Where to Spend Christmas In Manhattan… Without Feeling Too Much Like a Tourist

The original Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
The original Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

Some people will tell you that the holiday season is the most magical time of year to be in New York; other people will tell you that this is when the city becomes hell on earth. Well, guess what? Neither thing is untrue! The holiday season transforms Manhattan into a magical hellhole, one in which hordes of tourists move in avian-like flocks from one Midtown destination to another, like chattering harpies intent upon devouring every last bit of holiday cheer. And, you know, putting it on Instagram. 

As much as there are elements of this time of year that are intolerable (avoid those well-trod holiday markets in Union Square and Bryant Park at all costs!), it is, in fact, possible to have a good time in New York during the holidays—and not just a good time, but maybe one of the best times ever. No, really! There is an ineffable quality to the holiday season in New York—particularly Manhattan. The air smells green and resiny, the light from the sky feels perpetually diffuse and silver, and there is nothing quite like that feeling of escaping from the frosty air and into a dimly lighted bar. So if you find yourself in Manhattan this holiday season, and want to get in the spirit of things without feeling too much like a tourist, here are some places to go and things to do that will make you think that, yeah, maybe Manhattan is kind of a hellhole at this time of year, but it’s one with a specific and beautiful kind of grace.

Instead of Rockefeller Center, Go to the Cloisters: Look, we won’t mince words: Rockefeller Center is the fucking worst at this time of year. The tree is big, sure, but it’s still just a tree and it’s swarmed by thousands of people every day just dying take a picture of themselves in front of it. Avoid this area at all costs. Do you want to really feel the holiday spirit? Go up to the Cloisters at the very northern tip of Manhattan and enjoy Christmastide, a medieval celebration of Christmas, which is very much in keeping with the atmosphere of this reconstructed medieval monastery. Wander around the stone-walled museum and allow yourself to be transported to a time and place that is pretty much the complete opposite of Rockefeller Center circa now. Thank goodness.

Instead of Seeing the Rockettes, Go See Nutcracker RougeRemember how we JUST TOLD YOU not to go anywhere near Rockefeller Center? That includes going to see the Rockettes. You can do so much better than that! Including by going to this very adult version of The Nutcracker. The New York Times described it as “opulently burlesque and deliciously Freudian.” What more do you need to know really? Just where to buy tickets, right? Well, click here! Because as our very own Dan Callahan, theater critic at The L, wrote last year: “It feels like a party from beginning to end.” Party on.

Instead of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Go to St. John the Divine: We repeat for the third and FINAL time: Stay the fuck away from Rockefeller Center! And that includes by going to New York’s most storied Catholic hall of worship, St. Patrick’s Cathedral. First, we don’t care that the new pope is kind of better than the old one—the Catholic church still represents centuries of oppression and intolerance. Second, there are better cathedrals to visit in this city, including the incredibly impressive, holder-of-the-title-for-largest-cathedaral-in-the-world St. John the Divine. So get your ass on up to Morningside Heights and celebrate the Winter Solstice with artist-in-residence Paul Winter (yes, that’s his real last name), and say goodbye to the shortest days of the year so that you can prepare to welcome the coming of a new season.

Instead of Going to (Fill In the Blank Overpriced Bar), Go to Holland Bar: Why go to some bar that’s going to charge you $20 for a whiskey, and will ensure that you’re surrounded by the same type of terrible people whom you’ve been avoiding by staying the hell away from Rockefeller Center all season? Instead, head over to one of Midtown’s last remaining dive bars: Holland Bar. Way over on the west side by Port Authority, Holland Bar is the kind of place where pints are still well under $5 and well drinks similarly priced. It opens at 8am (as any decent dive should) and is not a bad place to escape anyone who is really into, uh, “mixology.”

Instead of Going to Some Trendy Hotel Lounge, Go to the Carlyle: Ok, so, while we definitely recommend you drink freely and affordably at Holland Bar, we also understand the pleasures of a super classy bar, especially at this time of year. So as long as you’re doing elegant and expensive, you might as well go to one of the most elegant (and, you now, most expensive) hotel bars in the city: Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle. One of the favorite haunts of the late, great Elaine Stritch, there is no better spot in the city to sip a martini (gin, obviously, with a twist) and reflect on this crazy place you call home.

Instead of Shopping at a Pop-Up Holiday Market, Go the Fuck Back to Brooklyn and Shop Locally at Small Businesses: So, you know, it turns out there are plenty of great things to do in Manhattan after all, and maybe we shouldn’t be so goddamned Brooklyn-centric all the time—especially during the holiday season. But the one glaring exception to this is shopping. Retail-wise, Manhattan is pretty much a glorified mall now, and so rather than spend any money at all in some big chain store, we recommend you cross back over to this side of the East River and spread some holiday cheer to some of our local businesses. Need some ideas for what to buy? No worries, we’ve got you covered no matter your price point.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


  1. I’m completely for going the fuck back to Brooklyn and shopping locally at small businesses, but it’s worth noting that many of the vendors at pop-up holiday markets are locally-owned businesses who don’t have a brick-and-mortar presence outside of the market, much like many of the food vendors at Smorgasburg. So yes, while shopping locally in Brooklyn is a great idea, it’s wrongheaded to position it as antithetical to shopping at one of the holiday markets.


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