New York at Christmas: the most magical time of the year

There are few places in the world that can generate as much festive cheer as New York ... just don’t forget your thermals

NEW YORK, USA - DECEMBER 14 : The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and a Christmas tree are illuminated in New York City, United States on December 14, 2018. (Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Across the city, massive baubles glitter. Scarlet ribbons adorn the famous stone lions flanking the Public Library on Fifth Avenue. And when dusk falls, skaters on rinks across Manhattan grin in sheer delight, twirling on ice amid forests of shining lights. Of all the cities in all the world, none looks more festive or feels more fun in December than New York.

If you haven't already made plans to be there, you still have time to drop everything and get yourself on a plane. But you have to go prepared. First of all, you shouldn't underestimate how many layers you're likely to need under your puffer jacket – plus boots, a hat, scarf and gloves. Striding along broad pavements is one of the pleasures of this famous city, but with daytime temperatures expected to rise no higher than about 4°C for the next few weeks (not to mention a killer windchill in the city), New York will feel unbelievably cold.

People as seen ice skating in Manhattan, New York City NY at the Rockefeller Center rink in front of the Christmas Tree 2019 at the 5th Ave between 49th and 50th Streets. The rink is a symbol, a tradition and an attraction for tourists in NYC. New York City, USA - November 15, 2019 (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Secondly, it's wise to plan things to do away from Midtown. A good proportion of the seven million tourists who pile into Manhattan each year come in December and spend their time crowding Fifth Avenue, so although this is supposed to be the season of goodwill, you may soon be wishing them deep ill-will. For instance, the lighting of the Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree routinely attracts crowds reaching back 10 blocks or more. Watched on TV way downtown in a cosy old diner, the event is far more enjoyable.

Thirdly, you'll need a Metro card, as well as the Uber app. Getting in a car between 5.30pm and 7pm, in particular, when you're trying to get to The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol or Slava's Snowshow in time for curtain-up, or to the Merchant's House Museum for their candlelight ghost tour, simply sentences you to the stress of gridlock. Diving into the subway staves off that sense of panic. will serve up listings of all the best-known things to do. But consulting quirkier directories such as the brilliant AIA architectural guide, which takes you building by building through the city by foot, or the new Don't Be a Tourist in New York, proves that less familiar places and experiences can be more gratifying.

Bergdorf Goodman Christmas window display. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Take shopping, for example. The Christmas windows of the big department stores are thrilling to view, but inside Saks and Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's on Third and 59th, and Macy's on 34th and Broadway (with its 8th floor Santaland) can be manic. Some of the most beautifully decorated and magical-feeling stores are away from crowded Midtown: homeware specialists ABC, MacKenzie-­Childs and Crate & Barrel, for instance. 

It feels considerably more relaxed to wrap up and wander the glamorous, cobbled streets of SoHo. Among the designer boutiques are stores such as Repetto, an Italian ballet shoe company whose exquisite tulle dresses work beautifully as evening wear, and miniature makers, Doob Soho. Step into a 3D scanner there, strike a pose and three weeks later you'll be sent a weirdly engrossing tiny you. Prices start at $99 (Dh364) for a 15cm-tall version. You can even get yourself fitted inside a tree decoration.

When you get really chilly, ducking into cafes brings welcome warmth. Laduree, for instance, where you push back a heavy curtain and feel as though you're entering more of a theatre than a cafe, or Harbs, part of a Japanese chain, where white-coated, chef's-hatted waitresses glide around delivering perfect $8 cappuccinos and $12 slices of delectable cake – there is even one made of piled pancakes and whipped cream.

The inexpensive old Square Diner, a former railroad car, is like the Empire Diner in Woody Allen's 1979 film Manhattan, but never gets as crowded. Two coffees and a toasted bagel with cream cheese to share (it'll be huge) costs $11.40.

Two new places to experience are the Museum of Modern Art, which is now bigger and better after its $450 million expansion and costs $25 to enter, and the Time Out Market. That is a six-minute ferry ride from Pier 11 near Wall Street and has 21 Manhattan restaurant pop-ups. And to get away from it all, there's the Cloisters branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, home of medieval art. The M4 bus takes you there from outside the Met – an hour's journey through a part of New York you'd normally miss.

Ice skating is a must, even to watch if you don't skate yourself. At the Rockefeller Centre rink you can avoid the hours-long queues by booking a VIP skate session for $75 to $175. After dark, few things beat the romance of the much bigger Central Park Wollman Rink. For indoor skating, there's the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers, while at the Pier 17 entertainment complex, the rooftop rink looks out over the Brooklyn Bridge.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: Santa Claus float at the 93rd Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2019 in New York City.  (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

Bryant Park is one part of Midtown you should not miss in December. Transformed into a magical place of lights and music, its Winter Village also has a rink at its centre, with skates to rent for $20. Surrounding the rink are 170 wooden cabin pop-up shops and cafes, such as Do, purveyors of addictive cookie dough confections, and a large heated Lodge. Here you can watch skaters and enjoy delicious hot apple juice for $5, with $16 bowls of chilli and salad or massive slices of fudge cake.

But where to stay? At The Peninsula on Fifth Avenue, you get old-world service, a rooftop igloo where you can drink hot chocolate under the stars – and maybe snow – as well as the services of concierge Frederick Bigler, who can wangle tickets for anything and a table anywhere. At The Mark on the Upper East Side, the five-bedroom, eight-bathroom, four-fireplace penthouse comes with its own rooftop skating rink. These are both splendid hotels and hugely expensive, too. In Long Island City, Queens, which is five minutes from Manhattan by train, you can find rooms for less than $200, even in mid-December.

Wherever you stay, good times are guaranteed. Just don't forget your thermals.