New York City is a year-round destination for its cultural, historic, artistic, and culinary attractions, but the holiday season has a special draw. It starts with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and continues right through the ball drop on New Year's Eve in Times Square -- both free events, by the way, proving that there's no need to burn through cash to have holiday fun.
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Nov. 24 will bring the 90th edition of this unofficial kickoff to the holiday season. The parade, featuring marching bands, performers, Santa Claus, and those famous balloons, stretches three miles from 77th Street and Central Park West to the Macy's Herald Square flagship on 34th Street. Some spectators show up as early as 6:30 a.m. to secure a spot.
True devotees head to the Upper West Side the night before the parade to watch the balloon inflation from 3 to 10 p.m. between 77th and 81st streets and Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. After seeing the massive balloons up close, some visitors may opt to sleep in a little and take in the parade itself on TV, somewhere warm and cozy.
The city has its share of Christmas trees and tree lightings, but the big daddy of them all soars up to 100 feet at Rockefeller Plaza off Fifth Avenue, between 48th and 51st streets. This year's lighting -- broadcast on national TV with musical entertainment, skating, and more -- is 7 to 9 p.m. on Nov. 30. Crowds packed like sardines join the countdown to a collective gasp, and visitors can see the tree through Jan. 7.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art deserves a visit no matter the date, but the holidays bring exhibitions such as a Christmas tree with an eighteenth-century Neapolitan crèche and a late-19th-century silver menorah. Admission includes free gallery talks and same-day entry to the Met Breuer and the Met Cloisters -- and remember that the $25 admission is only suggested at the door; it's really "pay what you wish." (Just don't be a Scrooge.)
Holiday markets have become a staple around the city. One of the most popular, with about 40 vendors, is the Grand Central Holiday Fair at Grand Central Terminal (which is also hosting a free concert downstairs on Dec. 1). The Union Square Holiday Market has a European feel, live music, a warming station, and a crafts studio for kids.
Broadway ticket prices, even with discounts, can be daunting. Bypass the stress and instead tap into the city's deep talent pool. Theatre Development Fund's OffOff@$9 program gives access to a wide variety of entertainment options at, yes, $9 per ticket -- less than a movie in most New York theaters these days. Online registration is required.
There are almost too many food options in Manhattan, but its food halls deserve special attention. Try Mario Batali's Eataly, with locations in the Flatiron District and downtown, for a marketplace, several restaurants, and gourmet gifts galore under one roof, or Chelsea Market, with restaurants, bars, food shops, and a selection of boutiques in industrial-chic surroundings. Walk off some calories at the nearby High Line, the famed linear park built on a no-longer-used elevated railroad.
The Jewish Festival of Lights is observed each year with what some have called rival Hanukkah displays at the Grand Army Plazas in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Manhattan edition (on Fifth Avenue at 59th Street) features a 32-foot-high, gold menorah that weighs some 4,000 pounds. It's lighted each evening of the holiday, this year Dec. 24 to Jan. 1. The Brooklyn version, at the top of Prospect Park, comes alive each night with concerts and potato pancakes.
The 250-acre New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx is celebrating its 125th anniversary with admission waived all day Wednesdays and from 9 to 10 a.m. on Saturdays. (Otherwise, expect to pay $20 for each adult and $8 for children.) The Thain Family Forest section is a never-fail escape from the bustle of the city any time of year.
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The Winter Village at Bryant Park offers free ice skating on a 170-by-100-foot rink. The catch: Skate rentals are $20, but that compares with $25 general admission and $12 skate rental at Rockefeller Center. The attraction has grown to more than 125 vendors, with special events such as "Tasting Tuesdays" and a pop-up restaurant. Le Carrousel offers $3 spins.
Experience New York's natural beauty and keep up an exercise routine in the city's parks, which organize free weekend hikes throughout the year. There are options in Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs for all levels of fitness. Several are designed just for people opting out of the Black Friday shopping frenzy.
If you get overwhelmed by the seasonal crowds on the city sidewalks, find some breathing room on the Staten Island Ferry. Operating 24/7 and serving some 22 million people each year, the ferry provides an inspiring view of the lower Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty -- for free. After the half-hour ride across New York Harbor, explore Staten Island or simply turn around and grab a majestic return view.
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The Morgan Library & Museum has an annual treat for fans of "A Christmas Carol." The original 1843 manuscript of the Charles Dickens holiday classic goes on display this year through Jan. 8 in Pierpont Morgan's historic library. Admission is free from 7 to 9 p.m. on Fridays (otherwise $20 for adults and free for children 12 and under.)
The department stores of Manhattan dramatically unveil windows decorated for the holidays after months and sometimes years of planning. Everyone has their favorites, but those on the must-see list include the always-elegant Saks Fifth Avenue; Lord & Taylor, which tends toward the historic and sometimes whimsical; the often cutting-edge Macy's and Barneys New York; the elaborate Bloomingdale's; and the ever-sophisticated Bergdorf Goodman.
New York's Garment District offers deep discounts on apparel and accessories year-round but is a particular blessing when it comes to holiday shopping. Seek out sample sales or excess inventory by just wandering through, accepting fliers, and looking for signs, or check online sources and Time Out New York, a magazine distributed free each Wednesday. You may need to bring an extra suitcase to lug those gifts back home.
The Central Park Zoo (Fifth Avenue at 64th Street) houses snow leopards and grizzly bears in the middle of Manhattan, along with a Polar Circle display and the Tisch Children's Zoo. Visitors can watch sea lion feedings three times daily through Dec. 31. Admission is $16 for adults and $12 for kids.
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It's not every day that Midtown is filled with the sound of hundreds of tubas -- in fact, it's just Dec. 11 for the 43rd annual Merry Tuba Christmas in Rockefeller Plaza, a free outdoor concert starting at 3:30 p.m. Players from around the country join in, and visitors are encouraged to sing along with a selection of Christmas carols and favorite tunes.
The Lincoln Square Business Improvement District is putting on the 17th annual Winter's Eve at Lincoln Square at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 28. There will be a tree lighting in Dante Park, with festivities including live music -- with headliner Sharon Jones -- food tastings from local restaurants ($1 to $4), family activities, and street performers such as jugglers and stilt walkers.
The historic department store puts on the Thanksgiving Day parade and offers dazzling windows, but don't forget to go inside the Herald Square flagship. The classic holiday film "Miracle on 34th Street" made Macy's a part of the nation's Christmas lore, and it keeps up the tradition with a full floor of trees and dazzling ornaments. Santaland, a 13,000-square-foot re-creation of the North Pole, is on the eighth floor, and free to visit for a moment to whisper in St. Nick's ear.
This Times Square tradition dates back to 1907, and they say you have to do it at least once, but be prepared and make sure it becomes a good memory instead of a nightmare. Arrive early. Pay attention to security warnings about what can and can't be brought in. Don't drink too many liquids (you'll thank us). Then just, um, stand and wait. It may take hours, but you can say you've taken part in an annual tradition like no other, with 1 million other people wearing funny glasses and hats, listening to today's top entertainers, watching the ball drop, and sharing a special kiss at midnight. Happy New Year!