The Ultimate Winter Bucket List for New York City – Local’s Edition
Are you guys ready for the polar vortex of doom and this ultimate winter bucket list for New York City? No? What, you don’t want to spend the winter freezing your ass off in New York City? Come on, live a little. I mean we have so many fun things to do in New York in December. Just get out your snowshoes and wade through the mountains of snow that pile up on every street corner (This stuff makes Everest look like a mole hill). You can even cherish that joyous moment when a snowplow passes you on the street and totally buries you in an avalanche of snow. See, and you thought frostbite wasn’t romantic. Just commadere a rogue caribou to help you get around and you’ll be good to go.
Okay, in truth New York City can be extremely cold in the winter but that’s what layers and long underwear are for. So stock up for the deep freeze and you should be totally fine (Also a good excuse to drink hot chocolate by the gallon. And yes, the hot chocolate here is like liquid gold. Or is that Velveta?).
And while New York in the winter is bone chillingly cold, this city covered in a fine blanket of snow always reminds me of such adorably sweet and iconic movies as Miracle on 34th Street (the old one and not the crappy new one) or Home Alone 2, minus the part where he gets left alone for the holidays and is chased down by two convicted criminals. Honestly, I was referring to the cute little turtle dove ornament scene but whatever.
So let’s disregard such fantastical plot lines for a moment because these films represent an idea that somehow, New York City becomes an enchantingly whimsical winter wonderland. No, you won’t see people joyfully singing and frolicking down the street while clicking their heels (if you do, call the people with the straight jackets immediately. Kidding) because that’s not New York City swag. But you can stroll through the streets and experience a sense of love and joy that is largely absent during the rest of the year (New Yorkers are usually walking around in their own little cocoon of stress. Anti-anxiety medication for one please).
Now don’t ask me what makes this city so magical during winter, because I have no idea. It could be the multitude of ice skating rings and holiday markets that seem to spring to life as soon as there is a slight chill in the air (Hence the reason why this list of things to do in NYC in December is gonna be epic). It could also have something do with that enormous pine tree that starts to hang around in Rockefeller Center at the end of November (Go home tree, you’re drunk. LoL. He just had a fight with a crayon box and lost). Or maybe it’s all the moms who are walking around in their Uggs while carrying a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte.
Whatever it is though, New York City is a place that needs to be savored and explored throughout the winter season. So to make sure that you don’t miss out on any of these winter shenanigans, I mean festivities, I have created a local’s ultimate winter bucket list for New York City. Now, I might be slightly qualified to create this list since I have enjoyed many winter festivities in NYC for well over 20 years (I mean, I’m not a day over 21. LoL). So hopefully, I actually know what I’m talking about. And I swear, this list is not just for people who celebrate Christmas. The attractions and events listed here really are for anyone and everyone, no matter what your religious background (Shout out to Grand Army Plaza for housing the largest Menorah in the world. 4,000 pounds of pure awesome).
***No joke, this is one of the most amazing NYC events, January 2017. So before you book your trip to New York City this winter, PLEASE PLEASE note that New York City Restaurant Week (Basically, fancy smancy restaurants that you could otherwise never afford to eat at) offers three course pre-fixe meals at $29 a person for lunch and $42 a person for dinner is from January 23 – February 10, so plan accordingly!
***Hotel Week New York City is from January 6 – January 15 and a great time to visit New York City since over 20 hotels offer rooms at just $100, $200, or $300 a night (I know that sounds like a lot but that is really cheap for New York City. Scary huh).
***Stop! Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.00. Instead, you may want to check out some of the items below because it’s about to get chilly up in here. And yes, the cheesy pun is intended. Okay, you can now proceed. You can also check out this list of the coolest hostels in NYC if you still need a place to stay.***
1. Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree (Between West 48th and West 51st, Right on 5th Avenue. One of the great things to do in New York in January 2017 because no one will be there)
Okay, this one is pretty obvious and not really one of the unique things to do in NYC since I mean, the lighting of this Christmas Tree is nationally televised so clearly this tree is no secret and kind of a big deal. And I have to say, seeing this Christmas Tree never gets old. The sheer size of this glittering botanical wonder is matched only by the ambiance created by Rockefeller Center itself. Angels playing trumpets line an illuminated, central walkway that culminates in the iconic, Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree; exquisitely set atop the glistening ice rink below.
So be sure to take the time to stroll through Rockefeller Center and absorb the beauty that this place has to offer. Plus, you’ll be able to steer clear of all the insane Justin Bieber fans since they only campout for the Today Show Summer Concert Series (One of the perks of the cold is that it scares away some of the boy crazy tweens).
***Okay, now for some real talk. You do NOT need to attend the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony on November 29, between 7 pm – 9 pm. It is crowded and cold and frankly not worth it. Stay home and watch it on TV if you must. Also, to avoid the insane crowds that overwhelm the Rockefeller Center area during this time of year, visit the Christmas tree on a week night, between December 26 and January 7 (because no one wants to visit the Christmas Tree after Christmas), or on Christmas Day. Seriously, I have gone on Christmas Day and you have the place to yourself since everyone is home with their families. I would grab a cup of coffee in Rockefeller Center, visit the tree, and then head to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A beautiful and relaxing way to spend the day.
***Last aside I promise and then i’ll stop. Do NOT I repeat, Do NOT go skating in Rockefeller Center. Sure, it seems all romantic and is a scene that we’ve seen in about a thousand romantic comedies but life ain’t no movie. Plus, those movies never show you how much it costs to get in the place ($25 to skate and a $12 skate rental. Maybe you should take out a second mortgage to skate here. Geez). Plus, it’s insanely crowded. You’d be much better off going to Bryant Park, Central Park, Standard Rink on the High-line, Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers, etc. Literally, there are like 10,000 rinks that pop up all over the city; rinks that are much less crowded and way cheaper. My personal favorite is the Trump Lasker Rink on the North end of Central Park ($8 to skate and a $7 ice skate rental), at 110th Street and Lexington Avenue.
2. St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Another one of the many must see places in New York City. This one is also pretty obvious but I had to put it on the list. It is just one of the great things to do in New York in December. So put this bad boy near the top of your New York to do list. Why you may wonder? Well, first of all, it is literally right down the street from Rockefeller Center and second of all, it is one of the most beautiful and iconic churches in all of New York City (Seriously, I don’t know too many other churches in New York City by name).
So even if you stop by for just a few minutes because church ain’t your thing, just take some time to walk through this Cathedral and marvel at the exquisite, neo-Gothic architecture that was first built in 1878. And if that means nothing to you, then just know that it is really pretty inside and totally worth a look. Plus its free so what do you have to lose?
Address: 5th Ave, New York, NY 10022
Getting There: From 42nd street at Bryant Park, take the M train to 53rd street. Then walk over to 5th Avenue and down to 51st street.
Hours: The Cathedral is open daily from 6:30am to 8:45pm (open until 7:00pm on the night of the Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center).
Stuck for what to do in New York in the winter? Why not check out these dancing ladies. Yes, I have seen these high kicking dancers a time or two in my life, and their show is a great way to celebrate the winter season in New York City. Is the show the best thing I have ever seen? No. Is it great for kids? Yes. Does it change much from year to year? Nope. So if you’ve seen it once then you’re probably good because it’s just a bunch of women dancing around, dressed up in a bunch of different costumes (I went the third time because my dad really wanted to. I think he wanted to see the pretty ladies but its cool. I wanted to see a broadway show but I’m not bitter, as I mutter curses under my breath).
The good thing though is that it’s not overly Christmasy. I think the end has a nativity scene and that’s about it. But its pretty cool because the scene has live animals (thank God I don’t have to clean that mess up).
So while this show is not my total fave, it is a fun activity for the whole family, especially if you’ve never been. Plus, the show is in the iconic Radio City music Hall, which is a classically designed theater that has stunning architecture and amazing acoustics that put Bose to shame. Seriously, when you step into this music venue, you feel like you’ve been transported
back to the 1920s. A phenomenal place to see a show.
***If you want to learn more about the Rockettes (like how tall you have to be or how much you have to practice) or Radio City Music Hall itself, daily tours of Radio City Music Hall are offered between 9:30 am and 5:00 pm. Tickets are $26.95 for adults and $19.95 for children under 12. I did this tour once when I was a Girl Scout a long long long time ago and I found it pretty interesting (and that’s saying something since I was nothing more than an angsty, hormonal teenager).
Address: Radio City Music Hall at 1260 Avenue of Americas, New York, New York
Getting There: Use either Subway S or Subway D to get there but you can easily walk here from Times Square.
Hours: The show lasts 90 minutes, with no intermission, and runs from November 10 – January 1 with shows everyday. Check the date of your performance for specific show times but generally shows are at 11:00 am, 2:00 pm, 5:00 pm, and 8:00 pm.
Admission: Tickets cost anywhere between $30 and $300, depending on where you sit. But they don’t usually sell out and its pretty easy to find cheap tickets. I would try either Groupon or Todaytix to find a great deal on these performances.
4. The Nutcracker Ballet (Slap this one on your winter bucket list ideas)
Truth be told, I am not a huge fan of the ballet, but that doesn’t mean you should take this off your NYC bucket list. Yes, I have gone to the New York Ballet at Lincoln Center a couple of times and frankly, I found it kind of dull. Guess I’m not that cultured but I got bored without any singing or talking. I mean don’t get me wrong, the things these people can do on their feet are amazing to see, but I still yawned a bit and was kind of happy it was over.
In fairness though, I was in the last row and really couldn’t see too well. So now that I’ve made the ballet seem completely awful, I will say that the only ballet I really enjoy is the Nutcracker. Not only am I familiar with the story and the music, but this ballet brings me back to the simplicity of childhood, when your only worried about your Birthday or Christmas or any gift giving holiday you celebrated really. I also love the beauty of this story and all that it represents. That and the ballerinas in New York are no joke and totally know what they’re doing (If you need to get in the mood for ballet, check out the movie Center Stage. So good and all about ballet in New York). Oh and as an added bonus, the ballet is at Lincoln Center which is always gorgeously decorated in an assortment of shimmering lights for the winter season (a stellar way to see NYC in December). That and Century 21, a great discount retail store that sells name brands for a lot less, is right across the street. So get some shopping done and see the ballet and everyone wins.
Address: Lincoln Center, 70 West 63rd Street, New York, NY 10023
Getting There: You can either take Line 1 to Lincoln Center subway station or Line D to Columbus Circle Station.
Hours: The show runs from November 24 – December 31 with showtimes on Tuesday and Wednesday at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm, showtimes on Friday and Saturday at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, showtimes on Thursday at 7:00 pm, and showtimes on Sunday at 1:00 pm and 5:00 pm. The show also lasts 90 minutes, with an intermission at 49 minutes.
Admission: Tickets generally cost between $112 and $270, depending on where you purchase them. This event is really
popular though so I would book your tickets ASAP.
5. Check out the holiday markets in Grand Central Terminal, Bryant Park, and Columbus Circle.
Not sure what to do in NYC in December? Why not go shopping since the winter season is when New York City celebrates the consumer whore in all of us (this chick right here) by setting up various holiday markets across the city. Seriously, the markets listed above are just the biggest and most famous ones but they are literally everywhere.
Plus, these markets are actually neat to explore since they don’t carry the same I heart NY t-shirt that can be found in every souvenir shop. Instead, they have everything from speciality foods, to holiday decor, to clothing that you don’t need but buy anyway because you bought a ton of stuff for other people and deserve something special. But my favorite aspect of these holiday markets are the unique items that local vendors display. So you can actually find some unique and truly innovative items for those people on your list that are super difficult to shop for. Like one year, I got my friend Lauren this super Bohemian bowl that was perfect for her. Thank God for holiday markets and their ability to make my life a little easier.
***If you really want to save money, head over to these markets in January, when all the big sales are on. One of the many great things to do in NYC in January 2017.
6. Holiday Window Displays in New York City
This is one of my favorite things to do in NYC in the winter since New York City and holiday window displays are kind of like Peanut Butter and Jelly, they go together perfectly and you can find them everywhere. And these displays are no joke. Every year Saks Fifth Avenue creates a story that is elaborately told throughout six, mechanical window displays. And in case you find that dull, they also illuminate their displays in a multi-colored, ten storied light show that occurs every ten minutes between 5:00 pm and 11:00 pm. Last year’s theme, Land of a 1000 delights, was centered around the Nutcracker Sweet and featured a ton of candy, as well as Clara frolicking away from the Mouse King. It was basically all of my childhood
dreams coming to life, and yes, this display is so popular that they even have velvet ropes to contain the hordes of people who want to see this lively display (Not one of the most romantic things to do in NYC winter, but who cares? It’s still fun) .
Now the window display at Saks Fifth Avenue is always my favorite (but I’m biased since my mom always took me here and it just brings back a ton of fond memories), there are also some other fabulous window displays throughout the City at Macy’s, Barney’s, Bloomingdales, Lord and Taylor, Tiffany and Co., Bergdorf Goodman, and Henri Bendel, just to name a few. Seriously, you could spend all day hopping from one holiday window to the next. It’s a great way to see and feel the joyous vibe of New York City in the winter (It basically looks like holiday spirit just kind of threw up, I mean exploded all over the city. That is until you meet a drunk Santa during the New York City pub crawl known as Santa Con. Basically everyone gets drunk and dresses up as Santas or some other holiday character of their choosing. They generally wreak havoc and cause mayhem so stay home that day).
7. Harlem Meer in Central Park
Okay, you can’t celebrate winter in New York without visiting Central Park. It just can’t be done because let’s be honest, Central Park is magical any time of year. So this level of magic is amped up by all the sparkling lights that take over this green space during the winter season. Totally one of the best things to do in NYC in December.
But Central Park is huge, and if you try to see it all you might get frost bite, die of exhaustion, or get lost and end up on an
episode of Law and Order (its always a late night jogger in Central Park). So to prevent you from becoming another statistic,
I highly suggest that you visit the Harlem Meer section of the park, on the East side between 106th and 110th street.
I guess the first thing I should answer is what the hell is a meer, because I had absolutely no idea. Apparently meer means lake in Dutch. So just picture a glassy lake that shimmers with the reflection of all the glistening lights that adorn the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center. Throw in some holiday ice skaters and a ton of Beech and Gingko trees, and you have a remarkably beautiful part of the city that is not to be missed during the winter season; a great respite from the urban chaos that often envelopes the many streets and avenues of New York City (If this post has you feeling a bit romantic then check out the best romantic date ideas in NYC.)
8. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Nothing ushers in a NYC winter like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But I guess that’s true for most of the country since this event is nationally televised and immortalized in a ton of iconic and semi-iconic movies. But there is truly nothing like watching Santa as he rolls into Herald Square and officially starts the holiday season in New York City (at least that used to be the case. Now I feel like holiday pandemonium starts in August).
Now, if you have some romantic notion of watching the parade in person, and have put this at the top of your list of winter things to do list, think again. This parade is a total pain in the ass to watch in person, and yes I’ve done it. Sure, this is one of the classic New York things to do in winter but first of all, its cold and crowded. Secondly you have to get up at something like 4 am just to
get down to the city in time. Then you have to find parking or catch a train if you’re not driving. So forget cooking Thanksgiving dinner (“Hello, Boston Market? Do you deliver?”). So yeah, this is one of those events that you may want to watch on TV. The only way that it might be worth your while is if you are staying in New York City. But even then it’s going to be super crowded and super cold, unless Global Warming strikes again and its like 80 degrees on Thanksgiving (One Christmas it was 70 degrees so not outside the realm of possibility).
So what do the locals do? Well, us locals and non-morning folk, like to head out the night before and watch the balloons getting blown up for the parade (totally on my bucket list for the holidays). Not only is it less crowded, but it is a lot less stressful. However, my favorite part is still that I don’t have to wake up early. Yeah, I am like the anti-morning person. I see morning and I want to punch someone in the face. But not you because you’re reading my blog and super awesome.
To check out these super cool balloons, head over to 77th street and 81st street, where the balloons can be viewed between Central Park west and Columbus Avenue, between 3 pm and 10 pm, the night before Thanksgiving.
***The public entrance to the balloon viewing is on the West side of Columbus Avenue at west 79th Street. The security line can get pretty long so be prepared for a wait.
***To get here, take the 1 train to the 79th Street station or the B/C train to the 81st street station on Central Park west.
9. Christmas Lights in Dyker Heights
What to do in NYC in winter? Why see this holiday light display that is basically like Christmas on steroids (The Christmas lights in London are also pretty amazing). I mean these lights are so enormously bright that you can probably see them from outer space (hello astronauts), just like the Great Wall of China or the Truman Show complex (lol). We are talking professional light displays that cost upwards of $20,000 to assemble (So yeah, that rinky dink set of lights that you toss on a random bush ain’t gonna cut it, sorry. Besides, I’d spend that money on travel way before trying to impress random strangers). And with a price tag like that, you can imagine how extravagant some of these displays are. Now if you think these homeowners are the ultimate DIYers, think again. They are not Martha Stewart and have to hire people to setup these decorations (Higgins, pass me my robe would you? And a clean spoon).
Now you may be wondering, “Why all the lights?” Well, apparently this obsession with Christmas lights started all the way back in the long-gone era of the 1980s. A decade in which leg warmers, Aqua Net, and crimped hair were totally in fashion. Well, after rocking out to a little Madonna, the citizens of this small corner of Brooklyn decided to compete to see who would have the ultimate lights display in the area. Sounds to me like a case of look whose is bigger. LoL. I guess some boys never grow up. But thank God these New Yorkers have such a competitive spirit because we get to reap the benefit and get some more fun things to do in NYC in the winter.
Address: From 83rd St. to 86th St. between Eleventh Ave. and Thirteenth Ave, in Dyker Heights Brooklyn.
Getting There: You can either do a tour or hop on the N at the 49th street station, in the direction of Coney Island. Get off at the Fort Hamilton stop and walk to Dyker Heights (a 20-minute walk up some moderate hills).
***You can also do a bus tour to the Dyker Heights lights if you don’t want to hike all the way to Brooklyn. Tours last 3.5 hours and depart at 6 pm, 7 pm, and 8 pm daily from Union Square. Tickets cost between $40 and $60 Monday through Thursday and between $45 and $65 Friday through Sunday.
Hours: Lights come on after sundown (best seen between 5 pm and 9 pm), daily, from late November through early January (if you go after December 25th, it will be a lot less crowded).
***Dress warmly and consider stopping to eat at some of the restaurants along 3rd, 4th, and 5th avenue. Also bring some hot chocolate to keep you warm since you will be outside for a while (the best hot chocolate in the city can be found at Dominique Ansel Bakery and at El Rey. I mean, who would turn down a brownie batter hot chocolate for $4?)
10. Botanical Gardens Train Show (why hello New York winter attractions)
Another of the many things to do in New York in the winter is the Botanical Gardens Train show. Wait, I cannot tell a lie. I’ll admit it, I am so not into trains, like not even a little bit. And to be honest, my last encounter with a train set was in high school, when my friend had this extravagant train display in his basement (even in high school I thought this was kind of weird. I mean what do you say, “Hey ladies, wanna come over and check out my train set?” ). Well, naturally, we all got drunk and almost destroyed the whole thing. Actually, come to think of it, my friend put a hole in the wall trying to open the door and then started drunk sparkling the wall. Yeah, it was one of THOSE nights.
But anyway, so I have very little to do with trains or train sets. But if you like model trains than this show is for you and should be on your list of things to do in NYC during winter. And clearly people love this event since the creator, Paul Busse, has been engineering this display for the past 26 years. Plus, this show has consistently been one of the best New York winter attractions so I guess most people appreciate the artistry of this experience. And to its credit, the exhibit does have over 150 iconic, New York City buildings that have been accurately scaled down and expertly placed around a half mile long track that is adorned with a plethora of twinkling lights.
Oh and did I mention that the artist uses natural items like bark and leaves? Yeah, I can barely draw a stick figure let alone carve a model of the Empire State Building out of wood. So take some time to destress and check this event out. And while you’re there, don’t forget to look up and catch some of the aerial exhibits of trains whizzing overhead.
Address: 2900 Southern Boulevard Bronx, NY 10458-5126
Getting There: Take the B, D, or 4 train to Bedford Park Blvd. Station. From the station exit, take the B26 bus east to the Botanical Garden’s Mosholu Entrance.
Hours: The exhibit runs from November 22 through January 15 and is open 10:00 am – 6:00 pm, Tuesday through Sunday (Check the Botanical Gardens for any time changes due to holidays or special events).
Admission: Weekday tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and students, $10 for children aged 2 – 12, and free for children under 2. On the weekends and holidays, tickets are $30 for adults, $28 for seniors and students, $18 for children aged 2 – 12, and free for children under 2.
***I recommend reserving your tickets online since this event does sell out and is often seen as one of the best things to do in New York in winter.
Other Ways to Kick Off your New York Winter Holidays
***Not my thing at all and I know very little about it but another of the many winter activities in NYC is New York Fashion Week from February 9 – February 17. Even though you can’t get tickets to runway shows, there are a ton of
fashion related events that you can attend if you are in New York City and need some New York winter things to do.
***Have your cameras ready or make yourself scarce for one of the more crazy things to do in New York City, the No Pants Subway Ride on January 8 at 3 pm. Improv Everywhere hosts this event where basically, people ride the subway of New York City in their underwear (because apparently if it isn’t illegal than you should do it). I have no desire to participate in either this or a polar plunge but if you want to participate, just show up at meeting spots in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.
*** Winter Jam in Central Park (January 28 from 11 am – 3 pm) is an annual winter sports festival that allows attendees to take part in snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowboarding on manufactured white snow. Or if you’re athletically challenged like me, you can stand around and sip hot chocolate because if I do anything else, I’ll end up in the emergency room. Be warned though that if an activity in New York is free, it will be insanely crowded and result in total mayhem.
***Another one of the best things to do in NYC in winter is to attend the New York City Chinese New Year Celebration, which starts with the New Year’s Day Firecracker Ceremony on January 28. During this event, thousands of colorful explosives are set off to scare away any and all bad spirits that are lurking around, waiting to destroy the New Year. FYI, I went last year and suggest that you get there by 11 am since this event gets super crowded and space is limited. Also be warned that the fireworks are insanely loud and smell awful, like rotten, burnt egg status. If I were you, I would leave early and beat the crowds to some of the best Chinese restaurants in New York City, like Hand pulled Noodle.
***Every year the Bronx Zoo hosts its annual holiday lights festival. Okay maybe I expected too much but I went one year and thought it was kind of lame. I don’t know what I expected but I was basically walking through the zoo, at night time, and checking out all these cheap looking, lighted silhouettes of animals. While I wasn’t a fan, it is great way to rock out with the kids and celebrate the winter (Guess I wasn’t their target demographic).
Make it Stop! No more Information about What to do in New York during winter!
Dang, I almost forgot to awkwardly wrap up this insanely long list of places to visit in New York during winter (but when are my posts NOT long?). Well, if you find yourself with an inordinate amount of time and need to tick a few things off the winter break bucket list, then I highly recommend that you consider visiting New York in winter (if you hate the cold then totally forget it). And bring this list with you, pretty please, so that you have an assortment of places to visit in NYC in winter. Seriously, this city is one of the best New York places to visit in winter, minus the whole New Year’s Eve in Times Square debacle because that is just a plain old crowded mess and truly God awful.
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