Christmas in New York reeks of the worst clichés — huddled masses standing around Rockefeller Center to watch the tree lighting, frantic shoppers inside the gaudily-decorated Macy’s on 34th Street, and drunk 21-year-olds dressed up as Santa Claus puking on sidewalks — but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, too. As a lover of the holiday season but abstainer of mingling with tourists from Nebraska et al., here are my tips on how to inundate yourself with all things Christmas while still maintaining your dignity.
Ice skating: After trying almost every ice rink in the city, the only two that seem worthwhile are Prospect Park and Central Park. Prospect Park’s rink (Lakeside at LeFrak Center) is huge. There are two outdoor rinks — one covered, one exposed — that are connected, and the nearby cafe actually serves decent food. Central Park’s rink (Wollman Rink) is more expensive and typically more crowded, but the views of the skyline while you ice skate make up for it. Unsurprisingly, the worst rinks are at Rockefeller Center and Bryant Park due to their pathetic size, nerve-racking ratio of tourists, and strict no-photo policy — avoid them at all costs.
Holiday markets: Originating in Europe, holiday markets seem made for consumerist Americans, so it’s no surprise that New York now has a bunch of them scattered throughout the city. The one at Union Square is where I always end up buying Christmas gifts, as many items are quite interesting and locally made. Also check out the Brooklyn Flea and the Holiday Shops at Bryant Park, and don’t worry about shopping on an empty stomach because each market has an obligatory food section.
The Nutcracker: If you’re like me and must watch (or participate in) The Nutcracker every December, New York has some great options. Of course, you should watch New York City Ballet’s version at Lincoln Center at least once, just because the theater itself is so magical, but there are other (and often cheaper) alternatives. In fact, I’m somewhat intrigued by a show called Nutcracker Rouge — “a blend of burlesque and baroque, in which Cherries strip down to pasties and the Arabian dance takes place on a pole, and not the kind found in the North.” This year will be my first time watching Moscow Ballet‘s production at King’s Theater, the newly-restored theater in my own neighborhood. If you’re feeling cheap, there’s always the free Nutcracker performance at Brookfield Place. The New York Times has a handy article on finding which Nutcracker production is right for you.
Afternoon tea: While not necessarily a Christmas tradition, I’ve always thought of December as the perfect time for a cozy afternoon tea. My favorite so far has been at the Mandarin Oriental because the food is tinged with Asian flavors, and the views are some of the best in the city. This year I’ll be trying the afternoon tea at Crosby Street Hotel.
Christmas tree: Tabletop trees are a godsend. They’re convenient enough for lazy Millennials like myself, tiny enough to fit into our New York apartments, and are just the right size to hang what few ornaments a recent transplant might actually own without looking sparse. Most neighborhoods have tree vendors on the sidewalks throughout the month, and for about twenty bucks, you can carry a bit of holiday spirit back to your home. We usually place ours on a table in the corner, have fun decorating it that night, water it once, and never think about it again until, like, March (seriously, it’s scary how long-lasting the trees we’ve bought in New York are!). We have a tradition of buying one new ornament a year, and it’s exciting to see our progression of ornaments each Christmas.
Baking classes: One of my favorite things about Christmas is the excuse to bake too many gingerbread cookies. But what if you don’t have the necessary appliances, enough space, or even the will to bake on your own? Sign up for one of the many baking classes in New York! I highly recommend Mille-feuille for their intimate macaron, croissant, and éclair classes. You’ll make so many goodies that you’ll share half of them with your coworkers and still have too many for your own good. This year I’ve signed up for Meyers Bageri‘s kanelsnurrer (cinnamon bun) class — perfect for my upcoming Copenhagen trip! Also check out Baked, Breads Bakery, Milk Bar, Butter Lane, and Magnolia Bakery.
Hot chocolate: My favorite hot chocolate happens to be from an Italian gelato chain called Grom because they make their hot chocolate by melting dark chocolate gelato and topping it off with thick, homemade whipped cream. There are three Groms in New York, but the largest one is in the West Village. Dominique Ansel, always playful and shamelessly Instagrammable, offers a Blossoming Hot Chocolate in which a marshmallow resembling a closed flower bud is placed in a cup of hot chocolate. Once it hits the hot liquid, the white chocolate cup encasing the marshmallow melts away, causing the marshmallow to expand and blossom into a beautiful marshmallow flower. Jacques Torres and City Bakery also have decadent hot chocolates (pay extra for City Bakery’s huge marshmallow!), and for those of you who don’t like hot chocolate, Chalait is a great place for matcha.
Miscellaneous events: If you still need more Christmas in your life, check out EventBrite and The Skint to browse random holiday-themed events around the city. Housing Works, one of my favorite used bookstores, hosts a quirky event in which dozens of writers and performers participate in a reading of “A Christmas Carol”. If you’re too intimidated to trek all the way to Dyker Heights to see the most famous, over-the-top Christmas decorations in Brooklyn, FreeWalkers offers guided tours. Lots of hotels and bars host ugly sweater parties, if that’s your thing. And Food52, my favorite online blog for foodies, opens a pop-up holiday market in Flatiron each December where you can shop for sophisticated kitchen accessories and watch cooking demos.
Museums: Winter is an ideal time to go to museums — the sun isn’t beckoning you outside, and museums are a cheap place to spend hours in the warmth. The Met (pay-as-you-like), Natural History (pay-as-you-like), and MoMA (free on Friday nights) are obvious choices, but also check out the Whitney (pay-as-you-like on Friday nights), Brooklyn Museum (free on Saturday nights), Cooper Hewitt (pay-as-you-like on Saturday nights), the Museum of the City of New York (pay-as-you-like), the Rubin Museum (free on Friday nights), New Museum (pay-as-you-wish on Thursday nights), the New York Historical Society (pay-as-you-wish on Friday nights), Studio Museum in Harlem (free on Sundays), Transit Museum, Museum of Chinese in America (free every first Thursday), the Brooklyn Historical Society (pay-as-you-like), and Museum of the Moving Image. Certain museums, like the Met, Whitney, and New Museum, have stunning views, so it’s like you get a bonus observation deck on top of admission.
Whether you celebrate the holidays or not, it’s hard not to feel the excitement in the city. If anything, think of this season as an excuse to watch burlesque Nutcrackers, perfect your macaron skills, and finally check out that obscene mall in the Financial District.
Happy holidays, everyone!