Christmas in NYC: A Survival Guide to the New York Holidays

Christmas in New York City

Christmas in NYC is dazzling—but you’ll need some tips to get the best of the holiday season!

Who doesn’t love the winter holidays, and Christmas, in New York City? New York makes for a great destination from mid-November through the New Year: The city is festooned in dazzling lights and holiday decorations, stores are filled with eager shoppers, and the cultural calendar is packed.

Of course, all that means that Manhattan itself is “packed” during the holidays! Visitors must compete for limited hotel rooms, theater tickets…even space on the teeming sidewalks. And enormous crowds mean soaring prices and long lines, too.

But fear not. We’ve got the tips you need to navigate the chaotic season and enjoy the best of Christmas in New York!

Plan your holiday accommodation well in advance

New York has a deficit of hotel rooms, so during the holidays accommodations are scarce and prices soar. As we noted in our post on Manhattan’s budget hotels, inexpensive rooms are few and book out far ahead of time. It’s always advisable to secure hotels as early as possible, but particularly for this peak tourist season.

If you can’t find a room in your preferred price and location, consider widening your search to western Brooklyn and Queens, where several hotels have sprung up. These neighborhoods are certainly safe, so your primary concern will be convenience of subway transportation—driving into congested Manhattan is not recommended! Check an online map to see the distance from the hotel to the nearest subway stop, and consult the subway line’s schedule on the MTA website (unfortunately, not all subway lines are created equal).

Alternatives to hotels are services like Airbnb, Wimdu, House Trip, and Flip Key, through which residents rent rooms and apartments.  When considering a place, carefully check a map for location and transportation convenience. (With Google Maps, simply enter the address to see a “street view” of the location). Prices are generally much lower than hotels, particularly for longer stays, and you can read previous guests’ reviews for both apartment and host. Who knows… you may find a real home, not a hotel room, for the holidays!

Broadway Marquees, NYC

The bright lights of Broadway! Photo by Jeff Dobbins

Book your Broadway show now

Catching a Broadway show is the number-one attraction for New York visitors—so during this peak tourist season performances often sell out, particularly for hit shows like Wicked and The Book of Mormon.

If seeing a specific show is a priority, buy your tickets online (or via phone) well in advance. The same holds true for beloved holiday shows like the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker. If you wait until last minute, you’ll be competing for the few tickets that are left over (usually at a premium price!).

If you’re  looking for discount tickets to any show, not one in particular, the TKTS booths offer day-of performance discount tickets (generally 50% off) to numerous Broadway and off-Broadway shows. These tickets are subject to availability, so selection and quantity are more limited during this season, and the lines to buy are longer. However, ticket lines are much shorter at the South Street Seaport and Brooklyn “booths.” A great tool is the free TKTS mobile app, which provides real-time information about shows currently on offer “at the booth.”

Important: be sure to check the show’s schedule (and your tickets) carefully, as most productions vary their performance schedules during the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Research your New York restaurants

New York’s renowned restaurants, and those near tourist attractions, can be crowded and chaotic at this time of year. This is particularly true for pre-show dining in the Theater District (don’t miss our complete guide to Broadway theater for more tips). We recommend seeking out quaint neighborhood restaurants like those along Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, the bistros of Greenwich Village, new eateries on the Lower East Side, or those on Harlem’s “Gold Coast.”

If you’re dying to sample one of the city’s famed restaurants, try eating at times that aren’t quite as busy, like lunch after 2pm or dinner after 8pm.

Little Italy, NYC

“Mangia” on lunchtime bargains in Little Italy. Photo by Jeff Dobbins

If  “holiday pricing” is busting your budget, consider a hearty lunch in Little Italy or Chinatown. Restaurants in both neighborhoods offer prix-fixe lunch specials that are terrific bargains. And New York’s classic delis serve overstuffed sandwiches that are generous enough for two meals.

If you’re dining on an actual holiday, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, be sure to do your research. Some restaurants close. Most of those that are open offer limited (usually pricey) special prix-fixe menus. Reservations are certainly recommended (often mandatory).

Both of the above are particularly true for going out on New Year’s Eve.

Avoid the herd

New York’s most popular attractions (like the Empire State Building, ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Rockefeller Center, and the animated holiday windows) are often swamped from late morning to early evening. To avoid the crowds (and waiting!), visit these sights during “off-peak hours,” like early mornings or later in the evening.

When attending popular holiday events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, or New Year’s Eve in Time Square, anticipate very large crowds. The NYPD close streets and sidewalks to control access, and may search bags. Accordingly, plan to arrive early to ensure entrance and bring as little with you as possible to avoid security issues.

On days with inclement weather, most people will naturally head indoors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMa, or the city’s famous department stores. To avoid the mania, see our post on rainy day fun for terrific “off-the-beaten-path” museums and attractions.

NYC Christmas

Time Warner Center’s sparkling (and free) holiday decor. Photo by Jeff Dobbins

Enjoy New York’s cheap (or free!) activities

If you prefer to reserve your funds for holiday shopping, remember New York offers plenty of incredible experiences that are low-cost or free. In addition to the city’s great public spaces (like Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central, the 9/11 Memorial, Central Park, and the High Line), holiday treats like animated department store windows and Macy’s Santa Land are free.

Plus, most of the city’s world-class museums offer “pay-what-you-can” or free admission hours. (One caveat: MoMa is such a mob scene on free Friday evenings, you may want to consider paying for a more peaceful early-morning entry).

In addition to pricey shows, many of the city’s museums and houses of worship offer inexpensive or free concerts. (Check our Twitter feed or the Music Section of Time Out New York for weekly listings). Even venerable Carnegie Hall offers same-day Rush Tickets for only $10!

Finally, some of the nation’s most popular television shows, like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, The View, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, offer free tickets to their tapings. With the exception of The Today Show, tickets must be secured online well in advance, particularly at this time of year.

Skating in Bryant Park, NYC

Holiday revelers in Bryant Park. Photo by Jeff Dobbins

Have you experienced New York’s dazzling holiday season?  What did you think? And if not, what is on your NYC must-do list?

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