Who doesn’t love glitzy, glamorous lights at Christmastime? There’s no better place to see the lights than New York City.
Everyone knows about the lights the city is famous for, like those in Rockefeller Center or on Saks Fifth Avenue. But if you want a different way to experience the lights of New York at Christmastime, I suggest going to the Dyker Heights neighborhood of Southwest Brooklyn for an unbelievable display.
What began in the 1980s with a couple of houses donning Christmas lights during the holiday season has grown into a friendly contest of one-upmanship with no neighbor wanting to be outdone by another. This neighborhood pulls out all the stops, and the homeowners here are famous for their tremendous Christmas decorations. This is a definite only-in-New-York experience that’s more than worth the trip.
Depending on your starting point, you may not immediately see what all the hype is about. However, once you get into the heart of the displays, you’ll be amazed. Twinkling blue lights, huge animated bears, toy soldiers — some of which are so big they had to be brought in with a crane — and giant snowmen are just some of the spectacular sights you’ll see in this holiday wonderland. As you stroll through the neighborhood, you’ll see house after house on block after block decorated in their Christmas best. With towering evergreens and sparkling white lights, candy canes, and shimmering garland surrounding the doors to each house, it’s a magnificent scene. Everything in the neighborhood is aglow with holiday lights.
Some say it’s the best holiday light display in the whole New York City area. You can decide for yourself. After seeing the wonderful Dyker Heights Christmas Lights, I think you’ll be just a little happier than you were before — your smile will be a little brighter, and you may even feel like a kid again. One thing’s for sure: There’s no way you won’t be in the Christmas spirit after touring Dyker Heights.
1. Choose Your Transportation Wisely
The Southwest Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights is about 8 miles from Lower Manhattan. It is a predominantly residential, traditionally Italian-American neighborhood full of brownstones and brick houses. The best light displays are in the more exclusive area of Dyker Heights, located between 14th Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway.
To start with, decide whether you want to view the lights on your own or with a tour group (more on tours below). If you go on your own, you will need to determine how you get to and from Dyker Heights. If you go on your own, two of the most common transportation options are taking the subway or driving your own car. Keep in mind that if you take the subway, you’ll still need to walk about 20 minutes from the closest subway stop to the decorated streets of Dyker. And you’ll have to walk back to the subway stop after viewing the lights. If you drive yourself, the traffic is heavy, and the parking is very limited in the neighborhood, so you’ll have to take this into account to make your decision.
If you don’t want to drive or take the subway, other options are to take another form of public transportation like Uber, a taxi, or my favorite option, a bus tour.
2. Choose The Best Tour For You
If you’d like to go on a Christmas lights tour through Dyker Heights, there are a few bus tour options that depart from NYC. You’ll meet your tour group at the pre-destined spot and take the bus from there. Book early because bus tours are very popular and will most likely sell out.
My favorite bus tour is the original, authentic tour from A Slice of Brooklyn. It proves to be very engaging and authentic as the tour guides are Brooklynites, complete with the accent you’d expect; and the tour owners actually know some of the families that live in the neighborhood, including some of the families that actually started the light displays back in the day. You’ll be getting the real deal along with the inside scoop on the history of the display with this Dyker Heights Christmas lights tour.
The bus tour is offered every night beginning December 1 through New Year’s Eve, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Tour times are 5, 6, 7, and 8 p.m. nightly. The tour meets in Union Square and goes to Dyker Heights from there, for a 3.5-hour tour. On the bus, you’ll enjoy a comfortable, heated ride to and from Dyker Heights. Along the way, you’ll enjoy vintage movies and hear traditional Christmas carols. Once you arrive in Dyker Heights, your guided tour will begin! The tour is less than $60 per person for adults unless you’d like priority seating, which is a little more. For kids 12 and under, the tour is less than $50.
Another tour option is a guided tour on foot. You’re responsible for getting yourself to and from Dyker Heights, but once you’re there, you’ll be escorted around by a knowledgeable tour guide who will take you to the best houses and provide you with the history of the area. At around $20, this walking tour is a lot less expensive than the bus tours, but it’s also a lot shorter, at about 2 hours. You’ll walk about 3 miles. And remember, December can be cold, rainy, or snowy. It just depends on the type of tour you’re looking for.
3. Know When And Where To View The Lights
Some houses are decorated right after Thanksgiving, but not all homes are decked out that early in the season. For prime viewing, I’d wait until December so you can make sure you see all the decorations. The best time of the day to go is the evening between 5 and 9 p.m. Most houses aren’t lit until everyone gets home from work between 5 and 6 p.m. Some families start turning off lights around 9 p.m. for bedtime.
The best viewing is between 83rd and 86th Street between 11th and 13th Avenue. The most popular houses are the ones that started the tradition, including the Spata House and the Polizzotto House on 84th Street.
4. Dress Warmly And Bring A Thermos
It’s cold in New York in December, so remember to dress warmly. If you’ve opted to take the subway and walk to Dyker Heights, dress especially warm because it’s a good 20-minute walk. Also, think about bringing a thermos with something hot to keep you warm. There may or may not be any local vendors selling hot drinks in the neighborhood, so if not, you’ll be all set with your own thermos.
If you’re bringing kids, make sure you bring along easy snacks and drinks for them, as there are no restaurants extremely close to pop into.
5. Bring A Portable Phone Charger
Even if you have the latest iPhone, do yourself a favor and bring a portable charger. You will be taking a lot of videos and photos, so your phone battery may not last like you’re used to. If you have a portable charger, you won’t have to worry about your phone dying just before you get that perfect shot. And if you’re not taking a bus tour, you’ll most likely need to use your phone to make arrangements to get back, so it’s doubly important to make sure it’s charged up for you.
6. Be Polite And Respectful, And Plan For Crowds
Keep in mind that this is a neighborhood. You’re not in Times Square. You’re in someone’s neighborhood where families live. So keep the noise level down, pick up your trash, don’t block driveways, and just be courteous overall.
Also, remember, there are no public restrooms in the neighborhood, so make sure you use the facilities before you get to the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights. Be patient, as there will be a lot of excited kids running around and a lot of babies being pushed in strollers up and down the sidewalks. So don’t be in a hurry. Just relax and take in the surroundings.
7. Don’t Forget Cash
Many families collect money for various organizations and will have a box at the end of their driveway or near their display so you can slip a $1 or $5 bill in. Sometimes, people have small tables set up around the neighborhood where they’re selling hot chocolate or tea, and you’ll need cash to pay for a drink.
No matter which option you decide on, checking out the Christmas trees and holiday lights in Dyker Heights will be a highlight of your holiday trip to NYC. And since Dyker Heights is so close to Manhattan, you can pretty easily make time in your itinerary for this fabulous, over-the-top slice of cheer to get you into the Christmas spirit.
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