Christmas in New York City: What's not to miss?
November 20, 2017 12:40 PM   Subscribe

We, a family of four with two adult children from New Zealand, are spending two weeks around Christmas and New York in New York City. What is not to be missed, and indeed to be avoided, from a Christmas point of view? We like food, music - classical and jazz - and museums. Any thoughts on where to have Christmas Eve or Christmas Day lunch? We have some pretty strong family traditions (mainly Hungarian) at this time of the year but these are normally based around our home. It will be exciting to try something new. We will be staying in Williamsburg if that helps. All suggestions welcome.
posted by vac2003 to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural history put up trees inside the museums that would be fun to check out. The Met's tree is decorated with their collection of Neopolitan creche figures (a collection that is freakin' HUGE), and the AMNH tree is decorated with origami animals and stars.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:45 PM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

There are a few special outdoor holiday markets in the city, with rows of decorated stalls -- lots of local artists and local treats. There's one at Bryant Park and another at Union Square -- there was even a separate food market there, last year. Both get crowded, but they're fun to wander through, and you can get hot chocolate or cider or gluhwein, and often the artists run their own booths and you can talk to them.

The Holiday Train Show at the NY Botanical Garden is actually rather neat. I believe they do evening viewings with live music.

The movies make it look more romantic than the reality, and it is admittedly an activity many people would put on the Avoid List... but ice-skating is a Classic NYC Christmas Thing, and it can be a fun once-in-a-lifetime novelty. If you want to give it a try, I recommend the Bryant Park rink over Rockefeller Center, and earlier in the day is often better than later. It is worth going to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, at the very least, and then wandering around to look at the decorated store windows on 5th Avenue.

For food, it depends on what you're in the mood for. Eater (a helpful dining resource in a place with so many options, with maps and organised by neighbourhood!) will probably have a dedicated 2017 holiday dining guide out next month, but last year's guide may be a starting point.Smorgasburg is, rather counterintuitively, not located in Williamsburg during this season, but there is a winter version in Sunset Park if you want to sample all the trendy foods the hipster kids love to Instagram.
posted by halation at 1:26 PM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Feel free to embrace the traditions of a different culture on this occasion, and spend your NYC Christmas day eating Chinese food and going to the movies.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:44 PM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Store windows on 5th / Madison / Lexington Avenues (Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys, Bloomingdale's, etc.)

Rolf's is a restaurant / bar with over the top Christmas decorations.

Maybe Veselka for some Ukranian food
posted by Frank Grimes at 1:45 PM on November 20, 2017

I like to cap off my visit to the Met tree with a trip downtown on the M4 bus (which picks up right in front of the museum). It goes right down Fifth Avenue, so once past Central Park you will go past most of the fanciest store windows. If you want, you can hop off at the Rock Center tree. This really only makes sense if you'd be headed downtown anyway, and it won't be a fast trip, but it's an inexpensive and foot-sparing way to see a bunch of the stores if you're already tired from walking through the museum.

Saint Thomas Church (Episcopalian/Anglican) in Midtown has a truly world-class boys' choir, and there are multiple services on Christmas Eve to allow you to partake of the English choral tradition. For the full Christmas effect, go to the 10 pm service. No faith required.

I think Blaue Gans does a Christmas dinner if Austrian is "close enough" for you, but perhaps you are Magyar nationalists!
posted by praemunire at 3:14 PM on November 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh, and it sounds as if you may be around for Sundays, so the Holiday Nostalgia Train is fun if you like transit.
posted by praemunire at 3:16 PM on November 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Hungarian, you say....
posted by basalganglia at 4:14 PM on November 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you go to the Hungarian Pastry Shop (great suggestion!) you can time that to match up with one of the beautiful Christmas concerts at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, which is literally right across the street. Here is an Early Music concert at the Cathedral on December 17 and link to a calendar for others there in the holiday season. The Cathedral is beautiful and worth a visit even if you don't go to a concert, and is even better with pastries!
posted by velveeta underground at 4:45 PM on November 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

For a taste of American-style Xmas excess, you should head to Dyker Heights in Brooklyn to see the lights.

The Rockettes' Xmas show at Rockefeller Center is famous for a reason, though (largely because of that) very touristy.

Avoid - meeting Santa at Macy's. It's famous, but there's nothing to see that's worth the lines. Especially with no young children.
posted by Mchelly at 5:05 PM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh my gosh SECONDING the Dyker Heights light displays!

There are actual guided tours, but it's also fine to go and just wander around (and if you go that route I could even join you, I try to round up friends and do that every year).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:10 PM on November 20, 2017

I am really enjoying all of these replies. Thank you for those who have mentioned Church services/concerts - these will be very popular, especially with Mrs vac2003. I think she has booked tickets to Handel's Messiah somewhere for us all. The Hungarian Pastry shop is already on our list, but good to know about the close proximity of the Cathedral of St John the Divine. (If anyone knows where you can get proper pálinka in New York that would be good to know!) The Metropolitan Museum of Art is also on our list but the Christmas Tree will be a bonus.
One question I had is what is the usual dress standard in New York for concerts, restaurants, etc? I know that will vary a lot depending on the place. We are not fashionable/flashy dressers by any means, preferring comfort over style, reflecting the more relaxed/casual style here in New Zealand. Any thoughts on that aspect of things?
posted by vac2003 at 5:25 PM on November 20, 2017

In case you're interested in exploring some off the beaten path places in the city, look into the free Big Apple Greeter program because you're still within the time requirement to request one. (They want 3-4 weeks before you arrive and I imagine they get busy around the holidays.) You can also specify neighborhood and interests if need be. You can request one here. Enjoy your trip!
posted by mayta at 5:36 PM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

You will be fine in 80% of places in jeans and a sweater. People won't point and laugh, nor will you be thrown out, if you attend church or the opera in same, but it's really more in the spirit of things to at least wear nice slacks/skirt and a nice top (such as you might wear to work in an office) to such places. Restaurants are the most variable, but there's basically nowhere you couldn't go in a suit or simple dress with a cardigan or (especially) jacket over it.

Just FYI, if you do want to go to the 10 pm service at St. Thomas, you'll need to get in line a bit ahead of time. Standing out on Fifth Ave/53d St. with the crowd listening to the bells ring is very festive, if chilly!
posted by praemunire at 7:46 PM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you are willing to go up to the northern part of Manhattan, The Cloisters (part of The Met) and New Leaf Restaurant, both in Fort Tryon Park, are lovely places to visit.
posted by merejane at 11:39 PM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Around the upper east side, if you want fantastic Indian cuisine, The Drunken Munkey is a must. I would make reservations.

The Bronx Zoo and The Metropolitan Museum of Art are also favorites of ours.

Have fun! NYC is amazing.
posted by kiwi-epitome at 7:02 AM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Regarding dress, I am a woman and I have switched to wearing black jeans instead of blue jeans. I wear simple tops or sweaters and black leather sneakers. In my opinion, it gives you a slightly more dressed up look, but it's still very comfortable and warmer than dresses.
posted by CathyG at 9:27 AM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

A quick geography note:

If you are willing to go up to the northern part of Manhattan, The Cloisters (part of The Met) and New Leaf Restaurant, both in Fort Tryon Park, are lovely places to visit.

Fort Tryon Park is about a half hour's subway trip away from Cathedral of St. John the Divine, so it would indeed be a fairly easy trip. It's where most of the Met's medieval art collection is housed, in a reconstructed monestary perched on a hill overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades across the river from it.

You're getting a lot of suggestions in the upper part of Manhattan Island, actually. Saying this since a couple of us recommended the Dyker Heights neighborhood light displays, and that would be quite a distance away - it's about an hour and a half from the Met Museum by subway. Also, if you're leaning towards concerts and museums, this would maybe not be to your taste after all (there's a lot of walking outdoors in crowds). However, you're not too far away from the Bronx, home to New York's bigger Botanic Garden, and I think someone mentioned the holiday train display - that may be a little more fun.

Also - have noticed you're from New Zealand, with Hungarian roots, so it may take a bit of explaining: the USA doesn't have quite as strong an emphasis on the Big Christmas Dinner as in other countries. Many, MANY families do, mind you, but it is slightly less emphasized as a Big Dinner Holiday because we've all just had the big meal at Thanksgiving only one month previous. So while many families do have a big Christmas Dinner, there are quite a few families who scale down a bit so they don't have to go through all that cooking again. So you may find a bit more variety for the Christmas dinner than you were expecting.

A traditional Italian Christmas Eve "Feast of the Seven Fishes" may be really fun, actually - there's an Italian place in Brooklyn that does a special menu (check it out here).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:48 AM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Good point about the Big Christmas Dinner. We do a big dinner on Thanksgiving, but for Christmas, we do a buffet, with cold cuts and salads, etc.. More relaxed, allows for people showing up at different times, etc.
posted by merejane at 12:26 PM on November 21, 2017

So an update, post our trip to NYC!

We did indeed had great time and used a number suggestions made here. I case any time travelers visit here in the futures, these are our highlights/recommendations for Christmas in NYC.

Yes, the Rockettes are a bit touristy, but very well done and an awful lot of fun. And the dancers are extremely talented. Amazing. The holiday market in Union Square was excellent and well worth a visit. We did carols in Washington Square along with several thousand others. A very entertaining hour.

We went to three jazz clubs: Mezzrow, Rue-B, and Caffè Vivaldi. All truly excellent, especially Vivaldi on New Year's Eve.

We satisfied our Hungarianess at the Budapest Cafe on 2nd Avenue with the wonderful Ilidikó néni. Three visits there including on Christmas Day.

EmpressCallipygos wins the food award recommendation- we had the Feast of the Seven Fishes at Leuca in Brooklyn, and was really divine. A very special meal indeed.

There was lots more but, again, thank you all who responded with suggestions.
posted by vac2003 at 4:00 PM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

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