The holidays aren’t all cozy fireplaces, gently falling snow, Christmas movie marathons, and peaceful time with loved ones. If anything, the month of December feels more like a stressful deadline than a season of gratitude — and that stress is only amplified if you live in New York City. On top of the non-stop holiday parties, constant crowds, and insane to-do lists, a New York December includes clever maneuvering around too many, too-slow tourists; slushy crosswalks; a busted monthly budget (gifts and rent?!); and loads of drunk 20-somethings wandering the streets during the dreaded SantaCon. In short: a New York City Christmas can feel like anything but joyful.
That doesn’t mean, however, that your holidays are doomed for disaster. When you learn the tricks of the trade — how to navigate the holiday markets and tree stands, how to avoid massive tourist crowds at your favorite spots, and where to find the best mulled wine in a secret gem of a bar — some of that holiday anxiety will melt away. Consider this your list of New York holiday hacks to guarantee you the most enjoyable and magical season yet. Just remember to breath, resist the urge to yell at people for walking too slow, and make sure your boots are waterproof.
1. Get a sneak peek of the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Day parade (the night before!) at Herald Square, where bands and musical acts rehearse their acts. The street may be blockaded, but you can still catch the action from the sidelines.
2. If you're dying to see the Macy's parade balloons before they make their stroll down Central Park West, post up at the American Museum of Natural History. Tip for the newbies: You'll be lost in the crowd if you go at 5 p.m., when they start to inflate. Instead, aim to see the balloons after 9 p.m., when the crowds start to thin and the balloons are all ready to go.
3. As much as we wish there was a magical spot with zero tourists and unobstructed parade views, sadly, no such place exists. Still, we've heard rumblings of relatively less crowded, less stressful places to take in the sights of big balloons: Try 51st Street and Sixth Avenue, or even further uptown.
4. Want to snap a couple's Instagram in front of the tree at Rockefeller Center without battling the crowds? The tree is lit from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., and it's most crowded in the late hours of the night. So, set the alarm a bit early, take your photos in the bright morning sun, and stick around for a quick coffee (Blue Bottle or Macchiato Espresso Bar), pastry (Bouchon Bakery), or an egg sandwich ('wichcraft).
5. Our favorite kind of pairing for the season? Chinese food and a good movie. Dine at Land of Plenty (we love the dumplings and braised spicy beef noodle) and catch a flick at the nearby City Cinemas.
6. Have a holiday-themed date at the New York Botanical Garden — indulge yourself with some specialty cocktails at the Holiday Train Show's "after hours" bar car nights to avoid crowds (and children).
7. Sunday mornings (especially during the holiday season) call for sweet treats. Grab a pretzel croissant and legendary hot chocolate at City Bakery for the perfect afternoon delight.
9. See the tree-lighting at Winter's Eve at Lincoln Center (instead of Rockefeller Center). Live music? "Frenchie" burger sliders and Moroccan chili from Daniel Boulud? Tons of shopping? Check, check, and check. This is the type of tree-lighting we can get into.
10. Skip the primetime rush at the Central Park and Bryant Park ice skating rinks. Instead, go early and get the best ice skating on the High Line (at the bottom of the Standard Hotel), or at the newly re-opened rink in Prospect Park.
11. If you do decide to battle the crowds (or opt for a snow-covered stroll) in Central Park, warm up with a Bloody Mary (we recommend Todd English Food Hall at The Plaza — they're killer), or a cup of Kusmi tea (right across the hall).
12. Looking for primo sledding spots? Try Pilgrim Hill (72nd Street at Fifth Avenue) or Cedar Hill (South of The Met between 76th and 79th streets). Remember, you're never too old to play in the snow.
13. Yes, you can also go cross-country skiing at Central Park (and knock over everyone and their mom in the process), or you can take the 7 train straight to Flushing Meadows Park for a cross-country skiing adventure (there's a skating rink there, too!).
14. Doing the traditional walk-through of The Met with out-of-towners? Show them your true New York side afterwards and head to Cafe Sabarsky, a hidden New York gem for a Viennese coffee.
15. Often called the "true" Little Italy of New York, the Bronx's Arthur Avenue is also home to some of the best christmas lights in the city. Plan your tour around the strip's best Italian shops — fresh mozzarella, ravioli, and the best cannolis around — in the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, which is all indoors and perfect for warming up.
16. The other best spot for hokey, all-out-madness holiday displays? Brooklyn's Dyker Heights. (But, be forewarned — you'll see the best lights if you drive, as the subways and buses will drop you off a good mile from the best houses.) To avoid the massive pile-up of crowds, go during the week between Christmas Day and New Year's.
17. Drink up, and learn something while you're at it. Attend a wine class at Mario Batali's restaurant Otto, and hang around for more wine (duh), cocktails, and pizza.
18. Get a true dose of Downton Abbey this season at Lady Mendl's, a quaint, under-the-radar spot at the Inn at Irving Place. Indulge yourself with an amuse-bouche, finger sandwiches (naturally), house-made scones, and the café’s signature cake, plus loose-leaf tea brewed to order.
21. Should your shoebox apartment not come with a fireplace (because really, who is that lucky?), head to your local bar for a winter warmer. Sip on mulled wine at Black Mountain Wine House (easily the best winter date spot in Brooklyn), craft cocktails at Middle Branch, or go in for a Brooklyn Brewery winter seasonal at LIC Bar.
22. The holiday season is the perfect time to treat yo'self — and there's no better place to do that than Spa Castle. Hit up the Queens mega-spa for a full day of body scrubs, sauna time, and massages. Or, keep your eye out for the grand opening of Spa Castle Premier on the Upper East Side. We hear there'll be cocktails!
23. If you happen to find yourself in the craze of Times Square or the Columbus Square holiday markets, end your day on a calmer note with a good ol' bowl of ramen. We recommend Ivan Ramen and Totto Ramen for each locale, respectively. In either case, arrive early (no doubt there'll be long lines), then slurp on some noodles before heading out into the cold.
24. Shopping the Bryant Park, Union Square, and Columbus Circle markets can get pricey, fast. What goods to look out for? Stationery, artwork, ornaments, and artisanal food items (you’ll often find some for less than $5) and snacks (hot cider, anyone?). Jewelry, hats and scarves, toys, and clothing are also on offer, but tend to be overpriced, and can be found cheaper at sidewalk sales or in stores.
25. If you're celebrating Hanukkah this year (or even if you're not), celebrate with some of the best Jewish cuisine in the city: pastrami sandwiches at Katz's Deli (expect long lines), matzoh ball soup at Second Avenue Deli, bagels at Ess-A Bagel (or Black Seed, for something a bit more trendy), and latkes and white fish at Russ & Daughters. (Or, grab a copy of the new book, Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food, and make your own self-guided food tour.)
26. Now's the best time of year to catch a movie at Nitehawk Cinema. With Love Actually, Home Alone, Christmas Vacation (plus some more obscure titles, like Silent Night, Bloody Night) on the docket, you'll feel like a grown-up kid in the holiday spirit.
29. Buying a tree for the apartment? The street vendors sure do make the sidewalks more festive, but the trees are often a little too green — as in expensive. To get the most bang for your buck, look for trees that are about $10 per foot. Most trees start around $35, and anything taller than six feet will cost upwards of $100.
30. Don't want to be the jerk trying to cram a Christmas tree on the train (à la Mindy Lahiri)? Get yours delivered! (It's New York City, after all.) Home Depot will bring yours straight to your apartment, as will local tree stands like Soho Trees and Greenpoint Trees.
31. Yes, you can still get a fresh tree at a tree farm — rent a Zipcar and head to Jersey to cut your own pine.
33. New Year's Eve clubbing is for amateurs. For a healthier start to 2015, get in on the annual Midnight Run in Central Park, or the 5K in Prospect Park.
34. Brooklynites, don't leave your borough for a NYE fireworks display. Watch the fireworks in Prospect Park, instead. The best viewing spots? Grand Army Plaza, along Prospect Park West, or inside the park on West Drive.
35. When all the hubbub is over and you're feeling the post-holiday blues, plan on attending the Chinese New Year Parade on January 31. With tons of confetti and excitement, you can pretend (just for a second) that you want winter to last all year-round.