New York is an incredibly festive town. Maybe the whole city feels a collective pressure, given all the pop culture examples of snowy Manhattan Christmases and epically romantic New Years, but the whole five boroughs go gaga for garlands, twinkly lights, and good cheer as soon as the calendar passes Thanksgiving (and sometimes before). And before you get cynical and chalk it up to a shrewd maneuver by the business community (the department store window displays are pretty damn impressive), even Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, home to my subway stop and bereft of tourist attractions, gets gussied up with electric snowflakes and poinsettias for the month of December. As Daylight Savings saps the sunshine and our homes remain far away, it is particularly prudent to take advantage of all the wonderfully festive things this city has to offer. After all, once January rolls around it’s all resolutions and slush, with months of cold ahead. So here are the ways to feel all merry and bright like a true Manhattan or Brooklynite this year.
Ice Skating: New Yorkers love pretending they’re in the middle of nature while remaining within walking distance of the subway, and winter is no exception. The most famous urban rink is at Rockefeller Center, where for a mere $25-32 (depending on the day, and not including skate rental), you can swish by under the shadow of the giant tree, humming the 30 Rock theme music in your head. For a more economically sound, but no less festive option, try Bryant Park. This one is free (skate rental aside), and offers easy access to the next item on our list.
Christmas Markets: Traditionally a charming seasonal event dreamt up by the Germans, holiday markets have been co-opted by New York with gusto. Within their booths you can find a smorgasbord of gift options, from kitsch to craft, ornaments to jewelry to the world’s softest socks (seriously). Plus there’s cider, hot chocolate, donuts, and other snacks galore for when your shopping gets you a little peckish. My personal favorites can be found at the aforementioned Bryant Park, and in Union Square.
Pop Up Bars: The seasonal fun doesn’t stop with the markets! New Yorkers love a good pop-up shop, and they also love to drink, so December combines the two, taking drink specials to a whole new level with themed, and fleeting, specialty bars. Top of my list is Baita, housed at my perennial favorite Birreria, located on top of Eataly. The roof is transformed into a charming chalet, with adirondack chairs, pine trees, hot cocktails, and Alpine-inspired specials. Also on my to-do list? Miracle on Ninth Street, a speakeasy-style joint taking over East Village spot Mace for the second year that would have Kris Kringle asking for another round, and the tropical Sippin’ Santa’s Surf Shack, housed in the Lower East Side’s Boilermaker, whose signature drink apparently features bourbon, creme de cacao, creme de menthe, and nutmeg. (Thanks to Dan Q. Dao from TimeOut New York for the tips!)
Rolf’s Restaurant: Speaking of themes…the ultimate in Christmas dining, this German spot goes ALL OUT. If you look up Christmas decor in the dictionary, this is what you get. How they manage to cram this much garland and ornaments and lights and wreaths into such a cozy space, I will never understand. But if you’re looking for a dose of Christmas cheer with a hefty side of wiener schnitzel, this is your spot.
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree: It’s true, the rink at 30 Rock is on the exorbitant side. But gazing upon the monumental majesty that is their epic tannenbaum doesn’t cost a penny! It’s a little kitschy, sure, and you risk having your Santa hat knocked off by an overzealous selfie stick. But it’s also a big fat manifestation of this city’s Christmas spirit, and a reminder to New York to stow the humbugs for a little while in lieu of festive optimism, tourists be damned.
The Nutcracker: Tchaikovsky’s ballet is a staple of any holiday season, and lucky for you New York offers some of the best options to experience the show first-hand. The most classic (and priciest) option is at Lincoln Center, performed by the New York City Ballet (tickets start at $75). Other options include Gesley Kirkland Academy of Classic Ballet, which performs in DUMBO for the lit mag crowd; Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut, a more modern, comedic take staged at BAM; and Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge, a burlesque reinterpretation of the tale that was a TimeOut NY Critics’ Pick, perfect if you “prefer pasties to pointe shoes.”
The Rockettes Radio City Christmas Spectacular: Speaking of entertainment, no holiday would be complete without a kick line (Is that a thing? It should be a thing.). Contrary to what you might expect, this over-the-top bonanza of sequins and cheer can be experienced for a mere $22, thanks to TodayTix! And as a bonus, it takes place at Radio City Music Hall, allowing you to check another landmark off your New York bucket list.
City Bakery: After all that skating, shopping, drinking, ballet-ing, and general frivolity, you’re bound to find yourself in need of a drink — specifically, a big ole mug of the richest, most decadent chocolate imaginable, topped with a homemade marshmallow. I’ll admit to being a bit of a snob when it comes to hot chocolate — in my Paris days, Scout and I had the privilege of sipping upon the the wares of the finest hot chocolatier in the land, aka Angelina — but City Bakery’s signature cup is indisputably up to par (they have had nearly 25 years of practice). And if you’ve been really nice this year, you can add a cookie on the side for a chewable treat. The hot chocolate (yes, that is a kind of cookie) is my favorite.