Tourists flock to New York City during the holiday season, drawn to the twinkling lights and toy soldiers of Midtown Manhattan. The stretch of Fifth Avenue between Central Park and Herald Square is rightfully famous for its elaborate window displays, Radio City’s Rockettes, and Rockefeller Center’s larger-than-life Christmas tree. But for even more ostentatious outdoor displays, travel less than 15 miles south to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights.
Located in between Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, Dyker Heights first became famous for its over-the-top holiday displays about 30 years ago, and it has only grown in popularity since then (with both homeowners and tourists). Now attracting more than 100,000 visitors each year, the majority of the decorated houses are located between 11th to 13th avenues and 83rd to 86th streets.
The neighborhood is a bit of a trek from Midtown, but public transportation might be a better bet than driving. Equidistant from stops on both the D and R trains (and several bus stops), you’ll be able to see more of the decorations by walking. Just be aware that if you go on a weekend night close to Christmas, it might feel as if all 100,000 people are there at once: Select streets are closed to car traffic, trash cans overflow with coffee and hot chocolate cups, and a Mister Softee ice cream truck is usually parked outside, no matter how low the temperature drops.
The grand houses of Dyker Heights are an attraction on their own, with features not usually associated with densely-populated cities: sprawling yards, majestic porticos, working fountains, and marble statues. The displays don’t change much from year to year but that’s part of what has turned a beloved local tradition into a tourist destination. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, homes are transformed into winter wonderlands; they’re draped in garlands, wreaths, and every color of light imaginable. The neighborhood population explodes tenfold as nutcrackers, nativity scenes, inflatable characters, and Mr. and Mrs. Claus move onto lawns, porches, and balconies.
Before embarking on a walking or bus tour, start the night with dinner at Tommaso, a decades-old Italian eatery. The food is delicious and affordable, and diners are serenaded with opera or Christmas carols. Afterwards, grab a bag of pastries from one of the many local bakeries (you can’t go wrong with cannoli) and start your leisurely stroll—guided not by the Christmas star, but by the glow of thousands of red, green, and white lights.
The houses of Dyker Heights are a fascinating mix of new and old architecture styles, with over-the-top decorative elements year round, including menageries of stone animals.
A home is transformed into a real-life gingerbread house with oversized fruit slices, gumdrops, and ice cream cones. Striped light-up lollipops line walkways and plastic candies hang from trees.
A large Santa head bares its teeth in one of many decorations that can appear either sinister or festive depending on your perspective.
Although they’re no longer widely available, vintage light-up blow molds are still popular yard decorations, including soldiers, santas, snowmen, angels, nativity sets, and choir singers.
Not every home participates, and a sign specifying that a house was “decorated by the owner” serves as a counterpoint to the commodification of what started out as a hyper-local secret. But friendly competition between neighbors doesn’t just bring much-needed tourist dollars to the outer boroughs—a lot of homeowners now skip the trips to Home Depot and hire local professionals instead.
A larger-than-life nutcracker stands guard at the entrance to one home.
A majority of the decorations are Christmas-centric, but all faiths and traditions are represented here, including Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and more generic winter themes.
In an effort to outdo each other, neighbors up the ante with animatronics, light shows, and seasonal music.
Decorations begin popping up before Thanksgiving; weekend nights closer to Christmas offer the best displays, but also the densest crowds.
In recent years, inflatable nativity sets, snow globes, and superheroes have become more prevalent.
Established displays don’t change much, which makes finding your favorites part of the fun of returning to Dyker Heights year after year.