19 Actually Cool Things to Do in NYC This Winter

From winter surfing to ice skating to virtual Broadway shows.

Because of COVID-19, it already seems like winter in NYC will be filled with lots of changes. From dining rules to schools, stuff is opening, then closing, and then opening up again—and it can feel hard to keep up with all of the latest news and regulations. But don’t let that stop you from making plans! All you need is a mask, some hand sanitizer, and a list of the actually cool things to do in the city this season.

This winter, you can support Broadway through its shutdown by streaming live plays on your laptop, watch the New York Botanical Garden get lit up by thousands of glowing lights, or even learn to surf in the off-season on one of the city’s best beaches. We’ve rounded up the best ways to explore the city this winter (with face coverings and remaining socially distant, of course!) so you can get inspired to leave your apartment before the spring thaw.

Head to the NYBG's winter wonderland

Through January 9
The Bronx
The New York Botanical Garden’s GLOW event transforms the garden into a colorful wonderland with thousands of lights. The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory and Reflecting Pool act as the centerpieces, while the surrounding space is filled with music, pop-up dance performances, and live ice sculpting. The outdoor space provides plenty of room to spread out, but tickets must be purchased in advance to allow for social distancing. 
Cost: Adult tickets are $30

Learn to surf in the off-season

Rockaway Beach
Locals Surf School offers surfing lessons all year long so you can learn to surf without the crowds (wouldn’t you rather fall off your board without everybody watching?). While the water’s pretty freaking cold in the winter, a wetsuit will keep you nice and warm—and so will the knowledge that you’ll be hanging ten come summertime. While we might spend a lot of this winter stuck inside, a day spent out on the freezing water is the perfect shock to your system that’s unrelated to the pandemic.
Cost: Lessons start at $90

Bring a dance theater's season to your apartment

Through December 31
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is taking its beloved winter season online, bringing workshops, conversations with dancers and artists, and performances right into your home. Catch the world premieres of A Jam Session for Troubling Times, set to the music of Charlie “Bird” Parker; and Testament, with an original score by composer Damien Sneed. You can also celebrate the 60th anniversary of Ailey’s Revelations, a ballet set to African American spirituals and performed around the world.
Cost: Free

pier 17
Photo by Giada Paoloni

Find cracklin' upstate vibes close to home

Through March 2021
Pier 17
In the mood for a wintry upstate getaway? Pier 17’s The Greens is recreating those snowy, cozy vibes right here in NYC. Reserve a cabin (with a virtual fireplace and an air purifier), order a round of seasonal cocktails designed by award-winning cocktail bar Dante, and drink to not having to drive four hours in the snow to get away from it all. Psst: Scoring a cabin might seem hard, but new reservation slots are released every Monday morning at 10am for the following week, so set your alarm!
Cost: Cocktails start at $18

Help support Broadway through the shutdown

While the lights are still off on Broadway, Spotlight On Plays is streaming live performances for you to enjoy without having to put pants on. The full season has yet to be announced, but in the meantime you can catch Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue on December 10, and more plays by women and people of color will be featured in the coming months. Tickets are donation based, with the proceeds benefiting The Actors Fund to help Broadway through the COVID crisis. 
Cost: Tickets start at $5

The William Vale
Photo courtesy of The William Vale

Work out on the ice… and then drink up

Multiple Locations
At ice skating rinks around the city—including Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park, IC Ice Rink in Industry City, and Vale Rink at The William Vale (which is made with Glice, not ice)—work up a sweat and then warm up with a cocktail. In Bryant Park’s cozy igloos, you can sip on mulled wine or buckets of beers; at IC Ice Rink, you can explore the food and drink of Industry City; and at Vale Rink, you can get toasty in their heated enclosure.   
Cost: Varies

Marvel at the Manhattan Bridge light up the night

Through March
Light Year, a winter-long installation happening on the first Thursday of each month, will project gigantic 65’ by 40’ films from video artists around the world onto the Manhattan Bridge. The projections are 30 minutes long and can be viewed from the Pearl Street Triangle after dusk, so bring a date and bundle up for a chilly night time excursion, or steam it here.
Cost: Free

See a Brooklyn artist's first solo show

Through Summer 2021
Brooklyn Museum
John Edmonds, the inaugural recipient of the UOVO Prize for emerging Brooklyn artists, has his first solo show of photography and video at Brooklyn Museum this winter. With work that centers the queer Black experience, the exhibition explores Edmonds’ dialogue with the Museum’s Arts of Africa collection as well as portraits of his friends from NYC. The Museum’s permanent exhibition of Judy Chicago’s iconic feminist work The Dinner Party is well worth a visit, too.  
Cost: Adult tickets are $16

Xi’an Famous Foods
Xi’an Famous Foods | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Celebrate Chinese New Year in Chinatown

February 11 - February 26
While many of the city’s Lunar New Year traditions have been put on pause this winter, you can still honor the Year of the Ox in NYC. Pick a restaurant and head to Chinatown (we’ve made it easy by rounding up some of our faves!) for a celebratory meal. Chinatown’s restaurants were some of the first to be hit during the pandemic—even before closures affected the rest of the city—and you can help save the historic neighborhood by eating, drinking, and toasting to the new year. 
Cost: Varies

Spend a winter weekend in the city's past

Winter-long, Weekends only
Staten Island
Historic Richmond Town, a historic village with structures dating back to the 1660s covering over 100 acres of Staten Island, is hosting limited capacity guided tours through the winter. A guide will walk you through a tour of some of the houses and structures, taking you back in time through more than three centuries of Staten Island history. At the very least, a glimpse into how New Yorkers lived in 1720 might make 2020 seem a little better.  
Cost: $50 for 1-6 people

Go for a socially-distant hike in your local park

While the city’s parks can be uncomfortably packed, simply head to the road less travelled during off hours (in the middle of the weekday? early in the morning?) for a socially-distant hike. With plenty of green space in every borough, our lesser-known parks have miles and miles of hiking trails for a safe taste of the great outdoors. Pick a path in your local park, wear a mask, and get some fresh air in your lungs and some winter sunshine. 
Cost: Free

Have a cocktail in the great outdoors

While indoor dining’s future is iffy, outdoor dining seems to be here to stay. Find a patio, a sidewalk, a rooftop, or a backyard, and order up a meal—and a cocktail—that you didn’t have to make yourself. With the city’s Open Streets program, restaurants have taken over real estate that used to belong to car traffic. Just wear your mask when you’re not eating or drinking, okay? 
Cost: Varies

Stream an off-Broadway show

Some of the greatest minds behind NYC’s off-Broadway scene have brought their programming online. The Public Theater streams archived shows on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; La MaMa is hosting online happenings and artist talks; and the Theater for the New City has created an online reading series. The city’s stages might be dark for a while, but you can help keep them alive by streaming, donating what you can, and enjoying the performances from home. 
Cost: Varies

Fornino | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Try a slice of the city’s best pizzas

Never managed to score a table at Lucali? Now’s your chance to eat some of the city’s best pies without worrying if you’ll get marinara on your “going out” clothes. Order Beyoncé’s favorite pizza for takeout from Lucali, get a couple slices of The Mootz from Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop, score a classic Sicilian square pie from L&B Spumoni Gardens, or go for a new classic from Roberta’s or Emily. Order them one at a time, or -- for the ultimate pizza showdown -- get ‘em all at once for an at-home taste test.
Cost: Varies

Toast to the city with an everything bagel

Multiple locations
Remind yourself of the best the city has to offer with a whirlwind tour of takeout bagels. Eat your weight in lox, schmear, and poppy seeds with takeout or delivery from Tompkins Square Bagels, Russ & Daughters, and/or Black Seed Bagels. If you decide to eat ‘em all in one day, just drink a lot of water, OK? Otherwise you’ll end up as salted as that gravlax you pounded.
Cost: Varies

Get a little weird with House of Yes

Known for its freaky parties, wild costumes, and metric tons of glitter, House of Yes has moved their signature getdowns online for the time being. Attend a digital dance party, learn how to shake it at a digital “twerkshop,” or tip on Venmo during an online drag show—all you need to do to recreate the HOY experience IRL is to slap on a neon wig, wear your tightest clothes, and leave your inhibitions at your own front door. 
Cost: Free to attend virtual events

Cross the Brooklyn Bridge

City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge Park
While this tourist destination is usually crowded, these strange times have made it strangely empty. Grab a sandwich from Bread & Spread at your starting point in DUMBO, then reward yourself with a cocktail from Hole in the Wall on the other end before turning back around. Make sure to bring a camera to capture the skyline and the once-in-a-lifetime view of the quiet bridge.
Cost: Free to cross; food and drink prices vary

Spend an afternoon gallery hopping

The city’s galleries are open for gawking, where you can make a reservation to ooh and aah over art at places like Lehmann Maupin, David Zwirner, and Metro Pictures. Although the pandemic has led some galleries to close their doors permanently—Gavin Brown’s enterprise will be sorely missed—this is still a city of art and artists, and the pandemic is sure to inspire more great work to come.
Cost: Free

Keep the river on your right... or left

Brooklyn Bridge Park/Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Hudson River Greenway
Take a socially distant walk or bike ride for a sunny morning or afternoon spent outdoors. Bring your phone for a couple of sweet ‘grams along either the Hudson and East Rivers from Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively. Both have dedicated cycling and walking paths so you can be safe from cars and other bike riders and pedestrians (just wear a mask and social distance, please!).
Cost: Free

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Rachel Pelz lives and writes in Brooklyn.
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