A Tourist’s Guide to Christmas in NYC

There are a lot of places on my travel wish list. Greece, Instanbul, Rio De Janeiro, the Great Wall, Texas (one of the 12 states I haven’t visited), London at Christmastime, Spain, etc etc. Some of the places on my travel wish list are conveniently located in America, like NYC at Christmastime, which happens to be only 4 hours away from where I live. So this past Saturday, Rahul and I loaded up my car (if you count packing banana bread, nutri-grain bars, water, and an apple as “loading up”) and drove up to NYC for the day.

We hit the major Christmas spots: Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park, Macy’s, Central Park (Home Alone bridge), and more. We oohed and ahhed at the pretty Christmas lights, window shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue, and bought some delicious treats at Chelsea Market. We also mastered the subway, only getting turned around once. All-in-all, it was a fantastic day, full of Christmas cheer and enormous crowds.

I’m minimally familiar with NYC, in the sense that I know what direction the major tourist attractions are. I can tell you how to find Central Park and am really good at pointing at the big buildings in the sky (and how to differentiate between the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building). That being said, I figured there are other people like us (aka non New Yorkers) who are venturing to NYC for a Christmas day-trip and might appreciate a little advice from another tourist POV.

A Tourist’s Guide to NYC 

1. If you only have time to see the Rockefeller tree once, then do it at night. It’s so much prettier because the lights hide how droopy the tree is (and it was kind of disappointing during the day). Plus, the lights make everything look magical. Be prepared to overhear fun things like “YOU like the crowd, I don’t like the crowd” and a child responding “I hope I get lost!” after a mom said “Stay close, you don’t want to get lost.” Put your fight face on to maneuver through the crowd.

In case you need more convincing to go at night…

2. Don’t wait in the line to ice skate at Rockefeller Center. Not only is the ice skating rink tiny tiny, you’ll be standing in a line in the cold. Rahul and I chose to watch the skaters from above instead. Plus, we got our ice skating fix in at the Sculpture Garden Ice Rink a few weeks ago. Plus plus, there are tons of other rinks in the city (we saw at least 5, and we definitely only visited about 5-10 % of the city).

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3. Take cash. I know this seems so obvious (and I can hear my parents’ voices in my head admonishing me for never having cash on me), but some of the subway stops accept cash only. Plus, toll roads.

4. Speaking of toll roads, if you are driving, be prepared to pay. Also, don’t pull a Katherine of 2012 and get so overwhelmed by the honking drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike that you speed right through the “EZPass only” lane. They will find you and send you a notice with the money you owe. If you enter the “no toll roads” option on Google maps, pay attention to the map, or you might end up stuck in immobile traffic for an hour (that didn’t happen to us or anything…).

5. Paying attention to the map is a good rule in general. Have a general idea of what leads where, and don’t go down roads that lead away from the island if you are trying to stay on it. It’s like the rule my family and I created when we visited DC when I was in high school: DON’T GO IN THE TUNNELS. They lead you somewhere completely different than where you were trying to go.

6. Except for the Rockefeller tree, hit the major attractions early: the Empire State Building, Macy’s, FAO Schwartz. Save “easy” attractions, like Central Park, for empty spaces during the day, as Central Park is huge and, unless you are wanting to use the ice skating rink, there are no lines.

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Central Park ice skating rink.

With the Home Alone bridge (except you can't really see the bridge).

With the Home Alone bridge (except you can’t really see the bridge).

7. Speaking of lines, DON’T wait in line at Grand Central Terminal to use the bathroom. This is where Rahul and I had lunch (Shake Shack!) and there was a ridiculous line for the ladies bathroom. Go over a few blocks and use the bathroom at the NY Public Library, which has a much smaller line and allows you to reenact scenes from The Day After Tomorrow.

8. Speaking of the NY Public Library, it’s beautiful inside! Plus, it backs up against Bryant Park, which features a Christmas market, skating rink, and a Christmas tree. This tree was much less disappointing during the day (the ornaments help).

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9. The decorations at Macy’s and Saks were beautiful, but save your shopping for elsewhere. You can buy a Kate Spade purse anywhere. Personally, I liked Chelsea Market. There were tons of small shops inside, including an Etsy pop-up shop, where local Etsy sellers were selling their stuff in person, an Anthropologie, and a flea market with several individual boutiques, including Pamela Barsky. I’m set on my Christmas shopping, so I didn’t buy anything, but we did have lobster straight from a fish market (new experience for both of us) and delicious mini doughnuts that I probably overpaid for….

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Macy’s.

10. Speaking of the “money” factor, I’m a big supporter of using your money for food and drink over shopping. I know many of you probably have a vision in your mind of shopping on 5th avenue being fabulous, but if you’ve never been to NYC before, let me break it to you: each store on 5th Ave. is overwhelmingly packed with tourists, even the fancy ones. Most people are walking around and taking pictures (especially in places like Macy’s), and you don’t get much space to breathe. If you must buy something, buy something representative of the place, not a shirt that you could probably buy at home. Instead, spend your money on food! There are tons and tons of restaurants and food trucks and other food places (like the Doughnuttery in Chelsea Market that I probably overpaid for) that are delicious and will make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

That’s it! Many of these are probably no-brainers but if you’re like me and google “what to see in NYC at Christmas,” you might also appreciate a list of tips from a NYC outsider. Saturday was, of course, busy because it’s Saturday, but we aren’t able to go during the week. Plus, it was amusing (at first) to see all the Santas dressed up for Santacon (which I didn’t know was a thing until we saw a bunch of them at Grand Central), then annoying after a while. Once you’ve heard one drunk idiot yelling about how drunk they are, you’ve heard them all. Plus, it was nerve-wracking watching some of them try to catch taxis.

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Grand Central was our first Santacon sighting. At first, I thought it was some charity thing (which I think it technically does raise money), but then I heard “selfie!!!”

Stay safe, kids, and remember this:

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One thought on “A Tourist’s Guide to Christmas in NYC

  1. Pingback: 2014: A Year in Review | wordifications

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