New York. You know the place. The Bronx is up but the Battery’s down…so good they named it twice…the Big Apple…the city that never sleeps…and to cap it all – a Christmas wonderland.
If any city knows How to Christmas it’s New York. If you have been there in the holiday season you will be all too aware of the fact. If you haven’t, maybe we can inspire you to put it on your future festive list by outlining our idyllic plan for a long weekend away in this fantastic metropolis. We emphasise the word ‘future’ because travel is in a state of flux because of the coronavirus pandemic. New York was tragically hit hard. For now, perhaps you can digest our suggestions and plan to adopt some of them in the years to come when you can give the great city a tourist boost it will need and welcome.
By the time we’re done on this page, a big bite will have been taken out of this juicy apple. What follows is a timeline of fun, festive, delicious and thought-provoking ideas you might consider as a first-time visitor to New York in the build-up to Christmas. Beyond that, further down the page, we touch on the more mundane. In other words the practicalities of such a trip like visa requirements and flights. But the key before all that is to whet your appetite for the place itself. We emphasise, these are all tips for future Christmas build-ups when we will say again: “New York here we come!”
The Long Weekend
To maximise your experience in New York at Christmas we recommend a three-night stay. That means a flight on Friday morning, arriving in New York mid-afternoon, and a departure on Monday evening, arriving at breakfast time on Tuesday morning in the UK. Remember UK time is five hours ahead of New York. At midday here it is 7am on the East Coast. Scroll down if you’re already chomping at the bit for Airline and transit information.
Create a list before you travel of the things you would like to do this festive weekend away: see a Broadway show; climb the Empire State Building; visit Rockerfeller Center; pay your respects at the 9/11 Memorial; see the Statue of Liberty; visit a museum; walk through Central Park; enjoy fine dining and shop, shop, shop. There is an awful lot to pack in – maybe too much. So work out an order ahead of time and be prepared to cut from the back. Our suggestions further down the page might help you firm up the must-do Christmas activities in New York, leaving other attractions for your next visit. Trust us, you’ll want to return.
The Hotel Key
Determine how key the hotel is to your visit. Clearly you’ll want to spend your time there in some kind of luxury – it is Christmas after all. Under no circumstances do we suggest you should cut corners when it comes to accommodation at the heart of Manhattan. But it is no use paying much more for a hotel that offers spa treatments, incredible restaurants and all manner of in-room extras if you are going to treat it more as a bed and breakfast. More on hotels to come – but look online at some of our favourites and you’ll start imagining yourself there: The Soho Grand; Library Hotel; The Carlyle; The Waldorf Astoria; The Four Seasons; Hotel Giraffe; The Bryant Park Hotel; Langham Place; The Plaza; Hotel Beacon; The Bowery.
So you have arrived at the hotel (for us it’s the Soho Grand), checked in and unpacked. You’re tired after the long journey – but no time for naps people. Instead, freshen up and shake off the cobwebs with a short walk to take in your nearby surroundings before it goes dark. The drive from the airport will have helped it hit home: you are in New York, you really are. The walk will reinforce the fact.
No time for jetlag either. After a shower and change, take a cab to the Empire State Building. The queues in the evening are shorter than those during the day – sometimes non-existent. Take the 1,050-feet elevator ride up to the 86th floor observation deck and view New York at night from the heights of one of its most iconic buildings. The city will twinkle and sparkle like fairy lights. What a way to start.
From there it’s a taxi (or New York Subway if you prefer) to your dinner date at Raoul’s on Prince Street. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, has delicious food and will ease you in to New York at night quite superbly. If you ask a taxi driver to “please take us to ‘Raoul’s’ on Prince St at Sullivan and Thompson” you’ll be dropped off right outside. We recommend booking restaurants long before you travel if at all possible. To make a reservation at Raoul’s call +212-966-3518 or use opentable.com.
After dinner, take a stroll back to the hotel and – if you have enough energy left – have a nightcap in the bar. The Soho Grand’s bar is sophisticated and chic and an ideal spot to affirm the weekend’s plans.
The Saturday Shop
Boy, have we got a day and a half in store for you. Have breakfast in bed and stoke up the boiler – it’s time to hit the shops. This is your one big Christmas shopping day, so make the most of it. Decide in plenty of time what iconic shops you want to visit and in what order. Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue may be your department stores of choice. All will be decked to the Christmas nines. Get to Macy’s early enough and you will avoid the queues for the fantastical ‘Santaland’. Kids of all ages should take this in. Soho offers more in the way of boutiques and the bespoke. But Midtown is best for Christmas. Fifth Avenue all the way and a detour to Barney’s on Madison. Oh for those incredible window displays. Don’t forget your gifts list. Maybe treat yourself to a little something, too. Squeeze in a coffee break, if not a lunch break, and shop until you are ready to drop.
With all those bags, it has to be a taxi back to the hotel. A quick turnaround once you’re changed for a cocktail in the bar: a Manhattan in Manhattan maybe or a Christmas speciality of the house. Have a few nibbles, too, to keep you going until dinner. Then it’s off to Broadway. Again, we recommend you book tickets for a Broadway show in advance if possible. Failing that, call the hotel concierge for help – or make sure your shopping expedition takes you through Times Square. There you will find ticket booths (TKTS Discount Booth) offering same-day tickets for Broadway shows. The queues can be off-putting at times, but you will get served sooner than you think. Keep your options open as you might not get your first choice of show.
If sport is more your thing, why not book tickets instead for historic Madison Square Garden to see either the New York Knicks basketball team or the New York Rangers ice hockey team. You can stay in casual garb for this – but smart enough for late-night dinner. We recommend Lucky Strike in Soho (luckystrikeny.com). This long-established eatery is laid-back and cool. We saw actor Willem Defoe there the first time we visited. It’s at 59 Grand St, between Broadway and Wooster Street. Restaurant Row is another option with a selection of eateries catering to theatregoers: that’s West 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. We only hope these – and many other great eateries – survived the 2020 lockdown.
The Super Sunday
After all your shopping exertions of yesterday you deserve a bit of a lie in. Not too much of one, mind you, because you have a brunch date at Balthazar in Soho at the start of a super Sunday. This is a fantastic restaurant any time of day, serving traditional bistro food. You must book early to avoid disappointment. We love it. (Reservations through opentable.com. Tel: +212-965-1414. Open 7.30-11.30am; 12-5pm; 6pm-12am). There’s also a Balthazar Bakery so you can sample their French-inspired delights back at the hotel or on the move.
Next stop – the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Subway will be the quickest option, but gauge the old energy levels because you might be on your feet for a while. The Met is home to the wonderful and rather humbling Angel Tree, which takes pride of place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. It has 18th century Neapolitan figures re-enacting the events of Jesus Christ’s Nativity at its base, while skilfully crafted angels hang from the branches above. You can also take in the works of legendary artists for as long as your schedule allows. If you plan to leave the museum after a couple of hours (maybe 3.30pm), turn right and skirt around the edge of Central Park until you reach The Plaza. This iconic hotel serves deliciously decadent afternoon tea at The Palm Court from 2-5pm. Again, book early to avoid disappointment. Business casual attire is required. This is the hotel featured in the Christmas comedy film “Home Alone II: Lost in New York”.
If there is time, you might want to become super-touristy by taking a horse-drawn carriage ride around a section of the park. The carriages will be visible from The Plaza. Journeys are only a few minutes’ long – and heck it is Christmas.
What a treat we have next at Radio City Music Hall. Every year a spectacular Christmas show is performed there by the famous Rockettes. It and they are New York institutions. Children will adore it, we big kids can’t get enough of it. If you love Christmas, you will love this. We’re talking a living Nativity with real animals, the charming rag dolls of Santa’s workshop and Santa Claus on a thrilling 3D journey through the skies of New York. It’s magical and isn’t overly long. There are several shows a day, so tickets can often be bought same day at the box office. But why run the risk? It’s easy enough to book in advance. Shows start in November and run through December 31st. Tickets cost from around $60 to $280, although certain weekend showings have seats listed in the $500 range. Check out radiocitychristmas.com.
Just when you think you can’t get any more Christmassy, head across to Rockerfeller Centre to see the giant tree in all its illuminated glory. It is usually lit for the first time in late November. Enjoy the beautiful white angel display and the skaters on the ice rink there. It’s just like you’ve seen in the movies. Don’t try to skate – the rink is small and the wait is long (sometimes two hours).
If you are dressed the part and have thought to book ahead, you can always head up to the historic Rainbow Room at Rockerfeller Plaza for dinner and even dancing. SixtyFive is their cocktail lounge and outdoor terrace (more details at rainbowroom.com). Otherwise, your evening meal could consist of something cheap and cheerful – pretzels from a street vendor, burgers or pizza – or possibly involve a visit to Little Italy or Chinatown. We have fond memories of Luna Ristorante for Italian food and a bit of tongue-in-cheek service (Tel: +212-226-8657). If it’s dessert you want then try Ferraras at 195 Grand Street. This has been referred to in some guides we read as the place where mobster Joey Gallo got whacked in the seventies – but he was in fact killed in Umbertos Clam House on Mulberry, which is now an Italian restaurant called Da Gennaro. Umbertos has moved a couple of blocks away. Is this a good point to inform you that a minimum 15 percent tip is expected in US restaurants? You have been warned.
The Monday Memorial
It’s your last day so head out for breakfast. Pick up a few more pieces of Christmas shopping on your way back to the hotel. Take your concierge’s recommendation for a breakfast eatery, but stay local enough to your hotel so you can gather your bags and check out in a timely fashion. Store your bags in ‘left luggage’ at the hotel. Next it’s time to visit the 9/11 Memorial. You will need a pass that can be obtained online or by telephone for a small charge. The 9/11 Museum opened on May 21, 2014 and entry is very reasonably priced for adults and even less expensive for children aged 7-17 and over-65s. There’s no charge for children under six. Go to 911memorial.org for more details. Prepare to queue, even with a pass, for an hour or so.
While you are in that part of town, you might want to take in the awesome sight of the Statue of Liberty in the Battery Park district. You can climb up inside the statue until you peak out from her headdress, but it might not be good for the claustrophobic and frankly the view from the top is brief and a tad disappointing. We suggest you take a good look round the outside – maybe even take a ferry ride passed the statue – and make a note to definitely visit the neighbouring Ellis Island Immigration Museum the next time you’re in town. But for now, alas, it is time to head back to the hotel, collect those bags and travel to the airport for your evening flight. What memories you’ll have to carry with you.
The Other Attractions
Our itinerary is a guide only. Please do whatever lights your candle, of course. There are so many great restaurants, shops and attractions to visit in New York that you will struggle to go wrong. Here are more ideas to get you thinking:
- An open top bus tour – we recommend this on any first time trip to a big city if you have no idea of your bearings. You’ll have a couple of hours to get acquainted and can return to the places you feel need more exploring.
- Go ice-skating in Central Park on the Trump Wollman rink– or save the bruises and just watch.
- Check out the marvellous architecture at Grand Central Station.
- See American Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” – it reeks of Christmas.
- Have a cheeky cocktail at the Mercer on Mercer Street, Soho – or the neighbouring MercBar Phoenix.
- Shop at Century 21, a department store close to the 9/11 Memorial. It has been dubbed New York’s “best kept secret” and is awash with designer clothes and goods at knockdown prices.
- Maybe you don’t want to wait for a second trip to New York to see the immigration museum at Ellis Island. It’s fascinating.
- Love your sport? How about a Yankee Stadium pilgrimage? It’s the house that Ruth built. Babe Ruth that is – baseball’s all-time legend.
- Hit the water to take a trip on the Staten Island ferry – enjoy a 25-minute voyage from Lower Manhattan and take in the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline. It even serves beer until midnight.
- Travel to The Top of the Rock – on the 67th, 69th and 70th floors of 30 Rockerfeller Plaza, home of NBC Studios. It stays open late.
- Explore Lower Manhattan – visit the Skyscraper Museum or Museum of Jewish Heritage, enjoy the excellent eateries on cobbled thoroughfare Stone Street and walk across Brooklyn Bridge.
- There is some acceptable train-spotting to be done at The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Gardens. It’s a hardy perennial.
- If you are in New York for New Year, it has to be Times Square to see the famous ball drop. Don’t fight the crowds – embrace them!
- Hip restaurants come and go in New York – some are forever fantastic. Check out the following site for the new and the “in”: nymag.com/restaurants. Remember, a minimum 15 percent tip in the states or you’re a Grinch.
New York Pass
You might want to make an investment in a New York Pass. Basically, it’s a smart card – like a credit card with a computer chip inside – that allows you cash-free entry to more than 80 New York tourist attractions. Check out newyorkpass.com for the list of attractions included, prices and the number of days a pass can cover.
It’s the creation, as explained on the ‘Pass’ website, “by real, life-long New Yorkers to save you time and money on sightseeing in New York City. With NY Pass visitors get free entry to over 80 attractions and skip ticket lines at many of the busiest places. It’s a bit like an all-inclusive holiday – once you’ve bought your New York Pass you don’t have to pay to get into any of the attractions covered by the pass and the more sights you see, the more money you save.”
The 2020 pandemic has had a massive impact on travel. What we list here is from previous years and an outline we hope we can all fully return to again in time.
Make sure you have all the correct documents before you travel. Your passport should be valid for the duration of your stay. Check if you require a visa or if you are eligible to travel via the Visa Waiver Programme. Check out www.gov.uk and search foreign travel advice for more.
There are normally direct flights to New York from several major cities in the UK, including Birmingham, Glasgow, London and Manchester. Check if your flight is arriving at JKF International Airport, New York or Newark Airport, New Jersey. It is a slightly longer and more expensive car journey into Manhattan from Newark.
You may want to consider flying to New York via Dublin with Aer Lingus. This way you will clear American customs and immigration at Dublin Airport and land at JFK in New York on a ‘domestic’ flight. You simply have to collect your bag from the carousel and hop in a cab to Manhattan. This means you can’t buy duty free goods on the flight.
The famous yellow cabs will be lined up waiting to ferry you from JFK Airport to the city. Don’t get into an unlicensed cab. Note, it will likely be more expensive from Newark. Drivers will expect a tip of around 15 percent. There are rail options, too. Check out njtransit.com. If you want to make your New York trip even more special you might consider booking a limousine in advance to pick you up at the airport…and there are helicopter shuttles!
As for hotels, the choice in New York is vast but availability is practically zero if you try to book a December stay late in the year. Get your plans in place early. Make it a hotel in Manhattan so you are at the heart of everything and within walking distance of many attractions. Check out TripAdvisor and search for New York City hotels (tripadvisor.co.uk).
In Brief – Our Long Weekend in New York
Check List: Book flights & hotel; Check visa requirements; Plan itinerary for 3-night stay; Plan transit to and from airports.
Friday: Fly out a.m.; Arrive late afternoon; Short walk in hotel neighbourhood; Evening visit to ascend the Empire State; Dinner at Raoul’s – reservations at opentable.com.
Saturday: Christmas shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Barneys; Take in a Broadway show or a game at Madison Square Garden; Dinner at Lucky Strike, Soho or a concierge recommendation for an eatery on ‘Restaurant Row’ in theatre land; Cocktails at a top hotel.
Sunday: Brunch at Balthazar – reservations at opentable.com; Visit the Angel Tree at the Met Museum; Walk through Central Park to The Plaza hotel for afternoon tea; Horse-drawn carriage ride in Central Park; See The Rockettes Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall; Visit the tree at Rockerfeller Center; Dinner at the Rainbow Room or in Little Italy.
Monday: Breakfast out; Last chance for Christmas shopping; Visit the 9/11 Memorial; Take in the Statue of Liberty; Fly home. Arrive back Tuesday a.m.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – IT’S A HELLUVA TOWN
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to the beautiful Angel Tree – a must-see attraction on any Christmas visit to New York. But you can also bring the museum to you with an array of goods related to the wondrous tree. That’s because they have an online shop that ships to the UK (store.metmuseum.org – although please be aware that orders will likely incur a customs charge as well as posting and packaging fee). If you become a member of the Met you receive discount off all purchases throughout the year, plus seasonal double discounts. There are also members-only emails with advance notice of exhibitions, programmes, events and special offers and access to the exclusive Members Dining Room overlooking Central Park. Memberships go up to a level in the thousands of dollars range. Gift memberships are also available.
The Sounds and Stories
Musically, we have our own annual reminder of Christmas in the Big Apple in the splendid form of “The Fairytale of New York”, written in 1987 by Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer of Irish group The Pogues. They perform the song alongside Kirsty MacColl. Steve Lillywhite, then MacColl’s husband, produced the record and asked her to lay down the guide track for a demo. The Pogues liked it, so kept Kirsty. The song spent five weeks at number one in the Irish pop charts in 1987, but stalled at number two in the UK charts – denied top spot by the Pet Shop Boys and their remake of an Elvis Presley classic “Always on My Mind”.
Film-wise, one sure-fire way of getting the New York juices flowing before you travel is to watch the Christmas comedy “Home Alone II: Lost in New York”. It has more New York festive attractions than you can shake several sticks at, never mind one. The Rockerfeller Center tree and angels, The Plaza hotel, the heavenly toyshop, a Christmas Eve concert at the Met and a snowy Central Park.
Christmas, New York and movies are a tremendous fit. There’s the 1947 classic “Miracle on 34th Street”, starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and Edmund Gwenn – who won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Kris Kringle. The film was given a modern twist in 1994, but Macy’s did not want its name to be linked with this Sir Richard Attenborough version.
“Elf” stars Will Ferrell, James Caan and Zooey Deschanel, along with Santa Claus and, of course, the city of New York. A human baby is raised in an elf’s world, only to discover the truth by accident. It sends him on a journey of discovery through the Lincoln Tunnel to New York at Christmas, where he finds his father – a non-believer whose on the naughty list – a brother, love and the world’s greatest cup of coffee. New York’s Christmassy influence on films can also be seen in such films as “Scrooged”, “Serendipity”, “Noel”, “The Family Man” and “The Apartment”.
On the book front, Brandon Stanton has been capturing New Yorkers and their remarkable stories since 2010. His book “Humans of New York” is a moving collection of 400 of his works and the follow-up volumes are similarly captivating. Check out his follow up books, too.
Rockerfeller Center Christmas Tree
The superstar attraction any given year during the New York festive season is the Rockerfeller Center Christmas Tree, which you can see at the top of this page among the choir of Plaza angels. It’s one of the most glorious sights at Christmastime anywhere in the world when in all its giant illuminated glory. The annual tradition officially began in 1933, the year 30 Rockerfeller Plaza opened. But a tree was erected there two years earlier during the depression-era construction of the Center, shortly after the site was cleared. It was Christmas Eve 1931 when workers decorated a more modest 20ft balsam fir with paper garlands, strings of cranberries, tin cans and even the tin foil ends of blasting caps. It was largely a symbol of thanks for their good fortune: that they had work in a time of great unemployment and poverty. The type of tree used predominantly through the decades is a Norway spruce, usually between 69-100ft tall.
New York shops – now available in your own UK home. Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue all deliver to this country. So if you can’t get to New York quite yet, you can bring the city to you. Macy’s department store was made globally famous in the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street”. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade featured in the movie is a treasured national tradition, watched by millions every Thanksgiving Day. Macy’s now ship to the UK and have a UK website with prices in pounds sterling. Still no parade here yet, though. We’ll have to adopt Thanksgiving first, won’t we? Bloomingdale’s and Saks both have similar sites.
There is a website devoted to Christmas gifts from New York entitled NY Christmas Gifts.com. You’ve gotta love it. A husband and wife team, Igor and Lilia, run the company. Igor’s passion for photography and Lilia’s design skills shine through. We are rather fond of their captivating collection of Christmas cards and Radio City Music Hall ornaments. They ship internationally (nychristmasgifts.com). With all US orders, we implore you to check posting and packaging fees before you commit to an order. Many stores now work out all the costs up front for you via Borderfree, including the big department stores.
The Ball Drop
The famous ball drop in New York City’s Times Square has been taking place since 1907 and annually averages about a million spectators. It is the most iconic American New Year’s Eve celebration. The 5,386kg, 3.7m-diameter Waterford Crystal ball is lowered down a pole atop One Times Square to signal the arrival of a new year. The design is based on the now obsolete time ball signalling devices.
Merry Tuba Christmas
Hundreds of tenor and bass tuba players gather at The Rink at Rockerfeller Centre, New York before Christmas to play festive music at the ‘Annual Merry Tuba Christmas at Rockerfeller Center’. The musicians come from all over the USA and are led by esteemed conductors. Conceived by tuba virtuoso Harvey Phillips to honour his teacher – the late William J. Bell – the first Tuba Christmas took place at Rockerfeller Centre in 1974. Bell, fittingly, was born on Christmas Day 1902. The unusual tuba tradition is now established in some 200 cities around the world.