Window Shopping: The Iconic Holiday Displays of 5th Avenue

Window Shopping: The Iconic Holiday Displays of 5th Avenue

Every year, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, the shops along 5th Avenue in Manhattan unveil their elaborately planned and executed holiday window designs.

The tradition of window dressing began in the 1800s. The industrial revolution made plate glass easily accessible to shop owners who installed windows spanning the width of their stores in order to advertise their wares. As department stores continued to crop up around New York City and the country, window displays began to take off as well, being created by some of the most talented artists in the world. Many famous artists have created NYC window displays over the years, including Andy Warhol, Salvadore Dali, Maurice Sendak, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and more.

Retail pioneer R.H. Macy presented the very first Christmas-themed window display in his original Macy’s department store on 14th Street. Soon, other stores followed suit, and holiday window gazing became a holiday tradition in New York and other major cities across America. Lord & Taylor’s in Manhattan revolutionized their operation in the early 1900s by creating presentations below street level, then raising the completed designs up with the aid of hydraulic lifts for a grand unveiling spectacle.

Today’s elaborate and highly imaginative seasonal window displays are often debuted with similar fanfare, and incorporate not only holiday themes but those of good will and charity. Many are tied in with store promotions and products, contests, interactive games, and sometimes even feature programs that raise awareness about various causes. Designers stop at nothing to bring their creative vision to life from live actors, to tens of thousands of Swarovski crystals, to sophisticated animatronics, to hand-sculpted animals, to music, falling snow, and much more.

Bringing these fanciful works of art to life can typically take a year in advance. Designs and ideas are kicked around for a few rounds until a theme and overall concept is adopted. Then it’s full steam ahead as designers, costumers, carpenters, animatronics professionals and other visual artists and engineers get to work bringing their creative ideas to fruition, ultimately delighting and inspiring millions of people every season.

Whether nostaligic, funny, avante-garde, classic, sparse, or lavish, the holiday window displays in Manhattan never fail to impress.

holiday window display

The Route

While there are wonderful holiday displays throughout Manhattan, the most iconic ones can be found on, and around, 5th Avenue—from Bloomingdale’s down to Macy’s.

A popular route among holiday window spectators actually begins East of 5th Avenue, allowing visitors to take in Bloomingdale’s and Barney’s windows, before heading south on 5th Avenue past several stores, and ending up at Macy’s on Broadway/Herald Square. This trip is roughly 2 miles and can take approximately 1 ½ hours, depending on one’s speed.

5th avenue

STARTING POINT: BLOOMINGDALE’S. Begin at Bloomingdale’s Lexington Avenue shop, between 59th and 60th Streets.

2nd STOP: BARNEY’S. Leaving Bloomingdale’s, travel West on 60th Street (passing Park Avenue) to Madison Avenue. Head North (turn right) on Madison to get to Barney’s between 60th and 61st Streets, on the West (left) side of the street.

3rd STOP: BERGDORF GOODMAN. From Barney’s, walk one block West on either 60th or 61st street until you see Central Park. This is 5th Avenue. Cross the street on 5th and head South (turn left), walking for a few blocks to get to Bergdorf Goodman between 57th and 58th Streets.

4th STOP: TIFFANYS & CO. Across the street on the East Side of 5th Avenue is Tiffany’s, between 56th and 57th Streets.

5th STOP: SAKS FIFTH AVENUE. Stay on the East Side of 5th Avenue and continue traveling South several blocks, passing by St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Saks Fifth Avenue, between 49th and 50th. When you are done at Saks, walk across the street to take a quick peek at Rockefeller Plaza and its iconic Christmas Tree—which is across the street from St Patrick’s—before heading South on 5th Avenue again.

6th STOP: LORD & TAYLOR.  On the way to Lord & Taylor, you will pass the New York Public Library. Adjacent to the library (along 42nd street) is Bryant Park’s Winter Village Holiday Shops and Ice Rink. Stop by for a stroll through the outdoor holiday marketplace, or continue down one block on Fifth Avenue to get to Lord & Taylor (between 38th & 39th Streets).

ENDING POINT: MACY’S. Continue to walk South on 5th Avenue to 34th Street, then turn right (traveling West) two blocks to Broadway. Macy’s is located on Broadway between 34th & 35th Streets. Macy’s windows looking out at Herald Square (on Broadway) change every year, while their 2nd set of windows around the corner (on 34th Street), are an annual tableau of the film “Miracle on 34th Street”, and “Yes, Virginia.”

holiday department store display window

When To Go

Manhattan’s holiday window presentations attract hundreds of thousands of people every day from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. The best times to view the windows are in the evening when lights add another magical dimension to the displays. Since most displays are illuminated 24/7, later at night is a great time to see the windows while beating the early evening crowds. Weekday evenings are less traveled than weekend nights as well. If you plan on visiting during the day, take your window tour early in the morning.

Take A Virtual Tour

If you can’t make it to New York City to see the windows in person, modern technology has got you covered. Google’s “Window Wonderland” offers virtual tours of the best of Manhattan’s holiday window displays from the comfort of home, or anywhere you want to access it—from your phone, tablet or computer!

Look for next week’s blog, “Top of the Rock: When to Go and Why It’s Worth it.”