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With department store windows dressed up for the holidays, larger than life light displays and that big ball that drops to bring in the new year at the world’s largest New Year’s Eve party, experiencing New York City during the holidays is a bucket list item for millions. If you’ve never been, you’ll want to do it all—which means you’ll be fighting the crowds. But don’t worry, I know some alternative sites to get you out of the mob.
If Spending the Holidays in New York City is on your Bucket List, These Sites Will Save Your Sanity
For years one of my bucket list experiences was to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Then I moved to New York. Now you couldn’t pay me to stand in that mob of people for hours waiting for the big ball to drop. I also avoid 34th street and all its miracles unless it’s between the hours of 1:00am and 5:00am when the tourists are generally asleep. And that big beautiful tree in Rockefeller Center? Sure, I’ll take a quick look, but for the most part, I steer clear.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not the Grinch, it’s just that I prefer to actually enjoy my amazing city during the holidays without fighting my way past the mobs that descend on the city for the season.
Here’s my top 5 holiday experiences outside of Rockefeller Center and Macy’s. There will always be crowds – it is New York City after all – but these are less of a mob scene and utterly charming.
1. Union Square Holiday Market
During the holiday season Union Square transforms into a European-style winter market with over 150 local and national vendors. Choose gifts or a souvenir from the impressive array of artwork, leather goods, jewelry, holiday ornaments, wooden puzzles, board games, and more.
There are plenty of food vendors on hand to keep your hunger pangs under control. Dive into a Belgium waffle by Wafels & Dinges, or satisfy hour sweet tooth with cookies from Momofuku. If you need a break from the cold, warm up with a cup of hot chocolate at nearby Max Brenner’s Chocolate Restaurant. In fact you can have hot chocolate, chocolate pizza, chocolate cookies…pretty much any kind of chocolate you want to keep you in the holiday spirit.
2. Winter Village at Bryant Park
While Rockefeller Center has the biggest and most famous tree and ice skating rink, the Winter Village at Bryant Park has as its centerpiece a 170’ x 100’ ice skating rink. Admission is free and rental skates are available. There are also skating shows and special events throughout the holiday season. The ice skating happens in the shadow of another spectacular Christmas tree all dressed up for the season.
Located along Bryant Park’s allées and terraces, Holiday Shops housed in custom-designed, “jewel box” kiosks feature over 125 artisans from around the world.
3. New York Botanical Gardens’ Holiday Train Show
During the holiday season New York Botanical Gardens transforms into a winter wonderland complete with an enchanting Holiday Train Show. Model trains weave through a display of 150 landmarks including Grand Central Station, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Yankee Stadium, each re-created with bark, leaves, and other natural materials all under a canopy of twinkling lights. I love watching the faces of the little ones light up when they spot the trains chugging through the displays.
For the grown-ups there are designated cocktail nights throughout the season. On these nights the wintry landscape of the gardens sets the scene for holiday cheer. With an expanded Holiday Train Show as the centerpiece, sip a cocktail as you wander through a series of station stops, including pop-up acts featuring some of NYC’s favorite street performers.
4. Lights, Lights and More Lights in Brooklyn
As a child I loved driving around looking at the decorations on all the houses in town. Today when I get a hankering for lavishly decorated homes with millions of twinkling lights, I head to the Dyker Heights in Brooklyn. Clark Griswold’s light display in the movie Christmas Vacation pales in comparison to the extravagance of these homes.
Since the 1980s this annual display has grown with each passing year. There are massive professionally designed light displays, lawn ornaments, motorized displays and more. Over 100,000 people flock to Dyker Heights each year to check out the holiday spectacle. Bus tours are available or you can take the subway combined with a 20 minute walk or a short taxi ride to do your own walking tour through the neighborhood.
5. Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Central Park
As I mentioned before, celebrating New Year’s Eve in Times Square sounds like a great idea – until you actually see the crowds standing for hours waiting for that ball to drop. There’s no bathrooms and no champagne to toast the New Year. Why would I go there? Instead of fighting the crowds, I celebrate New Year’s Eve in Central Park where a brilliant fireworks display lights up the sky at midnight as a 5k race kicks off. And you don’t need to arrive early. In fact you can have a leisurely dinner, drinks, stay in a place where there are restrooms when you need them and then walk to the park just before midnight. It’s a sane and civil way to ring in the new year in New York’s most iconic park.
Wherever you celebrate this season, we wish you the happiest of holidays!