If Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, then New York City is the happiest place on earth during the holidays. For those planning to visit the Big Apple this time of year, here are five not-so-obvious attractions — many of which are free:
1. Holiday windows
It doesn’t cost a dime to plan a self-guided walking tour of Manhattan’s best-dressed holiday windows. A 1.9-mile stroll of the best windows starts (or ends) at Macy’s (151 West 34th St., between Seventh Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas). From here, walk two blocks to the Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue, and walk north to visit the windows at Lord & Taylor (424 Fifth Ave.), Saks Fifth Avenue (611 Fifth Ave.), Barneys (575 Fifth Ave.) and Bergdorf Goodman (754 Fifth Ave.). From Bergdorf’s at 58th Street, head north one more block and then walk east four blocks to your final destination: Bloomingdale’s (1000 Third Ave.).
2. Tree at Rockefeller Center
Free ($31 for ice skating, $45 and up for Rockettes)
The holiday tree at Rockefeller Plaza — located between West 48th and West 51st streets and Fifth and Sixth avenues — is one of the most popular symbols of the holidays in New York. On display through Jan. 7, this year’s tree — a 10-ton, 74-foot-tall Norway spruce from Mifflinville, Pa. — is illuminated by 30,000 environmentally friendly LED lights on five miles of wire, and crowned by a Swarovski crystal star.
Add-ons to this experience include enjoying a 90-minute ice skating session at the rink at Rockefeller Center — $31 per adult with skate rentals — and going to see the Rockettes perform in the 79th annual “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall. Tickets are pricey ($45 to $250), but if you are willing to see a morning performance, you’ll get the best deal. The 90-minute show runs several times daily through Jan. 2.
3. Holiday markets
Free to browsers
For one-of-a-kind gifts created by local artists and vendors, visit indoor and outdoor holiday markets, located at Columbus Circle (West 59th St. entrance to Central Park), Bryant Park (West 40th Street behind the New York Public Library), Union Square (at Union Square on 14th Street at Broadway) and Grand Central Terminal (87 E. 42nd St.), the last of which is a must-see spot for any foodie.
4. Stargazing on Broadway
$51.50 to $199.50 (students $29.50)
One of the hottest tickets on Broadway this holiday season is “Seminar,” a new comedy starring Alan Rickman (“Harry Potter” movies, “Love Actually”) about four aspiring novelists who sign up for private writing classes with an international literary figure (Rickman). Written by Pulitzer Prize nominee Theresa Rebeck and directed by Obie Award winner Sam Gold, the 90-minute performance — which is scheduled to run through March — has tickets ranging from $51.50 to $199.50. However, the box office at the Golden Theater will offer student rush tickets for $29.50 on the day of the performance, two hours prior to curtain with valid and current student ID.
5. Holiday Fantasy at New York Palace Hotel
Free to visit
This year, the iconic New York Palace Hotel — located behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 50th Street and Madison Avenue — is launching its first Holiday Fantasy, which will include a 30-foot holiday tree in the center of its courtyard; holiday-inspired palace guards to greet guests; a Snowflake Princess who will make special appearances at the weekend holiday brunch; a daily holiday happy hour with seasonal cocktails; and a giant gingerbread house with a chocolate train in the main lobby. Note: The hotel welcomes guests to visit the courtyard and holiday areas, but if you need a place to stay, consider staying here — the hotel is offering special holiday rates starting at $299 per night from Dec. 18 to 25.
IF YOU GO
For the most comfortable flight with the most in-flight entertainment, book a ticket on Virgin America, which offers nonstop service between San Francisco International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport. From JFK, take the AirTrain ($5) to the Jamaica Street Station, at which you can transfer to a 20-minute express train on the Long Island Rail Road to New York Penn Station ($6.25).
- Visitor information: nycgo.com/holidays
- Rink at Rockefeller Center: therinkatrockcenter.com
- Radio City Music Hall: radiocitychristmas.com/newyork
- Columbus Circle Holiday Market: urbanspacenyc.com/columbus-circle-holiday-market
- Bryant Park Holiday Market: theholidayshopsatbryantpark.com
- Union Square Holiday Market: urbanspacenyc.com/union-square-holiday-market
- Grand Central Terminal Market: grandcentralterminal.com
- ‘Seminar’: seminaronbroadway.com
- New York Palace Hotel: newyorkpalace.com
Starting at $149 per night
The newest and biggest hotel to open in New York City this year is the Yotel in Manhattan’s theater district (10th Avenue at 42nd Street). This ultra-hip hotel has beautiful public spaces, hip bars, a large outdoor terrace, an excellent Latin-Asian restaurant (Dohyo), high-tech perks — such as self-guided online check-in and a Yobot robotic luggage storage system — and space-efficient rooms, known as cabins. For more information, visit www.yotel.com.
Phish on New Year’s Eve
Dec. 28-31, all shows are sold out; tickets on Craigslist going for $250 and up
To cap off 2011, one of the hottest tickets in New York is seeing Phish at Madison Square Garden, where the band will play four straight nights with a grand finale on New Year’s Eve. Although tickets are priced at $70 per person, on Craigslist they are going for $250 and up. As with Phish’s summer tour, included in the ticket price for each date is a free MP3 download of the entire show (a fully mixed soundboard recording), redeemable at LivePhish.com. For more information, visit www.thegarden.com or www.phish.com. — Kathleen Jay
LIFE BY NUMBERS
1.9 Miles between Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s in New York
74 Height in feet of this year’s holiday tree at Rockefeller Center
90 Minutes during either “The Christmas Spectacular” or “Seminar” shows