New York City is a wondrous place to visit during the holiday season, decked out in lights, tinsel trim, and Christmas trees seemingly around every corner. The glittery, enchanting department store windows are a sight to behold at the major bustling retailers around Manhattan. The festive window display tradition dates all the way back to the 1870s, according to Macy's, the first retailer to start the trend.
Consider a holiday walking tour where you can see some of the most popular New York City, department store, holiday window displays like the 3 Bs: Bloomingdale's, Barneys, and Bergdorf Goodman, as well as Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and Macy's. Learn about stops along the way to warm up with a hot beverage or a good meal, some shopping highlights, and must-see attractions.
The window displays are almost always on view shortly before Thanksgiving and remain up until just after the New Year, so they can be experienced by visitors throughout the holiday season. Most stores host a special event to mark the unveiling of the year's designs, and in recent years, there has been a greater amount of commercial support for the windows, with merchandise, books, and themed souvenirs available for sale at the stores.
The best time to go depends on if you like to feel part of a big crowd. If you prefer to skip long lines, then keep in mind that crowding at the windows is at its greatest on weekends and in the early evening. And, although the windows are best enjoyed when it is dark, they can be appreciated during the day as well, when the crowds are thinner.
The Self-Guided Walking Tour
The below walking tour covers about two miles and should take about two hours depending on your pacing. If you stop into the stores, then all bets are off. You might get lost in there for a couple of hours.
For the best walking tour experience, wear warm clothes, comfortable shoes, and keep an eye on your belongings, as the area around the various window displays can be crowded.
AddressBloomingdale's, New York, NY 10022, USA
The holiday windows walking tour begins with a playful and family-friendly display at Bloomingdale's. The windows here are typically unveiled in late November just before Black Friday so they can be enjoyed by holiday shoppers throughout the season. Although the window displays along Third Avenue are also decked out for the holiday, the ones along Lexington Avenue are the ones you really want to see, as they feature the annual theme. Lately, they have included interactive elements, so make sure your smartphone is charged to fully enjoy the experience. Also, Bloomingdale's has some of the best Salvation Army Bell Ringers in the city, so be sure to stop and enjoy their performance as well.
For the 2018 season, the theme was "The Grinch" holiday movie. Besides seeing the grumpy green monster, there was a peek into Whoville's whimsical town. Which included conveyor belts with bedazzled purses and gifts that turned into presents in another adjacent window.
Bloomingdale's is located on Lexington Avenue between 59th and 60th streets. You can take a cab there or if you want to use the subway system, take the N, R, W, 4, 5, or 6 to the 59th Street/Lexington Avenue stop. Nearby on Third Avenue and 60th Street, go to Dylan's Candy Bar if you want to explore a boutique candy store that would make Willy Wonka's head spin.
Barneys New York
From Bloomingdale's, walk two blocks west along 60th Street (if you cross Park Avenue you are heading the right way) until you reach Madison Avenue. Barneys is located on Madison Avenue between 60th and 61st streets on the west side of the street.
Barneys' holiday windows are New York City's most unusual. They tend to highlight contemporary themes and are usually different than the holiday windows you will see at any other store. For example, in years past, glass blower Dale Chihuly designed the "Chillin' Out," windows; the Love Peace Joy Project was a collaborative work by several world-renowned artists; and the trademark art of the Haas Brothers was on display as "Haas for the Holidays" last year. The windows promoted a Haas Brothers line of hoodies, T-shirts, hats, scented candles, housewares, and coloring books where proceeds went to the Children’s Defense Fund.
In 2018, the windows were less about the holidays and more about social messages including "Make Change" and "Change Matters." The installation was made in partnership with Save the Children, a nonprofit supporting education for kids. One of the displays featured 40,000 pennies falling from a backdrop.
For a bite to eat, you can visit Freds, which is famous for its French fries. Freds is inside the department store on the 9th floor. As for a chocolate lovers pitstop, check out Teuscher Chocolates of Switzerland shop just off of Madison Avenue on 61st Street.
From Barneys, walk one long block west along 61st or 60th Street until you arrive at Fifth Avenue. Head south on Fifth Avenue. You will know you're going the right way because the street numbers will be in descending order. And, you will see the ornate Pulitzer Fountain in front of The Plaza. The Plaza might be a good spot to take a walking break for afternoon tea. The hotel itself is always beautifully decorated for the season.
Continue walking south along Fifth Avenue, and you will find the holiday windows at Bergdorf Goodman along Fifth Avenue from 58th to 57th streets. These windows never fail to impress; they usually feature antiques and couture fashions in beautifully designed scenes.
The theme during the 2018 season was "Bergdorf Goodies" and called a "visual feast of fantastical desserts." Windows overflowed with fluorescent candies, a licorice carousel, and a pastry-filled forest.
From Bergdorf's, as a bonus stop, cross Fifth Avenue and take a peek at the decorations at Tiffany & Co. In addition to impressive window displays, the interior of the store features beautiful trees with decorations in the store's signature blue motif.
Continue walking down Fifth Avenue on the east side of the street. On the way to Saks, you will pass St. Patrick's Cathedral, between 51st and 50th streets, which is free to visit.
Between 49th and 50th streets, the Saks Fifth Avenue holiday window displays are unveiled in late November and are a great choice for visitors with children, because they are often designed around a seasonal book for children and feature playful animations. Saks usually features a quite impressive lighting show on the facade of the building that visitors can enjoy throughout the evening.
For 2018, Saks honored the Broadway stage with its theme "Theater of Dreams," which was made in partnership with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Six windows had digital effects and animation, plus a 10-story theatrical light show on the store's façade.
No tour of New York City's holiday windows would be complete without your final stop at Macy's. To get there, continue south along Fifth Avenue to 34th Street. Walk west along 34th Street and go two blocks to Broadway.
You may want to consider a stop at the Empire State Building since it is located on Fifth Avenue at 34th Street. And, even if you do not take the time to go to the observation deck, do not forget to look up.
Macy's has two sets of windows with holiday displays, six total, one set on Broadway between 34th and 35th streets, and another set along 34th Street. During peak hours, more than 10,000 people per hour will pass by the windows usually featuring iconic New York City holiday scenes and encapsulating the feeling of the season.
Macy's holiday window decorations typically make their appearance in early November. Each year Macy's has windows depicting scenes from Miracle on 34th Street (in recent years they have shifted to "Yes Virginia," the animated movie based on the same story) and a second set of windows with a changing holiday theme. These are perhaps New York City's most famous holiday window displays and are always on view in time for visitors in town for Thanksgiving.
For the 2018 season, the windows loosely followed the theme "Believe in the Wonder of Giving" with an intergalactic twist. The storyline was that Santa's sleigh broke down and an astronaut girl (named Sunny the Snowpal) and her fox friend came to his rescue. The displays featured animated puppets, interactive effects, and many impressive space projections.