Contrasting cityscapes in New York City.
Editor's note: as in California and much of the country, stay-at-home orders are currently in place in New York City as of spring 2020. Wherever you are, stay safe, as we look forward to travel restrictions easing in the fall and winter months ahead.
NYC is at its most incredible in the spring, when the leaves grow back and flowers blossom and a sense of optimism fills the air, a positive energy among the population after a long winter. Autumn is also quite beautiful with its colored leaves and pleasant temperatures. Summer, meanwhile, can be overwhelmingly hot and humid, but has mild to warm nights with lots of activity and events.
So why then would one choose to visit in the cold and bitter winter? I don't know, any number of reasons: work reasons; visiting friends; cheaper airfares. But in any case, should you happen to end up in NYC in the winter, there is still plenty to do and take in, even if more time will be spent indoors rather than outdoors.
Wintertime light and shadows.
Surviving NYC winter temps
Firstly, if you don't have a warm winter coat, then just improvise and wear lots of layers. Buy a cheap long-sleeved undershirt for $5 from a street vendor; then add a couple of t-shirts over that; then whatever sweater or jacket you brought from SoCal. Two pairs of socks instead of one; some cheap gloves (which can also be bought from a street vendor) and you'll survive.
The worst days are actually NOT snow days in terms of the cold, but when there is a vicious, biting wind that just infiltrates every bone in your body. On the contrary, snow days are the best – despite the "oh-so-cool-seen-it-all-before" attitude of local New Yorkers (who these days are mostly just transplants who relocated from Ohio and elsewhere). When it snows it's usually not so windy, so the cold is tolerable and walking through Central Park, or any park for that matter, is such a beautiful, simple pleasure: a hot coffee in hand while making snowballs and having fun like a kid. But when the snow stops falling and the already-fallen snow turns to a dirty grey slush with traces of golden dog urine, it's time for a chance of scene.
What to see, eat and drink
To get out of the cold, NYC needless to say, has an infinite number of incredibly unique, independent local cafes and coffee shops. They are everywhere, but especially concentrated in areas like the East Village (a more bohemian, alternative neighborhood); Greenwich Village (a more NYU college-esque demographic); and West Village (a trendy area, yet open-minded and doesn't feel pretentious). The Lower East Side is also a funky neighborhood, with lots of obscure little places to enjoy a latte and pastry – and get warm and cozy again before facing the cold. If a slightly more mainstream family-friendly scene is your thing, then the Upper West Side and Upper East Side will suit you better.
If you are hungry and want something to eat, well, it would require an entire book to get through all of what this city has to offer. So I'll just try to narrow it down a little. Most importantly, though, in a city that is so diverse and interesting, I can never understand why anyone would even consider a chain restaurant that they could find anywhere in the country. I would recommend some of the unique ethnic enclaves where you can find some really original down-home international cooking. If you're feeling adventurous, you can take the L train to the G train to the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn – which, despite recently becoming a trendy hotspot to live, still retains a large Polish population with many authentic Polish restaurants – for a solid home-cooked meal appropriate for a cold winter. There are many to choose from, but I recommend the casual, well-priced Polka Dot at 726 Manhattan Ave. (which, to emphasize, is actually in Brooklyn and not Manhattan despite the name).
If you want to stay within Manhattan and not stray too far, there is a cluster of Indian restaurants in the East Village on 1st Ave (a few blocks north of Houston St.) which offers amazing lunch special deals – with one appetizer brought to you after another before the actual main course – all as part of the included price which is usually under $10. My regular spot is Panna II Garden, up a small flight of stairs at 93 1st Ave. The place has a low ceiling and a million colored lights; it's pretty psychedelic. Sometimes there's lively Indian-pop music and sometimes just silence. The staff aren't always so friendly, but whatever, just ignore that and enjoy the delicious and substantial food - which is ALWAYS good, irrespective of the staff's mood.
How's the weather outside... cold and gray and already getting dark at 4 p.m.? Sounds like it's time to get started on a happy hour! For an expensive city, NYC has a surprising number of well-priced bars, especially in the late afternoon/early evening. The descriptions I mentioned above of certain neighborhoods apply equally to the bar scene, in terms of demographics and vibe. You can find a cool hole-in-the-wall punk rock bar in the East Village or Lower East Side (one of which offers an insanely priced deal of beer AND shot for $3 – it's a secret and you'll just have to find it). You can find college bars in Greenwich Village with $1 beer nights along MacDougal St. And even in the more expensive West Village, if you're early enough, you can still find some reasonable happy hours within stylish yet down-to-earth bars such as Oppa at 162 W. 4th St., and countless other places within this area. The "cool" scene these days is supposedly in Brooklyn, specifically Williamsburg and Bushwick. (But that could change within a month, depending on what hip millennials say on Instagram.) A more generic scene – sports bars and pubs and such – can be found in the Upper West Side, Upper East Side and around Times Square/ Midtown/ Clinton (formerly known as Hell's Kitchen).
"Whatcha lookin' at?" Art is everywhere in NYC.
Museums & galleries
For some arts and culture, although any day is a good day to find art openings and exhibitions, Thursdays tend to be especially lively. The more well-known famous galleries and museums tend to have either free or "pay how much you feel" entry fees on Thursdays, including the New Museum on 235 Bowery. Across the street at 250 Bowery is the International Center of Photography Museum (ICP). There are several smaller galleries in the vicinity also.
The streets of Chelsea, generally between 10th & 11th Ave. from 20th to 28th St (as an approximation) has a ton of interesting smaller galleries that are open to the public. It's best to arrive around 5 p.m., as many of the galleries close their doors at 6 p.m. while other galleries will actually open at 6 p.m. for opening-party events (generally open to the public). It's always a pleasure to appreciate some artwork among a cultured, interesting demographic; the atmosphere tends to be warm and receptive, and conducive to mingling and conversing with strangers over some red wine that warms you up for the cold night waiting outside.
And when you do finally step out into the night, maybe it's the wine or the city lights or maybe just psychological, but the cold somehow doesn't feel so bad after dark. Whereas when you're rugged up and freezing at 1 p.m., it's just kind of miserable. But you make the best of it... and in a city like NYC, you will always find plenty to do, regardless of the weather conditions. If that involves spending more time indoors, then that's what you do. (And plan a return trip for later in the year during the warmer months and experience the city again, this time from a different perspective - and bringing with you some savviness and know-how from this winter expedition.)