We love (and love to hate) our urban trains all year long, but they have a special connection to the holiday season.
According to the curator of the National Christmas Museum in Pennsylvania, whose train set covers over 20,000 square feet, trains and the holiday season became linked through Nativity displays beneath the Christmas tree in the homes of mid-1700s Protestant Christians.
The Nativity displays grew more elaborate over the years, including homes and other structures that were more representative of where people lived. About a century later, that came to include trains — which conveniently ran in a circle. (And also conveniently, made great gifts for kids.)
So instead of falling down the uncanny valley of The Polar Express — sorry, Tom Hanks, but that is one place we can’t follow you — check out these holiday train displays around New York City.
Holiday Train Show
There’s no more spectacular display than the New York Botanical Garden’s annual Holiday Train Show, where over 25 G-scale steam engines, street cars, freight and passenger trains hum along more than half a mile of track winding through more than 150 replicas of the city’s most iconic landmarks crafted out of twigs, bark, seeds and pinecones by designer Applied Imagination. New for its 26th year are a revamped Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the General Electric Building and St. Bartholomew's Church. Don’t forget special adults-only Bar Car Nights when you can browse the exhibit with cocktails. Through Jan. 15, 2018, $23-$35, 2900 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, nybg.org
Holiday Scavenger Hunt
The holidays have come to New York City’s smallest attraction. Gulliver’s Gate in Times Square packs the entire world into a series of room-size miniature scenes tied together with model train tracks. For its first holiday season, the Holiday Scavenger Hunt challenges visitors to find iconic characters and pop culture moments from Christmas, Hanukkah and other traditions in the more than 300 scenes. Visitors pick up a checklist at the beginning of the attraction and check off the items as they walk through; find them all for a chance to win a 3D miniature model of yourself that can be taken home or placed into the exhibit. Through Dec. 30, scavenger hunt free with admission ($36 adults, $27 kids), located at 44th Street and Broadway, gulliversgate.com
Holiday Express: Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection
You can’t imagine New York without its trains, and each year the New-York Historical Society reminds us how they shaped the city throughout history. Marvel at hundreds of toy trains zooming through scenes of streets lined with gaslight lamps and gingerbread architecture, plus lighting and sound effects. The Holiday Express begins at the West 77th Street entrance, where animated trains appear to roar through the museum, then continues with real models from the Jerni Collection on the first floor, where kids can climb inside a transparent sphere to get inside the display. Through Feb. 25, 2018, free with admission ($21 adults, $6 kids), 170 Central Park West, nyhistory.org
New York Transit Museum Holiday Train Show
Life-size trains are not the only kind you’ll find at Grand Central Terminal during the holidays. Winding through the New York Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery Annex & Store is a 34-foot-long, two-level display of O-gauge model trains zipping through tunnels and through subway stops with a gorgeous cityscape by Brooklyn-based artist Josh Cochran. There’s also a gift shop of New York transit-themed goodies for the train enthusiast on your list. Through Feb. 4, 2018, free, located in the Shuttle Passage next to the Station Master’s Office