We’re all looking for silver linings these days—and we’ve got one for you. This Christmas season in New York City is sort of peaceful. There are fewer tourists crowding Midtown sidewalks, no social pressure to attend every holiday happy hour, and, more importantly, no Santa Con! One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that NYC in December holds the power to grow the hearts of the Grinchiest of us. Even this year, there is more than a little magic to be found. To help you find the best of it, our editors who call the city home share their favorite Christmastime traditions—nostalgic standbys you’ll recognize from the scenes of Elf, seasonal restaurant rituals, and neighborhood celebrations that put them in the holiday spirit.
This gallery was last published in December 2019. It has been updated with new information.
- Breadsbakery.com; available for NYC delivery through Caviar or nationwide through Goldbelly.
- shop local this season. And you should—whether you phone in an order, buy a gift card for later, or wander yonder all masked up. I got started early at Brooklyn Flea in Dumbo this year. I perused hand-made leather bags, vintage tweed jackets, gorgeous spindly air plants, and cherry red antique kitchen chairs under the Manhattan Bridge archway. Even now, the city’s holiday markets are treasure troves, and every single vendor will tempt you. —Alex ErdekianADVERTISEMENT
- Bronx Zoo around Christmastime is like entering a winter wonderland. Everywhere you look, there’s another brightly lit Christmas tree, group of carolers harmonizing classic tunes, or man inexplicably walking by on stilts. The main attraction, of course, is the lantern safaris, where you can see illuminated animals from every corner of the world (giraffes, polar bears, sea turtles). Other highlights: the s’mores set-up, hot chocolate, and hard-at-work ice carvers. —Madison Flager
- Chinatown, but this year I’m dying to check out BATTHOUSE in Williamsburg. And, since I live in Brooklyn, not having to leave the borough is a treat in itself. P.S. Make a dent in your gift shopping at Artist & Fleas and Rough Trade, which are in walking distance. —Megan Spurrell
- Luminocity light festival on Randall’s Island is a bit smaller and organized with COVID-19 precautions in place, but is still one of the best places to take young kids to ooh and ahh during the holiday season. Visitors follow the journey of Lumi (an adorable anthropomorphic light bulb), which takes them through a rainbow of giant plants, icy dragons, and a field of glowing 5-foot tall mushrooms that are a real wonderland for kids. This year timed reservations are required (as are masks), but they actually make the whole experience feel orderly and manageable. We were there for an hour with a two-year-old and he didn’t stop wowing at his surroundings the entire time. –Noah Kaufman
- LTD by Lizzie Tisch, has opened on the Upper East Side, and I can’t wait to circle through, hoping that a perfect last-minute gift will catch my eye. The shop touches on all things fashion, art, travel, beauty, and design, all whimsically presented in the space. I’m especially looking forward to checking out Paul Arnhold Glass, which is blown in Red Hook, and Le Lion’s astrology embroidered merch. I can feel safe knowing the store is enforcing social distancing and partnering with CLEAR to use HEALTH PASS—a touch-free entry system that scans customers’ temperatures and gathers contact tracing info. –A.E.
- the year-round Christmas store. I may be weird, but I love walking into a wonderland of glass ornaments, fluffy trees, and porcelain carolers in March as much as in December. While you’re there, wander over to the stunning St. Patrick’s Basilica, grab a cannoli at Caffé Palermo, or dig into a family-size portion of the Sunday Sauce at Aunt Jake’s. —A.E.
- Serendipity with friends as a joke, in large part because of that 2001 movie by the same name. But the crowds keep going back, because even though the interiors can feel a little OTT Mad Hatter, the Frrrozen Hot Chocolate (actual name) is so good that Oprah has called it “one of her favorite things” and Jackie Kennedy once asked for the recipe so she could serve it at the White House (she was denied). Come Christmastime, order the mint chocolate version to really get into the season. You can’t dine in this year, but taking that hot cocoa to go is a wintry delight anyhow. —CNT Editors
- Miracle on 9th at Cabinet (on Resy), in Alphabet City, where the bathrooms sport subversive old-timey Santa scenes on the walls and the drinks menu is always different. This year, the SanTaRex—a play on mulled cider—is served in a T Rex mug. A 10-minute walk south, in the Lower East Side, is Beachbum Berry’s Sippin Santa at Boilermaker, which brings a tiki touch to all the holiday accoutrements (reservations via 212-995-5400 or via email at email@example.com). Yet further south in Brooklyn is Boerum Hill’s beloved Leyenda (on Resy), which becomes Sleyenda this season. It carries on the Latin theme with disco balls, Day of the Dead nutcrackers, and seasonal cocktails that make use of mezcal and tequila as creatively as they do rum and bourbon. If committing to a full mug is too much, tiny spiced shots are on offer, too. —Corina Quinn
- New Year’s Day, there’s a dreamlike quiet that falls on the city. That’s when I love walking around one of the usually buzzy neighborhoods, like the West Village, and taking my time looking into windows of stores (even if they’re closed), admiring brownstones, and walking in the middle of streets that are never going to be that empty again. Plus, because it’s New York City, undoubtedly some little bar will be open, so when your hands and feet start to numb you can duck in and defrost. Days like that remind me of why I love this city so much. —M.S.
- Central Park on chilly December evenings, where I can (mostly) avoid the Fifth Avenue crowds while still feeling a part of the merriment. Ice skating at the Wollman rink and carriage riding are spectator sports for me, since I’d rather laugh at children falling down than actually don the skates myself. I can seriously stroll around the park for a couple hours and be fully content, hands in my pockets and Christmas music on my headphones. —Caitlin Morton
- New York Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show. It’s more natural wonderland than train show, but well worth the trek up to the Bronx: New York’s concrete jungle becomes a dreamy forest landscape, each landmark made from found natural materials by artisans at Applied Imagination designs. It’s the quickest way to tour the city’s many neighborhoods, and features stunning recreations of Yankee Stadium, the Chrysler Building, and more. Don’t be shocked if you leave. with an annual membership. —CNT Editors
- Met’s Great Hall, then head straight past the stairs to Gallery 305, where each year, the museum displays a 20-foot blue spruce in its Medieval Sculpture Hall. This ain’t just any ol’ tree display: there’s also an eighteenth-century Neapolitan Nativity scene at its base, all backed by an eighteenth-century Spanish choir screen from the Cathedral of Valladolid. Plan your 2020 visit with a timed ticket or reservation. —CNT Editors
- Panino Rustico. —Lara Kramer