When New York City lights up during the winter months with twinkling trees, skating rinks, festive events and holiday cheer, the glitter of the Big Apple practically bursts at the seams. Come along as we introduce you to some of our favorite sights and delights that showcase this great city in the best season of the year.
Chelsea District – A Walk on the Higher Side
On Manhattan’s west side, in the center of the Meatpacking and Chelsea districts, a former elevated railway line has been transformed into a fantastic public space called the High Line. This 1 1/2-mile raised garden and walkway was officially opened as a public park in 2009 after a decade of studies, design entries and construction. Experts in horticulture, architecture, engineering and public art all had a hand in the High Line’s creation, fashioning a masterpiece of urban-earthy fusion. Landscaped with lush indigenous greenery and flowers, the walking path travels past remarkable design, art and grand city vistas with unique perspectives of the Hudson River, NY skyline and downtown architecture. Visit the nearby food vendors to keep your energy up or explore what’s underneath the High Line using its elevators and stairwells. Be sure to check out the intriguing shops and amazing variety of food outlets at the Chelsea Market. Formerly occupied by the National Biscuit Company (of Oreo and Fig Newton fame), this long industrial arcade offers plenty of flavor.
During the warmer months (May to September), High Line docents lead free Tuesday evening tours that include information about the history, horticulture and design of the walkway. Later in the year (April to October), the Amateur Astronomers gather at the High Line for stargazing and celestial conversation. Specialty tours—focusing on subjects such as history, art, design, gardening and ghosts—and unique social events like the High Line Social Soup Experiment also make great outings. Check the calendar to see what’s on tap.
Brooklyn – Garden Plots of Spirits Past
Established in 1838 as one of the country’s first rural cemeteries, Green-Wood went on to become America’s second most visited tourist attraction in the 19th century (after Niagara Falls). The Victorians utilized it as a place to picnic and take horse-drawn carriage tours to enjoy the surroundings and the sculptures (cemetery trustees made sure the sculptures—some of which were created by eminent artists—were of the highest quality). Based on Green-Wood’s reputation and creative marketing campaigns, many individuals and organizations across the country purchased burial plots there. Famous people interred at Green-Wood include Leonard Bernstein, Horace Greeley, Samuel Morse, Henry Steinway, Louis Tiffany, early baseball legends and thousands of Civil War veterans. Now a National Historic Landmark, Green-Wood remains serene and scenic. It’s also a great place to see where some of New York’s famous public parks got their inspiration. While exploring, be sure to visit the beautiful Historic Chapel created by Warren and Wetmore, part of the team behind New York’s amazing Grand Central Terminal, which opened in 1913.
Midtown – The Sky is The Limit
Most visitors to New York head to the Empire State Building for great views of the city. What they may not know is that another local stalwart offers equally stunning vistas without the long lines. The Top of the Rock is a grand three-tier observation deck on the 67th, 69th and 70th floors of Rockefeller Center. Elevators with glass ceilings whisk visitors from the lobby up to the top in just under a minute. Spacious viewing decks with large plexiglass screens on the first two terraces provide stunning panoramas of Central Park, the Empire State Building, the new Freedom Tower (WTC) and the Statue of Liberty. Open spaces between the screens allow you to take unimpeded photos. The open-air 70th floor provides an unobstructed 360° view of the city.
If you time your visit before 9 a.m., you’ll have the place virtually to yourself. You can also bask in the glow of sunset and wait for dusk when the city lights up in magical splendor. Entry to the Top of the Rock is included in the New York Pass, which permits two visits in one day (in case you want to go both morning and evening).
Upper East Side – A Fifth Avenue Fortune
The remarkable artwork collected by industrialist Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) is housed in the exquisite Fifth Avenue mansion that was once his home. Visiting the collection is a great way to see the inside of one of the area’s most incredible homes and get a glimpse into the life of an Industrial-Age magnate. Costing almost $5 million including the land (a fortune for its time), the mansion was constructed over the course of two years from 1913–1914. An elevated garden graced by three magnolia trees shields the house from the street, creating further intrigue. Fortunately for the public, Frick mandated in his will that the house and all of its contents become a gallery, even providing a $15 million endowment for its upkeep.
The Frick Collection opened to the public in 1935 and is much more intimate than the colossal Metropolitan Museum of Art across the street. Its smaller size belies its contents, treasures of incredible worth that Frick collected with his vast fortune from the coal, iron and steel industries. European masterpieces include priceless works by artists such as Vermeer, Bellini, Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya and Van Dyck. Sculptures and 18th-century French furniture and porcelain—along with 19th-century works of art, enamel and porcelain—round out the collection. Take time to rest and reflect in the three lovely gardens, which were designed by noted architects such as John Russell Pope, of Lincoln Memorial and National Gallery of Art fame.
Midtown – True Urban Renewal
Gravel pathways, seasonal flowers, a carousel and iconic green chairs mark a Midtown oasis once more noted for its popularity with criminals. A decade of clean-up efforts have transformed Bryant Park from a “shady lady” into a center of culture, relaxation and recreation. When the haute couture industry began using the park to stage New York Fashion Week in 1993, it helped re-brand the space and give it a more sophisticated image. Superbly maintained (even down to the bathrooms), the grounds are ideal for wandering in good weather to see how the locals relax and play. On weekdays, thousands of workers from nearby offices enjoy lunch on the expansive lawn. Free evening concerts and diverse events take place almost daily. Plenty of tables and chairs provide patrons of the park’s eateries, hot dog vendors and sandwich kiosks with a place to rest and recharge.
Lighted trees, game areas and walking promenades give the park a Parisian feel, while unique amenities such as the outdoor Reading Room lend it local bohemian flavor. Originally established for out-of-work businessmen and intellectuals during the Depression, the Reading Room still stocks its carts with an eclectic collection of books, newspapers and other publications for all to enjoy (April to October, weather permitting). Pick up a magazine or play a game of checkers with a stranger for a real New York experience. During the winter, Bryant Park turns into a wonderland of holiday shops surrounding a massive skating rink that’s popular with locals and tourists alike. Views of the surrounding skyscrapers make this a place of real urban renewal.
Times Square – Inside Broadway from the Outside
Most people go see a Broadway show when they’re in New York, but they usually miss out on what goes on behind the scenes. Take the Inside Broadway Walking Tour to get a fascinating look into theatrical life and learn the history of stage production in this historic area. Licensed tour guides who work as professional Broadway singers and actors provide theater information, fun facts and intriguing details about musicals and shows past and present. Including visits to notable theaters, the two-hour tours cover an area of 4–5 blocks around Times Square. Although you won’t go inside any of the theaters, you’ll get a great sense of what life is like for New York actors. They’ll tell you about the audition process, share backstage stories and describe life as an actor. By the time the tour is over, you’ll have a lot more insight into the workings of “the business” and an appreciation for what it takes to work in it.
A Delicious Bite of the Big Apple
One of New York’s best features is its multitude of food options. From hot dog vendors and food carts to kosher, vegetarian and gourmet cuisine, the immense spectrum of flavors from around the world is magnificent. A great way to sample some of it while learning about the neighborhoods is to take a Foods of New York Tour. In operation for over a decade, these walking tours offer a unique combination of food, culture and history with interesting morsels about famous residents, local lore, buildings and décor. Choose from five different areas:
- Greenwich Village
- Chelsea Market/Meatpacking District
- Central Village & SoHo
Leading you off-the-beaten path, the guides treat you to three hours of tastes and locales that have put a special stamp on each neighborhood. Bite into a mini mortadella and mozzarella sandwich, Middle Eastern falafel, chorizo crostini or Cuban empanadas—or savor pizza and cannoli. Whether you’re at a modern bistro or a classic “mom and pop” shop, you’ll get a superb taste of New York’s diversity, plus coupons and tips for later exploration. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes.
Note: When the weather is bad, the Chelsea Market tour takes place mostly indoors.
Travel Tips: New York City
A city so dazzling it has earned multiple monikers (The City That Never Sleeps, Gotham, the Big Apple, City of Dreams), New York City captures the world’s imagination. Winter is the best season to see the Empire City at its most festive and sparkling. Read these tips to get into the big-city mindset and figure out the best way to navigate from point A to point B, what to pack, how to save and where to find New York’s best ice-skating spots and glittering Christmas tree flocks.
Dress Like a Local
New Yorkers generally have a keen fashion sense without being too formal (don’t be surprised to see an eclectic variety of outfits any time of day). If you want to blend in, pack for both style and comfort. In November, temperatures range from 40°F to 54°F, but it can get colder, so dress in layers with sweaters and vests. You should also pack a warm coat, a hat, gloves, scarves and boots for the colder days and nights—and don’t forget an umbrella. Comfortable walking shoes are mandatory; bring a tote to carry a nicer pair of shoes and accessories if you’ll be out all day. For pants, black and darker colors work best because they’re easy to match and don’t show as much dirt as lighter colors. If you’re going to the theater, you’ll see people in all manner of dress, but smart-casual attire is always appropriate. Be sure to bring along some holiday glamour for parties and special events.
See the Sights for Less
With so much to see and so many people wanting to see it, New York can be expensive and crowded. Avoid some of the crunch and save money with a pass:
- CityPASS: Buy a ticket booklet for 6 set attractions ($106). If you want to see at least 4 from the list, this is a great value. Valid for 9 days.
- New York Pass: Get a smart card that gives you cash-free entry to over 80 attractions, museums and tours. Choose from four options:
- 1 day ($85)
- 2 days ($120)
- 3 days ($155)
- 7 days ($200)
The more you use this pass, the more you save. You can also combine it with the hop-on/hop-off bus. Valid on consecutive days only.
- New York Explorer Pass: Select this smart card to choose from 56 NYC attractions. Available by number of attractions:
- 3 ($79.99)
- 5 ($116.99)
- 7 ($145.19)
- 10 ($178.49)
This pass also provides flexibility to choose the attractions after you purchase it, so you can leave it up to the weather. Valid for 30 days.
Pack the Right Bag
After you unpack, it can be hard to find a place to store your bag in a small hotel room or on a cruise ship. Our foldable/expandable bags from Lipault and Biaggi offer a great solution to the challenge. Each piece in these collections is designed to fit in tight closet spaces, in upper rail compartments or under the relatively low-clearance beds found aboard ships—and these bags all have wheels. Check out the full assortment at TravelSmith.
Take Public Transportation
Not even the locals recommend driving in New York City. When you’re there, it’s very easy to hail a cab, take a bus or make use of the largest subway system in the world. While cabs and buses allow you to see the city, you can avoid traffic when you ride the subway. If you’re going underground, you can buy a single-ride ticket from a vending machine for $2.75. To save time and hassle, get a MetroCard from The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Options include:
- Regular MetroCard: $10; works as a pay-per-ride card ($2.38 per ride)
- Unlimited Ride MetroCard: $30 weekly or $112 monthly; offers unlimited trips and greater savings the more you use it
Refill both as often as you like. Both cards are accepted on the AirTrain to and from JFK Airport.
All That Glitters
To get into the holiday spirit, go see the fantastic window displays of New York’s top department stores. They’re all located within a 2-mile radius, so you can easily tour them at your own pace. Start at Macy’s on Herald Square, then walk down Fifth Avenue to see Lord & Taylor, Tiffany & Co., Bergdorf Goodman and FAO Schwarz. Turn onto 61st Street to check out Barneys. Then head east to end your tour at Bloomingdale’s. More details by store:
- Macy’s on Herald Square is where 34th Street, Sixth Avenue and Broadway converge. As the world’s second largest department store (Korea’s Shinsegae Centum City took over top billing in 2009), Macy’s doesn’t skimp on holiday style.
- Lord & Taylor is located in the former Vanderbilt Mansion at 424 Fifth Avenue, between 38th & 39th Streets.
- Saks Fifth Avenueis at 611 Fifth Avenue, opposite the Rockefeller Center.
- The Tiffany & Co. flagship store can be found at 727 Fifth Avenue.
- Bergdorf Goodman makes its home at 754 Fifth Avenue (cross street is 57th Street).
- FAO Schwarz is a toy wonderland found at 67 Fifth Avenue.
- Barneys is located at Madison & 61st Streets.
- Bloomingdale’s calls 59th Street & Lexington Avenue home.
The Big Ticket
If you want to see a show in New York, use one of the city’s great ticket services. TKTS, BroadwayBox and New York Show Tickets all sell discount tickets for Broadway and off-Broadway shows:
- TKTS: Great-value tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway musicals for same-day shows. Discounted prices are usually 50% off face-value tickets. Ticket booths are located in Times Square, downtown Brooklyn and the South Street Seaport.
- BroadwayBox: Discount and full-price tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway shows, plus other New York attractions.
- New York Show Tickets: Discount Broadway tickets and free tickets to TV shows like Inside the Actor’s Studio, David Letterman, Martha Stewart, Saturday Night Live and Good Morning America.
You can also visit the Broadway Concierge and Ticket Center. Conveniently located inside the Times Square Visitor Center, it offers tickets to most Broadway shows, restaurant and hotel recommendations, parking help and other services.
New York’s Best Bargain
Providing public transportation to an astounding 20 million people each year, the Staten Island Ferry has been in operation since the 1700s. It’s a great way for visitors to see the city—and it’s free. Once aboard, you’ll be treated to wonderful views of the city’s skyscrapers, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, as the ferry makes its way from lower Manhattan to Staten Island. Taking the hour-long round trip at the end of the day is a great way to relax.
See the Trees
The lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Center is the unofficial kickoff to the holiday season, and tens of thousands of people come to witness the event (scheduled for December 4 this year). But many other trees offer seasonal cheer without the crowds:
- Bryant Park: The massive tree at Citi Pond is part of the annual winter celebration that includes ice skating and the Holiday Shops.
- Cathedral of St. John the Divine: The Peace Tree is filled with 1,000 paper cranes and other peace symbols.
- Lincoln Square: The Annual Winter’s Eve Festival kicks off with a tree lighting in Dante Park.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: The 20-foot tree is surrounded by an 18th-century Neapolitan Baroque Crèche (Nativity scene), and an array of attendant figures and silk-robed angels.
- New York Stock Exchange: The Christmas tree in front of the Stock Exchange has been a tradition since 1923.
- Park Avenue: The 2 1/2 mile stretch of Park Avenue from 48th to 97th Streets on the Upper East Side is illuminated by festive trees during the holidays.
- Plaza Hotel: See the grand-themed tree in the Plaza Court. In 2011, designer Betsey Johnson put her mark on the Eloise Christmas Tree, while 2012 featured a tree based on The Great Gatsby.
- Washington Square Park: The 45-foot tree is a Greenwich Village neighborhood tradition. Stop by for holiday-themed musical performances and Christmas Eve caroling.
- Made up of 500 folded works, the 13-foot-tall origami tree at the American Museum of Natural History is also a must-see.
Holiday 2013 Tips
- The Thanksgiving Day Parade is scheduled for 9 a.m. on November 28.
- Head to Rockefeller Center after the tree is already up (scheduled for December 4).
- If you’re interested in ice skating, Rockefeller Center is great, but to avoid the crowds, try Central Park, Prospect Park or Bryant Park, which has free admission amid a winter wonderland. Another option is Wagner Park in Battery Park City, which boasts great views of the Hudson.
- Productions of The Nutcracker are put on by both of the city’s top ballet companies: New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater.
- The first two weeks in December are very popular for visitors and shoppers, meaning big crowds and higher hotel prices.
- Don’t take children to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It’s overly crowded and not family-friendly. Watch it on TV from your hotel room and order take-out, pizza or room service.