Christmas in New York City – The Top 5 Experiences

Christmas in New York City

Exploring New York City at Christmastime is a dream for many travelers. This year I finally made it to the Big Apple to experience all that the holiday season has to offer. Here are my top 5 things to do while rocking around NYC during the most wonderful time of the year.

The Christmas Spectacular Show Starring the Radio City Rockettes

Radio City Music Hall
Radio City Music Hall is ready for Christmas!

The famous Rockettes have been around since 1925, and have appeared at Radio City Music Hall since 1932. Luckily, it’s not the same set of women who are doing those fantastic high kicks! The Rockettes anchor the Christmas Spectacular with their synchronized dancing and I couldn’t help wondering when they danced in a long line why they were all the same height. Did they only let women join the group who were exactly 5 feet 9 inches tall? The show also features a medley of Christmas songs, a live orchestra, a 3D appearance by Santa and his reindeer, and amazing video effects throughout the theater. The show was fast paced and very entertaining.

Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza
The magnificent Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza

The Giant Christmas Tree and Skating at Rockefeller Center
The Christmas tree display is at Rockefeller Plaza, between West 48th and 51st Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenue. I walked past the tree several times while in New York and every time it was mobbed by tourists taking selfies. Upwards of half a million people pass by the tree very day. That’s a lot of holiday shoppers. This year the Christmas tree is 75 feet tall. I wouldn’t want to be the person who had to put the star on top of it.

The Rink at Rockefeller Center is an iconic attraction in NYC around Christmastime. I had big plans to show off my triple axel skills on the ice, but due to the cold weather and the long lines I decided to save myself the embarrassment of repeatedly falling on my butt in front of people from all over the country. Yes, I grew in the frozen northland of Minnesota, but I don’t really know how to skate…

Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas windows
Can you name the Seven Dwarfs?

Fifth Avenue Window Displays and Christmas Shopping

The fancy department stores on Fifth Avenue have spectacular window displays at Christmastime. The Saks Fifth Avenue store on Fifth between East 49th Street and East 50th Street has a holiday light show on the side of the building at night. This year the window displays at Saks celebrate the 80th anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Other great window displays include Bergdorf Goodman (on Fifth Avenue between East 57th Street and East 58th Street), Bloomingdale’s (on Lexington Avenue between East 59th Street and East 60th Street), and Tiffany & Co. (on Fifth Avenue at East 57th Street. While you’re window shopping, you might as well go into some of the stores for the big Christmas sales.

One World Trade Center midtown view
A view of Midtown Manhattan from the One World Trade Center Observatory

City Views from One of the Skyscrapers

No trip to New York City is complete without at least one outing to a skyscraper’s observation deck to see the city from above.  Thirty years ago I visited the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center several times. On this trip back to New York I definitely wanted to see the new World Trade Center complex that was rebuilt after the 911 terror attacks. The observatory at the new One World Trace Center (at 285 Fulton Street) is on the 101st floor and provides incredible views of the surrounding area. During Christmastime the observatory hosts a Winter Onederland (That’s pronounced like Wonderland, not Oh-knee-der-land), complete with Ollie the snow owl, a glacier cave, and Santa’s Village.

Unfortunately, the day I went to the observatory the sky was overcast and then it started snowing, so photographs of the day are somewhat dreary. I also didn’t get to tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas, since I heard he called in sick because of a spiked eggnog hangover.

View from World Trade Center
Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge

If you don’t want to go downtown, other sky high vantage points are in Midtown at the Empire State Building’s 102nd floor observatory (on Fifth Avenue between East 33rd Street and East 34th Street) and the Top of the Rock observation deck in Rockefeller Center.

One World Trade Center view
The World Trade Center tower from the Hudson River

Nighttime River Cruise around Manhattan

It may be cold out, but taking a river cruise on the Hudson and East Rivers is a great way to see the city lights from sea level. Most of the time you can sit inside by the heater and have a drink, but occasionally you should venture out to the bow of the ship to brave the wind chill for the perfect photo op. Classic Harbor Line at Pier 62 in Chelsea, Eleventh Avenue and West 23rd Street) has happy hour cruises that are a good way to kick off your night on the town.

Statue of Liberty at night
Still standing for freedom.

Honorable mention: For a nice break while walking around Greenwich Village, get a scrumptious cookie and a hot chocolate or a latte at the Milk and Cookies Bakery at 19 Commerce Street. This tiny place was inundated with Girl Scouts when I arrived. After answering their survey questions about my preferences in cookies, they cleared out and I could finally get to the counter. I had difficulty choosing from among the decadent desserts, but eventually went into a chocolate chip cookie coma…

 

For more great tips on the best of NYC, see Best Things to do in New York

Walking the Streets of Munich Again

Munich store

After spending six months living as an expat in Munich in 2013 I had come to know and love the city. It’s a great place to visit, but an even better place to live (except for the weather….).

leaves on building in Munich
Fall in Munich.

On my first afternoon back in town I wandered the streets of the Haidhausen district. The day was brisk but with a sturdy leather jacket on I was warm enough as I window-shopped. I stopped for a latté (yes, I drink coffee now, blame it on the last Christmas present I gave to my wife – an espresso machine) and sat outside to watch the Saturday shoppers get their purchases in before the stores closed on Sunday.

“You know, I don’t believe I want to live in a country where you have to stay open on Sunday to do business. You shouldn’t have to work on Sunday.” (See That Thing You Do, you’ll be glad you did).

The Germans keep the tradition of Sunday closures going. I think it’s a good thing.

Haidhausen cafe
A cafe in Haidhausen.

Despite it being November, the sun peaked out from the clouds for an extended stretch of time. Between the sunshine and the coffee I got so warm I had to take my jacket off. Everyone else walked by bundled up in boots, heavy coats, scarves and hats. Bavarians seem to do that whenever the temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or the calendar says it’s no longer summer.

Sufficiently jazzed on caffeine, I walked over to the Ostbahnhof (east train station) and caught the U-bahn (subway) to the city center. On the way I dutifully stopped and waited (as I learned to do in Berlin) at all of the “don’t walk” pedestrian lights, even if there were no cars in sight. Because that’s also what you do when you’re in Munich.

Munich street scene.
A typical Munich street scene.

At Marienplatz (the main square in Munich), I spied the glockenspiel on the Rathaus (city hall), but the figurines were still and silent at this time of day. Since Oktoberfest was over, there were very few tourists in the square. Instead, local residents were crowding into the smaller shops and big department stores to start their Christmas shopping. Unfortunately, the big, outdoor Christmas Market (Christkindlmarkt) was not yet open. The Christkindlmarkt is a big street market associated with the four weeks of Advent. It started in Munich in 1310. I’m sure they sold different stuff back then. Or maybe not…

Munich store
Christmas decorations on a department store

I missed my chance to drink glühwein again (first tasted in Seefeld, Austria, but that’s ok. Drinking hot wine while outside in winter in a cold climate is not my favorite pastime anyway.

Seeking some fortification after surviving on airplane food for the previous day, I went into the Augustiner Restaurant, a Munich landmark that is the prototype of the Bavarian beer garden. The monks started brewing beer here as early as 1328. I ordered a half liter of hefeweizen (wheat beer) and peered at the menu, trying to decide which kind of sausage I should have.

Deciding I had had enough sausage during my expat stay, I opted for the weinerschnitzel instead.  You can’t go wrong when ordering a good schnitzel when in Bavaria.

Aaahhhh… Schnitzel, hot fries, and a wheat beer in a Bavarian beer hall.  Seeing the men in their beer-drinking outfits of lederhosen (leather pants) and feathered caps, the women in their dirndls (dresses) with low cut blouses, and waitresses carrying giant pretzels in one hand while hoisting multiple one liter beer steins (“ein mass”) in the other, brings on a warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia in me. And I’m not even German.

I think I need to return to Munich once a year for the rest of my life.

toilet sign
German humor! Extremely long compound words!

A Car Wash in Provence?

Provence car wash

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It was a pleasant day for driving. After my stop in Arles, I was touring around the countryside in the Provence region of southern France. I had stopped for lunch at a country restaurant which I happened upon by chance. It was a Sunday and they were setting up for Sunday brunch. I sat outside on the terrace, making repeated visits to the gourmet buffet until I was stuffed. Everything was amazingly fresh and tasty.

Provence view.
A nice day in Provence.

A few kilometers down the road from the restaurant I drove under a bridge. As I came out the other side I noticed a cascade of water behind me. What was that? A car?

Provence car wash
A French car wash…

What is it doing there? Who parked it? Is it a joke? Vandalism?

Or is that what they use for a car wash in Provence?

Polska Polka Party

dancers

My extended family in Poland really knows how to throw a good party.  We were staying with my aunt and uncle in Laka, a small village near the town of Pszczyna in southern Poland.  Since we were there, they decided to invite my other aunts and uncles and all of my cousins to a big barbecue party. Many of the cousins didn’t see each other regularly despite living only a few hundred yards from each other.  I hadn’t seen some of my cousins in 13 or 27 years.

dancers
Roll out the barrel!

It was a Saturday in September and one of the last good days of summer.  Around 1pm one of my cousins started a wood fire in the grill.  After he had some hot embers, he mounted two giant hams on a large spit.  He tended the fire the rest of the day.  I started calling him the Grillmaster.

Everyone arrived around 3pm.  The hugs and kisses seemed endless.  Then it was time to party.  The first thing on the agenda was to eat dessert.  In Poland, the dessert is often served before anything else.  Many kinds of home-made cakes were brought out of the secret basement pantry.  Tea and coffee were served.

The polka band started playing during dessert.  The band consisted of my cousin’s two sons, Martin (17) and Kuba (12).  Martin played the accordion and Kuba played the bass drum.  The boys played with spirit and energy.  Polka songs all sound the same to me.  Still, it is happy music and great for getting a party going full steam.

the boys in the band
Martin and Kuba, our polka band

The first wood smoked ham was ready.  It was taken off the spit and sliced with a giant carving knife.  It tasted delicious.  The aunts had prepared potato, rice, and cabbage casserole dishes to go along with tomatoes from the garden.  I skipped all of that to concentrate on the ham and fresh bread.

ham on the grill
It tasted delicious!

Cases of Zywiec beer appeared.  Since I was there, some of them were actually stored in the fridge to be cold for the American guest.  The rest were room temperature.  Some people mixed beer with a couple of different things.  Some people liked their lukewarm beer with a fruity syrup.  I tried that and it tasted awful!  Others poured half a glass of beer and then dumped Coke into it.  I didn’t try that because it just looked bad to me.

After dinner it was time to drink vodka shots and some combustible Greek aperitif that tasted like it should be used to scour the barnacles off of a ship’s hull.  During the drinking I noticed that quite a few of the family had disappeared from the table.  I thought that’s pretty normal when 40 people are gathered.  Some people have to fix more food, make phone calls on their new cell phones, or walk off some of the beer and vodka buzz.

Then the band started up again and a dozen people danced out of the house.  They were dressed up in costumes like it was Halloween.  We had a Native American chief, Charlie Chaplin, cowboys and cowgirls, women dressed as men, and men dressed like the prostitutes I saw standing by the side of Polish highways.

party dancers
It's early for Halloween... do they even have that here?

The costumed people danced with wild abandon.  They brought the party to life.  They got everyone to leave the food tables and dance like crazy people.

When we were all tired out from dancing, the second ham was ready to eat.  We all sat down to a second dinner.  This time we also had Polish sausage and some strange substance that was cooked on the grill in tinfoil.  I thought I’d try some of that mystery food.  It turned out to be blood sausage.  I took one bite and that was enough for me.  It was nasty stuff.

As the sun set, more beer was consumed, more vodka shots were downed, and the conversations got louder and funnier.

Everyone enjoyed being together again, like in the old days when we were all so much younger.  Time passes but the bonds of family remain.

To see a short video of the Polska Polka Party dancing, click here.

 

The Best Burgers in America

I’m an American. I like burgers. I like “French” fries. I am a connoisseur of both food items. You can travel all over the United States and find great burgers and fries in every city and state. Some people talk about Argentina steaks and Kobe beef, but in my opinion the USA is the only place for world class hamburgers.

I was on a spring break road trip to Florida with my friend Laurance. We had limited time to hit the beach so we were driving non-stop from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Clearwater Beach, Florida. Our mode of transportation was a 1973 Chevy Malibu. It had a big V-8 that got 12 miles per gallon. It was a dark green metallic color. We called it the Green Dinosaur. It should have been extinct.

A two door version of the Green Dinosaur

We left on a Friday evening. We passed through Chicago late at night and were barreling down the freeway in the middle of Indiana as the night got so late it became early in the morning. It was the time when it’s tough to stay awake. It was 4 am.

I was driving. Laurance was in the passenger seat holding the boom box as he slept. We needed a boom box because the car radio didn’t work very well. We were playing Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album. That album doesn’t have much music to stay awake by. We were in the right lane, cruising along at 70 mph. There was no one else on the highway. Why would there be? Even truckers were asleep at rest stops.

I started thinking about girls in bikinis on the beach and started to drift. In more ways than one. My head lolled to the right side, my right arm sagged, and the car also drifted to the right side. I was dreaming of the Gulf surf when the sound of a machine gun blasted my brain. Why is someone shooting at me while I am lounging on the beach watching the girls walk by?

It wasn’t a machine gun, but the sound of the tires hitting the strip alongside the highway to wake up sleepy drivers who thought they could drive nonstop to Florida. As the car tilted towards the ditch, my brain became engaged with a sudden burst of adrenaline. Everything moved in slow motion in my mind. Laurance was awakened by the tilt towards the ditch as he crashed hard into the passenger door. He moved to punch me in the shoulder to wake me up. Simultaneously I grabbed the wheel and jerked it hard to the left to avoid the calamity of rolling the Green Dinosaur into the ditch and becoming a supernova fireball as I had seen in every cop show ever made. We careened across two lanes, right into the noise strips on the left side of the highway.

I knew they weren’t machine guns this time. I jerked the wheel back to the right before crashing into the median ditch. We finally straightened out as we flew down the road. It took an hour for my heart rate to calm down.

By 4am the next morning we were in Byron, Georgia. We were hungry so we stopped at a truck stop. Laurance insisted that we would find the best food wherever the most truckers were parked. On one side of the freeway was a modern looking restaurant with bright lights. There were a few trucks in the parking lot. On the other side of the freeway was an old diner. I think it was called The Road Kill Diner. The building was rundown and had a neon sign advertising a local cheap beer that blinked whenever it felt like it. There were a lot of trucks in the parking lot.

“That’s it!” said Laurance. “We have to go to that one. It will definitely have the best food.”

“But the other place looks so much nicer,” I pleaded.

“Come on, live a little. Let’s check it out.” said Laurance. “Do you see the big sign out front that advertises the Best Burgers in America, and below that one the sign for the Byron Special?”

“Yeah, but I’ve never heard of it. I’ve never been down South before.”

(Visiting the US from abroad? go to visum usa-ESTA for visa help)

We walked into the diner and stepped back in time. We were in the Redneck South. Confederate flags and opossum pelts were hanging on the wall. Framed black and white photos of KKK meetings were visible behind the bar. A jukebox was playing that Charlie Daniels song about the devil and the fiddle at an earsplitting volume. All of the tables were filled with middle aged white men with trucker hats, plaid shirts, dirty jeans and beer bellies. Every other trucker had a wad of chew in his mouth, even as he ate.

The only open seats in the joint were at the bar. A shriveled old waitress came to take our order.

“What it’ll it be, boys?” she asked.

We put in our order and I went to the rest room. Laurance stayed behind to observe. One of the truckers was sitting next to him. He was complaining bitterly to the waitress. He looked like a Yankee.

“I thought this place was supposed to have the best burgers in America? You should take down that sign. This thing is disgusting. The bun is old and moldy. The lettuce is wilted. The ketchup is rancid. The beef is gray and tough, with gristle in it. It has taken me three minutes to chew one bite. I wouldn’t feed this to my dog!  I want my money back before I throw up all over your counter.”

The ancient woman didn’t say a word to the man, but gave him his $4 back. The man grabbed his coat and left. As she walked past Laurance to the other end of the bar he heard her mutter under her breath.

“What do you expect when you order the Byron Special? We never said it was beef.”

I came back from the rest room feeling mildly refreshed and amused from reading redneck graffiti. Laurance was laughing so hard that he was in tears.

“What’s so funny at 4am in a truck stop in Byron, Georgia?” I asked.

“Tell you later,” he said.

Our food came. Laurance had a very nice looking plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, and toast. He ate every bite and said it was delicious.

I had ordered the Byron Special.