With rows of Christmas trees lending the sidewalks their piney scent and glittering lights everywhere you look, New York City is a magical place around the winter holidays.
It’s also massively crowded and often cold, with the propensity to be very expensive (all that holiday cheer can really add up). Since you’ll want to be prepared, so here are some important things to consider before you go to New York for the holidays.
Get local insight on destinations all over the world with our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. Washington Square Park has its own huge tree and caroling on Christmas Eve © Kate Glicksberg / NYC & Company
What New York City neighborhoods are best during the holidays?
Midtown Manhattan is the epicenter of New York’s holiday season, packed with people eager to see the massive Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and the sparkling window displays along Fifth Ave. Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and the Tiffany & Co flagship are all reliable standouts; get an early start if you want time to linger before the sidewalks start filling up.
Skip the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center, which is small, expensive and prone to long queues. Instead, head to Bryant Park, where there’s skating (reservations required) and a holiday market. Further up, you can take to the ice at Central Park’s Wollman Rink (book in advance), then pick up gifts at the Columbus Circle holiday market.
Many New Yorkers find the Midtown bottleneck unenjoyable, to be avoided entirely between Thanksgiving and New Years. Visitors can head pretty much anywhere else for a lower-key, neighborhood-oriented take on the festive season. Looking like something out of a film set, the quaint streets of Greenwich Village offer a solid alternative; be sure to stop by Washington Square Park, which has its own huge tree and caroling on Christmas Eve. The Meatpacking District also stays alight through mid-January.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Lightscape includes the “Paloma” installation by Pitaya © Brooklyn Botanic Garden / Liz Ligon
What’s the best place to see holiday lights?
It depends on what type of show you’re after. In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights, the houses are all the way over the top on the decorating front. Get there shortly after dusk (residents start turning out the lights anytime between 9pm and 11pm) and act respectfully as you wander these residential streets, taking it all in.
In different corner of the borough, the Jewish festival of lights ignites at Grand Army Plaza with a 32ft-high menorah. It’s lit up on all eight nights of Hanukkah; on the first night there’s a party with live music and hot latkes – good reasons to brave the cold.
For spectacular lights in bucolic surroundings, head to one of the botanic gardens. Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Lightscape features more than a million bright lights; the Holiday Train Show returns to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx for its 31st year; and the NYC Winter Lantern Festival shines in Staten Island and Queens, at SIUH Community Park and the Queens County Farm Museum, respectively.
What are some non-touristy holiday things to do in New York City?
New York loves an excuse to party – and there’s no excuse like a major holiday. Themed pop-ups are popular in the run-up to the new year, from Miracle’s Christmasy craft cocktails (at Thief in Williamsburg and the Cabinet in the East Village) to Maccabee Bar’s Hanukkah extravaganza at Ollie in the West Village.
When in doubt, head for a rooftop bar. Crowning the Beekman Tower in Midtown East, the lounge-y Ophelia transforms into a snow globe for the festive season, while the McKittrick Hotel’s Gallow Green channels cozy alpine vibes.
Shop for last-minute gifts at Brooklyn Flea, Artists & Fleas and BLK MKT Vintage; FAD Market and the Makers Show also have holiday pops-up in Brooklyn. Check the Skint for leads on free and cheap events and Oh My Rockness for concert listings.
The Apollo puts on its annual Kwanzaa celebration in late December, as does the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, hosting five days of live music, dance, food, art making and more.
It can feel chillier than the thermometers indicate in Manhattan © Julienne Schaer / NYC & Company
What’s the weather like in New York City during the holidays?
Usually, pretty darn cold – though this can fluctuate. Last year, December temperatures ranged from highs of 66°F (18°C) to lows of 27°F (-2°C), averaging 45°F (7°C) for the month. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, especially in Manhattan, where all those skyscrapers contribute to a wind-tunnel effect that often makes make it feel colder than the weather reports indicate.
Still, you’ll want to check the forecast before you head out (New York Metro Weather is an excellent hyper-local resource) and plan on wearing layers. You might need your warmest coat and thickest sweater for a comfortable walk from one side of the island to the other, or for an hour of ice-skating in Central Park, but you’ll likely be too warm in all that on the subway and in restaurants, shops and museums. Strategize accordingly.
Plan ahead so you’re not searching for a ride share © lechatnoir / Getty Images
What’s the best way to get around?
The bus and subway are often your best bet for getting around during the holiday season, though cabs, cars and bikes are all good options too. Uber and Lyft are still the ride-share go-tos, but surge pricing and availability can be issues at peak travel times, especially on the weekends.
If your schedule’s flexible, Lyft’s wait-and-save option might save you a few bucks, or you could avoid the markup altogether and book a ride in a metered taxi. The Curb app saves you the hassle of hailing a cab on the street; if you’ve managed to get lucky and flag one down, it lets you pair your phone and pay the fare from the back seat.
A newcomer on the ride-share scene, Revel has a fleet of distinctive blue vehicles, all electric; even with this appealing environmental benefit, though, the service area is limited to parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and it can often be impossible to snag a ride. The company has a fleet of electric mopeds as well if you prefer traveling under your own steam.
Shared Citi Bikes are as popular as ever, and you might even have an easier time finding a ride when the weather’s chilly. Just be aware that it starts getting dark here early in winter, so make sure you’re visible to drivers if you’re pedaling around town after 4pm or so.
What’s up with the subway these days?
Daily ridership is still down from its pre-pandemic peak, and a recent host of high-profile incidents has raised concerns about subway safety. Although crime statistics are reportedly up since last year, in most categories transit crime is still lower in absolute terms than it was before the pandemic – but with fewer passengers onboard, it’s having more of an impact.
That said, there are precautions you can take for a safe and – fingers crossed – speedy journey. On the platform, stand well back from the edge and keep at least one ear free to listen for announcements (or rowdy fellow travelers). Avoid the empty car on an otherwise packed train. You’ll have more company during the day than late at night.
Check for service alerts before you swipe in at the station; Google Maps shows delays fairly quickly, and the @NYCTSubway Twitter feed has up-to-the-minute information and answers to riders’ questions.
At the turnstiles, MetroCards remain an option, but by the end of 2023, the MTA plans to phase them out entirely in favor of OMNY, a tap-to-pay fare system. In the coming months, OMNY kiosks will begin to replace MetroCard vending machines in stations, so you’ll either want to get used to the new system now or get your last swipes in while you can.
Have you made dinner reservations?
Reservations have always been recommended here for hot-ticket dining destinations, though it did seem easier to snag them in pre-pandemic times. If you have your heart set on a particular spot, don’t mess around and lock it down, particularly around the holidays.
If you can’t manage to book a table, New York has a plenty of restaurants that welcome walk-ins; you’ll have the best luck if you show up early and are open to eating at the bar.
While indoor dining has returned to the city in full force, many of the sidewalk dining sheds that sprung up during the pandemic are still in place and in use. Eating alfresco might not seem like an enticing proposition in winter, yet chances are if service is being offered there, the sheds are usually cozy, with heaters and even blankets to ward off the cold.