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Our Favorite Things to Do in NYC in Winter

holiday market in union square new york city

You don’t need warm weather to enjoy a visit to New York City: the City that Never Sleeps is an epic destination year ‘round. Yes, even in the winter! Visit NYC in the colder months and you’ll be rewarded with festive wintertime-only events and spectacles, thinner crowds at the city’s top attractions, and a huge array of cultural activities that make for a perfect afternoon indoors.

Shop a Holiday Market

holiday market in nyc

Manhattan has three major outdoor holiday markets that generally run from Thanksgiving through Christmas, and each offers visitors a chance to check out the local crafts and art scene while getting into the holiday spirit. Swing by the markets in Union Square, Columbus Circle, or Bryant Park (this one’s extra festive, as its vendor stalls surround a seasonal ice-skating rink), grab a hot chocolate or apple cider, and admire the work of local artisans selling everything from handmade jewelry and candles, to toys, paintings, clothing, and snacks. If you’re hoping to make your souvenir or holiday shopping more socially sustainable, these markets make it easy: most of the vendors are small, local, and independent, so you know your money is staying in the community. Many other vendors use their sales to support social causes abroad.

Don’t feel like braving the cold? Opt instead for a visit to lovely Grand Central Station, which hosts its own indoor holiday market each year.

Gawk at the Lights and Windows

christmas tree at rockefeller center new york city

Yes, it’s touristy, but you simply can’t go to NYC in the wintertime without a stroll around Rockefeller Center to see its stories-high Christmas tree and legendary ice-skating rink (they’ve both been immortalized in countless films over the years, from Home Alone 2 to Elf). From Rockefeller Center, it’s a quick walk up Fifth Avenue to the shopping district where high-end department stores like Saks and Bergdorf Goodman go all-out decorating their shop windows for the holidays.

Warm Up with a Drink at Rolf’s

There is arguably nothing more gloriously, over-the-top festive than sitting at Rolf’s and drinking an eggnog in the wintertime. Each year, staff at this German restaurant in Manhattan’s Grammercy neighborhood spend weeks decking the place out in thousands of lights, garlands, and Christmas ornaments. The result is a dining room so thick with decorations, you sometimes have to duck to avoid hitting your head on a dangling angel or Santa Claus. Drinks can run on the pricey side, but it’s worth splurging on one just for the experience (and the Instagram posts).

Admire Central Park in the Snow

winter in central park new york city

Few sights are more magical than Central Park the morning after a snowfall. If you’re lucky enough to be in NYC when there’s a fresh blanket of snow on the ground, head straight for park and marvel at the sound of the stuff crunching under your boots, the tree branches heavy with powder, and the delightfully odd sight of locals cross-country skiing down the park’s paths and across its meadows. If the snowfall’s heavy enough, you can also grab a plastic saucer sled from any drug store and head to a section of the park like Cedar Hill or Pilgrim Hill, where families will be out on the gentle slopes sledding.

Browse Books at the Strand

strand book store new york city

The slogan at the Strand, an NYC institution since 1927, is “18 miles of books,” and that’s not an exaggeration. This multi-level store is home to well over two million new, used, and rare books covering every subject imaginable, and getting lost among them is one of the best ways to spend a chilly afternoon in the city.

Skip the Crowds at a Museum

museum of natural history new york city

New York City is home to so many world-class museums, you could easily spend a few weeks just hopping between them. Whether it’s the Guggenheim, the Met, the Whitney, or the American Museum of Natural History, this city’s museums are the perfect indoor activities if it’s just too cold to be outside. Best of all, if you’re visiting during the winter, crowds to get in and see the best exhibits will be much thinner than during high season.

Our favorite spot on a rainy or snowy day, though, is the Cloisters, an uptown museum specializing in European Medieval art. The building must be seen to be believed: opened in 1938, it’s a reconstruction informed by many different religious and secular building styles throughout history, with a lovely courtyard in the middle. It all makes for an impossibly cozy, peaceful spot to escape the cold.

Eat Your Way through Essex Market

essex market new york city

If you’re short on time to try just about every kind of food NYC has to offer, your best bet may be to head straight to Essex Market. This network of small, local food vendors has been in operation on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for well over a century, but in 2019 it moved from its ramshackle former buildings to a sleek new home nearby. Here, you can gobble up everything from cupcakes to bagels, fresh oysters to artisanal cheeses, craft beers to European wines, not to mention dishes from around the world (think Brazil, Sweden, Japan, and more). Despite its massive size, the market feels cozy and warm inside, and because all the vendors are small local businesses, it’s another great place to make sure you’re spending your money in a socially sustainable way.

Score Cheap Eats During NYC Restaurant Week

If you’ve ever wanted to dine out like a baller in a fabulous Manhattan restaurant, but you’ve only got the budget for a pizza, you’ll want to take advantage of NYC Restaurant Week. The citywide event actually runs for two weeks each winter, and many of the city’s top restaurants participate by offering steep discounts on special fixed-price menus for lunch and dinner. You’ll want to make reservations in advance if you can; check the NYC visitor’s bureau website for dates and deals.

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