Planning a trip to New York City in winter was not exactly at the top of my bucket list. I knew it would mean experiencing cold that I wasn’t sure I was ready for.
But when Jenna, my friend from Sydney, told me she was planning a trip to New York City, I was pretty ecstatic.
It was the perfect excuse to see her AND one of the best cities in the world. There was just that one down side though… she was visiting in early February.
This post was first written on October 26, 2016, and updated on October 28, 2020.
New York City in Winter
For those who are equally as undeterred by below-freezing temperatures when a big city trip beckons, here are some of the best things to see and do, from my own experience.
Despite the cold, and at times because of it, New York City in winter is actually really gorgeous. The dusting of snow (OK, sometimes the drifts of snow) make everything feel a little more magical.
Visit in November and December if you want to take advantage of beautiful Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations. Or wait until the new year for a quieter look at the Big Apple.
New York Winter Temperature
I’ve harped on about the cold quite a bit already, but you’re probably wondering just how cold it can get in New York.
January is usually the coldest month, based on climate data, when the mercury drops to around 27°F (-3°C) as a low, and hits a high of 39°F (4°C).
December is (marginally) the warmest winter month in New York city, with temperatures ranging from 45°F (7°C) to 35°F (1°C).
In February you’ll probably experience temperatures from 42°F (6°C) to 29°F (-2°C).
Experiencing snow in November is pretty rare, but if you’re looking for a white Christmas it can be a little hit-or-miss.
Snow will fall on two or three days of the month, on average. Be more prepared to experience freezing rain during December.
You’ll also get more rainy days than snowy ones in New York City during January. If your heart is set on seeing snow, aim to visit during February.
Why Visit New York City in Winter?
Understatement of the century: New York is a tourism hotspot. Duh.
As I wait for that bit of obviousness to sink in, I’ll follow up with the fact that most of those visitors are going to head over to the Big Apple when it’s warmer.
Isn’t that why New Yorkers leave the city in summer? Apart from the streets, parks and other tourist pulls being way emptier than usual, it’s the off-season! So flights and accommodation are going to be discounted to match. (Unless it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas – I wish you luck).
What’s not to love about shorter lines and spending less money?
Indoor things to do in New York City in Winter
On a day of freezing rain, sleet, or just when the sidewalk (footpath) is too icy to do too much walking, you might want to hang out inside.
There are heaps of great indoor things to do in New York to keep you occupied!
Visit the American Museum of Natural History
I know that museums are an acquired taste and some people just flat-out don’t like them at all. But I think that the American Natural History Museum is an exception.
I do like museums, as long as I get to go through them at my own pace. In a Natural History museum, that pace is usually warp speed. I can’t even imagine how crowded this place would be in summer because it was absolutely jumping in winter.
Anyway, the American Museum of Natural History is the kind of place where you wish you were still a kid.
Because I just wanted to run around among dinosaur bones, elephants and bald eagles. And stare up at the planet models for hours in the astronomy section. I highly recommend this museum, especially if you have children.
See a show on (or off) Broadway
There’s no excuse for getting all the way to New York and not seeing some kind of show.
On Broadway, Off Broadway, some TV show that you love (I WISH we’d lined up for Colbert). Anything!
We didn’t get to see The Late Show, but we did get to see Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf (forever known as Aunt Jackie from Roseanne to me) in the stage adaption of Stephen King’s Misery.
Soak up the books in the New York Public Library
Nothing beats the smell of old books when it comes to nostalgia, and the New York Public Library has it in spades.
The building itself will take your breath away – it was once the largest marble building in the US. Which explains why it was the spot for Carrie’s wedding to Mr Big in Sex and the City: The Movie, and is featured in many movies, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Usually you can take tours of the library, but they are currently suspended until at least March 31, due to COVID-19.
Don’t miss the Rose Reading Room with it’s “book train”, Astor Hall, the McGraw Rotunda, or the Gutenberg Bible.
Eat like a New York City local
Are you sensing a theme with my travel posts yet? Food is a large part of any of my trips. I still dream about the pumpkin ravioli that I ate at a restaurant in Pisa, Italy years ago.
You’re going to be hungry after traipsing around a decidedly chilly city.
It’s the perfect opportunity to snuggle up in one of the many restaurants for a famous New York pizza, a glass of wine, and a debrief.
Before catching our flight home we went to this cute Italian restaurant called Olio e Piu in Greenwich Village, which is gorgeous to look at and sit in, even without the delicious food.
But our little Central Park pit stop was at Serafina. It’s a tiny place but the pizza makes the squeeze oh-so-worth-it.
Go Shopping in New York City
If shopping is your sport of choice, than New York is your court/field/track. You get the idea.
There are so many indoor retail spaces to choose from. For a classic department store feel, try Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s Herald Square.
The Herald Square department store is the chain’s flagship, and with 1.25 million square feet of shopping space, it is the largest department store in the US. It is also one of the biggest in the world.
Head to Brookfield Place or the Shops at Columbus Circle if you’re looking for more of an eclectic mix of stores.
It’s not exactly cocktail season, but there’s always the perfect place to get a drink in New York.
For Jenna and I, both former journalists, we found The Dead Poet. It has drinks named after… deceased bards. Yeah. I know. It’s amazing.
And it’s close to the American Museum of Natural History. Which is also a bonus.
Ride the Nostalgia Train
Inject a bit of whimsy into your New York vacation with a ride on the Nostalgia Train.
Each Sunday between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, the New York Transit Museum rolls it’s 1930s R1/9 train cars onto the F line (from 2nd Avenue station).
The eight-car trains ran in New York up until the 1970s and have a distinct Art Deco aesthetic. Some people even dress up for the occasion!
You can also visit the Museum’s annual Holiday Train Show in the Grand Central Terminal (a landmark in itself).
The show usually runs from late November to mid-February and features a miniature electric railroad running through the iconic New York cityscape.
Outdoor things to do in New York City in Winter
You visited to see New York City blanketed in twinkling snow, so why would you confine yourself indoors?
Here are some great outdoor activities to enjoy!
Experience the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Technically it’s not winter when the iconic Thanksgiving Day Parade floats and balloons drift through Manhattan.
But in my book, the end of November is near enough to be good enough to include, and if you’re in New York City for Thanksgiving, it’s an opportunity that you don’t want to miss.
It is the world’s largest parade, and first began in 1924. It runs between 9am-12pm on Thanksgiving Day and is made possible by the thousands of people who take part each year.
TIP: The 2020 parade will be a virtual one due to COVID-19.
Visit a Holiday Market
Just behind the New York Public Library’s main branch, you’ll find the Holiday Shops at Bryant Park between October 30 and January 3.
It’s a Holiday Market with a free ice skating rink. Usually you don’t have to book to go skating (just BYO skates), but since COVID-19 reared it’s ugly head, you’ll have to book your skate time.
It’s a European style open air market with lots of shops to browse and food options from all over the world!
There are tonnes of holiday markets to choose from in New York, including:
- Union Square Holiday Market
- Grand Central Holiday Fair
- Columbus Circle Holiday Market
- Brooklyn Navy Yard Holiday Market
See the Rockefeller Center Christmas Trees
Whether you visit for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, or just to see the towering decorated trees, a trip to the Rockefeller Center is a must in December.
The center always has one of the biggest Christmas trees in the world, which is a sight to behold when it’s lit up.
The tree lighting ceremony is a free event but get there early because the crowd is monitored and capped at a certain point.
You’ll see performances from the Rockettes and some pretty famous musical groups.
Visit Central Park
If walking in a winter wonderland is high on your New York City winter bucket list, head to Central Park.
I hail from a place of no snow. At least not where I lived for most of my life. The first time I saw snow was on top of a mountain in Lucerne, Switzerland when I was about 24-years-old. I’ve adored it ever since.
New York is pretty under a blanket of snow. I say this only having witnessed a smattering of it, but it definitely makes a walk through Central Park just a little bit more special.
Visit the Alice in Wonderland monument, the Strawberry Fields memorial to Beatle John Lennon, and the ice skating rinks.
Sail past the Statue of Liberty
You knew this one was coming. How can anyone visit the Big Apple without sailing past Lady Liberty?
We didn’t do the ferry trip to the Ellis Island, because we were only there for two days and a friend told me that it was a bit of a rip off.
But you can always take the free ferry from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back so you get double the view!
Or you can get onto the island and go right up into the Statue of Liberty‘s crown, it’s up to you!
Check out New York Christmas lights
New York is full of holiday light displays and decorations that are bound to put you in the spirit of all things merry.
If you want to see fancy homes decked out in twinkling lights, blasting Christmas music, and bedazzled with inflatable characters, head over to Dyker Heights in Brooklyn.
Visit the area between 11th and 13th Avenues and 83rd to 86th Streets after Thanksgiving to be sure you won’t go home disappointed.
If trekking out to Brooklyn isn’t your thing, stay in Manhattan and make the most of the midtown department store decorations.
Don’t miss the Saks Fifth Avenue window displays (pictured above), which turned it’s facade into a twinkling castle in 2019. This year (2020), Saks will kick things off on November 23 (2020) with a virtual light show, and will broadcast new reveals for 20 nights up to December 23.
Bloomingdale’s will not be outdone, and are planning to unveil their holiday decorations a little early, on November 23, 2020 with a virtual holiday benefit.
You can also head to:
- Barneys New York (Madison Avenue)
- Bergdorf Goodman (Fifth Avenue)
- Macy’s Herald Square
- Lord & Taylor Fifth Avenue
Take a carriage ride
If you want that Hallmark movie holiday feeling, there are lots of companies offering carriage rides in New York.
Probably the most well known are those in Central Park and are offered year round. There are lots of companies offering horse and carriage rides, including NYC Horse Carriage Rides, so it pays to do a little research and maybe book before you go.
Just be warned that this activity is on the pricier side of the spectrum.
You can also take a holiday lights carriage tour around Christmas time:
Visit music recording royalty
Last but by no means least, we have Electric Lady Studios. Now you can’t go inside, as much as music-lovers will want to.
This is where David Bowie recorded his last album, Blackstar, where Adele made 25 and where Daft Punk put together Random Access Memories.
This place is music history central. Way back in the day it was a nightclub called The Generation, hosting shows by the likes of Chuck Berry, Sly & the Family Stone and B.B. King. Then Jimi Hendrix bought it in 1968 and turned it into a recording studio.
Hendrix held a grand opening part in August 1970 with musicians including Ronnie Wood, Patti Smith and Eric Clapton. The rest is musical history.
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