Millions of tourists head to New York City each December for the iconic holiday lights displays (and to finish their holiday shopping). In fact, December is the busiest time of year here. Not only do visitors come from all over the world, but even native New Yorkers and Tri-State locals from New Jersey and Connecticut flock to the holiday light displays en masse to appreciate a little festive cheer. One of the best spots? Dyker Heights. Made famous by the “Dyker Heights Lights” documentary, this residential area of Brooklyn is now a magnet for locals and visitors alike.
In this guide to the Dyker Heights and broader NYC holiday lights, we dish on the best spots to meet Santa, light a Menorah, or simply enjoy the angelic sounds of a choir as you get in the Christmas spirit this holiday season.
About The Dyker Heights Holiday Lights
The Dyker Heights holiday lights display is in the Brooklyn neighborhood of the same name. Each year, residents deck out their houses with Christmas light displays to see who will emerge the winner of the over-the-top decorating competition.
You can wander the neighborhood on foot to check out the holiday decorations (including snowmen, toy soldiers, and nutcrackers) for yourself. There’s also live music, a DJ, and a raffle. Local kids sell homemade coffee, cider, and snacks. All money collected always goes to charity.
The whole thing started back in the 1980s when a Dyker Heights resident began decorating his house with festive lights and animatronics. Other neighbors joined in to see if they could outdo him. When the original decorator developed lymphoma, he took a year off to recover. He came back better than ever the next year, but he finally succumbed to cancer a few years after. The local residents keep up the tradition in his honor—with most of the donations going to cancer research.
Now, over 100,000 people come to visit the Dyker lights each year!
Where Is the Dyker Heights Holiday Lights Display?
Dyker Heights is located in south Brooklyn—just east of the more commonly known neighborhood of Bay Ridge.
More and more people are heading here each year, but Dyker Heights is still very much an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood in Brooklyn. If you’re headed to the Dyker Heights holiday lights display from Midtown Manhattan by subway, plan on at least a two-hour trip. By bus? Even longer.
How Do You Get to the Dyker Heights Holiday Lights Display?
The fastest way to get to the Dyker Heights Lights is by subway and then by hopping on a bus or jumping in an Uber or Lyft.
From Union Square, take the N train downtown to the 36th Street Station in Brooklyn (about a 25-minute subway ride on the weekday—nights and weekends take longer). Then, transfer to a downtown R train (which arrives just across the platform from where you exited the N train). Take the R train to 86 Street (about a 15-minute train ride on a weekday).
Once you exit the subway, the area of the neighborhood that’s most heavily decorated is a 25-minute walk east of the subway station. Or, take the B1 bus about 15 minutes east to the 86 St./14 Av. stop and walk two blocks north.
Just remember that it’s usually pretty chilly in New York in December and that the subways experience extensive delays on weekends and evenings. Even if Google Maps says it will take only 45 minutes to get to the Dyker Heights lights (you can simply type, “Christmas Decorations and Lights, Dyker Heights” into Google Maps, and you’ll get the location), it almost always takes much, much longer.
When you travel with Journy, your personal trip designer will include all of the transportation information you need to make the most of your time in the Big Apple.
Where are the best light displays in Dyker Heights?
For the best light displays, stick to Dyker Heights Boulevard between 11th and 13th Avenues from 83rd to 86th Streets. While there are options for a guided tour (which your Journy trip designer can organize for you), it's easy to do yourself. For an outline of the neighborhood, refer to this Google map.
Best Holiday Lights Displays Throughout NYC
Holiday lights aren't relegated to Dyker Heights—from the end of November to the beginning of January, they're practically everywhere in New York City. You can’t walk two blocks without wandering into a winter wonderland.
The spots on this list are a great place to start when it comes to finding holiday lights, but we also recommend striking out on your own. Tons of apartment buildings, hotels, and stores are decked out for the holidays. Case in point: the Dyker Heights holiday lights are located in a residential neighborhood once only traversed by locals.
Department Store Holiday Displays
Department stores all over the city outdo each other (and themselves) each year decking their window displays with festive decorations.
Designers begin developing the upcoming year’s displays on January 2. Meaning they spend almost 12 months on these artistic creations.
151 W 34th Street
The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ends at this famous department store each year, with the arrival of Santa marking the official start of the holiday season. Head up the wooden escalators to the top floor to meet with the big guy himself. Or, simply enjoy the only department store window displays geared toward children each year.
Previous themes have included: “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Clause” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Keep an eye out for the dancing Salvation Army Santas, too!
754 5th Avenue
Bergdorf Goodman is one of the few department stores on this list that actually manages to include their wares in holiday displays. They're some of the most intricate windows in the city, with themes usually celebrating high-society New Yorkers.
Saks Fifth Avenue
611 5th Avenue
Saks also features fashion in their displays, but is more famous for the laser light display that takes place every eight minutes outside the store. These lights dance to famous holiday songs that include “Carol of the Bells” and the “Home Alone” soundtrack. One year, they even teamed up with Disney to celebrate the anniversary of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” with windows featuring character animatronics acting out scenes from the cartoon.
Tiffany & Co.
727 5th Avenue
Tiffany’s displays a large tree inside their store and a giant Swarovski crystal hanging above Fifth Avenue each year.
1000 3rd Avenue 59th Street/Lexington Avenue
A little off the beaten path, Bloomingdale's is another store that incorporates fashion into their displays.
Head's up: Lord & Taylor closed their flagship store in 2018, so they no longer decorate their windows for the holidays. We wouldn’t want you to head all the way down to 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue only to find an empty building!
Most of the hotels in the city also decorate for the holidays. Our favorite picks?
- The Plaza
- Ritz Carlton
- St. Regis
- Waldorf Astoria
- Mandarin Oriental
Head straight to the lobbies to check out the displays. And because NYC hotel lobbies are always open to the public, you can rest your feet in the lounge and use the bathroom before heading back out to the cold.
Just outside the Plaza is where the country’s largest menorah is lit on the eight days of Hanukkah.
NYC Parks, Squares, and Gardens
Bryant Park is home to one of the most popular holiday markets in the city. Head to the center of the park for an ice skating rink and giant Christmas tree. Skating is free here if you bring your own skates—although skate rentals are relatively inexpensive.
On Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street sits the New York Public Library. Its famous lion statues, Patience and Virtue, wear wreaths around their necks each year. Inside the lobby stands a Christmas tree covered in "snow." The library usually hosts free holiday-themed exhibits, too. Past years’ exhibits included ‘Charles Dickens’ and ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ (The original Winnie the Pooh dolls are also always on display in the children’s area.)
One of the most iconic spots to spy holiday lights in the city, Rockefeller Center features a giant Christmas tree, ice skating, and music. If you have your heart set on skating, arrive early and be prepared to pay over $30 per person for your time slot.
New York Botanical Garden
Each December, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx displays a holiday lights train show. Model trains snake their way through famous city landmarks—all recreated using plants, moss, and tree bark.
Places of Worship
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
5th Avenue between 50th/51st Streets
Just across Fifth Avenue from Rockefeller Center sits St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Each Christmas, they decorate their altar with a nativity scene. Head here on the right day, and you might even catch a performance by the choir.
Cathedral of St. John of the Divine
1047 Amsterdam Avenue
The Cathedral of St. John of the Divine is the largest cathedral in the world. Each year, they display a large Christmas tree and lights. The choir also performs.
Head downtown to this Episcopalian church for a quieter celebration. Each year, the church erects a tree, and their world-famous choir sings on select nights.
New York City is home to dozens of holiday markets selling snacks, sweets, and gifts. Some are decorated like Swiss chalets and some offer other entertainment, such as live music. Some of our favorites include:
- Bryant Park
- Columbus Circle
- The High Line
- Union Square
- Grand Central Terminal
We love Bryant Park for the budget ice skating and surprise celebrity appearances, Union Square for the decor, and Grand Central Terminal—because, well, that one’s inside, offering a bit of respite from the cold!
Tips for Finding the Best Holiday Lights Throughout NYC
We recommend you:
- Head out late (but not too late) to get the full effect of the lights
- Visit residential neighborhoods to check out the lights like a local
- Dress in layers and bring an umbrella (it typically rains in the evenings in New York in December)
- Ride the subway to enjoy some donation-only holiday street performers
- Look up, look down—but don’t forget to look where you’re going, too!
- If you’re going to see the Dyker Heights holiday lights, make sure you know how to get there (and how to get back)
- Check out some restaurants in Dyker Heights or Bay Ridge to ensure you don’t miss out on dinner because of the long subway ride to the Dyker Heights holiday lights (when you travel with Journy, this is something your personal trip designer will take care of for you)
NYC Holiday Lights Dos and Don’ts
- Wander around on your own to find the best holiday lights in NYC.
- Walk through residential neighborhoods (especially the upscale ones!) to get a glimpse of some of the most impressive under-the-radar lights in the city.
- Stop by some spots on this list (even the touristy ones!) for an iconic experience.
- Bring your kids to see Santa at Macy's and other iconic holiday displays.
- Forgo the 'touristy' experience of ice skating at Rockefeller Center for skating with locals at Bryant Park.
- Don't loiter on stoops or trespass to get that must-have photo.
- Don't forget to grab a cup of hot cocoa or a holiday cocktail before or after your self-guided holiday lights tour—your personal trip designer can recommend the best spots!
- Don't forget that this is the most crowded time of the year! Create a plan to meet up with your party in case you get separated.
- Don't go by Google's time estimation tool when traveling to see the Dyker Heights holiday lights. Instead, budget at least two hours for the trip (especially on weekends, evenings, and holidays).
Once you get a dose of the top Christmas lights in the city through your self-guided walking tour, warm up with some hearty Italian food at Mama Rao's—or, if you're elsewhere in Manhattan, consider these five NYC restaurants that locals love.
And if you'll be in NYC on Christmas Day itself, read up on what will be open.