Rockefeller Center is home to what is probably New York's most famous Christmas tree. But the 74-foot-tall Norway spruce is just one of a number of trees worth visiting around the city. You can even make your own Christmas tree tour, using each stop as a jumping-off point to explore other attractions.
Braving the considerable crowds at Rockefeller Center for a glimpse of the tree, which was lit Tuesday night, also offers opportunities for ice skating, for catching the view from 70 floors up at 30 Rock's Top of the Rock observation deck, and for shopping at stores like Rain, 59 W. 49th St., which sells bath and body products with African origins. Also nearby: Radio City Music Hall, Sixth Avenue near 50th Street; St. Patrick's Cathedral, Fifth Avenue near 51st Street; and the Museum of Modern Art, 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues.
As you walk up Fifth Avenue toward Central Park, you'll pass famous stores like Harry Winston at 56th Street, Tiffany at 57th Street, Bergdorf Goodman at 58th Street, and FAO Schwarz and the Apple store at 59th Street. Across the way is the Plaza Hotel, with an Eloise at the Plaza store in its shopping concourse.
Next on the itinerary: a pair of trees located inside museums, like bookends on either side of Central Park. On the west side, at Central Park West and 79th Street, the American Museum of Natural History is home to a Christmas tree decorated with origami. On the east side, at Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, the tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is adorned with angels and a Nativity scene. Its colorful, lifelike figures, six to 20 inches tall, were made in 18th-century Naples and depict shepherds, townspeople, animals and the three wise men.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Met display is the diversity of the figures, who appear to represent as many different ethnic backgrounds and social classes as New York itself. Naples in the 18th century "was a melting pot of different cultures," explained Wolfram Koeppe, curator of the museum's European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. The exhibit's range of African and Asian figures, along with local fishermen and vendors offering their wares, "really shows you the normal country and city life of an 18th-century metropolis in the south of Italy," he said.
The display also offers a sanctuary from the bustle of the holidays. "It's a totally different atmosphere from the very busy life outside of the museum," he said.
Across the park, the Natural History museum's tree is decorated with folded paper ornaments made by volunteers from an organization called Origami USA. A fun activity with kids is to pick out origami representing familiar objects from the museum's collection. This year's paper decorations include depictions of items related to space exploration to mark the 10th anniversary of the museum's Rose Center for Earth and Space; items from "Race to the End of the Earth," an exhibit about journeys by rival explorers to reach the South Pole; and items from the museum's collections of dinosaurs and other animals.
"It's so different from every other tree," said Sam Riviello, administrator for Origami USA. "It's more whimsical."
While you're visiting the trees, be sure to see other areas of the museums, whether it's the Met's Egyptian collection and the recently opened "Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand" photo show, or the Natural History museum's blue whale, planetarium or Native American exhibits. Details at http://www.amnh.org/ or http://www.metmuseum.org/.
Farther uptown, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue hosts a "Peace Tree," decorated with origami paper cranes. The tree will be on view beginning Dec. 17. The cranes symbolize peace and are dedicated to the memory of a Japanese girl who died from leukemia after being exposed to radiation from the World War II Hiroshima bombing.
"We at the Cathedral hope that the folding of 1,000 origami cranes and hanging them on the tree will contribute to awareness and reflection about peace and of course friendship between peoples of all backgrounds and faiths," said cathedral spokeswoman Tenzin Dharlo. The cathedral is open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and also hosts concerts and other holiday events; details at http://www.stjohndivine.org/.
Christmas in the Big Apple doesn't just mean Manhattan. In the Bronx, the New York Botanical Garden is best-known this time of year for its annual Holiday Train Show, which showcases model trains amid replicas of New York landmarks, all made from plant materials. But the garden also hosts a display of nine lit-up fir trees, the biggest rising 25 feet. The garden can be reached by the B, D or No. 4 train to the Bedford Park Boulevard station or by Metro-North Commuter Railroad from Grand Central; details at http://www.nybg.org.
At the other end of the city, in Brooklyn, homeowners in the neighborhood of Dyker Heights are known for over-the-top decorations including trees and homes strung with rows of lights, huge blow-up Santas, Nativity scenes and other extravagant displays. But you don't have to be a local to enjoy the spectacle. Buses leave from Union Square in Manhattan to take visitors on a "Christmas Lights & Cannoli Tour," run by Tony Muia, who also offers "A Slice of Brooklyn" pizza tour. The Christmas tour runs through Dec. 30, leaving at 7 p.m. and returning 10:30 p.m., adults, $55, children under 12, $45; check http://www.asliceofbrooklyn.com/ for exact schedule and availability. The trip includes a stop at a pastry shop for cannoli and cappuccino.