For a last-minute getaway stuffed full of Christmas cheer, can there be a more magical destination than New York City? From Scrooged, to Elf, to Miracle On 34th Street, it’s the setting of any Christmas film worth its salt. Granted, unless you’re on first name terms with NY’s hotel concierges and have a budget as high as the Empire State building it’s probably a little too late for a last minute trip. But take this as inspiration and be ahead of the curve for Christmas 2020. Alternatively, just bookmark all of our recommendations and head to the Big Apple in spring instead.
First up, fly into JFK airport (there are super cheap flights on sale right now. It’s half an hour from the Big Apple via car or subway, but this is your Christmas holiday, so why not splurge on a private pick up? Blacklane Transfers will take you straight to your hotel, where you can drop off your bags, then set off shopping.
We’ve been on the ground researching mouth-watering menus, beautiful shops, dazzling displays and hot hotel rooms in the city that never sleeps. Here’s what we found…
THINGS TO DO
It’s tacky, it’s touristy, but come on, you’ve got to start with Times Square (and you know you want a photo with that giant turkey above Macy’s, fresh from its starring turn in the Thanksgiving Day Parade). Give those towering LCD displays a minute of your attention, before ducking into Hershey’s Chocolate World for freshly-made S’mores.
Take a Hershey’s hot chocolate to go (made with one and a half melted down bars no less) and wander down to the Rockerfeller Center to glimpse ice skaters tumbling over in front of that tree, plus the stunning window displays opposite at Saks Fifth Avenue. Find hand-poured candles and one-of-a-kind trinkets in Bryant Park Christmas market bopping to the tune of Salvation Army charity workers, before enjoying ten minutes of restorative silence in the New York Public Library next door.
From here. follow bronze plaques bearing world-famous quotes and poems (backwards) down Library Walk on 41st Street, before ending up at Grand Central Station, where a holiday fair peddles handcrafted baby gifts, decorations and homewares until 22nd December. It’s heart-warming to see the crowds dash to and from their trains, meeting family at the gate for the holidays.
Alternatively, you could wander North onto Broadway, to catch the high-kicking, hair flicking Christmas Spectacular show starring the Radio City Rockettes. Already feeling festive fatigue? You’ve got until June to see Tim Burton’s technicolour goth-fest Beetlejuice, showing at the Winter Garden Theatre – think giant puppet worms and a brilliant amount of swearing (soon to be replaced with The Music Man revival, starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster).
Alternative theatre fans cannot leave the city without seeing Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s three-hour, film noir show shrouded in secrecy (and once you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why). A completely immersive, voyeuristic experience and one where no two shows are the same.
Elsewhere on our list of ‘touristy-must-do’s in Midtown’ is Top Of The Rock (the viewpoint from the peak of the Rockerfeller Center) and the inimitable Empire State building – quite possibly the world’s most famous skyscraper, you can take the elevator 104 floors up from 8am to 2am (grab a sunset slot to see everything by day and night).
Walk north from Broadway and you’ll get to Central Park, overlooked by the iconic Plaza Hotel at its south east corner (don’t miss the subterranean food hall, selling world-class pies, pastries and wines). The bottom half of the park is full of iconic statues, lakes and bridges – namely the Strawberry Fields garden dedicated to John Lennon, and the fountain from the famed Friends intro. Fun fact: actually, it’s not the same fountain – that one was built and filmed in a Los Angeles back lot, as was the entire series.
Admire the views and twinkling Christmas lights from a horse-drawn carriage – we booked with Get Your Guide (we’re obsessed with this website, offering everything from pizza tours to jazzy yacht cruises and all-access tours of Madison Square Garden at discount prices, with queue-skipping privileges to boot).
Concerned about Christmas calories? Stretch your legs with running, cycling or yoga-based Fit Tours, or try a SoulCycle spin class. A New York institution, it combines pumping club music, cycling and weights, plus a hefty dose of that all-American positivity we lack this side of the pond.
Prefer to walk? Wander west to the High Line, an elevated, disused railway now serving as an open-air art gallery and garden with spectacular views of the city (and a slew of incredible boutiques in the West Village and Chelsea, from Zadig & Voltaire to the Diane von Furstenberg flagship).
If the weather takes a turn (hey, this is New York), duck into the Guggenheim or the American Museum of Natural History (look out for the caveman display where Ross and Rachel first… you know).
Then there’s The Met, full of incredible fashion pieces and over 5,000 historic items from across the globe. You can get cheap bundle tickets for all of these attractions, plus the Empire State and more, via CityPASS.
Also worth mentioning is the recently reopened MoMA: home to priceless modern art by Monet, Matisse, Warhol and hundreds more. If your schedule is tight, prioritise floors five and six to see the most famous pieces – but save time for the gift shop, a work of art in itself (purchases come in paper bags stylish enough to pop under any tree).
Can’t face the crowds in Midtown? Spend a day in Lower Manhattan, starting with a boat ride past Lady Liberty, setting off from Battery Park (be sure to book with Statuecruises.com – there are plenty of con artists in the area selling fake tickets). A helicopter ride is another great way to see the city, taking off from the Battery Park area. We booked with Heli NY, our pilot pointing out all the main sights across a thrilling 20-minute ride.
Jet-lagged Londoners can do a lot of damage in shopping complexes Brookfield Place and Westfield within the Oculus building – early morning is the peak time to hit up legendary discount store Century 21, plus all-American shops like J.Crew.
You can pay your respects at the 9/11 memorial site and museum, check out the view from the One World Observatory, then walk the spectacular Brooklyn Bridge, finishing with a meal at the Time Out Food Market in DUMBO. Once over in Brooklyn you can explore the Dyker Heights neighbourhood, festooned with elaborate holiday decorations up until January, and Brooklyn Holiday Bazaar.
WHERE TO EAT
In the weeks preceding Times Square’s New Year’s Eve ball drop, chestnuts roast on open fires – and every other street corner. Grab a bag, sure, but be sure to dine at as many of these places as possible…
Chef Andrew Carmellini serves up the creamiest scrambled eggs and crispiest bacon in NYC, fact.
Any of the organic, locally sourced egg sandwiches and colourful salads on this menu deserve a square pic on your Insta grid. We recommend the Pepper Boy.
Fuel a busy day with the NY classic Lox Schmear (Lox & dill cream cheese with radish and sprouts) or the signature poppy seed bagel doused with milk, honey ricotta and apple.
Found in the base of the trendy Ace Hotel (next door to cult dessert bar Milk on Broadway) hit The Breslin for dimly-lit British pub vibes and thick sourdough pancakes with apple butter.
Offering spectacular views of Columbus Circle and calming pastel interiors, Bluebird looks as good as its dishes taste.
The all-day brunch menu mixes Western and Japanese dishes – expect Asian-influenced Tex Mex (we loved the Okinawan taco rice and teriyaki chicken meatballs).
Chicken, waffles, buttermilk biscuits, sausage gravy, banana cream pie, coffee and a massive doughnut. In that order.
This Michelin-starred outpost offers a startlingly good value three-course prix fixe menu at $45 (get the grilled citrus-marinated chicken with hot sauce) and desserts to go. We took our roasted banana ice cream with caramel and peanut butter for a ride on the subway.
One of those restaurants where all staff members seem to be really, really, really ridiculously good looking – probably owing to their diet of supremely healthy, Australian-inspired crispy rice bowls and shrimp avocado salads.
Simply put, the best modern Chinese food you’ll find in New York, at very reasonable prices. Find branches in Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Bushwick area.
A stone’s throw from Union Square and The Stand comedy club (worth a visit), this adventurous Korean-style sharing plate experience is literally worth writing home about – tell your friends.
All the hallmarks of a New York steakhouse experience (who doesn’t love a table-side flambé?), with modern flair and cutting- edge ingredients. Oh, and they make a mean Old Fashioned.
New York’s Ukranian area boasts the best in Eastern European cooking – stop by for pierogis (AKA dumplings) stuffed with meat and potato, washed down with beetroot borscht.
WHERE TO DRINK
Tucked away on cobbled Stone Street lies the perfect drinking spot for wannabe witches and wizards. Load a magic wand with your credit card details before wreaking havoc across two floors, mixing drinks in the potions lab with interactive light fixtures and a tree that disperses craft beers by the ounce. Cocktails boil and bubble, cauliflower cheese is torched at the table. Check out the branch in Dalston once you’re back on home turf.
Across from The Cauldron, you’ll find this barn-like restaurant with a huge games room hiding upstairs. The all-American Whiskey list comprises highly acclaimed Bourbons and Ryes, sitting alongside strictly American craft beers.
Regularly cited one of the best bars in New York, we recommend the Riot Punch (for two) mixing amontillado sherry, aged aquavit, green chartreuse, fernet branca menta, kaffir lime, coconut, pineapple and llme. Zingy.
The tasting room for Enlightenment Wines Meadery, this achingly hip little bar in Bushwick is making super fans of anyone who visits, the likes of wild honey, foraged sumac and well water spontaneously fermenting to create truly interesting wines.
WHERE TO STAY
For the pavement pounder: Moxy Times Square
Slap bang in the middle of Midtown Manhattan’s shops, landmarks and theatres, this boutique bolt hole packs in a bougie tattoo parlour (for $300 up, Instagram sensation JonBoy will ink delicate designs by appointment only), seafood restaurant (Legasea serves up spicy crab beignets and a ‘great big lobster bake’ that has to be seen to be believed) plus a vibey rooftop cocktail bar named Magic Hour that comes complete with mini golf.
Festive things to do nearby: Warm up with a bright ‘n’ boozy hot chocolate in Bar Moxy’s Pink Holiday Pop up, open until the New Year.
For the serious shopper: Four Seasons Downtown
Ever the oasis of calm and stellar service in a variety of languages, even the Four Seasons check-in counter smells divine (upon enquiry, we discovered the manager actually mixes his own lobby scent, which is available for purchase. Wow). There’s a health and wellness floor with an indoor swimming pool and spa, spacious rooms come with Maison Margiela’s Replica bath products and incredible views. CUT restaurant is run by celebrated chef Wolfgang Puck. Quizzed on her best experience in NYC, our travel companion replied: “Sleeping on a cloud followed by breakfast in bed at the Four Seasons.”
Festive things to do nearby: The hotel is steps away from indoor shopping mecca Brookfield Place (home to an ice rink with views of the Hudson river), and not far from the gloriously kitsch Seaglass Carousel – perfect for little ones.
For stunning views: Hotel On Rivington
The lively Lower East Side affords excellent views of all the biggest skyscrapers, which Hotel On Rivington showcases with floor-to-ceiling glass walls designed by renowned NYC architects Grzywinski + Pons (plump for a Corner Studio with a separate living area and watch the sunset with a glass of wine).
Festive things to do nearby: Step back in time at New York institution Kat’z Deli. It’s where Harry Met Sally, and you can make sure you have what she had by ordering a pastrami sandwich and a cream soda.
Live like a hipster: The Collective Paper Factory
A home, workplace and playground all in one – trendy Paper Factory is unique in that you can rent a room by the day for up to one month – shared working spaces, a gym and entertainment is all included on one bill – perfect if you need to dash off to take a call or file a report before clocking off for Christmas. Rooms are super spacious thanks to the Long Island location and the M & R subway lines are steps away.
Festive things to do nearby: The Museum Of The Moving Image is a must-visit for movie fans, and only a five minute walk.
WHERE TO ESCAPE IT ALL
For a calming weekend away from it all: Hasbrouck House
We highly recommend rounding off any time in the city with a calming weekend upstate. The Catskills area (it’s the new Hamptons, darling) offers glorious waterfalls, beautiful mountains and countless high-end eateries, just two-hours from the city that never sleeps. If you love Twin Peaks, you’ll adore your time here – all you need to do is hire a car (we had a great experience with EZ Car Rental, picking up our vehicle from Brooklyn).
We spent two dreamy nights in fluffy robes and slippers at design-led, 18th Century Dutch colonial stone mansion Hasbrouck House in Stone Ridge, where you’re greeted with free doughnuts and hot apple cider. Guests gather to play board games in the living room, make new friends over drinks at the bar and unwind with a walk or run around the snow-covered, serene surrounds. On an early morning run, we found a bench looking out on a lake, the first time we’d heard true silence in a long time.
The hotel restaurant Butterfield provides breakfast and lunch for guests, but people drive from all over to try house-smoked short ribs, seared jumbo scallops and the ‘Jack Be Little’ pumpkin, stuffed with quinoa, kale and cranberries.
Just up the road is The Roost diner, its breakfast menu is the stuff of legend. We gorged on breakfast enchiladas and an avocado skillet, washed down with endless filter coffee. Fuelled up, you can drive to nearby Woodstock or High Falls for a wander, stopping off at uber-cool Phoenicia Diner for Mexican soup, steak and eggs or freshly-made chocolate rice pudding and milkshakes.
If you can’t eat this much at Christmas in America, when can you?