Start spreading the news—there’s nothing like New York, New York during the holidays. From sparkling store windows and classic winter concerts to the bright lights of Broadway and snow-covered Central Park, the city stirs with celebratory spirit during the month of December. Yes, Manhattan can be the priciest place on the planet (home to the $1,000 ice-cream sundae at Serendipity 3), but you don’t have to break the bank to take a bite out of the Big Apple. Whether you’re new to New York or a city veteran, you’ll find something to follow in our penny-pinching primer.
Contrary to its big-price-tag stereotype, Manhattan might be the easiest place to get the festive feels without spending a single dime. Saunter down the streets to take in the colossal Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center (45 Rockefeller Plaza, 212-332-6868), the oversized ornaments across from Radio City Music Hall, and the winter wonderland windows at Barney’s (660 Madison Ave., 212-826-8900) and Bergdorf Goodman (754 5th Ave., 753-7300), all within a few blocks. Stop in for Mass at the nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral (5th Ave. between 50th & 51st Sts., 212-753-2261), free every evening except Christmas Eve, or head uptown for Hanukkah Family Day at The Jewish Museum (1109 5th Ave., 212-423-3200) on Dec. 6, at no cost for kids 18 and under. While you’re at “the Rock,” hear hundreds of brass players perform on the ice rink during the free 42nd annual Merry Tuba Christmas on Dec. 13, but skip the long skating lines for free spins at Bryant Park (42nd St. & 6th Ave., 212-768-4242) and cheap glides at Wollman Rink (830 5th Ave., 212-744-0882) in Central Park. Afterward, take a walk through the lamp-lit woods. Whatever the weather, the 843-acre escape is breathtakingly beautiful beneath the backdrop of the twinkling silver skyscrapers visible through the trees. If you find yourself on the Upper West Side, shop Zabar’s (2245 Broadway, 212-787-2000) for dreidel-shaped cookies and chocolate babka. Also make your way to Grand Army Plaza (Prospect Park W. & Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn, 347-693-2863) and behold the world’s largest menorah lighting on all eight holiday nights.
When it comes to coffee, New Yorkers are super serious about where they get their caffeine fix. There’s Stumptown (18 W. 29th St., 855-711-3385), Ninth Street Espresso (700 E. 9th St., 212-358-9225), and Café Grumpy (193 Meserole Ave., Brooklyn, 718-349-7623), where Lena Dunham labors over lattes in Girls. But for the real deal—and a great way to save $7 on espresso—head to the ubiquitous street coffee carts, with their signature blue-and-white, Greek-font cups costing about a buck. We love the southwest corner of 57th and 8th (trust us: they’ll take good care of you and likely remember your order the next time you go in), but find your own favorite. For breakfast, swap those big-bucks boozy brunches for a Manhattan mainstay—the New York City bagel. Everyone has their favorite, but none beats Essa Bagels (831 3rd Ave., 212-980-1010) or the century-old Russ & Daughters (179 E. Houston St., 212-475-4800). For a sit-down spread, nab a vinyl stool at Veselka (144 2nd Ave., 212-228-9682), an old-school Ukrainian coffee shop in the East Village, open 24/7 with all-day breakfast. For a midday meal, scrap Carnegie Deli for the king of pastramis on rye, Katz’s Delicatessen (205 E. Houston St., 212-254-2246). Their sandwiches are big enough for two—or even three. Also, feast on falafel wherever you see cabbies consuming, like The Halal Guys (W. 53rd & 6th Ave., 347-527-1505), whose ginormous $6 gyros have been a Midtown stalwart for 25 years.
The city stirs with celebratory spirit during December.
While your college days of slurping noodles from Styrofoam cups might be long gone, reconsider ramen at David Chang’s Momofuku (171 1st Ave., 212-777-7773), touting spectacular soup bowls and tempting pork buns at one of its two downtown locations. For even cheaper ethnic eats, head to Chinatown for damn-good dim sum at Nom Wah Tea Parlor (13 Doyers St., 212-962-6047) and downhome dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai (9 Pell St., 212-233-8888). On the other hand, if you’re hankering for an all-American, Big Apple burger, both Corner Bistro (331 W. 4th St., 212-242-9502) and the original Shake Shack (E. 23rd St. & Madison Ave., 646-747-2606) in Madison Square Park are worth the wait. Of course, you can’t fuhgettabout Italian, so nibble your way through free samples at Mario Batali’s Eataly food hall (200 5th Ave., 212-229-2560) or dine properly over fresh pasta at Frank (88 2nd Ave., 212-420-0202), an East Village go-to for model-foodie Chrissy Teigen. If all else fails, there’s nothing like New York City pizza. Joe’s (7 Carmine St., 212-366-1182), Emily (919 Fulton St., Brooklyn, 347-844-9588), and Lucali (575 Henry St., Brooklyn, 718-858-4086) are our preferred places, but fear not the unassuming shops hawking the 99-cent slice.
Shop and Save
When it comes to holiday shopping, forget the tourist throngs of SoHo—and always avoid Canal Street. The most unique gifts are off the main drag, so stroll through smaller shops for music (Bleecker Street Records, 188 W. 4th St., 212-255-7899; A1 Record Shop, 439 E. 6th St., 212-473-2870), books (The Strand, 828 Broadway, 212-473-1452; Mast Books, 66 Avenue A, 646-370-1114; Book Thug Nation, 100 N. 3rd St., Brooklyn), secondhand threads (Beacon’s Closet, 10 W. 13th St., 917-261-4863; Fox & Fawn, 570 Manhattan Ave., Brooklyn, 718-349-9510), and must-have housewares (Fishs Eddy, 889 Broadway, 212-420-9020). Browse the Union Square Greenmarket (E. 17th St & Broadway) for fairly priced farm-fresh food, local gifts, and handmade holiday wreaths, as well as the Brooklyn Flea indoor market for affordable antique finds.
For name-brand bargains, confront the crowds at Century 21 (1972 Broadway, 212-518-2121), a deal-of-all-deal department store with up to 65 percent off top designers such as Kate Spade and Kenneth Cole, or check the Racked NY website for upcoming sample sales. Once you’ve finished foraging finds for others, treat yourself to a little TLC with Manhattan mani-pedis (at about $20 for both, they're often half the Baltimore bill) or modestly priced massages at the Ji Li Tui Nau Center (202 Mott St., 212-966-2519).
Walk This Way
Walking is a way of life in New York, so wear comfy shoes. Heading from north to south, historic architectural highlights include the Chrysler Building (405 Lexington Ave., 212-682-3070), Empire State Building (350 5th Ave., 212-736-3100), Morgan Library (225 Madison Ave., 212-685-0008), Flatiron Building (175 5th Ave.), Washington Square Arch (Washington Sq. N & 5th Ave.), and One World Trade (West & Vesey Sts., 212-257-6600), finally finished and viewable from many vantage points throughout the city. While you’re in the vicinity, don’t miss the 9/11 Museum (180 Greenwich St., 212-312-8800), a moving memorial of artifacts, homages, and educational programs.
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge for a lasting image of the Manhattan skyline.
For a little extra exercise, the best way to burn calories is the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, a continuous loop around the entire island, with stunning sunsets over the Hudson to the west and broad paths beneath the bridges to the east. By the Williamsburg Bridge, spy Brooklyn’s own Domino Sugar plant before its demolition, and, near Battery Park, behold a beautiful view of America’s giant green goddess, the Statue of Liberty. While you’re there, bundle up and walk the Brooklyn Bridge for a lasting image of the Manhattan skyline, or hop aboard the Staten Island Ferry (718-876-8441) for free rides past Ellis Island and cheap beer on board. You can also snag a mat at Yoga to the People (12 St. Marks Pl., 917-573-9642) for a little Zen amidst the city’s zoom-zoom, with a variety of classes for a $10 suggested donation.
Sauce in the City
New York is, indeed, The City That Never Sleeps, with bars that stay open till just before sunrise and potent pours flowing throughout the night. It’s hard to avoid the $15 cocktail, but area code 212 is riddled with great dive bars, such as Rudy’s (627 Ninth Ave., 646-707-0890) for free hotdogs; The Ear Inn (326 Spring St., 212-226-9060), in business since 1817; McSorley’s (15 E. 7th St., 212-473-9148), open since 1854; and 7B Horseshoe Bar (108 Avenue B, 212-677-6742), as seen in movies like The Godfather II. Most carry cheap beer and at least one kind from Brooklyn Brewery, which crafts its drafts across the East River. For dancing, consider The Jane Hotel (113 Jane St., 212-924-6700), an old sailors’ lodge turned opulent, other-era nightclub with no cover (and rooms as low as $125 a night). Or better yet, take the L train to the Brooklyn Bowl (61 Wythe Ave., Brooklyn, 718-963-3369) in Williamsburg for more Brooklyn Brewery beers, bowling, and dancing with Questlove. (The Roots drummer DJs here on Thursday nights.)
Catch a Wink
Set an online alert for deals (priceline.com, booking.com, hotwire.com) and do some digging to find affordable options like the funky, futuristic Pod Hotel (230 E. 51st St., 212-355-0300, $115 and up) or cozy-chic Seton Hotel (144 E. 40th St., 212-889-5301, $134 and up). For other hip ’hoods, take a short subway ride across the East River to Brooklyn and Queens (Nu Hotel, 85 Smith St., 718-852-8585, $143 and up; Z Hotel, 11-01 43rd Ave., Long Island City, 212-319-7000, $185 and up), or take the PATH across the Hudson to Hoboken or Jersey City. At the end of the day, your best bet might be Airbnb, with scores of affordable spots in every neighborhood.
Be it bright-light theater, blues clubs, street performers, or The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, all the city’s a stage on the isle of Manhattan. For the full Sinatra experience, start in the heart of Times Square on Broadway (855-477-3578). Swing by the TKTS box office for up to 50 percent off a smattering of same-day tickets for shows including The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, and Avenue Q. When it comes to comedy, you can bear the early morning cold to wait in line for free tickets to Saturday Night Live (30 Rockefeller Plaza, 212-664-3056, arrive well before 7 a.m.), but there are plenty of laughs to be had at the iconic Comedy Cellar (117 Macdougal St., 212-254-3480), which offers free tickets with an online RSVP Sunday through Thursday. (Don’t be surprised if Chris Rock or Louis C.K. shows up for a surprise set.) Meanwhile, for $10 or less, catch comedy’s rising stars at Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre (307 W. 26th St., 212-366-9176), whose alumni include Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari.
For the visually inclined, indulge in New York’s vast collection of art. We’d pay anything to wander the wings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Ave., 212-535-7710), but the free admission makes it an absolute must. Visit the new American Wing to admire works by John Singer Sargent and Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Culture vultures can also ponder a worth-the-price trip to the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St., 212-708-9400) and the stunning new Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort St., 212-570-3600) on the Highline. But for no-cost, contemporary creations, partake in the local pastime of a gratis gallery-hop. Move from the Gagosian (555 W. 24th St., 212-741-1111) and David Zwirner (525 W. 19th St., 212-727-2070) in Chelsea to Lehmann Maupin (201 Chrystie St., 212-254-0054) on the Lower East Side. On opening nights, wine and hors d’oeuvres are often on the house.
In the city that brought us Tin Pan Alley, Bob Dylan, CBGB, and hip-hop, expect to see some great live music, too. Few things feel more “Manhattan” than sitting in a cozy jazz club with a drink in hand on a crisp weekend night. For that, mosey over to Smalls (183 W. 10th St., 646-476-4346) and Fat Cat (75 Christopher St., 212-675-6056) in the West Village or Jules Bistro (65 St. Marks Pl., 212-477-5560) in the East for no- or low-cost toe-tapping time warps. For some of the country’s best classical music, visit the world-class Carnegie Hall (881 7th Ave., 212-247-7800) with same-day discounted tickets for its legendary concerts. (The New York Pops stop by December 18-20.) Meanwhile, Tuesday through Saturday, Lincoln Center (10 Lincoln Center Plaza, 212-875-5456) offers reduced rates for the likes of the New York Philharmonic and Juilliard students. If you’re looking for a splurge to keep you in the holiday spirit, stick around Lincoln Center for the New York City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker (212-496-0600). Its gilded set, elaborate costumes, and hallowed, historic stage will dazzle away the dollars spent. For everything else, the Bowery Ballroom (6 Delancey St., 212-260-4700) and Mercury Lounge (217 E. Houston St., 212-260-4700) have awesome acoustics as low as $10 on the Lower East Side. Just keep in mind that some of the best music in Manhattan is often unexpected and completely complimentary—from the buskers at the Union Square subway station to the mix-and-match bands of Washington Square and Central Park. And wherever you go, remember to stop and soak in the city. New York, like the holidays, is truly priceless.
Amtrak can be costly, but with proper planning, hitting the rails is the easiest (and breeziest) way to get there. Keep an eye out for Northeast deals, book tickets in advance, and travel on weekdays and off-hours, when tickets are as low as $52 each way. If trains don’t suit your style, try the Bolt Bus or Megabus for one-way fares ranging from $15 to $30. County folk can also pick up the slightly costlier Superior Tours from Pikesville, Towson, and Joppa for round-trip rides ranging between $65 and $90. (They’ll spoil you with a movie on the way home.) When you get to the Big Apple, make like a local and learn the subway. It is by far the fastest, cheapest, most efficient means to move around. Unlike Baltimore, taxis are often still cheaper than calling an Uber. Your cabbie survival kit goes as follows: Hail cabs on the corner with one hand in the air, give crossroads, not street numbers, and tip your driver. For black car service, consider the new Gett app for $10 flat rate rides anywhere below 110th Street. Weather permitting, you can also grab a 24-hour Citi Bike (only $9.95 a day) to cruise around the island and across the bridges to the nearby boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Best of all, slow down in this ever-moving metropolis and walk. You can always ask for directions; Manhattanites love to show what they know.
How to Pass for a New Yorker
While we’re bursting with Baltimore pride, who doesn’t want to fit in on a trip to “The Capital of the World"? Some tips to help you look like a natural.
Take the subway // Walk fast // Jaywalk (just not near a cop) // Drink tap water // Avoid eye contact // Houston Street is pronounced HOW-stun, not HEW-stun // It's uptown and downtown, not north and south // Frequent bodegas and Duane Reade // Ignore catcalls // Say on line, not in line // Wear black // Leave your O’s hat at home: Nothing says tourist like a baseball cap