For anyone who has seen Home Alone 2, Elf, or pretty much any epic Christmas movie, New York City is often in the spotlight as the ultimate winter destination. When it came to bringing Dom home with me for his first white Christmas, I was determined to make it unlike any other holiday he has experienced before, so that meant two things: a quick pitstop in NYC, and all the winter activities we could fit into 48 hours. Our last experience in New York City was memorable in a not-so-great way (we spoke to the police 3 times in 3 days due to a stolen camera, an unprovoked fight with a homeless man, and a history of watching too much CSI caused us to think we found a dead body, but that’s a whoooole other story for another day).
But if you’ve got a brief stopover in the Big Apple, read on to see what we got up to in the almost two days we spent in magical New York City.
Where we Stayed
HI New York
New York City at Christmas time is magical, sparkly, snowy, and EXPENSIVE. When I planned the end of my Southeast Asia trip with 2 nights in New York City to be the bow on top of a great year, I didn’t take into account the fact that hotels and Airbnb’s are soul-crushingly expensive. $400 for two nights in Manhattan is frankly just not going to happen, so I looked to my favorite go-to accommodation option, Hosteling International. HI New York | HIUSA is located on the Upper West Side just a few short blocks from Central Park, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. A warm shower, super comfy bed, high-speed wifi AND a place to meet new people with a ton of cool travel stories: count me in!
HI New York is a beautifully unique building on the corner of Amsterdam and 103rd St, and it was the perfect spot to not only recover from our jet lag, but base our New York City adventures from. The check-in process was easy, and once we dropped our bags off in our room and fan-girled over the fact they had hot showers (one thing Southeast Asia hostels lack in!), we decided to explore the surrounding area.
Just steps from the hostel was a Dunkin’ Donuts, a true savior when it comes to getting your cheap coffee fix in the Big Apple, around the corner was both McDonalds and a cheap pizza joint, and one block away was a subway station to get us to all the city hotspots. Convenience level: 100.
New York City can be daunting when it comes to knowing what to do, so my personal favorite way to get to know a city is through walking tours. So if you’re anything like me, you need to take advantage of HI New York’s free programs and activities! Learning the history from a local is great, but it’s the social aspect that I love the most, and that’s what HI New York does exceptionally well: bring people together.
One of my favorite moments of our stay in NYC was honestly the welcome party thrown by our hostel. The common area was full of people chatting and laughing, and we met so many amazing people there with incredible stories. The conversation was flowing and so was the free wine, so that combination made for one happy Jess!
What we Did
There were some very specific things on my personal Christmas Bucket List when it came to our trip to the city. In the wise words of Buddy the Elf, “First we’ll make snow angels for two hours, then we’ll go ice skating, then we’ll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookie-dough as fast as we can, and then we’ll snuggle.” Throw in a stop to Times Square and Rockefeller Center, and that pretty much sums up my dream trip to New York.
Our first day was off to a challenging start as we took 3 wrong subways all thanks to my expert navigation skills and a lack of wanting to ask for directions, but once we had safely checked into our hostel and set out to explore, we realized we made one massive faux pas: we had absolutely NO proper winter clothes! But according to my younger brother who came into the city to see us, the best shopping was where we were headed anyways! And no I don’t mean the best shopping as in Saks Fifth Ave and designer stores - I wasn’t about to blow my whole monthly SE Asia budget on one coat. So my type of shopping is those in Times Square where I can find a winter coat for $25 (Forever 21, FTW).
After me and Dom had picked ourselves out some warm new winter outfits, we gawked at all the Times Square lights for a while, snapped some typical tourist photos, and set our sights on our next activity: FOOD. Big shoutout to Chick-Fil-A for the best customer service in the fast food game. That was just about all we could manage to do on our first night before the jet lag hit, so let’s fast forward to our first morning in the city!
We only had one full day to explore the city, so Central Park was an absolute must on my bucket list. We took a quick morning walk just a couple blocks from our hostel, and found our way to the entrance to Central Park. Obviously I was on lookout for the Park Rangers the whole time (are the Elf jokes getting old yet? HA), but we ended up at the Lake Viewing Area, a beautiful frozen lake overlooking the city buildings. I couldn't resist having an impromptu photoshoot when the snow started falling, so I was literally giddy with excitement. My brother Nick did a killer job with the photos, and it was just a pretty darn picture-perfect winter moment.
We wandered through Central Park past horse-drawn carriages and people walking their dogs, and made our way over to the ice rink. If you’re in NYC during the winter time, ice skating is definitely something not to miss. Even if you’re not much of an ice skater, it’s still a fun activity to watch the other skaters wibble and wobble over the ice and try their darnedest to stay on their feet. It could also be made into a fun drinking game, now that I think about it: Drink every time someone falls. Patent pending.
Next up on the bucket list was Rockefeller Center, which is basically the epitome of magical Christmas activities. You have ice skating, you have twinkly lights, and you have the most extra Christmas tree you’ll ever see in your life. This 72-foot tree towers above the ice-skating rink and puts your own Christmas tree back home to shame. There’s no competing with New York City.
We spent the good part of an hour just people watching while everyone skated to the tune of Christmas carols, and then headed over to see a new insta-famous sight, and somewhere equally as exciting due to its appearance in Gossip Girl, Lotte Palace. Filling the already impressive courtyard is a gorgeous cone-shaped tree, and photos do it better justice than any words I can write, so take a look below! It was the best way to wrap up an amazing day, and we headed back to HI New York for our last sleep before heading home for the holidays.
What we Ate
Dom’s only request for our trip to New York was pretty simple: Pizza. The way to his heart is easy, and there’s something truly special about $1 pizza slices the size of your head, especially when found in a city where food is generally expensive. But my brother Nick wasn’t about to settle for any old pizza joint. He wanted the best of the best, so where did he take us? The World Famous Little Italy Pizza, located between 5th and Madison.
I was skeptical, because after all, anyone can claim to be “World Famous” these days, but this place honestly deserved that title. We paid a much higher price of $5 per slice, but still worth it once you taste it. Other than fulfilling Dom’s pizza wish, our diet consisted of whatever was cheapest: Chick-Fil-A, Dunkin Donuts, and McDonalds were the main hotspots, so you could say our America diet was off to a good start.
How we Saved Money
If you’re anything like me, you are one budget-savvy, penny-pinching gal. If you’re anything like Dom, you think your bank account is unlimited and should be spent on pizza, always. For the sake of this section, let’s pretend you’re more like me LOL. New York City prices were a huge shock after being in SE Asia for so long, so to make our budget go further, I became an expert at seeking out cheap eats, free things to do, and getting around without breaking the bank.
It may be a daily thing for city-goers, but for some of us, we’re not so experienced at subway travel. In the Philippines, Thailand, and Bali, my main form of transportation was either a motorbike, Uber, or Grab, so when it came to reading a subway map, it felt more like looking at a game of snakes and ladders. Luckily, Google Maps had my back, and was able to get us from point A to B every time. Each subway ride costs $2.75, so it’s super cheap compared to getting a taxi or Uber, and you can get across town within minutes even during rush hour. If you want to get the most bang for your buck and have a few days to see the sights, i’d recommend getting a tourist pass for the subway, which is well worth the $32 for unlimited rides.
Other than staying in hostels, eating cheap food, and taking public transport, my best money-saving tip is to take full advantage of any free activities. HI New York offers free activities and events (see above section), but if you’re looking for additional budget-friendly options, Travel and Leisure has an awesome list of 21 Totally Free Things to Do in NYC, so I’d recommend giving it a look!
Aaaaand that’s a wrap folks! Short, sweet, and magical. Our December trip to New York was able to restore our faith in big cities and was the most memorable way to end a wild year of travels. Big thanks to HI New York, HI USA, and all the amazing people we met there for making our trip extra special! Xoxo, Jess