Cheap Christmas in New York: Where to eat, drink, shop and play on a budget

New York is the ultimate festive holiday destination, but it’s also damn expensive. Here are a few insider tips on how you can escape to NYC for less

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The Independent Travel

What is it about the idea of Christmas in New York that has even the most die-hard grumpy Scrooge type desperate to go ice skating around a Christmas tree dressed in head-to-toe tinsel? Blame the movies – Home Alone II, When Harry Met Sally, Elf, Miracle on 34th Street, Trading Places, Scrooged… all have instilled in us a Pavlov’s dog-like association between the Big Apple and the twinkly magic of 25 December.

The problem, of course, is that a trip to New York might make for a memorable Christmas, but it could also ensure you're poverty-stricken for the following year. That is, unless you know a few handy secrets. Here’s how to have a fairy tale Christmas in New York on the cheap.

Where to buy presents

Forget big department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman and head for the Union Square Holiday Market instead. Little wooden booths hawk knick-knacks and beauty products made by independent, local craftspeople, all at refreshingly affordable prices, so you can say the gift is 100 per cent New York-made and save a fistful of cash. The market is open up to and including Christmas Eve. 

Where to play games (no, not charades)

Christmas is the one time of year when getting together and playing games isn’t eyed as a strange Dickensian throwback – it’s tradition, dammit. And you can even make it seem quite cool if you head to Barcade. This craft beer bar has two locations in the city – one in St Mark’s in Manhattan and one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – both serving a massive selection of microbrews. But, even better, they also offer stacks of vintage arcade games – everything from Centipede to Qbert – that you can play for cents. Both venues are open on Christmas Eve until 2am (which is technically Christmas Day, hurrah).

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Craft beers and vintage arcade games - Barcade is the perfect pub (Barcade/Facebook)

Where to grab dinner 

A traditional Christmas dinner out is always going to be expensive, but if you’re able to slightly adjust your ideas about what a Christmas dinner entails, you can still snag a budget feed. Most Chinatown joints remain open on Christmas Day for those who don’t celebrate the holiday, and one of the most enjoyably raucous is the Golden Unicorn in Lower Manhattan. Here, they offer traditional dim sum trolley service in a chaotic banquet hall, where carts pushed by a fleet of no-nonsense ladies are piled high with all manner of dumplings, steamed buns and more. Be quick to grab what you fancy as the trolleys weave around the tables – the most popular dishes run out fast. 

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The chaotic banquet hall at Golden Unicorn in Manhattan's Chinatown (Golden Unicorn Restaurant/Facebook)
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Just some of the delicious dim sum that is piled on trolleys at the restaurant (Golden Unicorn Restaurant/Facebook)

Where to walk it off

After stuffing yourself stupid, it’s always a good idea to go for a digestive stroll. Forget the much-hyped High Line and instead enjoy what is easily New York’s greatest wander, crossing from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn on the brilliantly photogenic, cable-stayed Brooklyn Bridge. You get ace views of the Empire State, the Chrysler, the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan Bridge, and at the end you can either turn left to explore Brooklyn Bridge Park (check out the painstakingly restored 1920s carousel), or hang a right to walk along the waterfront Brooklyn Heights Promenade, directly facing the Manhattan skyline, for a proper “By Zeus's beard, I’m in New York!” moment. 

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Passing between boroughs on the Brooklyn Bridge is a New York must (Shutterstock)

Where to get in the drinks

Now that you’re in Brooklyn, you might as well make a beeline for the borough’s studiously cool bars. Only, it’s Christmas Day, so most are closed. Dang. There is one beacon of cosy Christmas hope, however – Union Hall in the “hipster family” neighbourhood of Park Slope. (Imagine Haggerston mated with Highbury and had an incredibly cool but family-friendly baby and you’re pretty much there.) This converted warehouse (what else?) is generously strewn with roaring fireplaces, bocce courts (bocce is a type of boules) and even has a library with red leather chairs to settle into. And it does fried chicken for $12. It'll be open from 6pm on 25 December. Merry Christmas!

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Play a Christmas Day bocce tournament at Brooklyn's Union Hall (Ben Rosenzweig)
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Or simply cosy up in Union Hall's inviting library room (Isaac Danna)

Travel essentials

Getting there cheaper

Christmas is prime time to visit New York, but if you don’t mind flying out Christmas Eve and returning on 30 December, budget long-haul airline Norwegian (norwegian.com) say they can you get you to JFK for £574 return, leaving from Gatwick.

Staying there cheaper

Look, you just don’t get cheap hotel rooms in NYC. Even the “budget” options are expensive, and there’s no point paying piles of dollars for a so-so room. The best idea, then, is to rent a room or a studio on a sharing economy site – prices are generally between £30-60 per night. Or you could sleep in the back of a cab in Queens, though with temperatures dipping as low as -10C in winter, we’d struggle to recommend it. 

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