Five Less Obvious, Less Costly, and Less Crowded Ways to See NYC in December

I’m not a big fan of mingling with camera-clicking tourists in the shadow of the blazing Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, but traditionally I like to get a quiet look at it before it’s gussied up and lit, which was my plan on the Monday after Thanksgiving.

But had I not been approaching the Rockefeller Plaza tree area from Sixth Avenue—rather than heading there directly from 5th Avenue, which thousands of visitors do every day — I would have missed entirely the string of oversized Christmas lights—complete with oversized plug in front of the McGraw Hill Building between 48th and 49th Streets.

McGraw Hill Christmas lights by Saucy Salad on Flickr

As it happens, workers were scrutinizing what appeared to be an issue with the plug, as if to say, “Dang, when one light blows on this thing do we have to change the entire string?” Sufficiently cracking myself up, I continued on to pay my respects to the pre-hoopla tree.

But thoughts of that gargantuan strand of lights stayed with me, and I guess that’s my point—if you’re not careful, you’ll miss some of the less obvious, often less costly, and in many cases less crowded pleasures that make New York City so special around the December holidays.

Get a (cheaper) room

Let’s get the hard part out of the way. Finding a decent hotel room in New York City in December for under $350 a night is tricky bordering on impossible if you haven’t booked it well in advance, on top of which there’s a two-night minimum at many hotels during this highest of seasons. One of your ongoing strategies ought to be checking and rechecking the Family Travel Deals page and New York City hotel deals page at as well as remaining flexible about when you come to town—if you can get a room, Monday thru Thursday stays typically cost less than Friday-Sunday ones. That said if you’re willing to overnight on Friday the 24th or Christmas itself you’ll likely find last-minute availability as well as sub-$350 rooms.

I blogged at Sherman’s not too long ago about the Broadway Hotel & Hostel, which has reasonable rates but as of this writing, scarce availability; another budget option is Broadway’s sister property, the Portland Hotel @ Times Square (at W. 47th St.) that might be a slightly-better kept secret.

See the “other tree” and a free caroling show

In its own way the tree at South Street Seaport — at Pier 17 at South and Fulton Streets — is as impressive and imposing as Rockefeller Center’s. And if you visit South Street during the first three weekends in December you’ll find some free and very capable caroling via the Gay Men’s Chorus on Dec 3-5, Cantori New York on Dec 10-12, and from Dec 17 to 19, the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus. My family and I stumbled upon the carolers by chance last December and appreciated the free show as well as the fortitude of the singers who were clearly just a bit colder than we were.

And that’s another thing: Admiring the tree and carolers and the rest of Seaport amid the winds coming off the Hudson River will remind your family that Manhattan is at all times an island, and in December, a frosty one.

Build a gingerbread house

I know what you’re thinking, that I probably couldn’t have come up with a more cumbersome souvenir for the ride home than a finished gingerbread house. But take it from someone whose kids recently built one together for the first time — the cost is a worthwhile entertainment expense. The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) has a popular $65 Gingerbread house workshop permitting a child 5 and older and an accompanying parent to build the house together, which includes mixing and baking from scratch the dough you’ll use for the wall and roof panels. As of this writing many of the workshops held from Dec 18 through 23 were sold out, but there are waiting lists for all sessions.

If you get shut out of ICE the Church Street School for Music and Art holds family gingerbread classes during the first three weekends of December—two sessions each Saturday and three on Sundays. Cost for the kit and class is $100, but remember, it’s an entertainment expense and, since the fee helps support the school, it’s tax deductible.

Shake shack meal by Permanently Scatterbrained on Flickr

Hit the Shake Shack without waiting in line

As soon as restaurateur Danny Meyer opened the Shake Shack at Madison Square Park in 2004 the eatery’s now iconic snaking line almost immediately began to form. Carnivores were and are willing to wait upwards of an hour to place their orders for the satisfyingly juicy burgers and creamy shakes. The problem is, waiting upwards of an hour in line for anything stinks, and the first time I did it I felt the food almost wasn’t worth the wait. Almost.

Good news is outposts of the Shack have sprouted up on the Upper West Side and Midtown. Bad news is those locations can be just as crowded as the original location. But there’s more good news: Not too many out-of-towners or locals have realized that the eatery’s Upper East Side branch at E86th St. between 3rd and Lexington Aves is even there, and on many occasions when I’ve passed there has been no line – not counting a quickly moving queue that forms as you descend the steps toward the registers. Still, since December will bring more fans at all hours, best to arrive around 11am when the place opens. And trust me, your family will agree that the food is worth the almost no wait.

Visit a real locals park

If you’re already on the Upper East Side checking the Shake Shack off your list and you and your brood have had your fill of the Museum Mile, there’s one more point of interest that’s worth a visit: Carl Schurz Park, at East End Avenue between 84th and 90th Streets.

Once again you won’t soon forget you’re on an island—the East River gusts nearby—but that’s part of the wintry charm. During any season the river promenade is a crowd-pleasing stroll, and if there’s not yet snow on the ground the popular dog runs along the promenade will be erupting with loud yapping from the dogs and their owners. If it is snowing, the park’s popular playground equipment may be out of commission, but the hills—especially a perfectly steep one near Gracie Mansion—will fill up periodically with good-naturedly clumsy sledders. And if you happen to be in just the right quiet spot with the trees and river as your backdrop, there’s probably no more beautiful place to be with your family than here.

Relevant Links:

Ciao Bambino recommended New York family hotels

Mommy Poppins NYC Holiday Activity Guide

New York City holiday activities with young kids

Enjoying the Holidays New York City Style on Traveling Mom

Happy Holidays West Coast style

Christmas events in London for 2010

Tips for spending the holidays at Walt Disney World

Cities with great holiday ice skating rinks

Passports with Purpose Holiday Fundraiser 2010

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  • Great post! If you are visiting NYC and want to do and see some less obvious things you should check out Family In New York! They specialize in custom and private New York tours. They certainly can take you around to the standard New York sights however, they prefer to show you a New York you haven’t seen and maybe didn’t even know about!

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