45 Really Cool Things We Did In New York City In December

New York City is the beating heart of the world. Every inch of it has energy, history and possibility. Each neighbourhood has its own identity and sights to explore and there are countless museums, galleries, shops, theatres, restaurants and bars. There’s hundreds, maybe thousands, of things going on every night. We tried to tackle as much as we could in the 11 days we were there and left hungry for more. Here’s the 45 things we did.

(Also, if you’d love some New York photography on your wall, make sure to check out my Etsy shop).

Visited City Hall

On our first day in New York we went to City Hall to pick up our marriage license, an experience I never expected to be so much fun. City Hall (or the City Clerk’s Office as it’s officially called) is such a unique environment; you are ushered through security by gruff guards wishing “good luck” in a thick New York accent to a large room filled with couples either waiting to collect their marriage license or go in and actually get married. There are women sitting around in wedding dresses and couples posing for professional photographers. It’s a brilliant people watching spot too; beside us was a lesbian couple on Facetime breaking the news they were getting married, we could see and hear the person on the screen squealing with joy. We didn’t actually get married in City Hall but I think it would be such a cool way to elope.

Ate In Shake Shack

Shake Shack New York

After we picked up our marriage license we headed to the famous Shake Shack to grab a bite to eat. Shake Shack was launched by Danny Myer, New York’s best known restaurateur, and is styled as quality fast food; it looks like McDonalds or Burger King but the burgers are actually good. My veggie burger was only okay but Paul said his beef burger lived up to the high expectations.

Visited Chinatown

After leaving Shake Shack we headed up to Chinatown which was very cool, with narrow, cramped streets, bustling markets, hole in the wall dumpling restaurants and bubble tea cafes. We meant to visit again at night to take photos of the neon lights and sample some of the dirt-cheap-but-apparently-delicious Chinese food, but we underestimated the number of things we would want to do in New York and never got the chance.

Wandered Around SoHo

After Chinatown we went to Soho, a very trendy neighbourhood with shops, both designer boutiques and chain stores, upscale restaurants and stylish bars. I bought a jacket at Uniqlo then had a drink with Paul in Spring Lounge.

Strolled Around The Lower East Side

We then headed over to the Lower East Side where we stopped by Trapizzino restaurant to see one of our photographs on the wall! The restaurant bought the Rome print from our Etsy shop last year and we were always thrilled at one of our photography prints being on the wall of a New York restaurant. We stopped for a few drinks and ended up chatting to the owner who had bought the print and was very tickled to hear why we were there.

Walked Across The Williamsburg Bridge

We left the Lower East Side and headed over to Brooklyn by walking over the Williamsburg Bridge which offered great skyline views and the cool sound of the traffic thundering underneath.

Drank in Skinny Dennis in Williamsburg

Over in Williamsburg we stopped at a great dive bar called Skinny Dennis which had live bands, peanuts on the floors, a pinball machine, and retro signs on the wall. We stopped by again on Sunday and the bar was packed with people dancing to the live honky tonk band. It was fabulous.

Went To See John Grant In Warsaw, Williamsburg

After leaving Skinny Dennis we went to a John Grant gig in Warsaw in Greenpoint which turned out to be a really cool venue. A Polish social club opened in 1914, it looked like it had barely changed, with a beautiful old curtained stage, wooden floors, a grand corniced ceiling, and huge elaborate paintings on either side of the stage. Polish food and beer was served by old Polish ladies in the cafe bar beside. John Grant was great but the crowd could have been a bit more into it (maybe it’s because they were cool Brooklynites).

Ate At An All-You-Can-Drink Brunch

The following day, a Saturday, we met our friend Mark who is from Edinburgh but who moved to New York eleven years ago (he recently decamped to New Jersey having had enough of the extortionate New York rents). Mark told us a quintessential New York pastime is attending all you can drink brunch where you can drink as many mimosas or cocktails as you like for 90 minutes. He took us to one in the East Village where we scoffed our brunch food and cocktails before going on a bar crawl.

Watched The Celtic Game In Jack Dempsey’s

On Sunday we went to Jack Dempsey’s bar in Midtown to watch Celtic win the League Cup. Jack Dempsey’s was a fun Irish bar which of course was filled with Celtic fans from Glasgow. The upstairs space was the meeting place of the Celtic supporter’s club but we just opted to stay downstairs in the bar (hearing the craziness from above).

Visited Korea Town

After leaving the pub we went to Korea Town nearby. Having lived in Korea, Paul and I got a kick out of seeing all the signs written in Hangul, the appearance of noraebangs and jjimjilbangs, familiar chains like Paris Baguette and Cafe Bene and seeing treats like Choco Pies in the shops.

Looked Around Macy’s

After leaving Korea Town we went to Macy’s. I didn’t particularly enjoy the inside of Macy’s, it was crowded and I wasn’t in the mood for shopping, but the outside was impressive, with Christmas displays in the window and “Believe” written on the side of the building in huge letters.

Visited Grand Central

We then went to one of New York’s most iconic sights: Grand Central Station. The station really is magnificent, with a marble floor, giant arched windows, and a vast ceiling painted with constellations. We stopped at a few points on top of the two staircases surveying the tourists and commuters scurrying like ants below and trying to take photos that would do it justice.

Went To Times Square

After leaving Grand Central we went to one of the most famous sights in the world: Times Square. Times Square has a bad reputation and apparently New Yorkers hate it but I’m going to risk being seen as a cheesy tourist and say I really liked it. I couldn’t help being awed by the sheer scale of the lights, billboards and images barrelling towards me, buses and yellow taxis chugged past on either side. It had just finished raining when we arrived and the square had an wet ethereal glow, making for some cool puddle reflection photography. What I will say though is that I went back the following weekend when it was very crowded and as I spent around 45 minutes trying to force my way out of it I could see how the square could become trying.

Radio City Music Hall

We then went over to see Radio City Music Hall. Apparently it doesn’t hold as many concerts as it did in its glory days but its art deco frontage is still very iconic.

Saw The Christmas Displays On Fifth Avenue

Then we walked up Fifth Avenue to see the Christmas window displays, the most famous of which is Saks which is probably the most Christmassy shop in the world – it has an elaborate light display covering the building, beautiful displays in the windows, and blasts very loud Christmas music nonstop from its speakers.

Saw The Christmas Tree And Ice Rink At The Rockerfeller Centre

Opposite Saks Fifth Avenue is the Rockefeller Centre which hosts the famous tree and ice rink. I have to be honest and say this particular tourist sight was just too much – we were there on a Sunday and it was extremely crowded. It was difficult to move around and you had to jostle for a space near the barrier to see the ice rink and tree unobstructed. My recommendation to anyone visiting New York in December would be to go on a weekday.

Went Drinking In Bushwick

After emerging from the crowds at the Rockerfeller Centre we headed back over to Bushwick in Brooklyn close to where our airbnb was. We had a drink and bite to eat in Looking Glass then went next door to Lone Wolf. It was there we were reminded of the striking difference the role the bartender plays in the UK and USA – in the UK they generally just serve and rush around tidying up while in the US the bartender strikes up conversation with their customers, acting as a friend and confidant (and sometime therapist, I imagine). We experienced this a lot in New York and the barman in Lone Wolf played the role particularly well, engaging us conversation and asking us questions about who we were and why we were in New York. When he heard we were there to get married he insisted on giving us free shots.

Wandered Around Harlem

We spent most of the next day wandering around Harlem, a fascinating neighborhood. Harlem’s defining role in African American history, culture and the civil rights movement can be seen everywhere, from the boulevard named after Malcolm X to the tower block named after Martin Luther King and the world famous Apollo Theatre which helped launch the careers of Billie Holiday, James Brown and Diana Ross.

Surveyed The Skyline From Brooklyn Bridge Park

Just before sunset we went down to Brooklyn Bridge Park to take photos of the famous Lower Manhattan view both during the day and at night. The New York skyline is the most impressive I’ve ever seen and the whole time we were there I never stopped taking a second to think “wow” every time I saw it.

Had Pizza At Juliana’s

When we had finished taking a million photos, we had pizza at Juliana’s in Dumbo which is apparently among the best pizza in the city. Juliana’s had polite staff and a buzzing atmosphere but I would say the pizza was good, not incredible.

Went To A Mitski Gig At Brooklyn Steel

When we finished our pizza we went to Brooklyn Steel in Williamsburg for a sold out Mitksi gig (we had bought our tickets weeks beforehand). I found the venue a bit too cynical; if you were told to draw a hipster gig venue it would probably look exactly like Brooklyn Steel, with a big warehouse space, exposed brick walls, industrial pipes and very expensive drinks (to be fair, the building was a former steel manufacturing plant and I guess it’s just helpful that the current hipster style is places that look like steel manufacturing plants). The gig was good but again, the Brooklyn crowd could have been better (the guy beside me was on messenger during the gig).

Wandered Around Central Park

The next day we went to one of New York’s most famous sights: Central Park. I love city parks and “New York’s backyard” is the ultimate. You could spend all day there as it’s so huge and there’s so much to see, but we just walked around the reservoir down to The Great Lawn, saw the Strawberry Fields John Lennon Tribute, visited the Bethesda Fountain and saw the ice skating rink.

Were Guests In The Audience At The Stephen Colbert Show

After leaving Central Park we made our way down to Broadway where the Stephen Colbert Show is filmed as we had managed to snag tickets for the audience. It was so much fun; we were in the second row (just metres from guest Julia Roberts!) and the whole experience, the set and the performances from Stephen and the band and the celebrity guests, was so slick. It felt like the room was sprinkled with stardust.

Checked Out The Flatiron Building

After leaving the show we went down to the Flatiron building to take some slow shutter photographs of it. We also got some slow shutter pics of the Empire State Building which you can see in the opposite direction.

Went Drinking In McSorley’s Old Ale House

When we’d finished taking photos we went to McSorley’s Old Ale House, one of the oldest and most famous pubs in New York (Abe Lincoln and John Lennon are just some of its previous patrons). Sometimes these well known historic pubs can lose their authenticity but McSorley’s was still completely charming, with just two drinks on the menu (dark or light brew), an old school till and white shirted barmen.

Went For A Drink In Little Italy

We had such a good time in McSorley’s I was still in the mood for hanging out in a historic New York pub so we went down to Mulberry Street Bar in Little Italy. Mulberry Street Bar has appeared in The Soprano’s, The Godfather III and Donnie Brasco, and Frank Sinatra used to drink there. It was pretty quiet when we arrived but we still enjoyed sitting at the red and white checked tablecloth covered tables, looking at all the old pictures on the walls and listening to the regulars chewing the fat.

Had A Bagel With Cream Cheese

The next morning I finally had a bagel with cream cheese. Before our trip I was so excited at the prospect of eating New York’s bagels I told myself I was going to have one for breakfast ev ourery day but that didn’t happen as we were too busy rushing around. My first and only New York bagel was consumed in Knickerbocker Bagel in Brooklyn’s Bushwick which has about a zillion bagel varieties and flavoured cream cheeses to choose from. I opted for the jalapeno flavour and it was delicious.

Saw The Amazing Street Art In Bushwick

We then walked over to The Bushwick Collective, an outdoor gallery of murals from some of the most talented street artists in New York and beyond. At certain points of the neighbourhood every inch of every wall is covered in the most elaborate, visually stunning murals; you are surrounded by street art on every side. There was so much incredible art to see we spent several hours exploring.

Walked Through Brooklyn Neighbourhoods

Afterwards we spend the day walking through Brooklyn neighbourhoods. We strolled through Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Prospect Park, Park Slope and Carroll Gardens before ending up in Red Hook. When researching New York I had always thought I would prefer hipster Brooklyn to glitzy Manhattan, believing the laid back vibe to be more up my street. But as we wandered through the beautiful brownstone lined streets I felt that a lot of Brooklyn seemed like really rich suburbs while Manhattan’s streets had history, grit and immediate energy. There were areas of Brooklyn we walked through which were definitely not affluent but a lot of it certainly did feel very yummy mummy and daddy esque.

Went For A Drink In Red Hook

We ended our Brooklyn Exploration at Red Hook, a neighbourhood down by the docks which has cobbled streets, warehouses and a view of the Statue of Liberty. We stopped at a really cool bar called Sunny’s which dates back to the 1890s and is where fishermen used to drink.

Saw The Amazing Christmas Lights At Dyker Heights

We then got an uber up to Dyker Heights to see their Christmas lights. Dyker Heights is a very affluent Brooklyn neighbourhood (every house there looks like the house in Home Alone) and they go ALL OUT with their Christmas decorations: The houses are covered in Christmas lights, there’s massive nativity reconstructions and drummer boy statues in the gardens, Christmas music blasting from speakers: I can’t imagine how much it must cost these households to do this. It’s such an incredible sight it has become a tourist attraction and when we were there the pavements were lined with groups of people who had gone along to see it. There was even one organised tour group.

Had Pizza At Roberta’s In Bushwick

After leaving Dyker Heights we got an uber to Roberta’s in Bushwick. I had read in multiple guides that Roberta’s has among the best pizza in New York but I found the restaurant to be a bit up its own backside; it was so hipster, with graffiti on its walls, haughty tattooed staff and decor industrial pipe fittings (it was previously a warehouse, of course). The guy sitting beside me was wearing a scarf and a flat cap and worked for Google which I think pretty much summed up the clientele of the place. At the risk of being accused of needlessly having a go at hipsters, I thought the pizza was only good, not mindblowing.

Saw The Incredible Manhattan View At East River State Park

The next day we went to Williamsburg and saw the skyline view from East River State Park. I think this was actually my favourite New York skyline view as the Empire State Building is right in the centre. That is, my favourite view until we visited…

Saw The Even More Incredible Manhattan View From The Top Of The Rockefeller Centre

The Top of the Rock. The view there is incredible. I had previously read an article advising tourists to go to the top of the Rockefeller building instead of the top of the Empire State and I completely agree with this; at the top of the Empire State you are missing the most iconic New York building in the skyline – the Empire State! We arrived before sunset and took a million photos of the view during the day and waited until it was dark to see it lit up at night. I would go as far to say the view from the Top of the Rock is the best view I’ve seen in the world

Saw The Book Of Mormon On Broadway

After leaving the Rockerfeller Centre we to see The Book of Mormon on Broadway (grabbing a bite to eat from The Halal Guys food truck on the way). I just love Broadway; the history, and its role as a beacon for the most talented, singers, dancers and actors from around the world (one of the lead cast members in The Book Of Mormon was from Glasgow!) The show was brilliant – hilarious, sharp and filthy and the performances were top notch.

Drank In An Irish Pub in Greenwich Village

After leaving the theatre we went down to Fiddlesticks pub in the Greenwich village to meet Mark for a drink. The pub was mobbed with a very rowdy crowd who, according to Mark, were Wall Street staff on a Christmas night out.

Got The Roosevelt Island Tram

The next day we got the aerial tram over to Roosevelt Island. The tram lifts high above the road and gives cool view of the streets and the skyline over the East River.

Wandered Around Queens

We then headed up to Queens. We started in Astoria, a lovely neighbourhood which was traditionally the home of Greek immigrants, before heading east to Corona. I liked Corona a lot; home to a large Hispanic population, the streets were packed with food trucks and market stalls, the elevated subway thundering overhead. It felt more colourful and less gentrified than other neighbourhoods in the boroughs around Manhattan. Paul picked up bites to eat at the food trucks along Roosevelt Avenue (all of which he said were delicious) while I got a burrito at Tacos Veloz, a literal hole in the wall Mexican takeaway which is well known for its food

Saw The Famous Dumbo View

On Sunday we went down to Dumbo to see the famous view of the Manhattan Bridge between two narrow streets. If you go further down you get another classic New York view of the Empire State in the space between the bridge.

Walked Across The Brooklyn Bridge

We then walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, a quintessential New York experience. As it was a Sunday the bridge was busy with tourists but it was still a very cool experience, with the lower Manhattan skyline on the left, the traffic zooming underneath and the bridge’s magnificent arches overhead. Definitely a bucket list experience when you visit NYC.

Wandered Around The Upper East Side

Paul then went off to a football game while I went up to a neighbourhood we hadn’t explored yet, the Upper East Side, the old, rich New York of Woody Allen movies. I really enjoyed walking its streets and gazing at its beautiful townhouses, many of which had beautiful Christmas decorations. There’s quite a few spots from the movies in the Upper East Side, such as Audrey Hepburn’s apartment in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and John Malkovich’s apartment in Being John Malkovich. On the way back down to Midtown I walked down Park Avenue and checked out the super wealthy people going into their apartments.

Ate Many Pizza Slices

That night we went back to Williamsburg, drank in Skinny Dennis again and picked up a slice of pizza from a place we frequented a few times during our trip, Joe’s Pizza. We often picked up slices of pizza from the pizza joints around the city and always found them to be a satisfying, dirt cheap way to fill up while out and about (even a 99 cent a slice place we found in Midtown was yummy!). Joe’s Pizza is very popular and has pictures all over the wall of the celebrities who have visited.

Saw The World Trade Centre

We started our last day, the Monday, in Lower Manhattan at the World Trade Centre. The site of immense tragedy has been transformed into a dignified memorial with two pools of water on the sites of the former towers and the names of those who died carved in marble around them. Beside it is the new One World Trade Centre, now the tallest building in New York.

Wandered Around Greenwich Village And Tribeca

It says a lot that a visit to to Greenwich Village and Tribeca, an activity I was really looking forward to before our trip, was hurried through on our last day as we made our way uptown to get the bus to the airport. Visiting each neighbourhood made me wish we had more time to spend there; Tribeca had such a cool vibe, with its red brick buildings, warehouse lofts and chic boutiques, and Greenwich Village was like nowhere else in the city, with small winding streets, ivy covered buildings and cosy cafes. It was in Greenwich Village I picked up supposedly the best New York cheesecake in the city at Mah-Ze-Dahr (nice cheesecake but pretty pretentious place).

Walked Over The High Line

Another New York activity I’d listed as a priority, to walk over the High Line, was done as we made our way uptown to get the bus to the airport! The High Line is a really cool elevated railway line that’s been turned into a pedestrian pathway lined with flowers and plants. It offers great overhead views of the streets of Chelsea and there is contemporary artwork on display lining the path. While I did enjoy the High Line I think it would be even better in the summer when the greenery is in full bloom.

Despite cramming in as much as possible to our eleven days in New York, there was still so much we wanted to do that we didn’t have time for, like taking the Staten Island Ferry past the Statue of Liberty, exploring Chelsea, going to Governor’s Island, and so much more. Which begs the question: when do I get to go back?

P.S. This Is How Much Our Christmas Trip To New York Cost and My New York Photography Prints Etsy Shop.

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