New York in winter: the sightseeing pros and cons

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      Even though the predicted blizzard never materialized in New York, the city’s epic January 26 shutdown will leave a lasting impression. It’s this kind of dramatic weather on the news—hurricanes, floods, and snowstorms—that sticks in our minds when it comes time to book a vacation.

      I know the trepidation. Last fall, before I booked my trip to New York for the end of December, I had my doubts about exploring the city in the dead of winter. I worried about blizzards, envisioned knee-high snowbanks lining the sidewalks, and mentally sorted through my closet for long johns.

      Although songs have been written about autumn in New York and television shows and movies celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Eve in the city, nobody talks about the Big Apple after the ball drops. Why visit in winter when you could go somewhere warm—a place where wild-card weather won’t potentially throw your vacation into a tizzy?

      One word: off-season. Every destination has a low period for visitors when the weather isn’t the greatest, which generally translates into fewer crowds and lower prices. For New York, that’s January and February, when the fall foliage is gone and holiday shopping is over. But there’s always a reason for off-season, and the question is whether the tradeoffs are worth it.

      I spent nearly two weeks in the city—straddling both the holiday frenzy of New Year’s Eve and the slump of the first week of January—and experienced both high and low seasons. I’ll get to the benefits and drawbacks in a moment, but first my biggest surprise: despite periodic storms, the city isn’t nearly as frigid in winter as you might think.

      A late-December walk on the High Line in New York.
      Carolyn Ali

      “New York is actually pretty temperate year-round,” said Pauline Frommer, editorial director of the Frommer’s guidebooks, when I met her in early January for a chat on the Upper West Side. The temperature had dipped slightly below freezing that day with light snow, but late December had been downright warm, with a high of 13 ° C one day—warm enough for me to devour a Caprese sandwich from Eataly at a sunny patio table with a view of the Flatiron Building.

      Frommer, who grew up in New York and still calls the city home, dispelled my notion that the winter streets are perpetually blanketed in snow. Certainly, there are storms, she said, but in recent years the weather has become quite variable. Hence, January and February could be just fine for sightseeing. Moreover, that’s when room rates drop. “A hotel that would cost you $259 a night any other time of the year, in January and February you can get for $119,” she said.

      “It’s a great time, culturally, in the city,” she added. Although many tourists visit in the summer rather than the winter, New Yorkers actually leave town during the hot months, she said; hence, that’s when restaurants close and Broadway shows tend to end their runs. In January and February, however, “a lot of Broadway shows open…it’s also when a lot of museum exhibits debut.” Everything is “fresh and new and exciting”.

      It's cozy inside the retro Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant.

      There are also plenty of promotions to entice visitors during the off-season. For example, NYC Restaurant Week starts this Monday (February 16) and runs to March 6, featuring $25 lunch and $38 dinner prix fixe menus at local restaurants, similar to Dine Out Vancouver. Off-Broadway Week starts February 23, with two-for-one theatre tickets until March 8.

      And if you want to go sightseeing, there are definitely fewer crowds of tourists to contend with. At 9:30 a.m. on a weekday in early January, I walked straight up to the elevator at the Empire State Building: there was no line whatsoever. The winding ropes set up to corral the potential line stretched frighteningly far, giving a good idea of how big the crowds can swell.

      In contrast, over the holidays, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum throbbed with visitors, and I was grateful to have a New York CityPASS—which grants discounted entry fees to six major attractions—that allowed me to skip these lines. (As media, I received a complimentary CityPASS from the NYC & Company tourism bureau.) Alternatively, attractions like the Empire State Building offer express entry tickets online.

      Carl Schurz Park in January. 
      Carolyn Ali

      I did experience a few days as cold as –6 ° C, but luckily, many of New York’s blockbuster attractions, like the Museum of Modern Art, are indoors. However, the blustery weather did make sampling the city’s street food more challenging; I left the MoMA for lunch at the famous Halal Guys stand down the block and practically froze my gloveless fingers in order to eat the lamb gyro. (It was worth it.)

      And while my sunny Circle Line Cruise around Manhattan was exhilarating, I could only take photos on the boat deck for so long before retreating inside for hot chocolate.

      Harbour view of downtown Manhattan and the One World Trade Center
      Carolyn Ali

      My favourite New York activity is simply strolling the city’s neighbourhoods, and that’s definitely easier to do in warmer weather. But winter doesn’t rule out walking. I enjoyed a jaunt on the High Line’s third and northernmost segment, which opened last fall and offers a fascinating look at the city’s rail yards.

      Perhaps I was just lucky. But as long as you’re not unlucky enough to encounter a major storm, there’s plenty to do inside even if it’s freezing outside, since New York has so many amazing shops, theatre and music venues, and restaurants.

      The weather was irrelevant to my experience of the lovely beaux-arts Grand Central Terminal with its fabulously retro oyster bar. On another day, a chilly Hell’s Kitchen walk provided an excuse to duck into Gotham West Market and slurp a schmaltzy bowl of Ivan Ramen soup. And after I was done braving the wind to admire the Manhattan skyline from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I warmed up at the iconic (and fantastic) Peter Luger Steak House.

      I’ve been to New York a handful of times in high season and have always had to accept that there’s so much going on in the city that I can’t pack everything I want to see into one trip. In winter, it was no different. New York is, after all, the city that never sleeps—well, almost never. Even in low season, there’s no time to hit the snooze button.

      Access: Midwestern and Eastern U.S. storms are unpredictable; to minimize the risk of travel disruptions, book a direct flight. For tourist info, see the website.