All Articles How to do the holidays in NYC like a New Yorker

How to do the holidays in NYC like a New Yorker

Four long-time locals share their favorite festive spots.

Tommie Ethington
By Tommie Ethington15 Nov 2023 6 minutes read
Christmas decorations in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, New York
Christmas decorations in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, NY
Image: Serge Yatunin/Getty Images

There’s a reason New York City is the setting for so many holiday movies. The larger-than-life Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, a visit with Santa at Macy’s Herald Square, dazzling Rockettes at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular: There’s more than enough cinematic moments to choose from—and that’s just Manhattan.

Still, what arguably makes New York so special this time of year is the nostalgia that comes from shared traditions. To that end, we tapped four New Yorkers who all embody the holiday spirit in their own ways to share their favorite spots to cozy up next to a fireplace, shop local, and maybe enjoy a Hanukkah-inspired cocktail or two.

See the lights in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn

Christmas decorations in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn
Christmas decorations in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn
Image: Tarabird/Getty Images

From Tony Muia, founder and CEO of A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours, a Traveler’s Choice Award–winner that has been guided holiday tour through illuminated Brooklyn neighborhoods since 2005:

“I grew up not far from Dyker Heights—we’d pile into the car every year, sometimes in our pajamas, to go look at the lights. It was such a big part of our Christmas. What I love about Dyker Heights and the other neighborhoods we visit is that the homeowners do the decorating, and me and my guides—all of which are native Brooklynites—love telling their stories.

The tour is a tribute to people like Lucy Spata, who I grew up with and who started the holiday-lights tradition back in the 1980s. It’s since grown to include hundreds of houses that draw at least a half million visitors each year.”

Tip: If you’re heading to Dyker Heights from Manhattan, take the R Train to 86th Street. The majority of the light displays can be found between 11th and 13th avenues and 83rd and 86th streets.

Tony’s favorite NYC holiday spots:

“Park Slope is where my family first settled when they came from southern Italy. The neighborhood takes me back to Christmases of yesteryear and during the winter, you can find me at this local bar on one of the enormous leather couches near the fireplace.”

“I’m a regular at the location on Court Street and they have the best hot chocolate in the city. It’s a thick, Belgian dark chocolate—literally just liquid chocolate in a cup.”

“This little card shop has been serving Bay Ridge since the ’80s and I love it for its unique Christmas ornaments and quirky gifts.”

“The owners of this Italian pastry shop in Bensonhurst came from Sicily many years ago and opened the shop on 18th Avenue. At the top of my must-have list is the struffoli—a Christmastime dessert made from deep-fried balls of sweet dough covered with honey.”

Support local makers

Gingerbread house display
Image: Nathan Anderson/Unsplash

From Jonah Nigh, the senior vice president of Development and Alumni Engagement at The New School, a semi-finalist on NBC’s Baking It, and a judge for Gingerbread NYC: The Great Borough Bake-Off, which is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through mid January.

“The hardest part about judging gingerbread is my total imposter syndrome. The house my husband and I made on Baking It was supposed to be a Japanese temple but ended up looking like a gay bar with no roof that couldn't pay its rent. So, I have a fraught relationship with gingerbread. And I had my work cut out for me this year with 23 entries, inspired by the city’s five boroughs.

We have different categories, including People’s Choice, so the public has a chance to weigh in, and it’s a great activity for kids since anyone under the age of 20 gets in free. I recommend going early in the exhibition’s run so you get more of that amazing gingerbread smell.”

Tip: After stopping by the gingerbread exhibition, check out Starlight, a modern, multi-story light installation that contrasts with MCNY’s 1930s architecture.

Jonah’s favorite NYC holiday spots:

“This year, for the first time, The New School will have a booth selling gifts made by alumni and students from Parsons School of Design.”

“I'm biased since I live in the Bronx, but I have to recommend the miniature train show at the botanical gardens. Iconic NYC landmarks are made with flowers and other organic materials and each one is a masterpiece.”

“This is my favorite bakery in NYC for elevated holiday sweets. It's Japanese and French and the designs are exquisite.”

“Located in Midtown West, this theater always has seasonal drag shows like Jackie Beat's ‘It's the Most Miserable Time of the Year!’”

Take part in new (and old) Hanukkah traditions

Close up of man lighting candles in menorah while celebrating Hanukkah
Image: Drazen Zigic/Getty Images

From Harrison Bryan, a Jewish American actor and playwright behind A Hanukkah Carol, a modern musical that debuted in 2022 (register on the official site for this year’s updates).

“Growing up, my parents had my sister and I believing in ‘the Hanukkah Fairy.’ Every year, while we were fast asleep, this fantastical being would decorate the house in blue and white, and leave us presents under the table, making Hanukkah a truly magical experience. But outside the walls of my home, I didn’t really see much Hanukkah celebration—certainly not on any mainstream level. There was a seemingly endless number of adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol everywhere, and I often found myself asking, ‘Where is our version?’ So I wrote one.

A few months later, I met this amazing song-writing duo—Aaron Kenny and Rob Berliner—and we felt inspired to expand my little Hanukkah play into a full-scale musical. All three of us have a common goal as writers to share kindness with the world. And like the steadfast light of the Hanukkah miracle, we believe each of us has the power to effect change and make the world a little bit brighter.”

Harrison’s favorite NYC holiday sps:

“My writing partners and I went to this pop-up, Hanukkah-themed bar last year and it’s a memory I will cherish forever. They have some really fun, wacky cocktails and mocktails. If you’re not sure what to order, spin the dreidel and leave it to chance.”

“There are a lot of great places around the city to try latkes but this classic diner offers them with applesauce and sour cream. I’ve also been experimenting with blueberry jam. Mix the blueberry with the sour cream for some classic blue and white Hanukkah deliciousness.”

“A few years ago, my wife and I did a festive 5K through Prospect Park, put on by New York Road Runners. Everyone dresses up in costumes and it’s a wonderful way to stay fit during the holiday season. Plus, there’s a warm cup of hot cocoa waiting at the finish line.”

“It’s neat to go to the indoor observation deck and get a 360-degree view of all the lights from above—it might be as close as we get to seeing the world as Santa or the Hanukkah Fairy.”

Travel back in time

Tourist on board the Holiday Nostalgia Train, in New York
Image: Preston Rescigno/Getty Images

From Concetta Anne Bencivenga, Director of the New York Transit Museum

“New York in December is magic—there’s just a bit more sparkle. For us at the museum, we’re delighted that we get to bring back the nostalgia rides, a beloved tradition that people look forward to every year. In partnership with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, we intersperse historic subway cars with their modern counterparts. You might see a wreath or snowflake here or there, but really we let the classic fleet speak for itself with lovely lighting, rattan seats, and period advertisements.

Some people get really into it and dress up in 1940s attire—suits, pillbox hats, stockings. It’s a lot of fun for those who seek out the trains, but also amazing for those who just stumble upon it and have no idea what’s happening. It’s all part of the season of delight.”

Tip: The two trains run on Saturdays in December on the D and F lines—take them to 42nd street to see Bryant Park’s Winter Village, complete with an ice skating rink and an open-air holiday market.

Concetta’s favorite NYC holiday spots:

“I dress warmly and then take the subway to Columbus Circle. From there, I walk the lower loop of Central Park, with a break at Tavern on the Green, before continuing onto Fifth Avenue for the wonderful holiday window displays.”

“This incredible Ukrainian restaurant has amazing pierogi, the kind of comfort food you want when it’s snowing outside.”

“Vendors sell unique gifts around the holidays and it doesn’t cost a dime to stare up at the ceiling in awe. One thing people may not know is that there is actually a New York Transit Museum gallery here featuring a holiday train show.”

“Everyone flocks to Rolf’s because it's super fun and very Christmas-y, but there’s always a line. For a more low-key experience, I recommend Pete’s Tavern, where O. Henry wrote the quintessential Christmas story, The Gift of the Magi.”

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Tommie Ethington
Tommie Ethington is a Dallas-based freelance writer. Formerly an editor for Southwest Airlines' in-flight magazine, she continues to write about travel, design and interesting people for a variety of publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Rolling Stone and Texas Monthly. Find more of her work at tommieethington.com.