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The winter holidays, especially Christmas in New York, have been the subjects of films, television episodes, books and songs many times over. In fact, there are actually seven Christmas songs just about the Big Apple. And there are blockbusters like “Elf,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,” “The Night Before" and what we can only imagine must be about a hundred Hallmark made-for-TV movies. “When Harry Met Sally” also features festive city Christmas scenes that add to the hype.
Lest we forget, all our favorite sitcoms have had holiday episodes set in the city. The latest “Hawkeye” Marvel miniseries is set entirely during the holiday season right here in Manhattan. And “Friends” has that famous episode, “The One with the Holiday Armadillo.”
All this is to say that Christmas in New York is a favorite recurring theme that has caught on in popular media. Now, the city is a major winter holiday destination, with December crowds surging back into New York City as the area continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
New York natives, though, often try to avoid most of the big Christmas destinations and events that the city has to offer. Especially after having lived in New York for a while. With it is being such a major tourist hub during the holiday season, New York City can become overwhelming, expensive and even disappointing.
As the saying goes, though, it truly is “New York or nowhere.” So, as long as you’re willing to venture into some more obscure holiday places and experiences, you’ll find the city lives up to all of your Christmas in New York dreams.
So with that said, we’ve compiled an insider’s guide to holiday content for 2021 in New York for you to check our before heading to the Rockefeller Tree.
Lights, lights, lights
We recommend checking out the holiday lights at Dyker Heights in Brooklyn for our first pick. Away from the congestion of Manhattan, Dyker Heights is still relatively well-known while maintaining a chiller atmosphere. On Dyker Heights Blvd, there are blocks of houses completely decked out in maximalist holiday light and decoration displays.
Although not featured in any major movie, this adventure into Brooklyn is worth the subway ride.
Perfect for all ages and free, this community event will brighten up your whole experience of Christmas in New York. While you probably should traverse the boulevard when it’s darker outside, many of the houses turn off their displays around 9 p.m., so don’t plan on heading over too late! Best of all, though, is that these displays stay up past Christmas, and you can pretty much visit any day before New Year’s.
What’s winter without a little ice?
Ice skating is something you either love or hate. Some people glide across the ice like some kind of magical winter fairy, and others stumble along like yeti, hoping not to sustain any dark bruising. When you come to New York, though, skating is a must. Although we all love that scene in “Elf” where Buddy goes ice skating with Jovie in Rockefeller Center, that’s certainly not the only rink around.
LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Prospect Park may be just the place to go. Featuring two connected rinks (rather than just a small circle), this Brooklyn spot is a bit different from most ice skating venues in the city. Lakeside is actually “the largest and most ambitious project in Prospect Park since its creation over 150 years ago.”
On weekdays, you can go skating for just US$7.50, and for US$11 on weekends and holidays, which makes for a relatively affordable activity, as far as New York prices usually go. Don’t have a pair of skates? No worries! All skate rentals are just US$8. While skating in this dual rink, you’ll also get the best view of Prospect Park Lake. So, no matter your skill level, you’re welcome to skate here.
A little holiday shopping
The United States isn’t exactly known for its Christmas markets; they’re not as big in American culture as they are in places like Europe. However, you’d be remiss not to spend an hour or two walking through one of the many that New York has to offer. Usually located in the many parks of Manhattan, the Christmas markets open pretty early in December.
Even if you’re not a very festive person, there’s something magical about the atmosphere that these little fairs bring to the city. Most of the vendors are independent, locally-owned businesses, too! A Christmas market is the perfect place to cross a few things off your last-minute holiday shopping list – and it’s ideal for a snack break.
Although there is a holiday market in Times Square, it’s guaranteed to be a tourist nightmare (as if Times Square wasn’t one during the rest of the year already). While still crowded, the ones located in Columbus Circle and Union Square are still in Manhattan and aren’t teeming with people. There’s also something slightly more quaint about them, away from the glaring screens surrounding Times Square.
If you’re worried you won’t find anything you’ll love, don’t fret. In the Union Square Market alone, over 160 local artisans, artists and vendors are represented.
The real star of the Christmas market show, though, is Chelsea Artists & Fleas. Located beneath the High Line on the west side of Manhattan, this open-air market is open Thursday through Monday every week. With over 30 sellers present, you’ll get a taste of New York’s creative side.
What’s even better is that this same market has a sister location in Brooklyn. If you’re not in Manhattan, then just stop by Williamsburg. The Williamsburg Artists & Fleas market, though, is dedicated to “vintage, thrift, and preloved fashion,” and is called “Regeneration.” Reduce waste this holiday season by seeing what nice threads New York offers.
Time to sit down for a minute
All this running around will have you craving something winter-themed to eat and drink. New York certainly isn’t short on winter pop-up bars and somewhere to grab a decent bite. This is a major food city, people. With so many options, though, it may be hard to choose. So, we’ve narrowed down the city’s must-visit food and drink spots.
In Lower Manhattan, get a taste of somewhere a little further south at The Garret Cocteleria, which aptly goes by “Feliz Cocteleria” during the holiday season. As a “pan-latin inspired holiday pop-pup,” Feliz Cocteleria is a bit different from more of the snow-inspired holiday attractions you’ll see elsewhere in the city.
Each beverage on the cocktail menu is inspired by a different geographical region or culture in Latin America. Don’t forget that each comes with a bit of holiday flair, as well. Among them are drinks like the Epazote Hot Toddy and the Lump of Coal. Feliz is also ideal for grabbing a snack; each of their tacos clocks in at only US$4.
While technically not in New York, the Miracle on Mercer pop-up at Franklin Social in Jersey City is a great holiday escape from the big city. Literally just across the Hudson River, this bar/restaurant is just a PATH ride away from Manhattan. You’ll feel the stress of the city melt right off your shoulders in this cozy atmosphere.
Standout holiday cocktails here are the On Dasher and the Elfing Around, but why settle for just one drink? Instead, stay for dinner or a snack with a Bavarian Pretzel, Fig Toast, Vegetable Hot Pot or Fondue. This is definitely the place to bring a crowd.
What not to focus on
Going to the classic tourist destinations this Christmas may be what you’re looking forward to the most. Enjoying the top of the Empire State Building when it’s lit up red and green, taking in the Rockefeller Tree, going ice skating in Rockefeller Center or snagging tickets to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular may all be on your Christmas in New York to-do list. And for a good reason: these activities are what New York is famous for, so there’s got to be something to them, right? At the very least, the photos would make for a killer Instagram story.
While that may be true, these quintessential “Christmas in New York” things don’t have to be the main focus of your trip here. Of course, spending some time visiting these attractions could be a fun way to spend an afternoon, but waiting hours in line only to spend 45 minutes skating in a circle in the shadow of thousands of tourists is a bit overrated.
We’re not saying that visiting these spots is a waste of time, energy and money, but they can end up being underwhelming. Try to break up your days according to what you think you’ll enjoy, rather than just what you’ve seen on TV.
Other Christmas in New York tips
Winter in New York can switch from being mild and clear to being bitingly cold and damp in the span of a couple of hours. Even if it does snow, you better get out your cameras quickly because soon, the snow turns to slush. Pack appropriately because New York has been known for brutal winters in recent years.
And while packing, remember that New York City currently has a vaccine mandate for indoor entertainment like museums, Broadway shows, movies and concert venues. This mandate also applies to indoor dining as well as fitness centers.
Make sure to take photos of your party’s vaccination cards with at least one dose recorded on each if you don’t want to be stuck out in the cold. Moreover, although you can legally go inside without a mask on, many businesses and attractions request that guests wear them. Plus, you’ll need one if you’re going to be taking any public transportation.
Along that same line, we recommend taking public transportation to different destinations where possible. We know the subway may not seem as picturesque as a yellow taxi or as convenient as an Uber or Lyft. Still, taking the bus, commuter rail or subway helps New York’s public infrastructure budget, is better for the environment and allows you to engage with the city’s culture. Also, traffic during the holidays is hellish in Manhattan.
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