The weather outside may be frightful, but New York rarely looks better than it does during the holiday season. It's a time of year when the city goes all out decorating – Rockefeller Center glows, department stores dream up window installations worth traveling for; if you're very lucky, it snows, which makes Central Park look even more magical than usual. Beyond the usual visual feast, we've got eight more great reasons to consider a trip to the Big Apple before the ball drops.
Leave the Rockettes to the hordes; this year, round up the kids and take them to Brooklyn for the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's rethink of Tchaikovsky's classic The Nutcracker. The show runs Dec. 22-Jan. 2 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Gilman Opera House, just minutes away from Manhattan by train – and tickets are a steal, starting at $20, compared to a certain show at Radio City we won't mention, which starts at more than double that (although, if you’ve never seen it, heck, go ahead…it’s still pretty wonderful). With more than 100 performers, a live orchestra, costumes from Tony-winning Richard Hudson (The Lion King), this promises to be quite the spectacle.
A little cold for ya? It's always warm inside the Haupt Conservatory at the estimable New York Botanical Garden; perfect weather for the annual Holiday Train Show, which turns the indoor garden into a miniature New York City, with model trains zipping along a half-mile of track through a tiny New York City – well, an approximation thereof, anyway. See the (tiny) sights, then check out the garden's amazing Gingerbread house display, a puppet show that brings the classic "Little Engine That Could" story to life, plus much more.
EXPENSIVE? NOT NECESSARILY!
Time was, a trip to New York meant paying an exceedingly unreasonable amount of money for a terrible, tiny room in a hotel run by the Worst People On Earth. The last decade or so, the scene has blown wide open, with affordable brands like Hampton Inn hoisting their flags all over town. Just steps from Brooklyn Heights, where you'll find some of the most charming residential blocks in the whole city, the new Sheraton Brooklyn [http://www.sheraton.com] has weekend rates in December for as little as $195 – not bad, considering you're steps from just about every subway line in the city and minutes from Manhattan. In up-and-coming Long Island City, a shiny new Comfort Inn puts you just one top away from Bloomingdale's and a short walk from some very cool bars and cafes in the neighborhood – we found a rate of $139 for a December weekend stay. Meanwhile, just a block or so from Herald Square, book the La Quinta Inn Manhattan December weekend nights are still going for a very reasonable $240 a night. While supplies last, of course. Check out Hotels.com for these are other relatively reasonable rates.
Doing your Christmas shopping in New York doesn't have to mean fighting crowds at Macy's; the city's full of non-traditional shopping opportunities during the holiday season. For starters, check out Grand Central Terminal [http://www.grandcentralterminal.com], where the annual holiday market features scores of craftsmen selling unique gifts. Downtown, check out South Street's super-cool New Amsterdam Market [http://www.newamsterdammarket.org] each Sunday until Christmas for all sorts of locally-made treats – New York State wines, artisanal cheese, excellent coffee and plenty more awesome souvenirs both edible and not.
SPICE THINGS UP Speaking of edible, what better way to beat the winter chill then with a little spice? Head down to Chinatown's Xian Famous Foods and order up a $6 plate of spicy cumin-dusted lamb, served with thick, tasty hand-pulled noodles, made fresh to order. Still hungry? That's unlikely – it's a lot of food for six measly bucks – but just in case, you're only a stone's throw away from Prosperity Dumpling, a no-frills, no-joke joint where you can get 5 savory pork and chive dumplings, handmade with serious care, for just $1. (No, we're not making this up.) Douse with hot sauce, enjoy (46 Eldridge St.). Still not full? Keep walking – just a few more doors up is Vanessa's, where the sesame pancake with duck for just a couple bucks more will do the trick, at least we hope so (118 Eldridge St.).
A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM Everyone loves the gigantic Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it's challenging enough when you have the whole place to yourself, let alone sharing the space with thousands (upon thousands!) of people from all over the world. And while the people watching can be half the fun, sometimes you just want no people. Fridays and Saturdays, the museum stays open until 9 o'clock at night; the later you come, the quieter it gets. Consider twinning a Saturday visit to the Met with a stop at the nearby Guggenheim Museum, where you pay whatever you like between 5:45 and 7:45 in the evening (paying what you like is always the rule at the Met, in case you didn't know). Meanwhile, at Midtown's Museum of Modern Art, admission is free on Fridays between 4-8; now's a good time to go – they've got a fascinating show, Abstract Expressionist New York, featuring works from DeKooning, Pollock and others that were part of the city's creative scene in the 40's and 50's.
New Yorkers may say they can't imagine themselves living anywhere else, but that doesn't mean we're in love with the winters. Of course, we can't all just jet off to Hawaii whenever; luckily, the city has the next best thing – awesome Tiki bars. New York is suddenly big-time into celebrating South Pacific kitsch; there are now a handful of great places for locals – and visitors, of course – to cozy up to the bar for an expertly-made mai tai. The hottest of the new spots is SoHo's sleek Lani Kai, an homage to the great state of Hawaii dreamed up by owner Julie Reiner, who hails from the 50th State. Over on the Lower East Side, slide into the tiny and low-key Painkiller, a retro-fab bar that looks like someone's Tiki-themed garage and overseen by some of the city's better bartenders. Bring a few friends and splurge on one of their pricey but potent punch bowls – you'll be feeling toasty in no time.
TAKE THE A TRAIN
Heard the one about Harlem? You can walk there from the heart of tourist land, but stepping into Harlem is to step into a whole different New York, one that's changing quickly. It's still the historic seat of African-American culture, but Harlem's becoming more and more cosmopolitan by the year, offering a wider variety of reasons for visitors to make the trip up north. Start by visiting the excellent Studio Museum, which features the work of artists of African descent from all over the world; admission is free on Sundays. Make sure to take a walk down Frederick Douglass Boulevard; on the strip leading south from bustling 125th Street down to where the boulevard becomes Central Park West at 110th, you'll find some of Uptown's coolest hangouts, from wine bars to cocktail lounges to chic restaurants serving everything from upscale soul food to modern Ethiopian cooking. There's enough to do around here that it's definitely worth considering a longer stay; the neighborhood has some great bed and breakfasts, but there's also the sleek Aloft Harlem, which opened this month, giving the neighborhood its first proper hotel in what seems like forever.
AND SPEAKING OF MUSEUMS
New York is home to an embarrassment of riches when it comes to little-known specialty museums. See how the haute bourgeoisie lived back in the 19th Century at the Merchant House Museum, a beautifully preserved town house built in 1832; view the amazing gowns, hats and shoes from several centuries at the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum; and kids of all ages love the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn. Other notable institutions include the Museum of American Finance, the NYC Fire Museum, the Italian American Museum, the Museum of Chinese in America, and the Skyscraper Museum.
And, of course, since New York City’s three major airports (Newark, JFK and LaGuardia) are served by low cost carriers such as Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit, Virgin America, and their competitors, the city has some of the lowest airfares in the nation. See what’s on offer at the Airfarewatchdog New York airfare page, where you’ll also see fares to and from Long Island ISP Airport.