New York is a year-round destination, but the tourist population is at its most dense in the summer and between American Thanksgiving and New Year’s. If you want to experience a slightly quieter New York, visit in the dead of winter, like I just did.
Winter travel can be a drag. Snowstorms are common in the Northeastern United States, and temperatures can vary wildly. However, hotels are a little cheaper, tickets for shows are the same price, but the seat choices are better, restaurants and bars are easier to get into, and if you want to see a tv show taping, far less effort may be required on your part.
Packing for New York in January and February
Visiting NYC in the winter requires, first and foremost, being prepared for winter. For Canadians, this should provide no challenge whatsoever.
You’ll want waterproof boots for New York’s famous ankle-deep slush puddles; a long coat with hood made of winter-repelling material; gloves, hat and scarf to adapt to changing conditions. Instead of bulky sweaters, take thinner layers that can be added or removed as you go from the chilly outdoors to an over-warmed museum or subway. Finally, I suggest long underwear, so you can still enjoy New York’s outdoor sights and experiences without freezing your bottom half off. Like this idiot, who took a long, leisurely walk on the High Line on freezing January morning because it was also her birthday.
And, if all else fails, you can buy anything you need.
Winter deals on accommodations
I am frequently asked, “Where’s a cheap hotel in NYC?” Short answer: there isn’t one. New York hotel rooms, generally speaking, are small and expensive.
However, with lighter tourist traffic in the winter, January and February offer up some pretty terrific hotel deals. For example, we got storm-stayed and had to find a room for our “bonus night.” In the summer, this would be both difficult and pricey, but in early February, we found a very decent room for around $100 at a boutique-y hotel in the Theatre District. When I checked the rates for the same room at the same hotel in May and September, it was over $400 and $500 per night, respectively. If that doesn’t convince you to consider NYC for a winter city break, nothing will.
Things to do in NYC in winter
New York doesn’t slow down much in the winter. There are still plenty of places to get out and about – and distract yourself from the dreariness of the season. Plays, concerts and shows are priced the same as spring, summer, and fall, but for Broadway, your choice of seats vastly improves. I went to Cabaret again and, this time, managed to score seats immediately under Alan Cumming and Emma Stone for only a few bucks more than when I saw it last year in the mezzanine.
If you want to try your luck with the Book of Mormon lottery, winter is a perfect time to do so. The crowds are smaller, and the night I tried it, there were more than 40 seats up for grabs, almost double the amount available when I won back in 2013. I didn’t win, but the odds are substantially better than in the spring and summer.
See a (late night) show (taping)!
As for other distractions, like television show tapings, unpredictable winter weather can vastly improve your odds. Important note: you still won’t get SNL seats handed to you on the sidewalk. Upside: bad weather means unpredictable audience turnout for pre-arranged tickets at every late night show in town, so if you wander by at the right time, someone could very well walk up to you and offer standby tickets for that night. That’s exactly what happened to us for two different shows on the same night: Late Night with Seth Meyers and the Late Show with David Letterman.
We nabbed the Seth Meyers tickets, entirely because John Oliver was the guest and he’s the best. Even though we were standby seats 18 & 19, the NBC person who gave them to us was reasonably confident of our chances. Once we worked our way through the succession of lines (which is a recurring theme at NBC show tapings), sure enough, we were in, as were the thirty or so people behind us. Free entertainment!
Get outside! Really!
New York is really beautiful, regardless of the time of year, and a crisp winter day is perfect for exploring the city. As long as the weather is fine, the cold air and lack of smog means the views from Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building can’t be beat. There’s far less pedestrian traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and the views are just as great. The High Line has its own winter-only delights (and less traffic).
Inevitably, you will need to warm up and there are plenty of great stops for food and drink along the way. Particularly drink. We found a ton of new-to-me craft beer stops, and I was delighted to grab a table at Dominque Ansel Bakery to celebrate my birthday properly with a glorious treat. I also finally got over to Juliana’s in Brooklyn, founded by New York pizza legend Patsy Grimaldi, for some of their legendary pizza.
After my visit to Dominque Ansel, I got a very special birthday greeting. NBD.
NYC is always special
Regardless of the time of year, New York is always going to be special. Especially when you happen upon moments like this, where a young couple got engaged at the Rockefeller Center skating rink, while their friends and crowds of strangers watched and cheered them on.
Have you been to New York in the winter? How did it go for you?