New York City is perhaps one of the most idyllic cities to spend the holidays and this year, my family and I did just that. None of us had ever been to the Big Apple, so our week-long itinerary was packed with tourist excursions, Michelin-star restaurant reservations, and tickets to a hilarious Broadway show (The Book of Mormon). We also embraced Christmas in the city by braving the crowds to see the Rockefeller tree and Times Square. We made sure to visit all of the most popular window displays (Saks anyone?) and even drew names for a secret gift exchange, doing all of our shopping on Christmas Eve at an eclectic store in the Upper East Side.
Categorized accordingly, I’m sharing details, tips, and recommendations from my trip!
We stayed in Midtown at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel, which Gossip Girl fans may recognize as the backdrop for Serena Van der Woodsen’s lavish, drama-filled life. It’s also been the filming location for countless shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and 30 Rock, and movies like 27 Dresses. It’s easy to see why, as the courtyard entrance and grand foyer are quite palatial. We stayed in one of the suites with adjoining rooms so we could enjoy Christmas Eve Chinese takeout and a morning gift exchange in our own dining and living rooms. Apart from the gorgeous design of this hotel, I especially love that it’s in a central location. Our views included the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Radio City neon sign, and the Rockefeller building.
Tip regarding the New York CityPass/C3:
There are several different passes out there that allow you to experience some of NYC’s most iconic attractions. We purchased the New York C3 package ($74 for each adult) and chose three attractions from a list of ten; our picks were Top of the Rock Observation Deck, 9/11 Memorial & Museum, and the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Important: Purchasing the package does not necessarily mean you skip any lines or that the purchase confirmation serves as your ticket. We learned this after trying to visit the Top of the Rock on our last night in NYC and being turned away because they had sold out for the evening. My personal advice to anyone thinking about getting the pass is to forgo it. We were able to visit the other two attractions within our package, but lost money on one we weren’t able to get into. While there is somewhat of a cost savings if you purchase the pass in advance, it might not be as beneficial as you’d hoped. Pick and choose as you go, rather than pay upfront and risk not getting your money’s worth. You’ll feel less rushed to see everything when you go at your preferred pace.
A leisurely stroll through Central Park was a definite must on my list. If I wasn’t traveling with family, I think I would have spent an additional hour or so exploring. The park is much bigger than I originally thought! Be advised: a number of the restrooms are closed during the winter months, so stop into a nearby hotel before venturing out into this massive park.
The Rockefeller Center tree
We braved the crowds to see this famous live tree, but it was worth it (and so close to our hotel)! While you’re there, you can ice skate and visit Top of the Rock, which gives some of the best views of the city. As mentioned earlier, it was so crowded when we visited that tickets sold out before we were able to visit the Top of the Rock. Tip: Try to nab a spot during the day, as you’ll be able to see more of a view and perhaps avoid the nighttime crowds!
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
We strategically planned our trip to the Met (Fifth Ave) on a rainy day because many of our other activities were outdoors. What a perfect way to spend a drizzly day! There’s really something for everyone at this museum – famous paintings by Monet, Van Gogh and Matisse (my favorites), a fascinating section dedicated to Egyptian art, the costume institute’s collection of designer gowns, a hall full of armor, and more. Tips: I’d recommend arriving 45 minutes before opening, as the lines can get very long and the exhibits extremely crowded! Also, if you purchase your ticket at the counter, the amount you pay is entirely up to you ($25 is suggested for adults). Additionally, your ticket gets you same-day admission into any of the other Met museums.
Saks Fifth Avenue window displays and light show
The Saks Fifth Avenue 2016 holiday window displays were gorgeous! The theme was “Land of 1000 Delights” and the endless candy props paired with the Nutcracker theme excited my inner child. Tip: The crowds can get insane at night, so you’ll want to go through the line for the window displays during the day and return for the light show at night when you can stand across the street near the Rockefeller tree. For a peek at the evening light show magic, check out this video.
National September 11 Memorial and Museum
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum was the most impactful attraction we visited, for obvious reasons. This tribute to those who lost their lives is well laid-out; the reflecting pools sit within the footprints of where the Twin Towers once stood and the museum descends down several floors of the archaeological heart of the World Trade Center site. Entering the room that houses the photos and stories of the people who lost their lives in the terrorist attack was perhaps the most upsetting portion of the exhibition. The museum also offers an extremely detailed timeline of events that begin moments before the first plane crashes to the aftermath and rebuilding of the World Trade Center. The attack on the Pentagon, which is often overshadowed by the other events, is also a large part of the exhibition.
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France in 1886 and continues to be a monument worth seeing. While the statue is not as large as I originally thought, it is definitely a sight to make time to see. Tip: Get to Battery Park well in advance, as the ferry lines can get extremely lengthy. We got on the first ferry of the morning and thankfully avoided the line chaos. The ferry makes two stops before returning to Manhattan: one at Liberty Island and another at Ellis Island. Tip: If your goal is to climb to the Statue’s crown, be advised that you must make advanced reservations months before you plan to visit.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Whether you’re religious or not, I think everyone can appreciate the gorgeous, Neo-Gothic-style of this Roman Catholic cathedral. It’s rare to have such a grand church as this in the United States, so it was really quite a treat to visit. The interior was recently restored and tours are open to the public. We came back for Christmas morning mass which was led by the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal is worth visiting, even if it means carving out an extra fifteen minutes in your busy schedule. Its lofty arches, elegant marble, and iconic clock really are a grand sight. Make sure to visit the shops inside (there’s a ton!) before retiring to Urbanspace food market nearby (mentioned in the “Dine” section).
We’ve never spent a Christmas away from home and staying in a hotel in city with no other family members made our holiday plans a little unusual. However, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Manhattan made for some new, fun memories.
First off, we drew names for a gift exchange with a limited budget. Everyone did their shopping on Christmas Eve at Zitomer’s in the Upper East Side; it poses as a drugstore from the street, but it’s interior showcases an eclectic, tri-level department-type store that offers apparel, apothecary and luxury goods. We shopped for a mere thirty-ish minutes before closing, which was admittedly stressful because I so desperately wanted to find the perfect gift. Among the gifts I got for my older sister, I was especially proud of the Seda France (Cameo collection) candle I got her; it smells heavenly and I may just get one for myself. Thankfully, Zitomer’s will wrap your holiday gifts free of charge so you have one less worry on Christmas Eve.
Since there was no tree to decorate in our hotel room, I wore my tinsel-y sweater for a festive touch. Psst, I found it in the little girl’s section of Target (here).
When deciding where to eat to for breakfast and dinner, my mom really did her research (you’re the best, Mom!). After selecting an array of restaurants, she discussed her list with our hotel concierge who was able to offer other recommendations and make all of our reservations. These reservations were made at least 1+ month in advance, which is highly recommended when visiting NYC during its peak season.
If you’re looking for an upscale dinner with stunning views of the Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty, The River Cafe is by far the best. Adjacent to the Brooklyn Bridge and at the end of a romantic cobblestone path flanked by lanterns and gardens, this gorgeous restaurant offers special bites. If you can, get a reservation just before sunset so you can snap some breathtaking photos before getting a drink at the bar.
One of the most exquisite bites of the trip, the amuse-bouche (above) consisted of warm smoked salmon and a dollop of caviar held together in a delicate egg shell. Below, the Colorado rack of lamb with Sicilian pistachio and arugula pesto and Swiss chard cannelloni. We finished with a spread of photo-worthy desserts, like the chocolate Brooklyn Bridge.
If you’re not usually a big breakfast fan like me, Norma’s will make you a believer. Come hungry and order Norma’s Super Blueberry Pancakes with Devonshire Cream; these were some of the fluffiest and most decadent pancakes I have ever had.
Do yourself a favor and get the bagel & lox experience at Russ & Daughters. The café has only been open since 2014, but the shop is a New York institution that has been open for over 100 years. Since nearly all of us wanted similar menu items, we opted for the Ida platter. With two types of cream cheese, five varieties of lox (Scottish Smoked Salmon, Gaspe Nova Smoked Salmon, Pastrami-cured Salmon, and Gravlox), an assortment of bagels and breads, and extra accompaniments like capers and tomato slices, this platter is the perfect way to sample everything.
On the second floor of Ralph Lauren’s flagship store, you’ll find refuge from the Fifth Avenue crowds. It’s the perfect spot for people watching and warming up with an Insta-worthy hot chocolate or cappuccino. The space is intimate, so you may have to wait for a table to open up, but you can peruse Ralph’s goods in the meantime; I bought a thermos and T-shirt.
Everything I ordered at the casual-chic Upland was amazing, from the glass of Sauvignon Blanc (David Crochett, Sancerre, Loire Valley, France, 2014) to the bucatini cacio e pepe. If you’ve had bucatini cacio e pepe before, you know it’s a simple pasta dish that pairs together cheese (usually Pecorino Romano and Parmesan) and freshly ground black pepper. While the ingredients are minimal, it’s one of those heavenly pastas I could eat for days and never get tired of. I also couldn’t resist the honeycrisp apple crostada drizzled with the most divine Earl Grey caramel. Last but not least, if you’re looking to have an unforgettable cocktail during your NYC stay, definitely order one here.
For good old-fashioned eats, stop in to one of the Brooklyn Diners two city locations – one near Carnegie Hall and the other in the theater district. The menu will tempt you with multiple dishes, but you honestly can’t go wrong. I ordered the pastrami hash with eggs, while others ordered their famous chicken pot pie. Finish off your meal with a slice of red velvet cake; I loved their addition of berries!
Daniel is the epitome of elegance and class – truly dining perfection. Situated in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, this Michelin-star restaurant wows with its grand neoclassical architecture and contemporary design aesthetic, and inspired plates. From the moment you arrive at your table, you are doted on by the most attentive of waitstaff – a tableside ottoman for your handbag, cocktails presented to you performance-style, bites that look like composed works of art, a dessert round that doesn’t seem to end, and a take-home gift box with a canelé inside. The menu is prix fix with a choice of 4 or 7 courses. I ordered the Poularde (foie gras), Loup de Mer (oven baked sea bass), Lapin (rabbit), and the Sirop D’érable dessert respectively, all of which I would order again in a heartbeat.
Located in the trendy Soho District, Balthazar is one of those crowded places you’ll feel lucky to have a reservation at. The vibe is very much like a bustling French bistro with antique mirrors, an impressive bar, and satisfying bites. Before diving into my avocado toast with poached eggs (the addition of salsa was amazing), we ordered cinnamon sugar doughnuts for the table for a sweet start.
If you’re in desperate need of a pick-me-up, stop in to one of Bluestone Lane’s two NY café locations – there’s one in the Upper East Side by Museum Mile and another in the West Village on Greenwich Ave. They aim for “a classic Australian cafe experience,” which is one I’m not entirely familiar with but loved nevertheless. I’m kicking myself for not getting a Flat White or Aussie Iced Latte, but I was on an Earl Grey kick that week. Needless to say, even the simple Earl Grey tea hit the spot and felt special with loose leaf.
If you’re a carnivore like me, this old-school Brooklyn steakhouse established in 1887 will be worth a trip over the bridge. Get the wedge salad to go with your porterhouse cut steak, which has that amazing aged quality I wish more butchers practiced. This is truly simple food at its finest.
I’m a lover of all things sweet, but I definitely show favoritism over cupcakes. While exploring the West Village, we stumbled upon Molly’s Cupcakes at that in-between lunch and dinner time that begs for a sweet treat. Molly’s (a Cupcake Wars winner) is known for their center-filled cupcakes and the centers of these three definitely do not disappoint! The Cookie Monster and Cake Batter flavors were my favorite, reminding me of eating spoonfuls of raw cookie dough and licking cake batter off the spoon as a kid. If you’re a chocolate lover, the Ron Bennington cupcake will win your heart; the peanut butter filling is heavenly.
When I first heard that we were dining at a restaurant called Gotham, I was expecting a dark alley-type joint Batman would approve of. To my surprise, the fresh look and feel of this Michelin Star restaurant was the complete opposite; ethereal lanterns line the ceiling to create an elegantly-classic aesthetic. My sister and I ordered the wild mushroom risotto and free range chicken to share, which was quite a scrumptious pairing.
They have Shake Shacks across the U.S. now, but this burger joint began in Madison Square Park in Manhattan. We stopped in to a Shake Shack near Central Park on an afternoon when we were craving something easy and delicious and it was so satisfying; I’m partial to the SmokeShack burger.
If you want to nosh on a Maine lobster roll, Pad Thai, and a horchata doughnut in one sitting, look no further than Urbanspace. It’s an indoor food market near Grand Central Station with over 20 vendors. I opted for an amazing (and very on-trend) sushi burrito at Hai Street Kitchen. Be advised: seating is extremely limited, especially for larger groups so don’t expect to sit as soon as your food is ready or altogether for that matter.