A Native’s Guide to Winter in NYC

Winter is a popular time to visit New York City. Tourists from around the world come to see bustling streets filled with holiday lights, lavishly decorated shop windows and a Christmas tree nine stories tall. If you take a close look around fabled seasonal sites like Rockefeller Center or Radio City, you may notice that New York locals are nowhere to be found. This raises a good question: what are the real New Yorkers doing for fun all winter?

If you’re a repeat traveler who’s already seen and done the usual tourist stuff, or if you’re just the type who likes to get off the beaten path, you may enjoy the following ideas tapped straight from local knowledge. So hide that guidebook at the bottom of a WNYC canvas tote, and get adventurous with these local cold-weather favorites.

See the real holiday lights.

Sure, Rockefeller center is dazzling and grandiose, with its top-dollar festooning, miles of twinkling garlands, spectacular wreaths, trees and elegant trumpeting angels.

But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet til you’ve been to Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, where generations of local residents have been engaging in a friendly annual tradition of extreme one-upmanship. December nights are lit as bright as day, with nearly every petit, New York-sized front yard strewn with yards and yards of twinkling rainbow lights, bedecked with animatronic reindeer, musical elements, lasers, and enough high-voltage kitsch to require a backup generator.

Weeks of anticipation and painstaking preparation from the mostly Italian families of this middle-class community are a true Christmas miracle you won’t soon forget. Take the D train to 79th street after sunset and enjoy a day-glo stroll around the neighborhood. Rockefeller’s elegance will seem like a yawn in comparison.

Spa day, Korean style.

Many world cultures (especially ones with cold climates) have a rich tradition of communal hot saunas. Generations of Russians, Fins, Japanese, Koreans and others have fought bitter winter blues with hot steam, water, and togetherness—and they’re on to something!

Every New Yorker knows about one famous site of annual pilgrimage: Spa Castle. Opened in 2007, this urban oasis blasts away the ice and snow with four stories of hot saunas, swimming pools, whirlpools, waterfalls, massage facilities, beauty parlours, cocktail bars, and even a Starbucks (because a full day of relaxation can work up a good hunger). Spa Castle charges all your food and extra services to a convenient plastic wristband, so there’s no need to stress about much. And it’s open til midnight, so there’s no need to rush, either.

The original Spa Castle location is in College Point, Queens (take the 7 train to the last stop, where you can hop a shuttle bus). Due to popularity and demand, a new (albeit downsized) location opened up on Manhattan’s 57th street in 2014. Grab your friends and family, hop into some comfy cotton PJs (standard issue for all guests) and cozy up, together!

Ramen & stout.

What would winter be without comfort foods? Two trendy local favorites of late: Ramen and dark beer (though not typically consumed together).

Ramen, a Japanese specialty, is a piping hot broth loaded with long, hearty noodles, veggies, meat, and maybe even a hard-boiled egg. Cozy up to a ramen bar and feast your eyes on the steaming vats of hot broth. This wintertime treat has become increasingly popular in recent years, with a number of popular ramen joints popping up all around town. Ivan Ramen on the Lower East Side or Mei-Jin Ramen in Yorkville. For a more high-end experience, there’s always Ippudo in the East Village—that is, if you’re willing to wait for up to an hour!

Another big trend in the big city is specialty beer. When wintertime rolls around, local tap lists get darker, fuller and maltier. Burp Castle on 7th street is a perfect location to hibernate with a dark oatmeal stout. (It’s a quiet bar, which means you can have a relaxing conversation, but you’ll have to endure an occasional unsettling-yet-benevolent shushing from the barkeep). City Swiggers on 86th street in Yorkville is a no-frills, family-owned haven where beer lovers and local homebrewers try the latest and most obscure beers on tap (hint: it’s close to the train station for the Met and Guggenheim museums, a perfect spot to recap your day of culture while enjoying a wintry brew). Also noteworthy for seasonal specialty beer selections are Spuyten Duyvil in Williamsburg and Bierkraft in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Prospect park ice skating.

Central Park, with its skating rink, zoo, and eateries is swarming with tourists but only speckled with locals—mostly well-to-do Manhattanites. So where do the everyday New Yorkers get their fix of winter sunshine and trees? Prospect Park! Located in the heart of Brooklyn, the people’s borough, this park is the green beating heart of the more residential and authentic New York City. If you fancy a real slice of life, go for a brisk skate at the new LeFrak Center ice rink. You’ll be among families, first dates, and other excellent people-watching opportunities— all on a refreshingly different wavelength from its Central Park counterpart.

See a different museum.

Museums are a trusted respite from winter weather. If you’ve already seen and done the big three—MoMA, the Metropolitan and the Guggenheim—it might be high time to give something new a try. The Brooklyn Museum is like a more populist Met, located adjacent to Prospect Park (where you can go ice skating afterward). The city has a litany of smaller but no less awesome museums. For lovers of Chinese culture, try Chinatown’s Museum of the Chinese in America. The Tenement Museum is famous for its intimate tours and spaces. Transportation geeks will love the Transit Museum, which is actually housed in a defunct 1936 subway station. Design lovers will go ga-ga for the Cooper Hewitt, a Smithsonian museum with exhibitions on everything from architecture to fashion. For fans of the outré and cutting-edge, try the edgy downtown New Museum. All of these museums are top-caliber, despite being somewhat off the radar, and hey, you may even spot a few locals in their natural habitats.

Hopefully these tips give you enough inspiration to get off the beaten path during your next wintertime trip to New York city. You’ll find that New York has a whole lot more to see and enjoy than you’ve ever expected.

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