How to Survive a Holiday Visit to New York City

How To: You and one million of your closest, most inebriated friends will be visiting the city. New Yorker Mike Barish offers tips.

11.23.09 | 11:08 AM ET

Photo of New York City on New Year’s Eve by amelungc, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The Situation: You’re itching to celebrate part of the holidays—be it Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, even Boxing Day—in the city that never sleeps. You’ve heard about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, longed to see the Rockettes kick creepily in unison and dreamed of watching the ball drop in Times Square with one million of your closest and most inebriated friends.

Before you make your way to New York with visions of sugarplum fairies and miracles on 34th Street dancing in your head, heed the advice of someone who lives here. This isn’t meant to be a diatribe by an arrogant New Yorker. We’re not all rude loudmouths, just as all San Francisco residents aren’t elitists, all Seattle residents don’t drink coffee and only most Bostonians are annoying. You’ll enjoy New York a lot more—and have better interactions with the locals—if you follow these tips.

Pay attention: Most of New York’s tourist destinations are conveniently located where millions of people are trying to conduct their daily business. While you stand in the middle of the sidewalk taking a picture of Times Square, someone whose office is on Broadway and 41st Street is trying to make it to work on time. Step aside for the locals if you want to take a picture. No one will fault you for being a tourist. But you will annoy commuters if you cause them to miss the start of a meeting. Though taking pictures of the Walk/Don’t Walk sign is lame. I’m just sayin’.

Expect (and enjoy) crowds: New York during the holidays is an exercise in organized chaos. Millions of people visit Midtown to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The Thanksgiving parade draws a huge crowd of locals and tourists. If you’re looking to engage in a tender moment of quiet reflection during the holidays, go into the country to chop down your own tree. Your trip to New York will be shared with hordes of people enjoying the exact same New York holiday. You’ll be gazing at Saks Fifth Avenue’s window displays, the giant tree and the glittery New Year’s Eve Ball with crowds unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Rather than complain about it, get caught up in the energy, pomp and circumstance of it all. New York can feel like a small town if you let yourself share a smile with a stranger.

Have a game plan: There are myriad activities that make New York a tourist mecca during the holidays. Since you’ll be one of millions of tourists, be sure to beat them to the punch so you don’t miss out on anything. Purchase tickets to the Rockefeller Center Christmas Spectacular in advance of your arrival. It will sell out. Plan on watching the ball drop in Times Square? Better stake out a spot early in the day (I’m talking right after breakfast), as it will be impossible to get anywhere close to the action by the afternoon. The city’s Christmas tree is spitting distance from both the Rockefeller Center and Bryant Park ice rinks. Go for a skate and see the tree in one efficient afternoon. Just don’t actually spit on our streets—it’s flu season.

Ask for help: New Yorkers have a reputation for being rude. Rather than buy into the stereotype, put us to the test. If you’re lost or need a recommendation for a restaurant, politely ask someone for assistance. New Yorkers aren’t animals ... but we can tell you the quickest way to get to the Bronx Zoo. Seriously. It’s open all-year round and only closes on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Hop on the 2 or 5 train going uptown and exit at the East Tremont Avenue/West Farms Square stop. The signs at street level will help you navigate the two-block walk. See, you just got directions from a local!

Stand clear of the closing door please: You’re going to hear that announcement often when you ride the subway. You may want to hold the door while your friend snaps a picture of the mariachi band on the platform, but you’re holding up the train and keeping people from their day-to-day lives. Your vacation is someone else’s commute. Squeeze in, put your bags between your legs and hold on tight. Besides, there’s a good chance that another mariachi band will be on the train.

Keep your wallet handy: This isn’t a warning about pickpockets. New York is the safest big city in the United States. However, it is also the most expensive. So, be prepared to spend more than you’re used to for meals, souvenirs and event tickets. But, if you accept that beforehand (and budget accordingly), you won’t be upset when you arrive. And please, do not take out your displeasure with prices on service employees. Waiters, housekeepers and cab drivers rely on all of us to make a living and they have gifts to buy this time of year, too.

Despite what many New Yorkers may say about tourists, we both need and want you. In these tough economic times, tourism is a boon to any city’s coffers. Besides, you want to visit New York because it’s a magical place that really does come to life during the holidays. Your desire to come here feeds our egos.

So, consider this a personal invitation to visit New York this holiday season. Just don’t walk four-abreast down the sidewalk. I need to be able to get past you when you stop to buy a fake designer purse.

Mike Barish

11 Comments for How to Survive a Holiday Visit to New York City

Lois Moran 11.23.09 | 7:47 PM ET

Hi,, excellent article and good advice on New York this time of year, we are traveling to NYC this December and will head all your good info. I would like permission to put this on my blog, thank you, Lois Moran

Brenda 11.24.09 | 1:38 AM ET

Awesome tips, Mike!

Grizzly Bear Mom 11.24.09 | 12:23 PM ET

A few more things: 1.  Bring plenty of change for mass transit.  2. Use the bathroom whenever you visit a restaurant even if you don’t have to go.  3.  NY city is on and island and breezy.  Dress warmly.

Adam 11.25.09 | 3:45 AM ET

Good advice for newbies to the city! You should remind people that you don’t have to avert your eyes and stare at your hands when on the subway. It’s bound to be crowded, but half the time your neighbor is going to be friendly anyways, so make the most of it!

Janelle 11.25.09 | 12:44 PM ET

As someone who used to have to walk through Rock Center to get to my office, I wholeheartedly endorse these tips, though I have to admit having the passing thought that it might be worthwhile to institute a locals-only lane on the sidewalks.

brian | No Debt World Travel 11.27.09 | 11:38 AM ET

As a New Yorker, I’ll say we love anyone who comes to visit our city, but please PLEASE, step to the side of the sidewalk if you’re walking slow or taking pictures. New Yorkers walk FAST and nothing annoys us more than someone slowing down our speed walks.

CAROLS 12.01.09 | 7:20 PM ET


CAROLS 12.01.09 | 7:23 PM ET

do not limit your experiences of new york, please explore (wave hill), bronx, forest hills, the hamptons, staten island , the staten island ferry, there many hidden gems in the other boros.

Adam 12.01.09 | 11:06 PM ET

I took the Staten Island Ferry on my last trip to the city. It was nice, except after we passed the Statue of Liberty, I was a little less excited. Read about it on my site here:

Maggie 12.08.09 | 11:26 AM ET

Great tips! I definitely agree- yes, please do explore our city- and all the other boroughs- but please, please, please do not stop in the middle of the sidewalk to take pictures- please step to the side. I commute to the World Financial Center daily for work and can’t tell how frustrating it is. Yes, you are on holiday and should enjoy, but the rest of us are trying to make it to work.

A couple of other tips:  when visiting the WFC, don’t crowd the stairwells for a picture- unless you’re looking for the rude New Yorker to emerge. Also, explore more than the WTC site- Battery Park is just a short walk away. It’s a great walk with wonderful views!

Oh, and while riding escalators in NYC, remember that “riders” are to the right and “walkers” are to the left. We are always in a hurry!

DLEscobedo 12.14.09 | 2:02 PM ET

I’m a big fan of NYC and enjoyed taking my 2 teen-age daughters there and experiencing Broadway. However, for Christmas I and my extended family will enjoy the laid back, calm, cheaper and warm weather of my hometown—Pensacola Beach, FL!

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.