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A tourist’s Christmas in Manhattan

A tourist's Christmas in midtown Manhattan has a logical starting place: Rockefeller Center, with the famous tree and ice skating rink, Radio City Music Hall, and more.
Travel Trip Midtown Christmas
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree stands lit in front of the General Electric building in New York's Rockefeller Plaza.Frank Franklin Ii / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A tourist's Christmas in midtown Manhattan has a logical starting place: Rockefeller Center, with the famous tree and ice skating rink, Radio City Music Hall, and the view from Top of the Rock, the observation deck at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

The bad news is, there are so many tourists this time of year, you might have to wait in line just to cross the street.

The good news is, within a few blocks of Rock Center, you'll find everything Manhattan has to offer: world-famous art and architecture, great food, incomparable shopping and even a gingerbread house display.

For shoppers, start your tour just a few steps from the big tree. Anthropologie, at 50 Rockefeller Plaza, has turned its windows into a vision of winter white, filled with enormous whimsical snowballs and other signs of the season. Inside the visitor will find cozy sweaters, berets and other casual but trendy clothes.

"It's easy to get distracted by things you want for yourself when you're shopping for gifts, which is why midtown Manhattan is a great place to tackle your list," said Elise Loehnen, editor-at-large for Lucky Magazine. "It's so rife with holiday spirit that it's impossible to get off-track."

She added that because midtown stores are "engineered to handle crowds," they can be easier to navigate than crowded shopping elsewhere.

A few blocks north of Anthropologie, on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, Loehnen suggests stopping in at the Museum of Modern Art Design Store. Here you will find a carefully curated selection of apparel, gifts and everyday objects like salt and pepper shakers, all reinterpreted with a sleek and urbane aesthetic.

At the museum itself, check out the Tim Burton exhibition, a tribute to the filmmaker's art and creativity. And no, that is not a green holiday reindeer in MOMA's Abby Aldrich Sculpture Garden. It is a replica of the deer topiary from Burton's movie, "Edward Scissorhands." Also on view for the first time since MOMA reopened in 2004, the museum is showing all four of its Monet "Water Lilies" paintings.

Heading up Fifth Avenue, it's fun to people-watch and window-shop at fancy stores even if you cannot afford to shop there. Baubles hang like sparkling icicles in the windows at Harry Winston, the famous jeweler near 56th Street. On the same block, check out the scene at Henri Bendel, which carries nothing but accessories — bags, gloves, makeup and the latest craze among New York's smartly dressed women, scarves. You will see many peddlers selling scarves on the street for $5, but at Bendel, a long black scarf shimmering with sequins will set you back nearly $200, while a black-and-white striped infinity scarf, twisted into a wrap that sits on your shoulders perfectly and never comes undone, is just under $150.

At 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, enjoy the design of the Apple store, with its capsule elevator and spiral staircase. FAO Schwarz is right behind it, and if you cannot afford the famous toy store's $399 pink puppy the size of a chair, a tossable sack called a Myachi is just $6.99. Or fill a bag with candy from FAO's selection of old-fashioned goodies, $3.25 for a quarter pound.

The Plaza Hotel across the street has temporarily closed the Palm Court, where afternoon tea was served. But downstairs, amid high-end designer boutiques in the Plaza's new underground retail area, an Austrian cafe called Demel serves food as good as the old tea's finger sandwiches and sweets, but at a fraction of the price.

Demel is run by two friendly brothers whose family owns cafes by the same name in Austria. Open-faced sandwiches with a choice of cheeses, salmon or prosciutto are served on hearty bread, $3-$5. Scrumptious chocolate tortes and other desserts are about $5, and coffee is served the Austrian way, on a silver tray with a glass of water on the side. After lunch, stop by the new shop themed on Eloise, the naughty little girl who lived at the Plaza in a beloved children's book.

A bit north and east, Barneys New York, at 666 Madison Ave. near 61st, is celebrating characters from a different genre: Its holiday windows feature favorites from "Saturday Night Live" like Roseanne Roseannadanna, the Church Lady, and Wayne and Garth, in the form of lifesize papier-mache ornaments.

Now head west. At 959 Eighth Ave., near 57th Street, you'll notice a notable 21st century addition to the skyline: The Hearst Tower, its exterior framed with a grid of triangles that makes it easy to pick out from blocks away. Inside the lobby you will find a "spectacular waterfall," said Matthew A. Postal, a researcher at the New York City Landmarks Commission and co-author of "Ten Architectural Walking Tours in Manhattan."

Other skyscrapers worth seeking out, Postal said, include these monuments to 20th century Modernism: the Seagram Building, 375 Park Ave. at 52nd Street, and Lever House, 390 Park, between 53rd and 54th. At 42nd Street and Park, Grand Central Terminal is noted for its Beaux Arts design, and of course, back where you started, Rockefeller Center offers sleek Art Deco buildings and what Postal called "wonderful public spaces."

One addition to midtown this holiday season is a gingerbread display at Le Parker Meridien Hotel, 119 W. 56th St., between Sixth and Seventh avenues. Famous bakeries around the city, including Magnolia, Billy's, Buttercup and the Cupcake Cafe, plus the hotel's restaurant, Norma's, created eight gingerbread houses that range from depictions of Grand Central to the Three Little Pigs. Stop by the hotel concierge desk and buy a $1 ballot to vote on your favorite; the money goes to City Harvest, which supplies programs that feed the city's poor. Your ballot also enters you in a raffle for a trip to the hotel's sister property in California, the Parker Palm Springs.

Nearby, the Official NYC Information Center at 810 Seventh Ave., between 52nd and 53rd streets, offers high-tech help for tourists as well as old-fashioned concierge services. Use interactive map tables to create itineraries that can be printed or sent to your phone or e-mail. Pick up sample neighborhood itineraries, ask the multi-lingual staff for help in booking tickets, or buy MetroCards (subway passes). If you prefer to plan before you hit town, visit

Wander through the theater district to Times Square, using the new pedestrian plaza that runs along Broadway from 47th to 42nd streets. The TKTS discount ticket booth is at 47th.

If you liked the MOMA Design Store, you won't want to miss the Muji store, at 620 Eighth Ave. and 40th Street. MOMA has some Muji items, but here you'll find a larger selection of housewares, accessories and clothes in elegantly simple designs.

Nearby, The Pond at Bryant Park, 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, offers free ice skating (admission is free, though you pay for skate rental). The park also hosts a holiday vendors' market, as does Grand Central, a few blocks east.

To find interesting but moderately priced places to eat, I did what any self-respecting traveler would do these days: I posted a Facebook message, asking for recommendations from friends who live in Manhattan, work here or visit often.

The results, which include a few choices as far west as 10th Avenue, are as good as any guidebook or Web site: Wu Liang Ye, 36 W. 48th St., Szechuan Chinese food; Toloache, 251 W. 50th St., Mexican; Uncle Nick's, 747 Ninth Ave., Greek; Hourglass Tavern, 373 W. 46th St., where vegetarians and carnivores can both find happiness; Taboon, 773 10th Ave., Middle Eastern; Aaheli, 826 Ninth Ave., Indian; and Meskerem, 468 W. 47th St., Ethiopian.

If those sound too adventurous for your tastes, La Bonne Soup, 48 W. 55th St., has a $17.25 meal with soup, salad, bread, dessert and beverage. Or go for burgers at Ted's Montana Grill, 110 W. 51st St., or Prime Burger, 5 E. 51st Street. Finally, for fantastic coffee and cupcakes with the most beautiful frosting flowers you have ever seen, go to the Cupcake Cafe, 545 Ninth Ave.

One more spot worth visiting on your Christmas tour of midtown is St. Patrick's Cathedral. The grand church on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets offers a way to contemplate the meaning of Christmas without all the shopping and the frenzy. It's just a block from the Rockefeller Center tree, but it can sometimes feel a world away.