The windows at Macy’s, the Rockefeller Center Tree, the music show outside Saks’ 5th Avenue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral – these are memories that are seared in my brain. During my childhood, my father took us into the city every December and we hit all the major spots. Christmas in New York is a magical time. Then…the global pandemic hit. Everything shut down. And we did not even know if Christmas and New York would happen. But with some changes and some safety measures, it’s possible to have a safe day trip to experience Christmas magic in the big apple.
Disclosure: I do not recommend flying into New York City in 2020 just to visit for the holidays. I do not even recommend making New York City a weekend trip or an overnight in 2020. Now is not the time to be moving around a lot and traveling long distances. Now is the time to stay inside as much as possible. But if you are already in the area AND can easily make New York City a short day trip, it’s possible to do it in a safe manner. Note that at the time of publication, there is no indoor dining in New York City, so to be in New York for any meal requires some creativity and some strength to eat in the cold. In addition, there is a mask mandate, and a 14-day quarantine required if you plan to stay in New York so your trip will require you to generally keep activities to outdoor activities. You can read more on the New York City COVID website. With cases on the rise, it is important for us to all do our part and stay home as much as possible. But I also understand the need to get out and do safe activities that capture some Christmas magic. My family and I are spending an extended period of time in New Jersey and we quarantined 14 days before we went to New York City. We spent a total of 3 hours in the city.
COVID Safety Measures
A few things that we did to make sure we stayed safe during our visit to New York City
- Driving: We want to avoid public transit at all costs, so we chose to drive into the city. My father had an appointment with one of his cancer doctors (he’s in remission, see the story here), and he was driving into the city for the appointment. His route goes right through Times Square, so he dropped us off there as a starting point for us to explore. After his appointment, he made his way downtown when we were done and jumped in his car for the ride back to New Jersey.
- Small Group: Last year we went to New York with a group of eleven. This year, we kept it small to us four. Not only did it keep us nimble, but it also kept us safe. A bigger group is harder to maneuver around, and harder to keep distance from others.
- Masks: We put on our masks as soon as we exited the cars. It came off exactly once, to eat a bagel and coffee while sitting outside with no-one else around us. My daughter had a few seconds more when she switched masks because her first one was getting wet. They came off again when we were safely in the car on our way back.
- Keep it Outdoor, Minimize Indoor Time: We came prepared to be outside. Gloves, hats, coats (I have this packable down coat which kept me warm). Warm pants, long sleeve shirts. I wore a Merino Wool sweater. Everyone wore comfortable shoes. (Sketchers sneakers for the kids and husband and Clark Walking Boots for me). The temperature was in the 40s so we skipped the thermals. We knew the majority of the day would be outside so we came prepared for the famous cold and wind of the city. We did go inside a few times. But we kept each indoor visit to 15 minutes or less to reduce exposure.
- Timing: We went during the week, in the morning, and stayed for 3 hours. We stuck to one general area to cover so we could minimize our time in the city. I would have loved to do more, but I did not want to take on too much risk.
You might be thinking, with all those restrictions, what can you do in New York? The answer is a ton! As a small group we managed to hit several favorites in our small amount of time in the city, and came home with memories for a lifetime.
Our first stop was Times Square. The glittering ads of Times Square are a symbol of the city, and during Christmas time is no exception. When we were there, the ads were in full force, and you are able to see the pole and ball up ready for New Years Eve, which will be done virtually this year. It was empty, I’ve never seen it so empty in my entire life of visiting New York. Even the famous steps at TKTS pavilion were chained off. I was excited to see it without worry of losing my children, but was also sad to see a few shops boarded up and closed, and see the desperate salespeople hurting due to the lack of tourism.
Radio City Area
By Radio City Music Hall, we were able to check out the decorations of the buildings nearby. We saw the famous Christmas Ornaments on 6th Avenue, the Christmas Tree outside the Fox New Building, and the lights (but sadly shuttered due to the pandemic) of the famous theater itself.
This year, there are many places to see the tree, but for the best view, that area has been cordoned off, and you need to join a virtual queue. That queue starts at noon, and before noon, you can walk up to the prime viewing areas. We arrived at 10 am on a Tuesday, and we were one of two families at the viewing area. We walked up, looked at the tree, talked about the story behind it (and the owl) and took some amazing photos. My husband and I marveled at how we have never, ever, had such a close and clear view of Rockefeller Tree.
The ability to get so close and with so few people presented a lot of opportunities to get amazing photos of the tree*
While there is a lot of the area blocked off to visitors to walk through, the retailers are all open in Rockefeller Center. We were able to go into 30 Rockefeller Center to get a bagel at Black Seed Bagel and Blue Bottle Coffee. Then we were able to go outside and eat our bagel and coffee with a view of the most famous Christmas Tree in the world. We also were able to go to Lego Store and the Nintendo Store in the center. Both stores are limiting the number of people allowed in and ask you to limit your visit to 20 minutes. As with any time we went indoors, we sanitized as soon as we entered the door. There was usually sanitizer available at the store, but I also carried my own hand sanitizer with me.
This is the famous cathedral in the middle of New York City, with the classic gothic style. During Christmas time, the cathedral is decorated with wreaths, beautiful poinsettias, and a large nativity scene. They are having indoor mass, but they are blocking pews to encourage social distancing. If you are not attending mass, they ask you to stay reverent and stick to the sides. You are required to always stay masked. We spent a short amount of time inside to look at the nativity and the decorations, and to light candles and pray for our family and the blessings we had this year.
If you have a daughter between 5 and 11 years old, it is likely that you have heard of American Girl. You might even have an American Girl doll at home. I was a child of the 90s who was in love with American Girl and all the books, but never had the doll. We now have two historical dolls in the house, in addition to a ton of clothing. I knew we could not leave the city without a visit. The store is an immersive experience, where you can walkthrough all the dolls, set up for the historical characters, and even a doll hospital and salon. At this time, due to the ban on indoor dining, the café was closed. We wandered the store looking at all the historical dolls, playing Packman at the Courtney area, and checking out the books. We may have even come home with a few (but surprisingly no new doll clothes). Then as part of our party waited in line to pay, the rest left the store and waited outside.
After the American Girl Store, it was time to catch our ride back to New Jersey. We had a surprisingly easy time catching my father who was waiting for us on 51st and 6th, and jumped in the car so he could take us back home. We could have easily spent a few more hours to go down to see the windows at Macy’s and the Holiday Market at Bryant Park. But we did not want to stay in the city too long, and as the day went on, we expected the crowds to grow as people left work. We gushed about our day to my father as we drove back through the Lincoln Tunnel and home to New Jersey, and I was excited that my children have gotten to experience a bit of the Christmas that I experienced as a child.
*Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links that allows me to earn a small commission at no cost to you. I only link to products I would or have used myself and all opinions expressed here are my own. You can read the full disclaimer here.
* Photos taken by Atma Photography