Uncommon Ways to Spend the Season in NYC
New York City is home to timeless holiday traditions. Most who haven’t been here imagine running around like the famously abandoned Kevin McAllister or skipping through a snowy Central Park like Buddy the Elf.
Millions flock here to see the tree illuminated in Rockefeller Center, watch the Rockettes dance alongside Santa, wait in line for frozen hot chocolate, and gaze longingly at the high-end toys at FAO Schwarz.
I may have just moved to New York in the fall, but I grew up coming here as a kid and have enjoyed knocking all of the above off of my tourist checklist. These festive go-tos should be experienced at least once, but for a more unique time in the Big Apple, I have a few recommendations for you.
Check out the Lights in Dyker Heights
In the lower western corner of Brooklyn, you’ll find a quiet residential section that REALLY gets into the holiday spirit. The residents have been decorating since the 1980’s, with their displays becoming more lavish, dramatic and expensive each year. Some folks hire professionals to create massive spectacles costing upwards of $20,000. The entire neighborhood participates, but the best lights can be seen from 10th Ave to 13th Ave, between 79th and 86th streets.
Make sure you find the Spata house (located at 1152 84th Street). Some credit their family with starting the tradition almost 30 years ago. Look across the street to 1145 84th Street for an equally impressive display at the Polizzotto’s home. There is no direct subway service, but the N and R trains will get you close. Take the R to Bay Ridge and get off at 77th or 86th. Take the D to the 79 St or 18 Ave stop. Note: There is also a tour operated by A Slice of Brooklyn, if you’d rather be chauffeured from Midtown Manhattan.
Find Unique Gifts in Union Square
Once you’ve exhausted your traditional shopping options at the usual go-tos, head to Union Square. Starting in mid November vendors from all over the city set up shop. The variety of goods includes handmade jewelry, gifts for children, artwork, home goods, and an assortment of different foods and beverages; everything from hot chocolate to arancini.
I’m going to be straight with you, this marketplace can get super crowded. Take a breather from the market, and try the homemade eggnog at Pete’s Tavern. This New York institution at 129 E. 18th Street dates back to 1864 and is covered in Christmas decorations and trinkets.
Light up the night with the World’s Largest Menorahs
NYC is home to not one, but two ginormous menorahs, and every night during Hannukah, people gather to celebrate around the 32-foot-high, 4,000-pound steel holiday icon across the street from The Plaza hotel in Manhattan. Its rival can be found across the East River, at the top of Prospect Park to see its similarly sized rival illuminated. Both claim to be the world’s biggest. The Brooklyn location also features a kickoff concert of the first night of Hanukkah.
Discover a Winter Wonderland in Midtown
Bryant Park is a great place to visit year-round but around the holidays it gets the extreme makeover treatment into what they call “Winter Village.” The village is the only place in New York City to ice skate for free. Skate rentals will set you back $15-19 and there’s an option for FastPass admission if waiting in line isn’t your style. This costs $25 if bought online and includes skate rental. It’s probably the best deal if you’re trying to pack in the most fun, and least waiting, into your day.
The village also features an open-air market with more than 100 boutique-like shops. Before you leave stop by the Southwest Porch for a quick bite or cocktail. This outdoor lounge is complete with heat lamps and fire pits, so you can keep warm despite New York’s chilly winter temperatures. Food and drink here is a bit pricey, but nothing beats the ambience and location. I for one can never say to an outdoor cocktail, especially off-season.
Every year the stores in midtown Manhattan transform their storefront windows into magical works of art to celebrate the season. Start at Bloomingdales (59th St. and Lexington Ave.), then head west to Barneys (Madison Ave. between 60th and 61st streets) and turn south to Bergdorf Goodman (5thAve. at 58th Street). You can continue south for a longer walk and hit Saks (5th Ave. between 49th and 50th Street), Lord & Taylor (5th Ave. at 39th Street) and end at the king of them all, Macys in Herald Square. Take a look at the map above for an idea of what the route looks like.
This year I walked a good portion of the route. I only quit just shy of Macy’s because I was running late for the gym (gotta work off all those cookies and eggnog this time of year). Without a doubt though, Saks wins for the amazing light show they’ve created on the facade of their building. I stood in Rockefeller Plaza, as mesmerized as all of the tourists surrounding me.
Like most holiday activities in New York City, the displays attract large crowds and even longer lines, so be ready to wait. Wear comfy shoes, as the entire route is just over 2 miles. Don’t be discouraged by the throngs of people who can get a bit pushy. It is totally worth it.
Get a little naughty at an adult Nutcracker
Don’t worry, Santa won’t put you on the naughty list for this one, but know going in that this isn’t the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular. However, the cast of Company XIV is just as talented. For those who enjoy the original story but crave an adult twist, this is the show for you. Their version of the historic Nutcracker tale fuses song, dance, circus acts and burlesque, and is sure to make you blush more than the original.
Nutcracker Rouge is the troupe’s longest running production and takes over the Village’s Minetta Lane Theatre every year from early December through mid January. Tickets range from $50-175 and can be purchased here.
Cover photo credit: Lewis Adams Photography