I don't find it surprising or irritating that Manhattan turns into Vatican City during the holiday season. New York is the greatest city in the world and the month of December is when it is dolled up and ready to dance. Rockefeller Center, however, is out of control during this time, and pretty as the tree is, there are a number of stunning alternatives worth checking out.
The Lincoln Center tree is lovely, and even the tree in the courtyard of Bloomberg's office building (between 58th and 59th Streets, between Lexington and Third Avenue) is head-turning. But the holiday scene to end all holiday scenes is the "Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden."
You'll find NYC landmarks, such as the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge and New York Public Library, created entirely from plant materials, along with townhouses, model trains and street scenes, all of which have translucent amber windows illuminated from within. The combination of the medium, lights and painstaking attention to detail makes for a version of the city that is simultaneously accurate and completely enchanting.
Yes, it's in the Bronx, and I'm as bad about leaving Manhattan as anyone. But all you have to do is take the B, D, or 4 train to Bedford Park Blvd Station and then take the Bx 26 bus east to the Garden's Mosholu Gate entrance.
It sounds a lot more complicated than it is. It really is worth it and I'm confident that there is absolutely no way you'll regret going (you have until January 13th).
While we're on the topic of the holidays, I'd like to mention a book I wrote that just came out called Secret New York (Interlink 2008), consisting of a series of walking tours throughout the last few hidden neighborhoods of New York City. I think it might be a nice gift for someone into walking tours or local trivia, or someone who likes New York.