19 Quintessential NYC Winter Experiences

One could wax poetic about all the ways New York City is perfect during the winter. There's twinkling holiday decor, seasonal markets, speciality hot chocolates, and who could forget about the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree? So where should you start when plotting your Big Apple bucket list come cold weather? Here, we compiled some of the most quintessential New York City experiences to partake in this -- and every -- winter. And trust us -- they're worth braving the polar vortex for.

1. Marvel at the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

It's a rookie move to try and skate at Rockefeller Center, which is always crowded and charges a hefty fee for ice time, but the enormous tree is worth a visit. Clocking in at 94-feet tall and 56-feet wide, this 90-year-old evergreen is certainly something to gawk at. It's also located steps away from Radio City Music Hall, home of the annual Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular. So, book a ticket to a Rockettes performance and save some time to admire the tree.

2. Go Ice Skating in Bryant Park

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Shinya Suzuki

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Shinya Suzuki

Located smack dab in the center of Bryant Park, this ice rink is backed by the picture-perfect cityscape. Skate rental ($20), lessons (starting at $40), and lockers (BYO lock or buy one for $10) are all available. After hitting the ice, make your way to Bryant Park's Winter Village, which surrounds the rink, to warm up with hot chocolate and specialty food from local vendors that serve up everything from Korean ramen to deep-fried macaroni and cheese balls. To avoid waiting in line, head to the rink as close to the 8 a.m. opening time as you can or purchase an express pass for $28. 

3. Admire the Holiday Windows on Fifth Avenue

Don't let the traffic get you down. Bundle up and head to 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, where Bergdorf Goodman's sparkly, over-the-top window decor offer spectacular window shopping. Then, head south towards Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and Macy's to take in all the enchanting seasonal displays. If you start getting cold while standing outside, just pop into one of the department stories to warm up -- shopping is optional, but tough to resist.

Can't make it to NYC this winter? Check out our video on the holiday window displays on Fifth Avenue.

4. Sip Frozen Hot Chocolate at Serendipity 3

This Upper East Side institution, made famous by the 2001 movie "Serendipity,"has become a holiday hot spot for both tourists and locals. In other words, expect lines throughout the day and night, as visitors eagerly await the establishment's frozen hot chocolate. Yes, it's cold and yes, it's served year-round, but there's something delightful about enjoying the chilled beverage in the colorful dining room that's always decked out for the holidays. As you wait for your table, stock up on sweets at the nearby Dylan's Candy Bar or head across the street to Bloomingdale's and buy your loved ones (or yourself) a gift.

5. Shop at the Union Square Holiday Market

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Shinya Suzuki

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Shinya Suzuki

Every November and December, Union Square gets an added dose of holiday cheer thanks to the the Union Square Holiday Market and its red- and white-striped holiday booths. Here, local and traveling artisans sell everything from customizable ornaments to luxe alpaca fur hats, leather gloves, New York memorabilia, and much more. Food vendors also dole out hot soups and beverages as well as mini, made-to-order doughnuts. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, head to the famous Union Square Greenmarket at the top of the park and shop for local produce and foodie gifts (think homemade jams, syrups, and honeys). You might even spot a famous chef shopping for ingredients. 

6. Visit the Indoor Brooklyn Flea

While shopping at the Brooklyn Flea is a fantastic summertime outing, browsing antiques, vintage clothing, and collectibles in the comfort of a heated venue may be even better. Grab a to-go cup of hot cocoa and spend the day wandering the stalls and chatting with vendors at the indoor Winter Flea. Prices may seem steep, but this is a flea market, so don't be afraid to haggle. Smorgasburg has also popped up in the flea's winter home at One Hanson Place, with over a dozen vendors selling specialty food, wine, and beer. 

7. See the New York City Ballet

There's no bad time to see a ballet, but winter brings the iconic Christmas-themed "Nutcracker" performance at Lincoln Center. This January, the company will also perform "Sleeping Beauty"as well as various other pieces, including some choreographed by George Balanchine, the company's founder.

8. Visit the New York Botanical Garden's Holiday Train Show

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Lori L. Stalteri

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Lori L. Stalteri

Back for its 25th year, this New York City tradition features a greenhouse full of city landmarks built completely out of natural materials (not to scale). Visitors can admire replicas of the New York Public Library, Empire State Building, and more while miniature train cars ride through them. To top it off, holiday music plays in the background. 

Adults who want to enjoy all that the Botanical Gardens has to offer with a 21+ crowd should visit on weekend bar car nights (December 2, 3, 16, 17, 23, 30; January 7, 14; 7-10 p.m.) for spiked hot beverages and adult-only entry into the train show. Holiday season tickets to the garden cost $30 for adults, $28 for students, and  $18 for children two to 12 years old. 

9. Sip High Tea at the Russian Tea Room

When the temps dip low, warm up with a cup of tea. But not just any tea -- high tea at New York's iconic Russian Tea Room ($90). Get ready to raise your pinky finger and slurp up borscht along with your choice of tea, caviar, and blinis. Add Champagne ($25) if you're feeling fancy, which you should be -- this is the Russian Tea Room, after all.

10. Celebrate Hanukkah at the World's Largest Menorah

The world's largest menorah lives in Prospect Park for all eight days and nights of Hanukkah, and will be lit each evening -- with the help of a cherry picker machine -- in a festive ceremony celebrating the Jewish Festival of Lights. This year, the first night of Hanukkah is December 24 and Chabad of Park Slope will kick off the holiday with a festive concert, lighting, and celebratory latkes (potato pancakes). 

11. Spot the Origami Holiday Tree at the American Museum of Natural History

Combine your love for the holidays and history by stopping by the American Museum of Natural History's Origami Holiday Tree, which has a dinosaur theme this year. And while you're in the museum, visit the museum's indoor butterfly garden and newest dinosaur, the 122-foot-long Titanosaur, as well. It's so large that its head and neck extends out of the exhibit hall. Museum admission for adults is $22.

12. View the Tree Lighting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to a daily tree lighting at 4:30 p.m., with additional ceremonies on Fridays and Saturdays at 5:30 and 6:30 pm. During this time, a 20-foot spruce is illuminated to the sounds of Christmas music. If you can't make it for the lighting, the tree and surrounding seasonal exhibition is on display every day through January 8.  

13. Stock Up on Reading Material at Strand Bookstore

Known as The Strand to most New Yorkers, this multi-level independent bookstore is always abuzz with shoppers in the winter. Browse the vast selection of page-turners for yourself or to give as gifts -- and pick up one of the shop's signature tote bags while you're at it. Book lovers should also check out The Strand's events calendar for winter readings, signings, book parties, speed dating, and more literature-focused events. 

14. Take a Christmas Chinatown Trip

New York is home to three Chinatowns -- in lower Manhattan; Flushing, Queens; and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Each has its own distinct character and flavors, but all three are worth a visit on Christmas Day. On December 25, the dim sum and noodle restaurants are packed with folks who don't celebrate Christmas and are eager to have a Peking duck-filled holiday. Expect crowds and a wait at some restaurants, but some might argue that's all part of the fun.

15. See the Ball Drop in Times Square

If you're in New York City on New Year's Eve, check the ball drop off your bucket list. Layer up and head to Times Square for New Year's Rockin' Eve while the rest of the world watches the midnight ball drop on TV. And if standing outside in the cold sounds miserable, head to a nearby bar or rooftop for a heated, but still gorgeous, view. Tickets to NYC New Year's Eve parties aren't cheap, but you can't put a price on quintessential New York City, can you? 

16. Bottoms Up a Brewery

Oktoberfest may be long over, but now that winter is here, you can hole up up at a New York brewery all day and drink. Visit the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg, Singlecut Beersmiths in Astoria, or the Bronx Brewery to sip up local brews on tap, play board games, and fill up on carbs. Cheers!

17. Cheer on the New York Rangers

Winter means hockey season has arrived, so put on your game face and cheer on the home team, the New York Rangers, at Madison Square Garden. Tickets start around $115, and yes, you should buy them from a legitimate source -- not a scalper outside of the venue.

18. Visit a Spa or Bathhouse

What better way to stave off the cold than by hiding out inside a relaxing spa? Book a day at Spa Castle, where you can warm up in jacuzzis, steam rooms, and heated pools as well as munch on hot Japanese and Korean cuisine between treatments. Entry to the castle, which is open until midnight, costs $40 on weekdays and $50 on weekends. 

19. Sip Hot Chocolate at City Bakery

If you happen to be visiting New York during the winter, getting a hot chocolate at City Bakery is a must. You can stop by any day to grab a hot chocolate topped with a homemade marshmallow, but in February, the bakery hosts its annual hot chocolate festival. The special occasion brings specialty flavors that rotate daily.

Now, watch our video on how to spend a perfect winter day in New York City.

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