New York is never more magical than during the holiday season, when the City wraps its department stores, public spaces, restaurants and event venues in tinsel and other glittering excess. It is also one of the busiest times of year in the City, which can make it difficult to immerse yourself in the scenery that graces movie screens and Flickr pages. While all of the following holiday destinations are worth the wait, here you'll also find some plan B options. The alternatives should have shorter lines, occasionally lower prices and, for the New Yorker or visitor who's already seen the must-sees, delightfully different experiences.
Central Park, off Sixth Avenue and West 59th Street, 212-439-6900, Manhattan
Alternatives:The Ice Rink at Riverbank State Park
679 Riverside Drive, 212-694-3642, Manhattan
Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers
Chelsea Piers, Pier 61, West Side Highway and West 21st Street, 212-336-6100, Manhattan
City Ice Pavilion
47-32 32nd Place, 718-706-6667, Long Island City, Queens
Taking to the ice at Wollman Rink at holiday time is like entering a human-scale snow globe, especially when music from the PA system accompanies the scene. The metaphor isn't lost on residents or visitors, as multitudes of both descend upon the wintry oasis in Central Park. One way of bypassing throngs is to watch skaters, landscape and skyline from a seat on Wollman's sidelines (hello, Love Story), or to head elsewhere. In Harlem, Riverbank State Park offers a 69-foot-high perch over the Hudson River and a wealth of activities that includes skating: just in time for winter, New York City's only state park converts its roller rink into an ice palace. Meanwhile, both the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers and City Ice Pavilion in Queens are open to the public throughout the year. The Sky Rink gets high marks for its picturesque setting also on the Hudson River, and City Ice Pavilion makes up for its warehouse location with a huge unfettered space and low fees.
Destination:Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
Rockefeller Plaza, W. 48th to W. 51st Sts. (bet. Fifth and Sixth Aves.), Manhattan
Alternatives:American Museum of Natural History Origami Holiday Tree
Central Park West and West 79th Street, 212-769-5100, Manhattan
World Financial Center and Winter Garden
World Financial Center, 200 Vesey St., 212-945-0505, Manhattan
Overseeing another famous ice-skating rink is the even more legendary Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, laden with more than 30,000 lights and crowned with a Swarovski star. Uptown, another tree inspires awe without glowing in the dark. Branches sprout intricately folded paper amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, sea life, insects, dinosaurs and more at the American Museum of Natural History, which has hosted the Origami Holiday Tree for three decades. Origami USA comes up with a new theme for the tree each year (this year, it's “Museum Collections,” with ornaments inspired by the museum's holdings), and volunteers around the world start folding the 500 ornaments in July. Like the museum themes, variety characterizes the cultural programs at the World Financial Center and Winter Garden. They range from holiday performances to Santa encounters, and all take place against the backdrop of the atrium's signature 45-foot-tall palm trees.
Destination: Madison Avenue Shop Windows
Madison Avenue (bet. E. 57th and E. 79th Sts.), Manhattan
Alternative: Dyker Heights Houses
80th to 86th Sts. and 10th to 13th Aves., Brooklyn
In Madison Avenue's holiday windows, the signature qualities of posh New York come together: theatricality, luxury, fashion. When strolling these storefronts, don't forget to hang a turn at Barneys and catch the miniature milieus on Fifth Avenue between Bergdorf Goodman and Lord & Taylor. And for holiday spectacles of the residential variety, venture even farther to Dyker Heights. Homeowners in one section of this Brooklyn neighborhood go all out with their holiday displays: halls are decked in thousands of lights, inflatable characters and motorized scenes. Resident Lucy Spata launched the phenomenon more than 25 years ago, and today multiple extravaganzas are most concentrated between 83rd and 86th Streets and 11th and 13th Avenues and flashiest on weekends. Some of the approximately 150,000 people who come to “Dyker Lights” visit the once-a-year one-upmanship via A Slice of Brooklyn. It operates a three-and-a-half-hour bus tour that includes a hot chocolate–and–cannoli stop at an authentic Brooklyn neighborhood pastry shop.
79 N. 11th St., 718-486-7422, Brooklyn
Alternative: Brooklyn Winery
213 N. 8th St., 347-763-1506, Brooklyn
Brooklyn makes and New York takes—at least as far as drinkable holiday cheer is concerned. Brooklyn Brewery restarted New York City's beer-making industry in 1996, when founders Steve Hindy and Tom Potter migrated their business from upstate New York to Williamsburg. Theirs was the first brewery to operate in the five boroughs since 1976. Although numerous local brewers have followed Hindy and Potter's lead since then, this modern granddaddy of breweries is still a favored tourist destination. In fact, in order to accommodate curiosity, Brooklyn Brewery has recently added reservation-only weeknight tours to its long-standing public schedule of weekend tours. Ten minutes' walk from Brooklyn Brewery is a similar mecca for wine enthusiasts. Just two years old, Brooklyn Winery is an oenophile's emporium that offers up a wine bar with a food menu, weekend tours and privately scheduled opportunities for making your own wine. “Getting into the spirit” has never been more literal.
Destination:New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show
2900 Southern Blvd., 718-817-8700, Bronx
Alternative:Van Cortlandt House Museum Christmas in the Colonies Tour or Santa Claus Story Time
Van Cortlandt Park (bet. Fordham Road and Broadway at 246th St.), 718-543-3344, Bronx
The New York Botanical Garden transforms its Enid A. Haupt Conservatory into a cognitive panorama of the Big Apple with its Holiday Train Show. Toy trains zip around scale models of New York City landmarks reconstructed in bark, twigs, stems, fruits, seeds and pine cones. An artist's studio is included in this year's installation, giving visitors an in-depth look into the stages of the model-making process. Also in the Bronx, the Van Cortlandt House Museum provides a behind-the-scenes education on Christmas's transformation into a gift-giving bonanza. During the Christmas in the Colonies house tour, interpreters in colonial dress explain that early Americans depended on Christmas to socialize with their neighbors and defeat the doldrums. The house museum will also present traditional carols played on the violin December 18 to 20 at 3pm.
Destination: Tea at The Plaza
Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, 212-759-3000, Manhattan
Alternatives:The Lambs Club at the Chatwal
132 W. 44th St., 212-997-5262, Manhattan
Lady Mendl's Tea Salon at The Inn at Irving Place
56 Irving Place, 212-533-4600, Manhattan
Last year, The Plaza completed a restoration of the hotel's famed Palm Court, where equally storied afternoon tea is held. The hot drink is accompanied both by opulent surroundings—Beaux-Arts architectural details and a 1,800-square-foot stained-glass faux skylight—and a menu overseen by executive chef Willis Loughhead and pastry chef Jasmina Bojic. Go the traditional route and pluck finger sandwiches from multi-tier serving plates, or indulge whim and order the chocolate fondue. Two years before The Plaza first opened its doors, architect Stanford White completed the clubhouse for the Lambs, the first dramatists group in America. The 106-year-old landmark now is also a hotel, The Chatwal, and its completely renovated Lambs Club restaurant runs a tea service featuring scones and other baked treats and a trio of small savories. Further downtown at The Inn at Irving Place, the setting is more lacy and domestic inside Lady Mendl's Tea Salon. The salon serves a five-course tea also distinguished for its quiet and hospitality.
Destination:New Year's Eve Ball Drop in Times Square
Times Square, 212-768-1560, Manhattan
Alternative:Prospect Park Midnight Fireworks
Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn
The obstacles may be numerous—ranging from low temperatures to prohibited bags and bathroom breaks—yet every December 31 as many as 1 million people descend on Times Square to fete its crystal ball and ring in the New Year. Revelers are rewarded for their patience with live performances and group activities. For the 999 million other people who would rather watch the spectacle on television, however, consider a live-action alternative at Prospect Park, where New Year's Eve fireworks have been taking off for more than 30 years. Entertainment and cocoa are doled out in Grand Army Plaza. Prime spots beyond the plaza include West Drive in Prospect Park and along Prospect Park West between the plaza and Ninth Street.
Destination:MoMA Design Store
11 W. 53rd St., 212-708-9700, Manhattan
1 Hanson Place, 718-935-1052, Brooklyn
Grand Central Holiday Gift Fair
Grand Central Terminal, Vanderbilt Hall, Park Avenue and East 42nd Street, Manhattan
The MoMA Store's inventory seems handpicked for stuffing the stockings of culture aficionados. Gifts largely fall in the categories of jewelry, tableware, household devices and furniture, and Museum of Modern Art curators approve all these items before they hit the sales floor. Bookshelves represent the museum's breadth beyond design, with titles in art, architecture, photography and sculpture. Wrapping up its fourth year, the Brooklyn Flea is already considered another institution for outfitting homes and fashion ensembles. Vendors specialize in antiques, crafts and collectibles, and through March the market will operate indoors at Skylight One Hanson (the former Williamsburg Savings Bank). Back in Manhattan, the Grand Central Holiday Gift Fair caters to tastes that run somewhere between über-modern and hip vintage. Gift purveyors take over 12,000 square feet of the transportation hub for a limited time. These European-style stalls stay open for business through Christmas Eve.
864 Madison Ave., 646-558-3157, Manhattan
Alternatives: La Maison du Chocolat
1018 Madison Ave., 212-744-7117, Manhattan
62 Stone St., 212-344-5600, Manhattan
Maison Ladurée is credited not only with inventing the double-decker macaron (Ladurée second cousin Pierre Desfontaines came up with the idea of joining two macaron shells with a delicious ganache filling) but also perfecting it. The Parisian pastry shop opened a satellite on the Upper East Side, and, unsurprisingly, devotees have been lining up for this part-crispy, part-velvety confection that defies the simplicity of its major ingredients. Should you defect from the Ladurée queue, La Maison du Chocolat requires just a short walk northward. In 1990, this French import landed on Madison Avenue, where it sells macarons among its even more famous ganaches and éclairs. Down in the Financial District, Financier Patisserie isn't named for its location but for the French pastry traditionally baked in the shape of a gold bar. Financier's menu spans beyond chocolate mousse cakes and apple galette to include lunch items, created under the watch of executive pastry chef Eric Bedoucha. Paris is baking!