for Santa.
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 everything that comes with them.
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 displays also include one-of-a-kind fashions by 10 designers.
The story comes to life on the store's facade each night with The Snowflake and the Bubble light show, which runs two minutes and can be seen every 15 minutes from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
A block north, step into St. Patrick's Cathedral. The Gothic church is worth visiting in any season, for its dramatic sanctuary, side altars, statues and stained-glass windows. If you're in town the evening of Dec. 15, stop in for the 32nd annual A City Singing at Christmas, featuring the cathedral's choir and organs, the Young People's Chorus of New York City, the Connecticut Chamber Choir and the New York Symphonic Brass.
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, topped by a Swarovski crystal star. The tree's 30,000 lights will be lit for the first time on Wednesday (Nov. 30).
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 (more if you want your picture taken with Santa or a Rockette), but look for discount coupons handed out around Rockefeller Center.
You also can find discount tickets for the Top of the Rock observation deck (full price is $16 to $38), where you can get a bird's-eye view of the city from 70 stories up.
For an update on the events of the day, read the news ticker on the front of the NBC building. You can buy tickets to tour the studios (you might have to plan that in advance), and gifts for fans of "The Office," "30 Rock," "Psyche" and other NBC and USA Network shows.
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 7th Avenue between 53rd and 55th streets.
The Carnegie has been around for 74 years, the Stage Deli for 70, and both are known for their triple-decker sandwiches heaped with pastrami, corned beef, turkey and other deli delights. You might want to share, because you don't want to walk around with a doggie bag, and you do want to leave room for their renowned cheesecake. Wash it all down with an egg cream.
Know that 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.
If you've got the time and the energy, walk 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 children in all of us to FAO Schwarz. Three floors are packed with toys for children of all ages and interests. Giraffes, bears and other stuffed animals are as big as an adult; a Lego section has a life-sized Lego Santa; and dolls called Brownstone Buddies represent children around the world. You can even hop on the floor piano like Tom Hanks did in the movie "Big."
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, and each of the five main windows feature a different material, says David Hoey, Bergdorf's director of visual presentation. "One has antique animals made of wood; another, black-and-white paper animals. There's an aquarium with Italian mosaic tiles, a window with brass and metal animals, mostly birds," and another filled with plush animals.
The windows also show mannequins modeling fashion designers' outfits tied into the theme, Hoey says.
Now, it's decision time. The windows at Barneys and Bloomingdales 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, monster-like 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: candy shop; toy shop; closet, for apparel and accessories; library, for books, CDs, media, and paper goods; a gallery of collectibles and specialty items; jewelry; boudoir, for candles and cosmetics; and holiday.
The jewelry shop looks like an oversized Lady Gaga-turned-spider, and the boudoir is 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 legendary 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 her dress made of 3,000 jelly beans.
And make sure to stop at Saks to see The Snowflake and the Bubble light show.
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, heartwarming displays will fill you with holiday spirit the whole season long.