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History of NYC Holiday Traditions

New York City is the unofficial birthplace of modern Christmas traditions. When the Dutch set sail for New York, their ships were adorned with images of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and children. As America was settled and New York grew, the ideas of winter holidays were mixed into new traditions. St. Nicholas became a jolly old man ready to deliver toys to all the good children on Christmas Eve. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in New York City in December, you should try some of these historical holiday traditions.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Today millions of people watch the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting every year on television. The specialty picked spruce trees range from 70 to 100 feet (the tallest was in 1999) and are elegantly decorated. The first Rockefeller Christmas tree came from much humbler beginnings. In 1931, during the Great Depression when most Americans were out of work, construction on the Rockefeller Center began. Workers pooled their money to buy a 20-foot tree for the community to share. As each man collected his paycheck, he added a homemade ornament, such as strings of cranberry or garlands made of paper that his family had made. The tradition carried on the next year, and by 1933, Rockefeller Center was open and the first “official” tree was lit. Two years later the ice skating rink was added below. The tradition has managed to adapt with the times. In 1942 at the start of World War II, three smaller trees had to replace one big one. In 1944 and 1945, the Rockefeller Christmas tree had to go unlit because of blackout ordinances. Each January the Christmas tree is donated, most recently becoming lumber to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. If you’re in New York City, you can find Rockefeller Plaza between West 48th and 51st street and 5th and 6th avenue. This years tree will be on display until January 7, 2019.

Holiday Window Displays

Another New York City holiday tradition is viewing the window displays that line the many shopping districts. During the late half of the 19th century, stores began to utilize their first-floor windows as a way to promote the products they were selling and bring more customers through their doors. Of course, this caused stores to put more and more efforts into their displays in order to outshine their neighbors, especially during busy times such as the holidays. In 1874, Macy’s made history by creating a scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin with porcelain dolls in their New York window.  People flocked to see the display and a new tradition was born. Stores all over New York City now use their space not to advertise a product, but to entertain and amaze tourists walking by in hopes their brand will be the most memorable. Modern displays involve rotating platforms, animatronic pieces, and life-size figurines. Make sure to pass by Macy’s on 34th Street and Saks Fifth Avenue for some of the most famous displays.

Dyker Heights Christmas Lights

A relatively more recent holiday tradition for New Yorkers is walking the streets of the Dyker Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn to view the decorated houses. Each one is decked in lights and lawn ornaments, leaving no space bare. Many recreate scenes from famous Christmas performances, such as The Night Before Christmas or The Grinch.  No one remembers exactly why it started, or when it spread from being a few blocks to an entire neighborhood. The best guess is the early 1980s, since by 1985 there were advertisements for guided tours printed in newspapers. Today professionals are hired to design the displays, costing homeowners anywhere from 1,000 to 20,000 dollars each year. Two of the most well-known houses are across-the-street neighbors on 84th street between 11th and 12th avenue. One house’s theme is always Santa Clause, and the others is the Nutcracker. Each year the designs become more elaborate and creative, unofficially competing in a expensive, but beautiful neighborhood game. Tour the Dyker Heights neighborhood this December to see just how far the limits of Christmas decorating can be pushed.

If you’re traveling to New York, take a copy of our New York City 5 Boroughs Street Map and our Quick Access Manhattan Map. Both are clearly labeled to quickly guide you from destination to destination.

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Why You Should Travel During the Off-Season

Off-season travel earns a bad reputation. Many people assume that traveling to a summer destination during the winter months is somehow sacrificing the quality of their trip. While some popular tourist attractions may have seasonal closings, most stay open year round. Traveling during the off-season actually has many perks you won’t experience during peak travel season. 

Traveling to a popular winter destination? Check out our maps of New York, Boston, Palm Springs, Yosemite ValleySan Diego, and Southwest Indian Country.

Travel in Luxury

Many people associate off-season travel with saving money and stretching your budget. You can afford to travel to destinations that otherwise would have been out of your price range. Hotels and airlines offer drastic savings when you travel during less popular times. Another way of viewing the situation is that you can spend the same budget, but enjoy a vacation well above your normal level of luxury. Tickets to local attractions are commonly discounted in the off-season, but so are other services such as spa packages, private tours, or dinner cruises.  You can attend more events, or events that otherwise would’ve been too expensive. Where to find the best discounts varies by location, but sites such as Groupon are a great place to start.  

Travel Tip

Make sure to open an incognito tab when comparing prices for plane tickets. Many sites use cookies that track your activity. Every time you return to their site, the airline increases the price slightly to encourage you to buy sooner.

Greater Authenticity

When you travel during peak tourist season there tends to be a crowd of tourists everywhere you go. When you travel during the off-season, this is usually not the case. This means better views (and better photos!) when visiting famous sites. It also means tour groups tend to be smaller, so you’ll be able to ask more questions and get a more personalized experience. People in the service industry will have more time to talk, often offering  tips you won’t find online. Whether you like to sit in a cafe and people watch, or constantly be on the go, you’ll be mingling mostly with locals. This often exposes a different side to a city you would not have experienced surrounded by the bustle of other tourists. 

Travel Tip

Carry a paper map with you. When people recommend a place to visit, ask them to circle it on the map. You’ll gain a greater understanding of the area and often prompt them to remember other nearby places to visit.

A Different Weather Forecast 

Weather during the off-season is not always cold or rainy. Often traveling in the winter means experiencing weather different than what the region is known for. Depending on your preferences, this could be a great thing. If you’re not a fan of sizzling 100 degree heat, winter may be the perfect time for you to visit Palm Springs. The area cools to an average of 70 degrees Fahrenheit while remaining bright and sunny.  San Diego and Las Vegas are also known for their temperate climates year round. You’ll probably need to bring a jacket to visit the Napa and Sonoma Wine Country, but the foliage and scenery are just as beautiful as in summer. For other destinations, such as Yosemite Valley, the snow and cold are part of the appeal. Enjoy seasonal activities such as skiing, snow tubing, and ice skating. 

Travel Tip

Consider how much of your trip you plan on spending outdoors before you let weather be a strong deciding factor. Cities with cold and rainy weather are full of people who have learned to enjoy living their despite it. You may find there is plenty to experience regardless of the weather.

For help planning your next trip, shop our full collection of maps. 

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California’s Most Haunted

Alcatraz Island

Do you believe in the paranormal? Visiting these destinations may leave you feeling spooked. With long records of reported ghostly encounters, these historic sites are considered the most haunted in California.

For easy trip planning and navigation, shop our user-friendly printed maps.

The Whaley House

The Whaley House was built in 1857 by a businessman named Thomas Whaley who wanted to move his family from New York to San Diego. The two-story Greek Revival was the first of its kind in San Diego and one of the grandest in Southern California. In addition to housing the Whaley family and the Whaley General Store, other businesses also rented rooms because of its prime location in the center of town. Over the years the building held the first commercial theater, a billiard hall, the County Courthouse, a polling place, and more.

While the Whaley’s were financially fortunate, they suffered a series of misfortunes over the years. The youngest child, Thomas Jr., died of scarlet fever. The Whaley Store caught fire and was severely damaged shortly after. The Whaleys moved to San Francisco for ten years before returning to repair the house and begin new business ventures. Shortly after returning, the eldest daughter, Violet, was wed to a man who left her on her honeymoon. He was a con artist only interested in obtaining a large dowry. Returning in social disgrace, Violet fell into a depression and took her own life three years later. Again following a tragedy, the family vacated the home. It fell into despair for several decades until the oldest child, Francis, refurbished it and opened it as a museum of local history.

The Whaley family believed their house to be haunted immediately after moving in. Thomas Whaley even gave an interview to the local newspaper, The San Diego Union Tribune, saying he often heard the footsteps of a large man in boots throughout the house. Whaley believed it to be the ghost of a man named James “Yankee Jim”  Robinson who was hanged on the property after being sentenced to death for stealing a boat. Thomas Whaley not only knew the property was previously used by the county for hangings, but had even attended the hanging of “Yankee Jim” when he was considering buying the property. He thought the man he saw that day fit the physical size of the footsteps he heard. Visitors of the Whaley House still occasionally recall hearing these footsteps today. The ghosts of Whaley family members have also been sighted over the years, most often those of Thomas, Thomas Jr., and Violet.

The Whaley House is still open to the public for tours and paranormal activity is still reported. The Travel Channel’s America’s Most Haunted even called the Whaley House the most supernatural place in the United States. Ghost tours are offered at night at the end of every month, with more frequent tours in October.

Alcatraz Island

The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary served as a high security prison from 1934-1963. Located on an island just over a mile off the coast of San Francisco, the United States government considered Alcatraz to be escape-proof because of the strong winds and choppy waters of the surrounding San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz earned the reputation of being brutal and inhumane with harsh treatment from guards and violence among inmates. While it is debated exactly who is haunting the prison, paranormal investigators agree they are inmates who died within the prison walls and are attempting to seek revenge for their suffering.

Prison guards were the first to experience strange occurrence at Alcatraz, recalling sounds of cell doors slamming in empty halls, the smell of smoke or cigars, and distant voices calling out. Occasionally visitors will experience similar hauntings. A recurring claim is the sound of someone strumming a banjo. This is attributed to be the ghost of infamous gangster Al Capone. He spent his last days playing the instrument in the bathroom to avoid being killed by other inmates.

Alcatraz Island is now a National Park and one of San Francisco’s largest tourist attractions. The penitentiary as well as other attractions, such as the guard’s houses,  the West Coast’s oldest operating lighthouse, and tide pools are also open to explore.

Winchester Mystery House

Following the death of her husband in 1884, Sarah Winchester inherited over 20 million dollars and nearly 50 percent of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. She moved from New York to California, purchasing a farm house in San Jose that would be under near constant renovation until her death in 1922. Some sources claim Sarah Winchester was instructed by a psychic channeling her late husband’s spirit to build a house for herself and the spirits of those who died by Winchester rifles. Others claim she moved for a fresh start and was building the house not for the spirits, but to escape them.

Regardless of her reasons, Sarah Winchester directed the construction of what became a seven-story mansion with no architect or master plan. Following the 1906 earthquake, the house was badly damaged and repaired into a final structure that was 4-stories tall with 160 rooms. The massive mansion has 40 bedrooms, 47 fireplaces, 47 staircases, six kitchens, two ballrooms, three elevators, two basements, and 13 bathrooms. Staff of Mrs. Winchester said she slept in a different bedroom every night and only used one bathroom, using the other rooms as decoys to confuse the spirits.

The Winchester House was a local sensation over the course of its construction. Following Sarah Winchester’s death, it was sold outside the family and turned into a museum. People flocked to see the peculiar house and the surrounding property and gardens were turned into Winchester Park. Stories of ghostly encounters by those who visited the property began to spread and soon the Winchester House had gained national attention as a haunted attraction. Magician Harry Houdini visited on Halloween in 1924 with intentions of dispelling rumors. Instead, he left saying he now had more questions than answers and gave the house the name “The Winchester Mystery House.”

The Winchester Mystery House and Winchester Park are still operational today. Even those who don’t believe in the paranormal will find the architecture of the building both fascinating and eerie. Hallways are like mazes, staircases lead to nowhere, and spider-web windows and the number thirteen are a recurring pattern throughout the design.

 

Global Graphics City-in-Your-Pocket Maps show an accurate layout of city streets with local attractions clearly labeled. Grab one before your next trip: Los Angeles & Hollywood, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and San Diego.

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California Fall Wine Festivals

There is no better time to visit California than the fall. The weather is cooling, the scenery is changing beautifully, and wineries are announcing their new releases. Wine festivals are the perfect way to celebrate a love of wine with others and sample new varieties. Here are our recommendations for the best California wine festivals to attend this fall.

Sonoma County Harvest Fair

Santa Rosa, CA, October 5-7, 2018

For the 42nd year, Sonoma County celebrates their local harvest with a complete farm to table experience. Taste the best cuisine, beer, ciders, and wine the area has to offer. The fair focuses around a Grand Tasting Pavilion where visitors can try wines from over 100 Sonoma wineries. A Wine Country Market hosts vendors selling local goods including handcrafted jewelry, clothing, soaps, olive oil, and much more. You also can’t miss the annual grape stomp. Teams dress in matching costumes to compete for bragging rights and a $1,500 prize. Attendees can purchase bottles of award winning wines as well as new fall releases before they’re available from grocers.

Riverbank Cheese and Wine Exposition

Riverbank, CA, October 13-14, 2018

What pairs better with wine than cheese? This year Riverbank California celebrates their 41st annual Cheese and Wine Exposition. You can sample both local and imported wine during a three hour tasting period each day.  A designated “cheese zone” lets attendees immerse themselves in the experience of trying the best local cheeses. Fan favorites include a tempura cheesecake and deep fried cheese curds. This event is fun for the whole family with carnival rides, games, and live music.

Harvest Wine Weekend

Paso Robles, CA, October 19-21, 2018

The Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend is a truly unique event because of its collaborative spirit. The festival is not limited to a central location, but is held across almost every winery in the region.  Even wineries not generally open to the public offer tours and tastings for this weekend only. As the number of visitors grow each year, so does the friendly competition between wineries. Live music, local cuisine, special tours, seminars, grape stomps, and exclusive tastings of new wines have become the norm. The festival brags to be free of “tension or pretension” inviting anyone to enjoy delicious wine and relax surrounded by breathtaking views.

To find your way between wineries, grab a copy of our Paso Robles Wine Country map.

San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival

San Diego, CA, November 12-18, 2018

The San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival is the largest wine and food competition on the west coast. Walk along the gorgeous San Diego marina while tasting up to 700 types of wine and beer, both local and imported. Sample the best in local cuisine as 60 San Diego chefs compete for best dishes. There are also free cooking classes, wine tasting seminars, and live performances. Vendors sell homemade crafts and luxury goods.

Global Graphics maps are user-friendly and easy to read. Check out some of our best-selling maps of California: California Road Highway Map, Napa/ Sonoma Wine Country Map, California Map Package, Los Angeles Street Map, San Francisco Street Map.

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Lighthouses of Northern California

Lighthouses played an important role in California History. As major cities, such as San Francisco, began to grow, resources needed to be transported in from northern parts of California. Ships faced a dangerous journey because of foggy, rainy weather and a jutted, rocky coastline. In 1852 the United States Congress authorized the construction of the first eight lighthouses on the West Coast to make travel safer. Many more were quickly added in the following years. Even though most of California’s lighthouses have been decommissioned, some remain open to the public. Below are three of the most iconic lighthouses on the California shore.

Battery Point Lighthouse

The Battery Point Lighthouse is sometimes referred to as the Crescent City lighthouse. In the 1850s, Crescent City was a major shipping port for lumbar, but the rocky, foggy shoreline was problematic for sailors. In May 1855, $15,000 was alloted to construct a lighthouse just off the coast on Battery Point Island.

The first lighthouse keeper was Theophilus Magruder, a man from the East Coast who took the job for the $1,000 a year salary. When the salary was reduced by 40% a few years later, he quickly left the position, leaving it to be filled by many others over the years. In 1953, updates were made to automate the lighthouse. The Battery Point lighthouse was hit by the 1964 tidal wave caused by the Alaskan earthquake, but was left standing. Compared to the surrounding area, only minimal repairs were needed.

Today Battery Point Lighthouse is open seven days a week from April to September. From March to October, it is only open on weekends. Visitors can climb the lighthouse tower as well as view the keeper’s quarters, which include original furniture from the 1850’s. Displays also include maritime artifacts, photos, and historical documents. 

Point Arena Lighthouse

With a height of 115 feet, Point Arena is currently the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast. The original lighthouse was constructed in 1870. At that time, there was only one house for the light keeper, his three assistants, and all their families, making for crowded quarters.

Unfortunately, even with the aid of steam whistles, the original Point Arena lighthouse was not the most successful. In 1896, a ship called the San Benito crashed into the shore. Jefferson Brown, the lightkeeper, along with other local men ran to help, but the rough waters prevented their efforts. Eventually, a passing ship rescued the survivors.

The 1906 earthquake damaged both the lighthouse and the keeper’s home beyond repair, resulting in their demolition. The Lighthouse Service funded the rebuilding of the lighthouse, this time hiring a smokestack factory to build an earthquake proof lighthouse. Point Arena is the first lighthouse to be made of steel-reinforced concrete. When the U.S. Coast Guard took control several years later, an aircraft beacon was added and the lighting was automated.

The Point Arena Lighthouse is open for guided tours. This includes climbing the 145 step spiral staircase up the tower. The grounds are open to the public as a park. During full moons, there are night tours. Visitors can also stay overnight in one of the restored keepers’ houses. For more information, visit the Point Arena Lighthouse website.

Point Reyes Lighthouse

Point Reyes is known for two things: rain and fog. The Point Reyes Lighthouse sits on a strip of land about ten miles into the sea at the bottom of a cliff. This location offers the best visibility for ships. This also means visitors must descend 300 steps nearly straight down to access the lighthouse. Visiting Point Reyes is not for the faint of heart.

The original tower built at Point Reyes still stands. At only 37 feet tall, it is uniquely shaped with 16 sides. The Point Reyes Lighthouse actually has an identical twin at Cape Mendocino, but it is not open to the public. Many keepers found the extreme weather and isolation unbearable and only lasted a few years. However, one lightkeeper named Paulus Nilsson was hired as an assistant in 1897 and stayed until 1921.

Because of complaints of low visibility, a siren was added in 1881. In 1915, it was replaced by a foghorn that could carry over five miles. In 1938, the original clockwork that required turning every two hours was replaced by an electric mechanism. The United States Coast Guard retired the Point Reyes lighthouse in 1975 and allowed it to be run by the National Park Service.

The original mechanisms and lens that controlled the lighthouse are on display for limited viewing hours. There is also a visiting center, located on higher ground for those who don’t want to brave the steps, with exhibits about the lighthouse and the natural history of the area. For more information, visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse National Seashore Association website.

Planning a trip? 

If you’re planning to travel to the Northern California Coast, you need our Northern California Coast Map. The clearly labeled, easy-to-read map will give you a bird’s eye view of the area, including all major roadways and attractions. Additional tourist information is included as well.