Best things to do in New York City in winter

Winter is the perfect time to plan your trip to New York City. Outside of the busy holiday period, this is a great time to explore the city minus the huge tourist crowds. While the parks may be barren and the temps frosty, there is still plenty to do, both inside and outside, during the spectacular winter season in NYC. Wonderful museums, several ice skating rinks, and one of the country’s best food scenes will keep you more than occupied during your winter trip.

And with all the money you will be saving with cheaper hotels and flights this time of the year, you can treat yourself to something a little extra. Whether it be an indulgent hot cocoa, a shopping trip along Fifth Avenue, afternoon tea, or a Broadway play, there’s something for every budget. Of course, if you are looking to save a few bucks, freebies abound all around the city as well.

Below are 15 must-dos during the winter season in New York

1. Enjoy a bird’s eye view of the city via the Empire State Building

Gorgeous views of the city from the Empire State building in New York City

One of the best things to do during the winter season is taking the elevator ride up to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. The 102 story, 1250 foot tall building, built in 1931, was at one point the tallest in the country (today it comes in at number 4). As you can imagine, the views are out-of-this-world, even more so on a clear day. Photographers and architecture lovers will definitely want to put a visit to the Empire State building on the top of their itinerary.

Magnificent views from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building in New York City

While the wait can be hours long in the summer, winter crowds are basically non existent (outside of the holiday period). On my last visit in February, there was absolutely no wait! Although conditions can be super windy and cold on the 86th floor open air observation deck, it’s worth braving the chill in exchange for the saved time. For those with an extreme intolerance to cold, simply take in the views from the enclosed 80th floor overlook – enjoy the same views via the comfort of a warm room!

  • Location: 20 W. 34th Street
  • Pricing: Varies based on floor (86th vs. 102nd) and time (day/night combo). Check the Empire State website for pricing details.
  • Tip: Buy the combo ticket if you would like to visit both day & night. It’s only 20 bucks more.
  • What to do nearby: Grab a slice of authentic NY pizza at NY Pizza Supreme.

2. Go ice skating

The Rockefeller Center ice rink in New York City

Ice skating has long been associated with Christmas, and the winter season in general. Ice skating is a great way to burn some calories, enjoy the fresh air without freezing to death, and take in the bustling city ambiance. You will warm up real fast as skating is one of the most intense cardio activities. In Manhattan, you have numerous options to enjoy this time-honored winter pastime.

Skating at the Wollman Rink at Central Park is a must for movie buffs. Both Home Alone 2 and Serendipity were filmed here. Nothing beats the romantic park ambiance and nostalgia of this beloved rink. The Bryant Park rink, on the other hand, is surrounded by notable buildings including the NY Public Library. As the city’s only free rink, it’s always bustling with activity. Last but not least, Rockefeller Center, although super pricey, really offers the quintessential winter NYC experience. If you are willing to fork over quite a few bucks, you can skate on one of the world’s most recognizable rinks.

  • Locations: Central Park, Bryant Park, Rockefeller Center
  • Best for: Central Park rink (movie buffs), Bryant Park rink (free skating if you have your own skates), Rockefeller rink (views of the Christmas tree)
  • Tip: Get to the rink early in the day to avoid a lengthy line
  • What to do nearby: Central Park rink (take a walk through the park), Bryant Park rink (Winter Village, and a self guided tour of the NY Public Library), Rockefeller Center rink (FAO Schwarz, Top of the Rock observatory, Le Maison hot cocoa)

2. Take a stroll through Central Park

Winter walk through Central Park in New York City

Enjoy one of America’s finest parks during the slowest season of the year. This gorgeous tree-lined park offers a picture-perfect setting anytime of the year. From fresh greenery in the spring and summer, to fall foliage in autumn, to occasional snow after a big winter storm, the park can be viewed in a new light with each changing season.

Warm up with a refreshing winter stroll and enjoy the rare peaceful ambiance. Stop by to watch the skaters glide by on the Wollman rink and enjoy non interrupted photos of the gorgeous cityscapes.

  • Location: 59th to 110th street, between 5th Avenue and Park Avenue West
  • Sights of interest: Strawberry Fields John Lennon memorial, Bethesda fountain, Central Park Zoo
  • What to do nearby: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wollman ice rink, American Museum of Natural History

3. Attend a TV show taping

NBC studios - tickets to TV show tapings in New York City

As one of the entertainment capitals of the US, New York offers plenty of opportunities to get your fifteen minutes of fame. Most popular is the opportunity to appear in the background of The Today Show. While winter isn’t exactly the best time to stand outside for hours on end in the cold, it’s also a bit less busy. For a comfier experience, try to get tickets to Jimmy Fallon or Saturday Night Live. Talk show tapings are a lot of fun! I attended a Conan O’Brien taping years ago and it was one of my most memorable NYC experiences.

Tickets are free and available on a first come, first served basis. Follow FallonTix on twitter for tips on the best time to score tickets. For more info on SNL’s ticket lottery check out this helpful article. Also check out The Today Show page for more info on the best time to plan your visit.

Check out this full list of NY based TV shows where you can be a part of the studio audience

4. Check out one of the city’s seasonal parades

Snoopy astronaut balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC

New York is home to some of the biggest and boldest parade celebrations in the country. Most famously, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which just celebrated its’ 93rd anniversary in 2019, is worth attending at least once live in person. It’s cold, it’s crowded, but it’s also so much fun seeing the gigantic balloons in person and being right in the center of one of the city’s most iconic holiday celebrations.

Another great winter parade event is the St Patrick’s’ Day parade, the country’s oldest and best. Interestingly enough the NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade is older than Ireland’s itself. The first Irish parade took place on March 17, 1762 in NYC to celebrate the city’s rich Irish heritage. In Ireland, the first parade took place much later in 1903 in Waterford. Today, cities around the country and world celebrate their Irish heritage on March 17th.

On a funny side note, American tradition is to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day to disguise yourself from leprechauns. They say everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day so get decked out in green, have fun celebrating at the parade, and then visit one of New York’s authentic Irish pubs!

5. Treat yourself to a luxury hot chocolate

Decadent hot cocoa at Le Maison du Chocolat in New York City

Winter is a great time to treat yourself to an artisan hot chocolate. Thankfully, there are plenty of places around the city to get your hot cocoa fix. What better treat than warming up to a steaming mug of chocolate after walking around in the cold for hours on end? Somehow hot chocolate sounds so much better than coffee during the freezing cold winter months.

Max Brenner is a fantastic cafe which serves numerous creative hot cocoa varieties (try the Italian thick!), plus sundaes, milkshakes, fondues, and even chocolate pizzas! For something a bit more luxurious, check out Le Maison du Chocolat located right near Rockefeller Center. This chocolatier makes the best truffles and macarons. The staff will treat you to a free truffle as you walk in. However, you will not want to leave without indulging in the most decadent hot chocolate in town. It’s a real winner!

  • Location: Max Brenner (841 Broadway), Le Maison (30 W. 49th Street)
  • What to do nearby: The Rink at Rockefeller Center, Nintendo World, Museum of Modern Art, Times Square, NBC studio tour, Bouchon Bakery

6. Check out the museum scene

New York City is home to some of the most renowned museums in the entire world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian American Museum of Natural History, The Guggenheim, and The Museum of Modern Art are a few of the best-of-the-best to check out during your time in the city. Many of these museums are large enough that you really need a few hours to explore all the exhibits, thus making them a perfect choice during the cold winter months.

If you are on a tight budget, you may want to visit during Bank of America’s “Museums on Us” days which occur the first Saturday & Sunday every month. Card holders receive free admission to a variety of museums including the 2 wonderful art museums mentioned above. Also be on the lookout for free days throughout the year.

Guide to the top 5 museums in NYC

Tip: If you plan on visiting a variety of museums, consider purchasing The NY Pass, which enables you to visit a number of attractions for one low cost.

7. Try some authentic NY pizza

Amazing cheese pizza at NY Pizza Suprema in Midtown

You cannot visit New York without checking out the city that made pizza America’s favorite food. Of course, there are endless choices around the city, and thus, it can be hard to choose amongst the bunch. If you are staying in the Midtown Manhattan area, NY Pizza Suprema and Joe’s are both excellent choices. The local gem NY Pizza Suprema was opened by Italian immigrants in 1964 and is to this day one of the more popular, highly regarded pizza places in the city.

They offer so many different varieties of pizza by the slice, from carnivore heavy to vegan options. In my opinion, plain cheese is always the best way to go! No matter if you prefer your pizza plain or loaded with a million toppings, the pizza here is absolutely delicious. Funnily enough, the restaurant at one time only offered plain cheese (from 1964-1988)!

Location: NY Pizza Suprema (413 8th Avenue), Joe’s Pizza (1435 Broadway)

8. Check out the indie coffee scene

Turkish coffee at Lulu in Midtown Manhattan

Like most cities, Starbucks seems to have overtaken many of the local businesses. However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence in local coffee shops. Today, you can pretty much find a few great independent shops anywhere in the city. The famous Stumptown roasters started in NYC. This is a great choice for anyone interested in predictably high quality coffee. This award-winning coffee is now available in many cafes across the US.

Anyone up for something will want to check out LuLu coffee. Although the space is ridiculously small, this place is pretty unique as they offer Turkish sand coffee, along with a few unique Turkish treats. If you have never tasted Turkish coffee before, you are in for a real treat! It’s strong, smooth, and extremely flavorful. The pretty presentation here adds on a few bonus points. Now only if there was a bit more space to enjoy your drink!

  • Location: Stumptown Midtown (Located in the Ace Hotel, 18 W. 29th), Lulu (59 W. 30th Street).
  • What to do nearby: Macy’s at Herald Square, Bryant Park, See a basketball game at Madison Square Garden, Liberty Bagels

9. Walk through the largest department store

Macy's on Herald Square in New York City

Up until March 2009, Macy’s in Herald Square was the largest department store in the world. Sadly, Shinsegae in South Korea eventually overtook that title. Offering 1.25 million square feet of retail space, it still stands strong as the largest store in the US. You really can’t miss this one as it takes up an entire city block! Since opening in 1901, the store has been a NYC icon. Today, the store is still as popular as ever with dozens of tourists lining up prior to the store’s opening.

Associated with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, Miracle on 34th Street, and the famous holiday windows, Macy’s will forever be America’s most famous department store.

  • Location: 151 W. 34th Street
  • What to do nearby: 5th avenue shops, Empire State building, Broadway theaters, Best Bagels, Jack Doyle’s Irish Pub

10. Explore the foodie scene

Samosa app at Bengal Tiger in NYC

New York has always been home to one of America’s most diverse culinary scenes. You can find just about anything here. The melting pot character of the city has brought so many different cuisines to the city. Pasta, bagels, diners, the best pizza, Mediterranean, authentic Irish Pubs, street foods, Asian fare, New American, vegetarian & vegan – you name it – the city offers an unending supply of diverse food to indulge in.

In Manhattan, you will find Chinatown, Little Italy, and Koreatown all offer an abundance of ethnic options. NY style cheesecake, bagels, pastrami, Italian ice, pizza, are some of the most popular foods which originated in the city. The Indian scene continues to expand in the city, with a recent Forbes article claiming NY may be home to the world’s best Indian food. Check out Bengal Tiger, a great local Indian restaurant conveniently located in Mid-Town.

100 of the hottest NYC restaurants

11. Enjoy the country’s most extravagant Christmas season

Giant Christmas ornaments in NYC near Radio City

Although it’s crazy busy and expensive to visit during the month of December, it’s something every Christmas fanatic needs to do at least once. NYC has become one of the top Christmas destination cities in the US, thanks in part to the heavy media influence. The cold weather, ice rinks, and many holiday attractions don’t hurt either. If you are a big Home Alone 2 fan, you might want to follow in Kevin’s footsteps and stay at the upscale Plaza hotel, “New York’s most exciting hotel experience.”

Besides the world-famous Rockefeller Center tree and ice rink, there are holiday theater productions, most notably the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular. Several Nutcracker productions, Christmas markets, Macy’s and Sak Fifth Avenue holiday windows, and various special events make this a really exciting time to visit. To add to the ambiance, most storefronts are decked out with pretty garland and lights. Many restaurants, notably Rolf’s, transform into a winter wonderland. Add in all the regular winter attractions mentioned in this article, and you will never run out of interesting things to do this time of year!

More Christmas fun in NYC

12. Take a walk through Grand Central Station

The famous clock at Grand Central station

Grand Central Station is much more than a transportation hub. It’s also an architectural masterpiece. Since opening in 1913, friends and family members have used the station as a meeting place. “Meet me under the clock” became a popular city expression. The four-faced clock is said to be worth 10-20 million bucks! Today visitors from all over the world come to marvel at the beauty of one of the city’s most beloved landmarks.

Also on-site are dozens of shops and restaurants. Additionally be on the lookout for seasonal events, particularly the Taste of Grand Central. Movie fans may remember seeing the station in various films and TV shows including Armageddon and Men in Black. Here’s a full list of movies filmed at Grand Central.

13. Take a tour of the new York Public Library

Tour of the NY Public Library

Free tours of this beautiful Beaux Arts style building are offered Monday-Saturday at 10am and 2pm. Even if you do not have the time for a full tour, it’s worth taking a quick self tour of this gorgeous gem. The architecture and the beautiful murals are mesmerizing. Movie buffs will likely recognize the famous building from the Ghostbusters opening scene Also, the famous scene with the ghostly apparition in the library was filmed in the Main Reading Room.

To top it off, the gift shop is amazing. Seriously, it is hard to pull yourself out of here without buying anything!

Pretty mural at the New York Public Library
One of many incredible murals
  • Location: 476 5th Avenue
  • What to do nearby: Grand Central Station, Bryant Park, Best Bagel and Coffee

15. Warm up with a bowl from the Soupman that inspired Seinfeld

Delicious Broccoli Cheese soup at the Original Soupman

The popular Seinfeld Soup Man episode was inspired by a real life soup hotspot in Midtown Manhattan. The Soupman, famous for the catchphrase “no soup for you,” was inspired by real life owner Ali Yegenah. The Original Soupman opened in 1984 and still continues to receive much traffic. Today, you can order the soups online as well pick them up in the grocery store. However, Seinfeld fans still flock over to the Original Soupman to take in the 90’s nostalgia.

A variety of soups are offered daily, the most delicious being the Broccoli Cheese. The soups are so good that the New York Times once called them, “Art, Not Soup.” Whether or not you are a Seinfeld fan, it’s worth making the trek over to enjoy a warm bowl of great soup on a cold winter’s day.

  • Location: 259 W. 55th Street
  • Note: There is no seating inside the restaurant
  • What to do nearby: Gershwin Theater, Carnegie Hall, 9/11 Tribute Museum, Ground Central Coffee shop