Are you planning to visit New York City during the Christmas season? You’ve surely seen guides with lists of all the things you need to see and do for Christmas in New York.
After all, the city is incredibly festive with lights, ornaments, and holiday markets, all in addition to everything else New York City has to offer.
But this guide is all about the mistakes to avoid in NYC at Christmastime…shared by a local NYer. Don’t visit New York as a rookie! Be sure to read this guide before visiting New York City during the holidays to help make your trip a success.
10 Mistakes to Avoid in NYC at Christmastime
Mistake #1: Driving into Manhattan.
Traffic in and around Manhattan is insane but especially during the holiday season of November and December. Local news stations report on traffic gridlock alert days and nearly every day from Thanksgiving to New Year’s qualifies
Driving into New York City during this peak-holiday season comes with frustration and, worst of all, so much time wasted. This is all before you’ve even begun to search for a parking lot that has space while slowly fighting your way block after block through traffic and a sea of pedestrians. You’ll inevitably cry “Uncle!” and pay any amount just to get out of your car.
If you live within driving distance to New York City, start your holiday season visit by maximizing your time on public transportation. Take a train, bus or even, a ferry, into NYC. If you don’t have this option right from your hometown, drive to a Park & Ride location and use public transportation from there.
Mistake #2: Not Using the Subway.
Taxis and Ubers can be helpful but they’re expensive and also have to sit in the same traffic as every other vehicle on the roads. As the price on your yellow taxi meter ticks up, so will your stress and frustration. And, even flat-rate rides can’t avoid the mega amount of time wasted when you realize it REALLY took that amount of time to go 2 miles.
You accomplish several things by using the subway instead.
First and foremost, you save SO much time by heading underground and bypassing street traffic. The New York City Subway can quickly take you anyplace you’d like to go in Manhattan and even beyond into boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens. And saving time isn’t just about avoiding traffic but also about being strategic when it’ll take a long time to get somewhere on foot.
The subway is cheaper (and did I mention faster?) than any taxi ride. At $2.90, you can start out uptown at the Museum of Natural History or Harlem and go the full length of Manhattan down to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum or the Brooklyn Bridge. Train transfers are included in your $2.90 as long as you’re underground.
And speaking of below ground, the tunnels and platforms may not be heated, but they do offer protection against the cold New York City winter. Snow, sleet, wind, or rain can all be avoided once you head underground.
Whether it’s your first time planning a trip New York City or not, I’ve got more subway and city basics in this complete NYC guide.
Mistake #3: Not Wearing Warm Clothes or Comfy Shoes.
If I had to choose the biggest mistake I see visitors make while in New York City during the winter, this would be it!
New York City can be tolerably cold, cold, and/or downright freezing in the winter. It all depends on your weather luck while you’re here. Remember, Manhattan is an island. Islands are breezy. Except that the rivers on either side aren’t warm bodies of water, but ice flows. Combine this with the grid layout of New York’s skyscrapers and streets can become wind tunnels blasting cold air.
So as you pack, plan for a lot of outside time with no warm car to run to after leaving the house.
Dressing for the weather is the difference between enjoying yourself and feeling so cold it ruins the whole experience.
Insulated layers are the best way to trap your body heat. Comfortable, warm, waterproof shoes or boots are a must. And, perhaps most importantly, keep your head, ears, neck, and hands warm. I cannot tell you how many NYC visitors I see in the winter with bright red ears and hunched shoulders trying to keep the winter winds from blowing cold air into
For more specific recommendations, check out my guide all about what to wear in NYC in the winter.
Mistake #4: Not Having a Plan.
I’m all for being spontaneous when traveling. But if you’re visiting New York City during the holidays, you definitely need a plan. Otherwise, you risk wasting a lot of time and feeling disappointed when you realize you needed reservations or to purchase tickets ahead of time.
First and foremost, have a list of places you’d like to see and map them out so you have a sense of where things are and can avoid backtracking as much as possible. If your list includes popular sights like the Empire State Building or the Top of the Rock, you can save money if you plan this ahead of time and bundle the cost of admission with a New York CityPASS.
Next figure out what you need reservations for. It’s possible to reserve an ice skating time at Bryant Park or to schedule a time with Santa at Macy’s. If you have your heart set on a particular restaurant or want to eat at a popular holiday season place like Rolf’s, make reservations ahead of time.
Lastly, if you need tickets to see the Rockettes, a specific Broadway show, or even a tour to see the most Christmas-happy, lit-up neighborhood in Brooklyn, book your tickets in advance. Especially if any of these things are your musts, don’t leave things to chance. The city is very busy with many people looking to book similar Christmastime experiences.
For everything you need to know about Christmas in New York City, check out my complete guide.
Mistake #5: Not Factoring in More Time…for Everything.
From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, New York City is overflowing with holiday cheer and visitors who want to take part in the festive atmosphere. Even if you’ve visited the city at another time of year, you’ll want to factor in extra time for everything.
Just walking down 5th Avenue to see the department store windows, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Rockefeller Center tree can take double, triple the time it normally would take. There are so many pedestrians all trying to get places on foot the sidewalks can be just as crowded in these popular areas as the streets are with traffic.
It’s best to come prepared ahead of time with this in mind. Channel your inner-farm animal and be ready to move as a herd.
Keep all of this in mind for any reservations you have, be it for dinner, a VIP Rockefeller Center Ice Skating experience, or for a visit with Santa at Macy’s. Give yourself plenty of extra time to get places so you don’t arrive feeling stressed out over having to push through the crowds or even worse, arrive late and miss out on something special.
And if you need a break from the crowds of Midtown, head south to Greenwich Village for lunch or dinner. Once you get away from midtown, the sidewalks won’t be as packed.
Mistake #6: Trying to See All the Christmas Sights at the Same Time as Everyone Else.
Avoiding all the crowds of the Christmas season in New York City isn’t possible. After all, everyone wants to see the tree at Rockefeller Center or enjoy the holiday markets at Bryant Park. Thus, the reason for #5 on this list.
However, with a little motivation and perhaps a strong cup of coffee, you can get up and out early enough to beat some of the crowds. It’s much easier to get a photo in front of the Saks Fifth Avenue department store windows when you’re not 3 rows deep moving through lines of people.
The Rockefeller Center tree turns on its lights at 6:00 a.m. It’ll be a lot easier to move along 5th Avenue to Rockefeller Center and significantly fewer people snapping photos of the tree in those first couple hours of the day.
Aside from the pre-dawn move, be as strategic as possible. At most holiday sights, dinner time will inevitably be less crowded than midday. Take advantage of Broadway shows starting at 8 p.m. eliminating a chunk of people from the Rock Center ice rink or the windows outside Macy’s.
Mistake #7: Eating in Chain Restaurants.
If you explore enough of New York City, you realize chain restaurants like the Olive Garden and TGIFridays are limited to central tourist areas. The reason is, when New Yorkers want to go out to eat, they rarely (if ever) go to a chain restaurant.
I understand it can be intimidating to choose from the thousands of New York City restaurants. But the great news is with just a little effort or even just walking out of the main touristy areas like Times Square and Rockefeller Center, you’re likely to stumble upon all kinds of delicious eats.
Of course, I have my NYC restaurant favorites like Lupa, Morandi, ABC Kitchen, Blue Ribbon, Benihana, Le Bernadin, The Smith, Wo Hop, Market Table, Boulud Sud, Thai Market, Del Friscos, and Little Owl, to name a few. But places like Eataly near the Flatiron building, Chelsea Market, and Mercado Little Spain in Hudson Yards are all equally as worthy of your tastebuds.
Or experience a classic NYC Diner, go have pizza on Bleecker St., have Chinese food at Wo Hop in Chinatown, or stop in for a burger at an Irish Pub.
Bottom line: It doesn’t have to appear on a “best of” NYC list for you to have an infinitely more New York dining experience than you’ll get at a chain restaurant.
Mistake #8: Not Taking Advantage of Restrooms When You Have Access.
New York City has very few public restrooms and the conditions and cleanliness inside will vary greatly.
Places like Grand Central Station at 42nd St. and Lexington Ave., Rockefeller Center’s Concourse, the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle, Macy’s at 34th St and 6th Ave., and Chelsea Market and the Occulus in Lower Manhattan are good options if you’re near one of these places. Otherwise, look to places like Starbucks and Mcdonald’s.
Surprisingly, Bryant Park also has public bathrooms and they might be the cleanest in the city! Perfect if you’re shopping at the holiday market in the park’s Winter Village.
While it’s good to know these places exist, the better strategy is to always use the restroom when you have access. If you stop for lunch or visit a museum, attend a Broadway show, or head to the Top of the Rock, use the available bathrooms. You’re likely to find cleaner facilities and in the case of restaurants and museums, smaller lines.
Mistake #9: Taking a Horse and Carriage Ride.
I really do apologize for ruining this iconic New York City image. Movies and TV shows have romanticized New York City horse and carriage rides, particularly when the city is sparkling with the lights of Christmas and Central Park is blanketed in white.
However, the reality is that these horses are overworked and, in many cases, treated badly. They are by law supposed to get breaks and vacation time each year but it’s unenforceable. The horses are housed in stables with no opportunity to spend free time in a pasture. In winter, worries about the city’s heat and humidity are replaced with the cold, wind, and limited places for the horses to get fresh water.
There are so many other iconic New York City holiday experiences like skating at Wollman Rink in Central Park and then exploring the Upper West Side or going for a hot chocolate and something sweet at Serendipity if you want to capture some classic NYC holiday charm.
Mistake #10: Thinking You Have to Do It All.
Sometimes it’s fun to “do” a city in one whirlwind long weekend. But, coming to New York at Christmastime with this mindset isn’t necessarily the best approach.
The midtown area sparkles with lights and ornaments. The holiday markets are bustling with shoppers and ice skaters. While department stores like Macy’s and Saks dazzle with their window displays and gift offerings. The chill in the air might even bring a few snowflakes that’ll give Central Park just the right amount of white.
Even seemingly indifferent New Yorkers like myself can’t help but melt over how beautiful and cheerful everything feels this time of year in the city.
So, instead of fighting the crowds to race from one “must” to another, slow down and just enjoy the festive vibe of New York City during Christmastime. <3
Are you planning to visit New York at Christmastime?
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