If you’ve already taken the kids to visit the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the store windows on Fifth Avenue and all the major museums, you might just want to continue your holiday explorations with a journey into New York City’s past, when people lived without electricity, the Internet, American Girl and Toys "R" Us. These historic homes and museums located throughout the five boroughs, maintained to show authentic period details and activities, offer visitors an offbeat—and often interactive—history lesson, not to mention old-fashioned holiday fun and a pleasant getaway from the fast pace of 21st-century New York.
During December and January, visitors of all ages can find concerts, candlelight tours and classes to learn crafts like they made them in the good old days. Keep in mind that reservations are often required for special events, so be sure to call ahead.
Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, Manhattan
The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden comprises a stone mansion built in 1799 as the carriage house of a 23-acre country estate; its location—in what’s now the Upper East Side—provided an ideal getaway from the City, which at the time extended only as far north as 14th Street.
Candlelight Tours: While sipping hot cider, visitors can step into the holiday season of 1830 with a candlelight tour followed by live performances of period music. Tours and performances will be held December 18, at 6:30, 7:30 and 8:30pm, and December 19, at 4, 5 and 6pm (the 4pm tour is geared toward children ages 3 and up and includes story time and a craft project). $18; $9 for members; $6 for children 11 and under
Teddy Bear Tea: For this event, kids ages 3 to 6 can bring their favorite doll or teddy to meet a hostess playing Sara Woodhull, daughter of the hotel’s 19th-century proprietor; she will talk about a typical day in 1830. January 3, 1–3pm; $10; $5 for children
The Merchant’s House Museum, Manhattan
The Merchant’s House Museum, a red brick row house near Washington Square, will transport you back to the mid-19th century, when a prosperous merchant family—the Tredwells—lived at the residence.
19th-Century Holiday Party: Enjoy holiday decorations, savor festive delicacies and join in on the caroling led by the museum’s Bond Street Euterpean Singing Society. December 9, 6:30–8:30pm; $25 for nonmembers; free for members
19th-Century Holiday Concert: "To All, Wassail": Time-travel with the Bond Street Euterpean Singing Society as the group presents a concert of 19th-century songs, holiday readings and sing-alongs, followed by a wassail reception. December 16, 7–9pm; $25 for nonmembers; free for members
New Year’s Day in Old New York: At this holiday exhibition, learn about the traditional custom of "calling on New Year’s Day," whereby gentlemen would visit neighbors and friends to wish them good tidings for the New Year. A special open house celebrating the tradition will be held on New Year’s Day, from 3 to 6pm. Through January 1; exhibition free with museum admission: $8; $5 for students and seniors; free for children 11 and under; open house: $20 for nonmembers; $10 for members
Van Cortlandt House Museum, the Bronx
Built in 1748 as part of a wheat plantation, Van Cortlandt House Museum is the oldest building in the Bronx. Both a National Historic Landmark and a City Landmark, the house has been preserved with period furnishings, collections and decorative arts, offering visitors a glimpse into the lives of one of New York’s foremost colonial families.
Van Cortlandt by Candlelight: Twilight tours of the museum offer a glimpse of what the house looked like decked out in its 18th-century holiday finest. December 19–20, 4–7pm; $10; $8 for seniors; $5 for children; free for children 4 and under
Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum, Brooklyn
Built in 1652, the original part of the Dutch colonial Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum is considered to be the oldest structure in New York City. Today, the venue provides a destination where visitors can learn about the history of Brooklyn’s colonial farms.
Candlelight Tours: Get a taste of what it was like to live in an era without electricity. Kids’ tours, for ages 8 to 15, are offered on December 11 and 18, at 4:30pm. $7 for adults; $5 for seniors and children; free for members
King Manor Museum, Queens
Once the home and farm of founding father Rufus King, King Manor Museum is now part of an 11-acre park in the neighborhood of Jamaica. The entire house will be decorated for the season as it would have been in the 19th century.
Hands-on History: "Winter Diversions": Kids ages 4 and up can gain an understanding of the holidays of old through period storytelling and crafts. Children can make pomanders (traditional scented ornaments) or New Year’s noisemakers. December 19, noon; free
Alice Austen House Museum, Staten Island
Originally built in 1690 as a Dutch farmhouse and later transformed by the Austen family into a sprawling Victorian cottage, Alice Austen House Museum chronicles the life of Alice Austen, a pioneering documentary photographer.
Victorian Tree Ornament-Making Workshop: Using a combination of craft and photographic materials, attendees will learn to make paper holiday ornaments, a tradition brought to this country by German immigrants in the 1860s and 1870s. December 12, 11am; $25 materials fee (bring your own scissors)
Holiday Fair and Bake Sale: At this fete, local vendors will be selling holiday food, apple cider and gift items, plus visitors can sit for a photo with a Victorian Santa. December 19–20, 11am–5pm; free