The Best Holiday Crawl in NYC

Every once in awhile my husband, Andy, and I make an effort to step out of our routines and remember why we chose to live in this chaotic, wonderful uproar of a city–and this month seemed like a good time to take advantage of one of the most festive places in the world.

When the city puts on its holiday charm, even the grumps among us can’t help but be enchanted. There’s just something about twinkly lights, sweet treats, and whiffs of roasted chestnuts that is universally appealing.

But it’s good to be smart about taking it all in. A December Saturday in Midtown can be a nightmare. The pushing crowds around Rockefeller Center rival those I’ve experienced in downtown Delhi or Shanghai.

Take my advice and do your holiday sightseeing on a weekday. Last Friday, Andy and I took the day off and made up our own holiday crawl around the city. From downtown to uptown, we roamed the streets of Manhattan to see the most classic of offerings, with a few road-less-traveled destinations of our own mixed in.

Here’s our itinerary from Greenwich Village to Central Park:

See the Christmas tree in Washington Square Park (you can capture the tree, perfectly framed by the entryway arch, and the Empire State Building all in one shot if you do it right), then head to the Union Square Holiday Market as soon as it opens (11 a.m.; Saturdays at 10 a.m.). After finding treats for everyone on your list–from olive oils and salts for the gourmand, to chic scarves and belts for devoted fashionistas–treat yourself to one of the yummy eats on offer, including Sigmund’s soft pretzels and Momofuku Milk Bar’s famous “crack pie.”

Stop two: Head to Rolf’s. You don’t come here for the food (though the schnitzel, bratwurst, and other German specialties are decent); you go for the walls. Every inch of this place is covered in ornaments, lights, and other holiday baubles. It’s a sight to behold, and the perfect extra festive stop along your route.

From here, stroll up Madison Avenue to the Morgan Library. If you’re a book lover, like me, you might want to stop in to see Charles Dickens’ original manuscript for A Christmas Caroloriginal manuscript for A Christmas Carol, penned in the six weeks leading up to Christmas in 1843. We ponied up the $18 entrance fee only to find out that the exhibit is free to see from 7-9 p.m. on Fridays. Next time!

Make your way over to Fifth Avenue and begin the march uptown to see the store windows. The landslide winner to me this year was Bergdorf Goodman’s “Holidays on Ice” display, which showcases scenes from Valentine’s Day and the Fourth of July in addition to Yuletide gaiety. Others are simple, like Tiffany‘s nostalgic white Christmas scene with tiny blue boxes, or fun for kids, like the story of the Yeti that is rumored to live on the Saks Fifth Avenue roof.

December in New York isn’t complete without stopping in to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, but make sure to duck into Myzel’s Chocolate, a tiny European-style shop decked out with Christmas chocolates and ornaments, a few blocks away on W. 55th Street. The gingerbread tasted too much like licorice for me (some traditional recipes use anise as a star ingredient), but I loved their caramels and truffles.

If you have any room in your stomach, the Plaza Food Hall, filled with classic New York restaurants like Luke’s Lobster and No. 7 Sub, has quickly become one of my favorite places for a casual bite. For holiday treats, try a peppermint icebox cake or butterscotch gingerbread at Billy’s Bakery.

From here, walk along Central Park South to the Shops at Columbus Circle and when you arrive, zip straight to the second floor. Here, you’ll see “Holiday Under the Stars,” which features 14-foot stars suspended from the ceiling that change colors to choreographed holiday tunes. Across the street, at the entrance to Central Park, you’ll see the Columbus Circle Holiday Market. Even though it has similar offerings to those at Union Square, it’s worth a stop–if only to grab a hot apple cider or some gluhwein (German mulled wine) to enjoy on your walk back to wherever it is you’ll be calling home for the night.

Or…if you’re feeling extra festive, follow my lead and book tickets to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in advance. I see The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center every year, but this year I decided to surprise my other half with tickets to this iconic holiday event. The show was New York City at its best, crowds be damned. When the razor-sharp Rockettes–dressed to look like candy canes, ornaments, and nutcrackers–start kicking to yuletide favorites you’ll agree that this show might be one to add to the annual holiday To-do list.

A few off-route musts:

Though we planned this one day of holiday cheer, there are other things I make an effort to do every season, including the Centennial Holiday Light Show at Grand Central (from 5-11 p.m. until December 26) and the Origami Christmas Tree at the American Museum of Natural History.

And if you have yet to trek out to the Bronx to see the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden, it is an absolute must, a spectacular sight with replicas of city landmarks like Yankee Stadium and the Brooklyn Bridge made entirely of natural materials like bark, leaves, and pinecones.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

More New York City love from Annie:

Join Annie Fitzsimmons in a Twitter chat on Wed. 12/18 at 1:30pm EST as she answers all of your holiday travel questions. Submit a question and follow along using the hashtag #enroute.