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The Best Ways to Enjoy the Holidays in New York City

Even jaded New Yorkers admit there’s something special about their city during the holidays. Maybe it’s the Christmas tree sellers on every corner, carts hawking roasted nuts or the sound of Salvation Army bells, but the streets feel strangely warm in December. Sure, there’s also the unabashed, glittering consumerism, but that’s part of the fun. The packed sidewalks can be overwhelming, so the trick to enjoying a visit is to venture outside of Midtown’s tourist areas. Here’s how to get the most out of your NYC holiday visit.

Holiday Trees

Rockefeller Center may have the biggest Christmas tree in town, but it’s also the most popular. Avoid the crowds and seek out one of many other notable evergreens around. On November 27, The Plaza Hotel New York hosted its annual holiday lighting ceremony in the lobby, where a tree remains for the entire season. In the Flatiron District, Madison Square Park has illuminated a holiday tree for more than 100 years. It should look especially magical this winter surrounded by Erwin Redl’s public art installation, bright white spheres covering the lawn. Uptown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, check out the elegant blue spruce, decorated with 18th century Neapolitan ornaments. They hold lighting ceremonies daily, with additional lightings on weekends.

Seasonal Exhibits

Every year, the Morgan Library & Museum brings out its 1843 manuscript of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In its 2017 exhibition, Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas, the Morgan will display it alongside Dickens’ four other Christmas works, exploring the author’s inspiration and the impact of the famous story. Another annual rite is the New York Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show, where model trains wind around replicas of 150 New York monuments, rendered in natural materials like twigs and bark. Adults should check out Bar Car Nights, an evening viewing with drinks, music and a fire pit.

Family Activities

The classic American production of The Nutcracker was choreographed by George Balanchine and premiered at New York City Ballet in 1954. The company continues the tradition at its home in Lincoln Center, with a sumptuous production featuring 90 dancers and dazzling effects. In-the-know families book ahead for Peter & the Wolf at the Guggenheim, a seasonal destination for kids five and up. As the playful narrator and costume designer, Isaac Mizrahi brings Sergei Prokofiev’s fairy tale to life. In a gift to New Yorkers of all ages, the Metropolitan Transit Authority puts vintage subway cars and buses back in use between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Check the schedule online to find out when you can catch a “nostalgia train” along the F and Q lines on six consecutive Sundays; buses run on the M42 route. Consider taking the F downtown to the IFC Center for a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theater shows the Frank Capra holiday favorite every December.

Holiday Concerts

Handel’s Messiah resounds throughout the city at this time of year, from Carnegie Hall to Trinity Church Wall Street. A few blocks from The Plaza Hotel, Saint Thomas Church offers performances by its Choir of Men and Boys, presenting unmatched choral concerts at its soaring Fifth Avenue church. Looking for something a bit jazzier? The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis puts some swing into classic tunes with its Big Band Holidays concerts. At Jazz Standard, Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O gives time-honored Christmas songs an irreverent bebop spin. For a participatory evening, stop by Washington Square Park on December 17 to join the mile-long boombox parade Unsilent Night.

Relaxed Shopping

To bypass the holiday shopping hoards, head downtown. The tree-lined blocks of the East Village offer vintage shops and chic boutiques, ideal for unique gifts. Stroll along fashionable East Ninth Street to discover under-the-radar brands at Cloak & Dagger and Duo. The upscale NoLita neighborhood is similarly understated, filled with only-in-New-York finds. Coop & Spree caters to hip working girls and their stylish moms—sheer Cami NYC tops and Equipment blouses—while nearby Noah eyes cool dads with its retro crewnecks and flannels. At the edge of SoHo, Sleepy Jones sells luxurious loungewear such as silk robes and trimmed cotton pajamas. Get a latte from the coffee bar at American Two Shot before perusing its racks of indie labels including Nanushka and Samantha Pleet.

Festive Restaurants

To celebrate the holidays on a grand scale, spend an afternoon or evening at The Palm Court atThe Plaza. Special tea menus feature sweets like egg nog cream eclairs and Bûche de Noël. Their black-tie New Year’s Eve party is the most glamorous in town. For a refined but relaxed meal, visit longtime favorite Gramercy Tavern, which is as beloved for its floral arrangements as for its warm service. No need to make a reservation for the dining room; the walk-in bar area has a winning ambiance. Dine beneath the colorful Robert Kushner mural on the likes of duck mousse and brown butter cavatelli. The bouquets are also breathtaking at La Grenouille, serving a prix fixe dinner menu studded with French classics such as steak tartare and Dover sole. It’s the kind of old-school dining experience that’s hard to find anymore. Go for a special occasion and linger for hours, à la française. Downtown in the Financial District, The Dead Rabbit serves up British fare like shepherd’s pie in a cozy pub atmosphere, perfect for winter nights. The drinks, however, are the real draw. The Dead Rabbit has won multiple international bar awards, so you’ll want to linger over inventive cocktails like the Wheeler Dealer, which blends Irish whiskey with pistachio and cardamom.

There are countless ways to spend a day in New York. However you want to experience the holidays, you can find it in this captivating metropolis.


Rebecca Dalzell is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, New York Magazine, and Travel + Leisure.



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