NEW YORK -- If you're visiting the Big Apple between now and New Year's, chances are you'll see the famous tree at Rockefeller Center. Perhaps you'll brave the crowds to go ice skating, or you may choose to wait, along with everyone else, for a glimpse of the holiday-themed department store windows.
But please don't spend your vacation standing in line. There's a sparkling city full of delights waiting to be discovered. With a little planning, you can even avoid crowds at the most popular attractions and have time left for many others, from dim sum in Chinatown to the lighting of the world's largest menorah.
First, remember that the Rockefeller Center tree isn't the only one worth seeing. The American Museum of Natural History features a tree decorated with origami creations; youngsters can make their own origami while visiting. The famed blue whale is just down the hall. Check out the planetarium, too.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art also displays a Christmas tree each year in the Medieval Art wing, along with a Neapolitan Baroque creche. The hushed setting provides a peaceful contrast to the noisy streets outside. Also on the museum's first floor are armor displays and the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, both popular with kids; the American collection, with John Singer Sargent's iconic "Madame X," and the sculpture garden, a refuge for weary sightseers.
The world's largest menorah, sponsored by the Lubavitcher Jewish community, will be on display at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue for the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah, beginning Dec. 19. A Hanukkah party with live music, dancing and potato pancakes will take place there on Sunday, Dec. 21.
And while it's too late to get tickets for Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, most other services there have open seating or standing room. The awesome, Gothic-style church is open daily, 6:30 a.m. until 8:45 p.m. Masses begin at 7 a.m.
Across Fifth Avenue from St. Patrick's is the epicenter of Christmas in New York: Rockefeller Center. This year's tree, a 79-foot spruce with 30,000 lights and a star, will be lit Dec. 3. Arrive between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and you might see camels and other creatures from Radio City's "Christmas Spectacular" getting their morning walk.
If you're flexible about dates and times, it's not too late to get tickets for the Radio City show. Other favorite holiday shows include "A Christmas Carol" at Madison Square Garden and the New York City Ballet's "Nutcracker" at Lincoln Center. Check ticket availability through Ticketmaster, or contact the venue.
Ice skating with the skyscrapers of Manhattan as a backdrop is pure magic. But waiting on line to skate, either at Rockefeller Center or in Central Park, is pure boredom. Are you sure you aren't having just as much fun watching the skaters as you would joining them? If you must skate, arrive when the rinks open - 10 a.m. in Central Park, 8 a.m. during Christmas week at Rockefeller Center (8:30 a.m. otherwise).
Christmas Day is quiet in Manhattan - the perfect time to look at Christmas windows, as department stores are closed and pedestrians are few. Check out Lord & Taylor's, with an animated display that tells the true story of Virginia O'Hanlon, whose 1895 letter inspired the famous response, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." Macy's windows honor two classic movies, "A Christmas Story" and "A Miracle on 34th Street." Tiffany's windows feature reindeer, swans and penguins celebrating the holiday.
While midtown is subdued on Dec. 25, Chinatown is hopping. Stores and restaurants remain open; just be prepared to sit with strangers at the large, round tables in many eateries. Try dim sum at Tai Hong Lau, 70 Mott St., just south of Canal, where you order bite-sized goodies off carts wheeled from table to table; mouthwatering dumplings and whole fish at Joe's Shanghai at 9 Pell St., between Bowery Avenue and Mott Street; and, at any Chinese bakery, egg-custard tarts or doughy balls filled with sweet bean paste.
New York's museums are closed on Christmas Day but for one important exception: The Jewish Museum, open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., features arts and crafts for children, live music and gallery talks. Big Onion Walking Tours also offers a Christmas Day tour of "The Jewish East Side," focused on immigration history.
Central Park's zoo is open on Christmas as well, and you won't have much competition for a view of polar bears and penguins.
Here for New Year's Eve? There's the traditional ball-drop in Times Square, plus fireworks in Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and over the Statue of Liberty. The fireworks in the harbor are sponsored in part by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Battery Park, which has various luxury packages (starting at $1,199 per couple) for New Year's Eve.
New York's December temperatures average in the 30s. Heavy snow is unusual, but not unheard of; damp, chilly weather is typical. Despite the cold, be sure to take a stroll some evening, whether you're in midtown, along Park Avenue, or downtown in Greenwich Village, Chelsea or Union Square.
There's no prettier view of Manhattan than when a gray winter's day gives way to the twinkling lights of the city on a crisp, cold night.
If You Go...
-American Museum of Natural History, 81st Street and Central Park West. Origami tree inside the 79th Street entrance. Open 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; admission, $12 adults, $7 children.
-Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street. Christmas tree and creche in the Medieval Art wing on the first floor. Closed Mondays. Open other days 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; $12 suggested admission.
-Jewish Museum, Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street. Closed Saturdays. Open Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Open Christmas Day, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission $10 adults, children under 12 free.
-Radio City "Christmas Spectacular," www.radiocity.com (212) 247-4777, tickets $38 to $92.
-"A Christmas Carol" at Madison Square Garden, (212) 307-7171, tickets $35 to $79.
-New York City Ballet's "The Nutcracker" at Lincoln Center, (212) 870-5570, tickets $20 to $48.
-Rockefeller Center, 48th to 51st streets, between Fifth and Sixth avenues.
-Menorah, Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. Lighting schedule: 3:45 p.m. on Dec. 19, 8 p.m. on Dec. 20, and 5:30 p.m. Dec. 21 through Dec. 26.
-St. Patrick's Cathedral, Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets.
-Lord & Taylor's, Fifth Avenue and 39th Street.
-Macy's, 34th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues.
-Tiffany's, Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.
-Big Onion Walking Tours, (212) 439-1090, www.bigonion.com, tour price $12.
ACCOMMODATIONS: NYC & Company, the official visitors bureau, can help with hotels and discount "Paint the Town" packages. Call (800) 846-ROOM or (212) 582-3352, or visit www.nycvisit.com.
GETTING AROUND: The subway is convenient and generally safe. Tokens no longer accepted; buy MetroCards from machines inside subway stations. Rides are $2 each, but consider buying an "Unlimited" card. A $7 "Fun Pass" gives unlimited rides for a day; a $21 "Fun Pass" gives unlimited rides for seven days. MetroCards good on buses too; transfers free.
DINING: Cheap favorites: Pizza, "slice to go" available citywide, around $2; hot dogs, salted pretzels or falafel - from $1.25 to $4 - from street carts. At Rockefeller Center, head to the underground concourse for Starbucks, Subway, Cucina & Co. and other takeout options. Moderately priced sitdown meals: Prix-fixe lunch at Dawat, an Indian restaurant on 58th Street just east of Third Avenue, where $14 buys a tandoori platter or vegetarian feast; Eastern European restaurants on the Lower East Side like Veselka (Second Avenue and Ninth Street), or Teresa's (First Avenue and Sixth Street), where a few bucks buys savory pirogis, hearty bread and creamy soup; or Meskerem, 47th Street west of Ninth Avenue, where you use flatbread, not spoons, to scoop up spicy Ethiopian stews.