Anyone who has experienced the joy of New York City at Christmas can no doubt concur that there is nowhere quite like it, particular at that time of year. Having recently (well, five weeks ago) returned from a near three week stint there, I thought I would document my experience.
I was fortunate enough to spend a year exchange studying at Stony Brook University, 60 miles east of the city out on Long Island, during the 2005-2006 school year and my love affair with the city was cemented. My most recent visit was my sixth return trip since leaving and I believe in many ways my experience will have been different to many who cross the pond to experience Christmastime in NYC.
During my original stay and my previous visits I have visited a lot of the tourist spots you see on top 10 lists of must see things to do – the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Grand Central Terminal, the Chrysler Building, Times Square, and the Rockefeller Center to name a few – and yet there were still so many things I wanted to do! I am the type of traveller who likes to research and plan prior to arrival but not restrict my flexibility by booking too many things and tying me down to a strict schedule. For this particular trip I only pre-booked a handful of things – a ticket to see Late Night with Jimmy Fallon being taped, tours of City Hall, Tweed Courthouse and the Woolworth Building, my prepayment for SantaCon and a dinner reservation for Christmas Day, and yet I still had a long list of things I wanted to try and do whilst there.
I arrived late on the Monday evening, and having not been in the city for close to two years, I decided to walk to see Grand Central Terminal, a mere five blocks from my hotel, the Jolly Hotel Madison Towers on 38th St and Madison Ave. Somehow, the crisp night air made the building seem all that more impressive as I walked up, the facade of the entrance towering above me. The hotel, basic and in need of modernisation, was comfortable and served as an ideal base for my weeks of exploring.
A reasonably late morning preceded a walk up 5th Ave to Tiffany & Co, the jewellery store where many dreams may come true. Unfortunately, I doubt I will ever have the money to buy the really expensive items they have on offer, but I had my heart set on a sterling silver ring… a nice Christmas present to myself! After a quick trip to FAO Schwarz to price up potential presents for my nephew at home, I walked to my favourite bagel shop, Ess-A-Bagel on 3rd Ave & 51st. A warm, chewy cinnamon and raisin bagel with cream cheese and cup of tea really found their mark and I left satisfied and ready for the remainder of the day. From the bagel shop I made my way back to the Rockefeller Center in order to collect my ticket for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, which is recorded in the NBC Studios that are housed there. The staff co-ordinating issuing tickets and directing people where to go and when to be back were clearly well trained and experienced and their instructions were clear. Watching the ice skaters out on the rink passed the time until I was due back to go in to the studio, and as I queued with people I recognised from collecting my ticket, I was pulled out of the line and given a different coloured wristband and told I would be part of the “band bench”, which meant that at the end of the show, but before the musical guest came on, I, along with the other people with band bench tickets, would be escorted to two platforms either side of the stage so that there were people behind the band whilst they were performing. Both the warm-up act and Jimmy Fallon were very funny, providing a highlight of my trip and one that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.
Wednesday brought a day of walking, as I decided to go to Belvedere Castle, located in the middle of Central Park. Walking up to the entrance of the park at 59th and 5th I had the urge to go to the zoo. As I looked around I noticed not much had changed since the last time I visited in April 2006; the main difference being the absence of the polar bears as the last one, Gus, had died in August and his mate two years previously. Although not my favourite animal, one of my favourites to see at this particular zoo are the red pandas as you can get so close to them it almost feels like you’re in their exhibit. After viewing the rest of the animals (including the snow leopard cubs), I continued my walk north, past the petting zoo and up the full length of the Literary Walk and The Mall, arriving at the Bethesda Fountain, which must be turned off in cold weather, as there was no water flowing on this particular day. A trek round the area known as The Rambles led to some spectacular views of The Lake, of Central Park, and of the city itself, and it wasn’t long before I arrived at Belvedere Castle. I am not sure what I was expecting, but the highlight was definitely the views of the park, especially the ones overlooking Turtle Pond, and I spent a good twenty minutes to half an hour taking in the views. I continued my journey along the 79th Street Traverse, coming out of the park just below the Metropolitan Museum of Art and walked up to the Guggenheim Museum where I intended to spend the remainder of the afternoon. Once I arrived though, my legs were yelling at me that they didn’t want to spend any more time walking so I made my way to Bocado Café on Lexington Ave at 87th for a simple lunch before making my way back downtown via the subway and having a relaxing evening and an early night.
Thursday started early with a trip to City Hall for a tour, which was both informative and interesting. The building and its interior have tastefully been restored and redecorated to accurately reflect an earlier time, and we even had the privilege to sit in on a case being discussed in regards to trafficking in the state of New York. The tour lasted approximately an hour and the guide was friendly and willing to answer any questions people may have had. The following day the same guide gave the tour of Tweed Courthouse. After all the walking the previous day, a relaxing afternoon was called for, and so I went to see Thor: The Dark World 3D at the AMC Empire 25 theater near Times Square – one of my favourite movie theatres as the interior of the building is so beautiful – and then ended the day with a Shack Stack from Shake Shack.
After heading downtown for an IHOP breakfast, I made my way to the Tweed Courthouse for another fascinating tour. The building had two different architects and the differences in how they designed and constructed their various parts are evident and yet combine beautifully. Now used by the Department of Education, I did get the feeling we were intruding slightly as people continued to work around us, but they never gave the impression they minded us being there. We explored the ground floor before being taken up in the lift, a later addition to the building yet somehow coherent with the feel of the building, to the third floor where we were able to look down on a giant Roy Lichenstein sculpture that filled the open space in the centre of the building. This tour lasted approximately ninety minutes, and we were lucky enough to have one of the people who reproduced the doors when the building was being restored… he couldn’t, however, tell us which were the original and which were the reproductions though! I made a stop at a Wafel and Dinges food truck just around the corner from the Courthouse for a waffle with spekuloos and it was amazing; one of the nicest things I have tasted in a long time, and I would definitely recommend seeking out one of their food trucks if you have the opportunity. I went back uptown to Macy’s at Herald Square and I have no idea why. The only good thing I can say about this store is that they have everything you could ever want; the only problem being is that it takes you about three hours to find what it is you want. The store is huge and there are too many people in there buying nothing but taking pictures of everything and blocking the way for people who want to get in and out as quickly as possible; so I saw, I bought, I left. I went to the cinema! The same one as the previous day but this time to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire before heading back to the hotel to prepare for the following days shenanigans that were due.
Saturday was SantaCon. Something I had looked forward to since realising that I would be there whilst it was on. There were many disgruntled people who didn’t think it should go ahead after the problems from previous years, but I experienced no trouble during the brief time I was there. Now, I rarely drink. As in I couldn’t tell you the last time prior to this that I had drunk alcohol. Still, I dressed in layers, topped with my reindeer onesie that I had bought just for this occasion and waited for my friend to come before we headed down to Webster Hall where the festivities began. On the way we passed hundreds of people celebrating, the majority of which were dressed as Santa Claus, but there were elves and presents and Mrs Claus as well. Once inside Webster Hall there was more of the same. We headed straight for the bar, and as there was only two bartenders on we decided to get two drinks each – mine were strong Jack Daniels and lemonade preceded by a shot of Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey for each of us; they went straight to my head! We stood and watched the stage show whilst drinking and then headed upstairs to see what was happening on the other floors before I gave half of one of my drinks to a random stranger and we had to leave. This particular Saturday was one of the few snow days there were whilst I was there and my friends buses were being cancelled so she had to leave earlier than expected (hence the quick drinks), but we left with our spirits high. We passed many other revellers, and I wished (and by wished I mean screamed) holiday greetings at random strangers on the street and the subway. Luckily, people took it in the spirit it was intended, and I spent the rest of the evening in bed. Perhaps next time I shall not drink so much so quickly, but I enjoyed every minute we were there.
After a late morning start which was spent walking around the midtown area, I spent part of the afternoon wandering around the Morgan Library and Museum, of which I especially enjoyed the Library and the temporary exhibition on Edgar Allan Poe, one of my favourite authors. Luckily I managed to tag on to the daily tour of the exhibit, which whilst not very big was very interesting, and the tour informative. The remainder of the afternoon was spent watching the Giants game (I don’t understand American Football in the slightest) followed by the Rangers game after dinner.
I woke up at a reasonable hour, and after another bagel breakfast I got the subway across to Roosevelt Island, and walked north all the way to Lighthouse Park. I walked along the footpath that runs alongside the East River, offering unrestricted views of the city, and as I only passed about five people as I walked north, I felt almost like I had the island to myself. The solitude allowed me to think and photograph at my leisure, until something in the water caught my eye – three small statues titled “The Marriage of Money and Real Estate” by Tom Otterness, whose sculptures are littered all over the 14th St/8th Ave subway station, amongst other places. Designated a New York Public Landmark in 1976, the lighthouse at the end of Roosevelt Island was closed off to the public on the day I visited, although I believe the surrounding area (but not the lighthouse tower) is normally open when the weather is nicer. After taking as many photos as I thought necessary with the restricted view, I set off back down the east side of the island, stopping every now and then to take photos of the spectacular view across the Queens side of the East River, until I reach what I’ve ultimately come for: Southpoint Park, or more specifically the abandoned smallpox hospital that lies in ruins there. I knew of its dilapidated state, but somehow I was still shocked at just how ruined it was. It was also the only place on the island where I saw guards, clearly positioned to make sure no-one attempted to enter, even though it would be hard to find a way in over the high fence without being seen. I walked right down to the tip of the FDR Four Freedoms Park and made my way back up to take the tram back across to Manhattan. After a quick stop in Dylan’s Candy Store I finished my evening off with something that has become a common theme – a movie; this time I fed my Disney obsession with Saving Mr Banks at the Regal E-Walk Stadium 13 & RPX.
The next day I was up early to go and see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. This trip will be my last to the city for some time, so I thought I would make the most of it by doing all the ‘touristy’ things that I haven’t done previously. The Rockettes were amazing, and whilst I enjoyed the show, I expected more. I sat near the back and my view was still quite good, but I just felt it was missing something, although what I am not sure. This is one of those things that I am glad I did, but would not be bothered about doing again. Once out, the snow was falling hard, so I made my way to Times Square for lunch at Olive Garden for the worst (and I mean worst) lasagne I have ever had the displeasure of tasting – avoid this restaurant at all costs – before getting the shuttle back to Grand Central to get myself ready before meeting a friend for dinner. After getting the subway uptown to my friends apartment, we visited The Meatball Shop where I got the classic beef meatballs with spicy meat sauce on a bed of spaghetti followed by a chai ice cream sandwich with ginger cookies. Whilst I enjoyed the main, I wasn’t that taken with the ice cream (the special for the day) but the cookies were nice. We both then headed downtown to meet another friend at Verlaine Bar & Lounge for some cocktails, which was a fantastic reunion accented by alcohol. I had Hanoi Lychee Martini and Rimbaud cocktails and they were both delicious – a definite recommendation if you’re in the Lower East Side area.
After crawling in to bed in the early hours, it was a slow start to the morning that saw me cross the city to collect tickets for the forthcoming New York Rangers games at Madison Square Garden and then head uptown to the David H. Koch Theater at 20 Lincoln Center Plaza (Columbus Avenue at 63rd Street) to see the New York City Ballet perform The Nutcracker – a holiday tradition for many. The second act was my favourite as I found the dancers to be more experienced and therefore I was in greater awe of them. The fluidity of the movements in their bodies was amazing and the entire production is so well choreographed. A quick stop at the hotel to change and I was back over to Madison Square Garden to see the Rangers play the Pittsburgh Penguins. They lost. I still enjoyed the game though, and the transformation of the arena over the past few years is spectacular – it now looks like a brand new, modern arena, although I am not a huge fan of the ‘Chase Bridge’ – a bridge over part of the arena allowing a unique vantage point of the ice that also restricts viewing for some of those unfortunate enough to be sat behind it.
The following day I was too sick to really do anything major so I walked down to the movies at AMC Loews Kips Bay 15 in order to see 12 Years A Slave, which I must confess was one of my favourite films of last year. On the return leg I passed by Pie Face on 3rd Ave at 34th St where I chose a chunky steak pie and a BBQ pulled pork one. The steak pie was too garlicky for my taste, but the pulled pork was delicious, packed full of pork in a rich BBQ sauce, that would probably have been better had there been something else to go with it – chips, vegetables, even a salad just to break up the flavour.
On Friday, the 20th, I spent the day exploring the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not being a huge fan of sculptures and a lot of classic art, I wandered round the museum until I eventually found my way to the Modern and Contemporary Art exhibition and some of it was amazing – truly breathtaking works of art, but as with all art, there were others that I just didn’t understand, didn’t view necessarily as art. I suppose it is all about the perspective from which you are viewing it, and I am sure there are others who would find the paintings I didn’t like fascinating and the ones I did as confusing. The museum is enormous and I think in order to really appreciate it all, you would need a couple of days to fully explore it. The evening was spent at the Rangers game against the New York Islanders. They lost again.
My final Saturday in New York was an early one as I had decided to go hiking upstate in Bear Mountain State Park. There is an abandoned town, Doodletown, that is scattered along the trails closest to Bear Mountain Inn which I wanted to visit. A return coach ride is only $26.70 with Short Line Bus, and during the winter months operates later return coaches on the weekend. The coach trip takes an hour and forty minutes each way. Alternatively, it is a 45 minute car ride for those wishing to hire one. I trekked along the 1977E trail until I reached the area where the majority of the known buildings of Doodletown were. Unfortunately there was very little remaining, with only a couple of foundations visible. I cut through Doodletown on an unnamed trail running parallel to where the 1977E trail joins the 1977W trail. Up until now, the trail was quite easy, a nice steady walk, but I decided to head back along SBM to the Inn, and that was a much harder trail, up and down steep hills, through trees and climbing up and down rocks; eventually I crossed the road leading to the Inn and it was only a short distance through another wooded section before I made it back. As I was restricted with time, I spent the next hour or so having a really late lunch and exploring the Inn before getting the bus back to the city. Exhausted, I climbed in to bed and had a good nights sleep.
On Sunday morning I headed to Almond, a restaurant located at 12 E 22nd Street (close to Madison Square Park), for brunch with friends. I had French Toast with banana, cranberries and maple syrup with a side of bacon and one of sausage. As nice as it was, there was far too much for me to eat, and one of my friends ended up taking all the leftovers with her as the portions were that generous. A 90 minute tour of the Woolworth Building followed, and it is such an impressive building. The details, particularly in the lobby, were so spectacular and there was something to look at in every direction you could see. Tours only began to take place last year for the anniversary of the construction of the building and will keep going providing people are willing to go, and in my opinion, it is definitely worth the cost of the tour. My friend and I headed back uptown to visit a Japanese book and stationery store (Books Kinokuniya) before we went our separate ways and I went to my penultimate Rangers game (they won).
Monday, the 23rd, started slowly, beginning with an early lunch at Curry-Ya, a tiny Japanese curry restaurant located at 214 E 10th Street. There was a small queue already formed by the time I got there, as the restaurant can only seat approximately ten people. The wait was worth it though, and the “dry” curry I had was just as delicious as on my previous visits. My love of books is well-known amongst my family and friends, so no trip would have been complete without a trip to The Strand, and whilst I didn’t buy anything on this particular visit (I visited a few days later where I purchased some merchandise), there will always be something truly special about bookstores like this one. My final Rangers game was that evening – they won again – and it was so thoroughly enjoyable to experience the few games I was able to on this trip, no matter the results of some of the games.
Christmas Eve and I headed to Union Square to meet another friend near there. After a bit of shopping we headed to Ippudo, a Japanese ramen restaurant, where you need reservations around meal times – we put our names down and had a 45-minute wait, which wasn’t an issue as we went to get coffee at a nearby Starbucks whilst we waited. The food was delicious; I had chicken hirata buns followed by the Shiromaru Hakata Classic ramen with Kakuni. It was so good, so filling, and well worth the wait. We went to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire before heading to Flushing for traditional Chinese food with my friends parents.
On Christmas Day in England very few stores/restaurants are open. There are a few who do a traditional Christmas dinner, and the pubs tend to open for a few hours, but beyond that there is very little. This is not the case in the city, where there is so much diversity in cultures that it would be unwise not to open a lot of places. So I did like a lot of people – I visited Starbucks (more than once), the cinema (twice – albeit different ones – where I saw 47 Ronin before dinner and Lone Survivor afterwards) and managed to fit in a traditional Christmas dinner at an English pub – The Churchill – on 45 E 28th Street. Whilst not the same as spending Christmas Day at home, I managed to speak to my family via Skype and I enjoyed the difference with how I usually spend the day.
Boxing Day is not celebrated in the US, but like in the UK, there are many post-Christmas sales to take advantage of, and so I went to Union Square, bought some goods from Sephora and Barnes & Noble before heading to Macy’s and taking advantage of their one-day sale. I went back to Books Kinokuniya, before walking back to the hotel where I wrapped Christmas presents and attempted a good nights sleep before my final day.
On Friday, I had practically a full day in the city, so after making sure that I had packed everything and checked out on time, I headed down to Crif Dogs, at 113 St Marks Place between 1st and Ave A, for a Jon-Jon Deragon dog and some tater tots – it was wonderful, and the perfect meal to finish off my trip as it satisfied my Crif Dogs craving, and with all the tater tots I was full enough to last me the rest of the day. I returned to The Strand to pick up some merchandise and then headed to Times Square, although I can offer no rationale for this decision. I am not a fan of Times Square – it is too packed with tourists walking aimlessly at a snails pace with no seeming destination in site – but I ended up at the Visitors Museum, where they had a hopes and wishes wall – people wrote their hopes or wishes for the forthcoming year on a piece of confetti that was to be part of the infamous ball drop that takes place in Times Square every year. One that really caught my eye was one that simply said “cure my sons epilepsy”. These are the ones that I really hope come true. I then went back to Silverleaf Tavern to meet a couple of friends for drinks prior to my leaving. Laughs were had and bear hugs were given when I had to leave, but luckily social media makes it easy to keep in contact.
A long wait at JFK, followed by a reasonably quick hop across the pond, and I arrived at Heathrow tired but reasonably alert. I went through all the standard security procedures that occur coming off of an international flight and made my way in to terminal 5 to wait for my connecting flight that was due approximately four hours later. From the moment I knew I was going to be in Heathrow for a few hours over lunch time, I knew what I wanted to do – eat at Plane Food, the Gordon Ramsay restaurant located there. I had cured and braised pork belly with celeriac purée and apple and fennel salad followed by tiramisu and it was all delicious – the perfect ending to my trip, one which I will remember for a long time.