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Note: All travel is subject to frequently-changing governmental restrictions—please check federal, state, and local advisories before scheduling trips. 

As an NYC tour guide, I’ve been showing tourists around Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens since 2017. Part of my job is clearing up common misconceptions about where to eat, which neighborhoods to avoid, and how to get the most out of a short stay in an expensive city. Here are a dozen of the most common misconceptions I encounter among visitors to New York City, plus a few insider secrets.

RELATED: America’s most awesome vintage record stores

The best Italian food is in Little Italy

linguine with white clam sauce from Don Peppe South Ozone Park Queens

Linguine with white clam sauce from Don Peppe | Photo: Brian Cicioni

Like many things in New York, some of the best Italian restaurants are in areas where tourists rarely venture out to. Queens, for example, has several local neighborhood gems that seem to always be full despite less than convenient locations. Whether it’s Don Peppe in South Ozone Park, Corona’s Park Side, or any of the upscale Italian restaurants along Cross Bay Blvd in Howard Beach, there are places that will feel much more exclusive and rewarding if you make an effort to venture out of Manhattan. Brooklyn and Staten Island have their own neighborhood gems as well, including Bamonte’s, Joe and Pat’s, and L & B Spumoni Gardens. If you decide to stay in Brooklyn, find your hotel right here.

A Broadway show will set you back $200

Springsteen on Broadway Walter Kerr Theatre

Springsteen on Broadway Walter Kerr Theatre | Photo: Brian Cicioni

While the hottest tickets in town usually cost a pretty petty, not every Broadway show is comparable to Hamilton or Springsteen on Broadway. Thanks to sites like CheapTickets and apps like TodayTix, you can attend Broadway shows for as little as $20 per person. TodayTix started in New York and offers tickets to dozens of different local events at any given time.

Times Square is the most exciting part of New York 

Times Square NYC

Times Square NYC by Brian Cicioni

While Times Square does give seemingly new meaning to the saying, “bright lights, big city,” locals see it as a place to change trains or catch a play. Most people who work near Times Square can’t afford to live there and are more likely to spend their leisure time elsewhere. There’s no harm seeing what all the fuss is about, but if you spend more than 10% of your time here, you are missing out on the real New York. Instead, check out some of the exciting neighborhoods in the outer boroughs like Astoria and Brooklyn Heights. or hop on the tram to Roosevelt Island. Subway cards accepted.

A ride on the State Island ferry counts as a visit to the “Forgotten Borough”

Staten Island Ferry

Staten Island Ferry terminal | Photo: Brian Cicioni

There’s more to the “Forgotten Borough” than St. George Ferry Terminal. Many of the island’s tourist attractions are conveniently located along the SIR (Staten Island Railway), which means there’s really no reason to just turn around as soon as the next ferry back to Manhattan is available. Instead, check out some of SI’s museums, including the National Lighthouse Museum or the Sri Lankan Arts & Culture Museum (currently offering virtual tours). If you want to venture out to the end of the SIR line, check out The Conference House, one of NYC’s under-the-radar historic houses. If you’ve never tried Sri Lankan food, check out Lakruwana. They have a weekend buffet, which will give you the chance to try numerous dishes without breaking the bank.

The Bronx is dangerous

Welcome to the South Bronx

Welcome to the South Bronx | Photo: Brian Cicioni

Like the rest of the NYC boroughs, The Bronx is a series of neighborhoods. While the northern parts are more suburban and spread out, the South Bronx has a more gritty, urban feel. But that does not mean that you should avoid the only NYC borough that’s connected to the U.S. mainland. There are walking tours available if you are looking to dip your toes into the South Bronx, which has a lot of interesting hip-hop history and street art. Hundreds of tourists make the journey to 187th Street and Arthur Avenue for a taste of The Real Little Italy. There’s also the New England fishing village feel of City Island, which you can visit by bus from the end of the 6 line.

Queens is just where the airports are

Unisphere Flushing Meadows Corona Park Queens

Unisphere Flushing Meadows Corona Park Queens | Photo: Brian Cicioni

Thinking of Queens as the borough where you fly in and out of is probably the number one mistake tourists make when visiting New York. Chef and TV personality Andrew Zimmern once said that if Queens were a separate city, it would be the world’s greatest food city. You can find some of the best food in New York along the elevated 7 train, and it’s far more affordable than what you’ll get in Manhattan. Queens also has several museums, including MoMA PS1, the Noguchi Museum, and the Queens County Farm Museum.

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is the best way to experience Brooklyn

Welcome to Brooklyn

Welcome to Brooklyn | Photo: Brian Cicioni

Just like taking the Staten Island Ferry to St. George terminal does not constitute a proper visit to SI, walking across the famous Brooklyn Bridge does not equal a true Brooklyn experience. NYC’s most populous borough is home to some of New York’s most unique ethnic neighborhoods, quirky museums, and sought-after pizza pies and slices. Walking across the bridge is an essential Brooklyn experience, but so is riding the elevated Q train out to Coney Island or Brighton Beach, also known as “Little Odessa.”

The Hop-on Hop-off bus is the best way to see New York

Coney Island station Brooklyn

Coney Island station Brooklyn | Photo: Brian Cicioni

If you know nothing about the city and only have a few hours before your train pulls out of Penn Station, then the Hop-on Hop-off Bus is the best way to see New York. It will take you past 25 NYC landmarks, which you can snap pictures of to show your family and friends that you visited NYC. Assuming you have more than a few hours, skip the bus, save some money, and pick a subway line that stops along some of the city’s lesser-known attractions. There’s no boring subway line. It just depends on what you are into.

There’s only one Chinatown

Welcome to Flushing

Welcome to Flushing | Photo: Brian Cicioni

While Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown is still the most famous, it’s no longer the largest. And depending on where you are staying, Brooklyn’s Sunset Park or Flushing, Queens may be more convenient options. With more than 30,000 Chinese-born residents, Flushing is one of the fastest-growing Chinatowns in the world. It’s also easy to get to thanks to the 7 train and the Long Island Railroad. If you’re visiting on the weekend, get the LIRR City Ticket, which is only $4.50 each way (compared to $2.75 for a subway ride).

The best hotels are in Times Square

Williamsburg Hotel Brooklyn

Williamsburg Hotel Brooklyn | Photo: Brian Cicioni

If you’re arriving by bus, train, or flying into Newark, Midtown will likely be your first bite of The Big Apple. It’s tempting to get the nearest hotel to Penn Station or Port Authority and use that as a base for the duration of your trip. After all, most of the NYC subway lines intersect between Grand Central Station and Port Authority. But if you’re flying into LGA, you should consider staying in Long Island City, Queens, which is one subway stop from Brooklyn or Manhattan and has both chic and affordable lodging options. In Manhattan, consider Chelsea, Koreatown, or the Lower East Side, all of which have a more authentic feel and more affordable hotels.

Central Park is the city’s only must-see green space

Prospect Park Brooklyn

Prospect Park Brooklyn | Photo: Brian Cicioni

While locals love Central Park for many reasons, it’s not the only must-see green space in NYC. It’s not the largest either. That distinction goes to Pelham Bay Park, which is also the final stop on the 6 train. For many tourists, Central Park conjures up images of GhostbustersHome Alone 2, and When Harry Met Sally, but Flushing Meadows-Corona Park has the famous Unisphere, as well as remnants from two World’s Fairs. Don’t forget about Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, either.

New Yorkers are impatient and mean

Conti's Pastry Shoppe

Conti’s Pastry Shoppe by Brian Cicioni

It’s best to get right to the point when approaching a New Yorker, especially if it’s someone who was born and raised there. Clerks and wait staff will be polite IF you know what you want and don’t spend endless time deliberating whether you want to go for the round or square slice. As long as you don’t hold up lines or make people’s jobs more stressful than they already are, you’ll be safe in New York City, just like the AC/DC song.

Tagged: New York City

Note: CheapTickets compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site.

Brian Cicioni
Brian is an NYC-based travel writer and tour guide. You can see his work at CheapTickets, Matador Network, and USA Today 10 Best. He also has his own blog, where you can find practical tips on what to see, where to eat, and how to explore major cities along public transit lines. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.
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Note: All travel is subject to frequently changing governmental restrictions—please check federal, state and local advisories before scheduling trips.

The weather is still good, and many indoor locations are still closed. What’s a traveler to do? How about seek out a rad staircase or two? Not only do these fanciful locations serve up some serious Instagram inspo, they can also double as an ad-hoc gym. (Not that you need any excuse to double down on the traveling treats.) Read on to find out where you can become the ultimate stair climber.

RELATED: 7 new “eat streets” to check out in U.S. cities this summer

Micheltorena Stairs: Los Angeles

Flickr CC: Shinya Suzuki, photo has been color corrected

Located in Silver Lake, just off Sunset boulevard (exact address: 3400 Sunset Blvd), the Micheltorena Stairs are the most beautiful of LA’s network of secret staircases. The Instagramable pastel steps and bright red hearts are the work of Corinne Carrey, who launched her secret beautification at night. But its power to brighten up the neighborhood is clear as day.

16th Avenue Tiled Steps: San Francisco

Flickr CC: sergejf

A dazzling staircase so popular that it even has its own website. The tiling reminiscent of a starry night began in 2003 by artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher as a way to connect the community, and each panel on the 163 steps is handmade. Visit on a nice day and stop by the southside gardens after you’ve made your trek.

Shakespeare and Jerome Avenue: NYC

You don’t have to be a psychopath with questionable taste in music to appreciate where Joaquin Phoenix cut loose during his infamous Joker staircase dance routine. Go ahead and saunter down the steps. Just keep the honorary residents of Gotham in the surrounding buildings in mind, and keep the noise down while you catch the ultimate photo opp.

East Lake Stairs: Atlanta

It’s 2020. Joy is limited. Do you really need a reason to climb a rainbow staircase? 

Wilcox Wall stairs: Seattle

Remember those magic eye posters that dominated the 1990s? Seattle’s Wilcox Wall Stairs are basically that…in stair form. Built in 1913 by Walter Wilcox, the 464 steps emerge from the ornate concrete, and take you on a visually dazzling trip under a series of Gothic arches. Bring a pair of earphones to drown out the nearby traffic, and it’s as close as you’ll get to a walk back in time.

Fort Worth Water Gardens: Forth Worth

Flickr CC: Rodney

Designed by Phillip Johnson in 1974, the Fort Worth Water Gardens is perhaps the most elaborate fountain/cooling oasis you’ll ever visit on a hot Texas day. Walking down the terraced steps allows you to become one with the cascading blue water—or at least as one as you can become without a change of clothes. Bring lunch and hang out by the quiet pool after finishing your mini trek.

Meridian Hill, Malcolm X Park: Washington DC

Flickr CC: Ben Schumin

Good news for runners—10 trips up and down the stairs in Malcolm X Park is roughly a mile. The steps gradual incline is custom made for speed. Or for strolling if you’re just in it to admire the aristocratic-like scenery of President John Quincy Adams’ former home.

The Oakley Street Mosaic Staircase: Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is a hilly city, which the South Side Slopes took advantage of when they commissioned artist Laura Jean McLaughlin to create a series of playful mosaics, depicting colorful creatures and characters. Because we all need a little fantasy while working out.

 

Tagged: California, Cheap City, USA, Cheap Tips, City, Destinations, L.A., New York City, seattle, Texas, Top 10 list, Types of Travel

Note: CheapTickets compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site.

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Once you’ve done the statue and shops, it’s time to get to know the real New York—the one where people tired of living in cramped quarters come out to celebrate perfect fall weather in the most perfect way: with alcohol and fresh air. Here 10 great spots in New York for outdoor lounges and beer gardens.

RELATED: 6 cheap New York hotels you’ll actually love

Traditional beer gardens

There’s no shortage of German-style beer gardens in the city. Here are some of our favorites.

1. Bohemian Hall & Beergarden
(29–19 24th Ave; Astoria, Queens)
One of the oldest and largest outdoor drinking venues in New York, this popular outdoor spot serves Czech beers and grilled treats.

2. Radegast Hall & Biergarten
(113 N 3rd St.; Williamsburg, Brooklyn)
This Williamsburg beer hall and garden serves up grilled sausages and a nice variety of Czech and German beers on tap.

3. Zum Schneider
(107 Ave C at 7th St; Manhattan, New York)
Modeled after a Bavarian bierhaus, this restaurant and beer garden in the East Village serves German fare and imported beers with a side of live music.

Friends in public park drinking cold beer

Drinking in the wild

Enjoy a little urban nature while you imbibe at these top outdoor spots.

4. The Roof garden at the Met
On top of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art
(1000 5th Ave; Upper East Side, Manhattan)
End your day at the museum with a drink at this great spot overlooking Central Park.

5. Boat Basin Cafe
(West 79th St & the Hudson River; Upper West Side, Manhattan)
This casual cafe, housed  within the walls of the historic 79th Street Boat Basin, overlooks the Hudson River.

6. Loeb Boathouse at the Central Park Boat House
(East 72nd St and Park Drive North; Upper East Side, Manhattan)
There’s no place like Central Park in fall, and there’s no place in Central Park like this cafe on the lake where you watch row boats and gondolas meander across the lake, just like they have for more than 150 years.

Pools & views

These are for hotel guests only, but you can’t beat them for their view or for their outdoor pools, a rarity in Manhattan.

7. The Pool Deck at The Empire Hotel
(44 W 63rd St; Upper West Side, Manhattan)
The rooftop at this Upper West Side hangout near Lincoln Center boasts two bars, a fireplace, retractable roof and 360-degree views of the city.

8. Plunge at the Hotel Gansevoort
(18 9th Ave; Meat Packing District, Manhattan)
Anyone can drink at the lounge at this Meatpacking District hotel, but it’s a separate area from the guest-only pool.

Samantha Chapnick is a New York writer who scours international destinations looking for what hasn’t been found.

Tagged: City, Tips & advice

Note: CheapTickets compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site.

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Sure, you could opt for a romantic, candlelit dinner when February 14 rolls around. But if you really want to wow your sweetheart this year, nothing says “I love you” like two tickets to see their favorite performer. It’ll be much more memorable than giving them flowers (again) and could be the start of a new V-Day tradition! Here are 11 awesome shows happening on the lover’s holiday, with easy-to-snag seats available on CheapTickets.

RELATED: 10 best cheap places to travel in 2019

Hand Holding Lit Lighter At Music Concert

Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden: NYC

Date night in New York City doesn’t get much more New York-y than Billy Joel. Sure, thousands of other fans will be swaying along to the Grammy winner’s hits, but when Joel performs “Just The Way You Are,” it’ll feel like he’s personally serenading just you and your date.

Blake Shelton at Chesapeake Energy Arena: Oklahoma City

Everyone’s favorite judge on The Voice (sorry Adam Levine) is the headliner here, but it’s a packed bill that also includes Lauren Alaina, The Bellamy Brothers, Trace Adkins and more. Yep, there’s a country crush for every member of the family. And since it’s Valentine’s Day, don’t be surprised if Shelton’s sweetheart Gwen Stefani makes a surprise appearance.

Jeff Dunham at BOK Center: Tulsa

Quirky couples who appreciate a good laugh will surely get a kick out of comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, who’s introducing new characters (including a puppet who works as Trump’s Twitter advisor) in his new show. And if you’re feeling lonely on this lover’s holiday and need a laugh, just remember that at least your date’s not a puppet. Talk about a funny valentine…

A Microphone In A Spotlight On A Stage

Andrea Bocelli at American Airlines Arena: Miami

Record producer David Foster has often said Bocelli’s voice is the most beautiful in the world. So if you’re gonna go big—like take your relationship to the next level big—go with the kind of voice that will not only make you appreciate opera, but also might inspire a proposal.

Anita Baker at Radio City Music Hall: NYC

Anita Baker is an iconic R&B singer. Radio City Music Hall is an iconic venue. Baker’s smooth jams like “Sweet Love” and “Giving You the Best I Got” are iconic love songs. Long story short, attending this concert means you’re going to have an iconic Valentine’s Day.

Crowd In A Music Show on valentines day

Dierks Bentley at Citizens Business Bank Arena: Los Angeles area

This country singer recently scored his 18th number one single with the song “Burning Man,” which means he’s probably in a celebratory mood. So if you and your significant other are also in a festive mood (celebrating a milestone in your relationship, perhaps?), this would be a fun concert to attend.

Crowd And Lights At A Music Concert

Panic! At The Disco at Honda Center: Orange County

Here’s a fun fact about Panic! At The Disco: Brandon Urie is the only remaining member of the band. The other guys performing are just touring musicians who allow Urie to shine in the spotlight all on his own. If you’re also feeling single and fabulous, and are craving a solid early 2000s pop-punk moment, pull a Urie and show up solo.\

Kelly Clarkson at Van Andel Arena: Grand Rapids, MI

The original American Idol winner can definitely belt out the kind of love songs that make you soon, but it’s her single gal (and guy) anthems that really get the crowd going. Turning Valentine’s into a “Galentine’s” Day? Grab your besties and rock out to “Since U Been Gone.”

2Cellos at Pepsi Center: Denver

Want to wow your date with an unexpected show that’ll blow them away? 2Cellos should do the trick. The two guys behind this duo are selling out arenas, but they’re still under the radar. If you happen to be on a first date at this show, watching them rock out on songs like “Smooth Criminal” will make a good first impression—and set the bar for future dates.

Air Supply at Emerald Queen Casino: Seattle

If you’re in the mood for a chill night out, the smooth sounds of this ‘80s soft-rock duo will set the tone for a chill February 14. Fingers crossed the set list favors more love songs like “Every Woman in the World”) over breakup tunes like “All Out of Love.”

Concert Crowd At Live Music Festival on valentines day

Cher at Bankers Life Fieldhouse: Indianapolis

Since Cher’s career spans decades, there’s a song in her catalogue for just about every type of relationship, from true love (“I Got You Babe”) to a bitter break up (“Strong Enough”). Add into the mix the ABBA covers she’s performing (to promote her latest album Dancing Queen), and there’s definitely a song here for every type of couple.

Tagged: Events, Music

Note: CheapTickets compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site.

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It’s Christmastime. In towns big and small all over America, people are gathering around Christmas trees as they are illuminated for the first time this year. Some of those trees are iconic, adorning Christmas ornaments and postcards, but for some of them, their glory lies in their story. And the best part? It doesn’t cost a dime to take in their majesty, save for the cup of hot chocolate you’ll likely buy on your way. Take a look at this list of some of America’s best public Christmas trees.

The Iconic Tree:

Rockefeller Center Tree

Rockefeller Center Tree | Flickr CC: Shinya Suzuki

Rockefeller Center, New York City — This is about as iconic as you can get when it comes to Christmas trees. New York City’s massive tree overlooks the ice skating rink in Rockefeller Plaza and has made it into many a classic Christmas movie scene. Something that really makes this tree iconic though, is its origins. The New York Times did a story earlier this month that revealed the history of the tree, noting that hard-working Italian immigrants first pushed a tree up in 1931 after a long day of constructing the city into what we know it as today.

 

Millennium Park Christmas tree

Chicago’s Christmas tree sits in front of the city’s skyline at Millennium Park. Photo: Ally Marotti

Millennium Park, Chicago — Chicago’s giant public Christmas tree usually sits in the middle of the German Christmas market, Christkindlmarket, in Daley Plaza in the heart of downtown, but this year it was moved to Millennium Park. Now it rises above Cloud Gate (aka, the Bean) in front of Chicago’s skyline.

  

Gifted trees:

Boston Christmas Tree

Boston Christmas Tree | Flickr CC: Eric Kilby

Boston Christmas Tree — A tree has been lit in Boston each year since 1941, and since 1971, each tree has come from Nova Scotia. Illuminated in Boston Common, the tree is gifted to the city each year by Nova Scotia as a thank you for assistance provided during the 1917 Halifax explosion, which destroyed much of the city. Boston sent help immediately, although their train was delayed by a blizzard. Still, the Nova Scotians never forgot.

 

Union Station Christmas tree

The Christmas tree inside Union Station in Washington D.C. is a gift from Norway. Photo: Chris Gladis – Flickr

Union Station, Washington D.C. — Norway gifts a Christmas tree to Washington D.C. each year as a symbol of friendship with the U.S. and as a thank you for the help the U.S. provided to Norway during World War II. The tree is displayed in Union Station, and the Norwegian Embassy chooses a theme with which to decorate the tree each year. In 2013, when the theme was Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” the tree was fashioned with dozens of tiny reflective versions of the shrieking man in Norway’s most famous painting. This year’s theme is Norwegian music.

 

Public Square Park, Nashville — The Christmas tree in downtown Nashville is often gifted to the city by residents. This year, Tammie Myles donated 42-foot Norway spruce to honor her parents. It will be decorated with 5,000 lights. This idea of individuals donating Christmas trees is common throughout the country, especially when the trees or activities surround them feature some sort of charitable aspect. Local Christmas tree farms will often donate trees for display near the courthouse.

Big trees in small squares:

Rittenhouse Square Christmas tree

The Christmas tree in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. Photo: Marc Cappelletti – Flickr.

Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia — Rittenhouse Square is one of five original open spaces in Philadelphia planned by William Penn. It is about two short blocks long on eachside, and in December a 30-foot Christmas Tree rises out of its center. It makes the little historical park even cozier.

 

Cincinnati's Christmas tree

Fireworks go off at the tree lighting ceremony in Fountain Square in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo: 5ch4r7z – Flickr.

Fountain Square, Cincinnati — The Christmas tree dominates downtown Cincinnati’s Fountain Square each December, and shadows the temporary ice skating rink that is assembled nearby each year. The smaller size of the square, which is mostly enclosed by the city’s skyscrapers, makes the tree seem even bigger and more festive.

When the trees don’t move:

Town Square Lighting, Jackson Hole — Instead of decorating one giant tree, Jackson Hole sets Town Square ablaze with multiple tree lightings. Fitting in with its outdoorsy M.O., the town does not cut down any trees for its Christmas celebrations, so it earns a spot on our list for being environmentally aware.

Coeur D' Alene, Idaho

Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho | Flickr CC: Tracy Hunter

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — A nearly 200-foot grand fir at Coeur d’Alene Resort is decorated with tens of thousands of lights and at one point set the world record for the tallest living Christmas tree. The star on top is 10 feet alone.

Sardy House Tree, Aspen — This is the 31st year the owners of the Sardy House illuminate the large fir tree on the corner of Main and Aspen streets in Aspen. (New owners spent $250,000 to amp up the lighting in 2006). It is strewn with 10,000 LED lights hooked up to a system that can emulate everything from fireworks to a cascading waterfall. The glory of using a live tree? The lights stay on year-round and can be used during other holiday celebrations.

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Tagged: Cheap Tips, Festivals, FREE!, Holidays, New York City, Seasonal

Note: CheapTickets compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site.

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Gifting yourself an urban getaway during the winter holidays could have you singing “Cha-cha-ching” to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”

Hotels in big cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco silently unleash some of their lowest prices of the year over the holiday season.

This is especially true during the week of Christmas and the week after New Year’s, when folks are occupying their parent’s house and business travel essentially comes to a halt. While you’re trying to squeeze onto your old twin bed wrapped in My Little Pony sheets, hotels are desperate for guests.  In some cases, expect to save more than 50% what you’d regularly pay.  (Just don’t expect that on New Year’s Eve.)

Below are cities extending the steepest hotel savings during Christmastime, plus a few favorite no-cost holiday traditions to soak up seasonal ambience during this specific winter travel period.

Chicago

Average hotel savings: 60%

Yes, Chicago can get cold.  But the chill, paired with a hot chocolate held between warm mittens, is part of the holiday ambience in Chicago – where architectural marvels, world-class museums, amazing cuisine and these holiday favorites await.

ChrisKindleMarket; Photo credit: Choose Chicago ©

ChrisKindleMarket; Photo credit: Choose Chicago ©

Christkindlmarket Chicago (Nov. 21 – Dec. 24)

Downtown Daley Plaza is transformed into a Bavarian-style Christmas market filled with artisan shops, food stands, a beer hall, musical performers and, of course, Santa.

Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier (Dec. 5 – Jan. 11)

One of Chicago’s top family-friendly attractions hosts a dazzling indoor winter wonderland that includes ice-skating and rides.  Note: Activity wristbands are an additional cost.

ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo (Nov. 28-30; Dec. 5-7, 12-23; Dec. 26 – Jan. 4)

Even the animals get into the holiday spirit.  Stroll through a zoo decked out in brilliant, colorful lights from 5 to 9 p.m.  The holiday-inspired ambience also includes musical light shows, ice carving demonstrations and Santa’s Safari.

Spectators at the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival; Photo credit: Choose Chicago ©

Spectators at the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival; Photo credit: Choose Chicago ©

Magnificent Mile Lights Festival + Macy’s Holiday Windows (Through early January)

Two of Chicago’s most famous shopping streets provide a festive backdrop to holiday and post-holiday shopping: Michigan Avenue and State Street.  Linger outside the Macy’s Windows, a Chicago holiday tradition, before heading inside for a meal beside the Great Tree at the Walnut Room.  (Arrive early to beat the crowds, as reservations are not accepted Nov. 8 – Jan. 1.)

Las Vegas

Average hotel savings: 50%

The bright lights of The Strip glow a little brighter during the holidays, when resorts and casinos try to outdo each other with festive decorations.  With temperature highs hovering in the upper 50’s, it’s unlikely that you’ll be singing, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens Holiday Display (Dec. 6 – Jan. 5)

Prepare to be dazzled as the setting is transformed into a shimmering, sparkling holiday wonderland.  Even the dancing fountains outside of this famed Las Vegas resort are choreographed to a selection of Christmas music – always a crowd pleaser.

Freemont Street Experience (December-January)

Be prepared for seasonally inspired sensory overload at this five-block entertainment district in downtown Las Vegas.  Christmas-themed stage shows, plus a holiday-inspired Viva Vision light show on its massive video screen are among the attractions.

The Ice Rink at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas; Photo credit: Denise Truscello ©

The Ice Rink at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas; Photo credit: Denise Truscello ©

The Ice Rink at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas (Nov. 21 – Jan. 4)

The resorttransforms its Boulevard Pool into a winter wonderland reminiscent of a Central Park ice skating rink. Only, this one overlooks the Las Vegas Strip and will include holiday films playing on its digital marquee on Mondays. Admission is free to visitors, although taking a twirl on the ice – yes, its real ice – is $15 per person, with a $5 skate rental fee.

Magical Forest at Opportunity Village (Nov. 21 – Jan. 4)

When a setting boasts “A Forest Filled with Hundreds of Dazzling Trees,” how can you say no?  This family-friendly attraction includes numerous rides and nightly entertainment, including storytellers, friendly characters, parades and choirs.  Note: There is an admission fee (check website), but all proceeds benefit Opportunity Village’s services and programs for people with intellectual disabilities.

Washington, D.C.

Average hotel savings: 45%

When Congress goes on winter recess and the city’s less abuzz with political wheeling and dealing, visit famed national attractions such as the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the U.S. Capitol Building and Smithsonian museums (all free!), along with these seasonal attractions.

dcchristmas copy

The National Christmas Tree and the Pathway of Peace (Dec. 5 – Jan. 1)

With the White House as a backdrop, President’s Park hosts this seasonal attraction open to the public. The pathway around the National Christmas Tree features 56 more trees representing each U.S. state, U.S. territory and the District of Columbia. Musical performances by choirs, bands and dancers will be held nightly through most of December.

ZooLights at the National Zoo (Nov. 28 – Jan 1, except Dec. 24-25, 31)

More than 500,000 environmentally friendly LED lights transform the zoo into a festive wonderland from 5 to 9 p.m.  Live music performances and a new light show this year add to the ambience.  Most animal houses remain open for special animal keeper talks, too.

Downtown Holiday Market (Nov. 28 – Dec. 23)

This outdoor market filled with food, music and good cheer takes place in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum & National Portrait Gallery.  Browse for gifts amidst a rotating group of 150 regional artisans, crafters and boutique businesses.

Union Station (December)

The historic building (home to an upscale shopping mall and train station) decks the halls in December with holiday ambience inspired by Norway.  It addition to a giant Christmas tree, it will boast a Norwegian-inspired holiday market and a holiday model train display that winds through Norwegian towns and fjords.

Waterskiing Santa on the National Harbor; Photo credit: Waterski Santa Show ©

Waterskiing Santa on the National Harbor; Photo credit: Waterski Santa Show ©

Waterskiing Santa (Dec. 24)

Head down to National Harbor for this annual event.  Before taking to the skies in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, Santa skis the Potomac River alongside some special guests.

Candlelight Tour of Historic Houses of Worship (Dec. 26, 4-9 p.m.)

Nearby Frederick, Maryland, hosts this annual event celebrating religious diversity, asa dozen houses of worship welcome guests with choirs, nativity scenes and more.

New York City

Average hotel savings: 40%

Just walking around New York City is a festive feast for the eyes during the holiday season.  Consider these free attractions the start of an otherwise very, very, very long list.

Midtown Christmas © NYC & Company/Joe Buglewicz

Midtown Christmas © NYC & Company/Joe Buglewicz

Holiday windows (through winter)

Chanel your inner Holly Golightly for a stroll down iconic streets where store windows are a main holiday attraction.  On Madison Avenue, ogle the windows of Barneys New York before strolling over to 5th Avenue, where Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue windows dazzle passersby.  Finally, head down to 34th Street, where Santa awaits at the flagship Macy’s.

Holiday markets (various times, see website)

You may not find big bargains on Madison or 5th Avenues, but the pop-up holiday markets throughout New York City offer reasonably priced artisan gifts and food amidst decadent holiday ambience.  Favorites include Winter Village at Bryant Park and the Union Square Holiday Market, both of which also feature ice-skating.  To stay indoors, head to the Grand Central Holiday Fair.

Rockefeller Center (Dec. 3- Jan. 7 )

No visit to New York around the holidays is complete without a stop at Rockefeller Center, where the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and ice-skating just below it provide a great backdrop to hot-chocolate strolls and selfies.

Dyker Heights Christmas Lights (December – early January)

To see some of the most over-the-top holiday light displays, head to Brooklyn.  Those in the Dyker Heights neighborhood attempt to “outdo” each other each year and the spectacle was most recently seen on TLC’s Crazy Christmas Lights.

Queens County Farm Museum Holiday Open House (Dec. 26, 27 & 28, 12-4p.m.)

Tour a decorated farm … in New York City!  With history dating back to 1697, Queens County Farm occupies New York City’s largest remaining tract of undisturbed farmland.  This free event also features kid-friendly craft activities and plenty of mulled cider.

Wollman Rink in Central Park © NYC & Company/Julienne Schaer

Wollman Rink in Central Park © NYC & Company/Julienne Schaer

Free Central Park tours (through winter)

Central Park transforms into a real-life winter wonderland, especially with a fresh blanket of snow.  Take advantage of free escorted tours to learn the stories and legends attached to America’s largest urban park.

TKTS

OK, this isn’t exactly free.  But – waiting in this line at either the Times Square, South Street Seaport or Downtown Brooklyn locations can save you 20 to 50 percent on same-day tickets for popular holiday-themed shows.

Boston

Average hotel savings: 40%

Holidays in Bean Town beckon with a colonial-inspired atmosphere authentic to this city steepedin American history.  While free attractions such as the Freedom Trail – a must-do walking tour that strings together 16 historic sites – and the Sam Adams Brewery tour are perennial favorites, these seasonal highlights below delight visitors and locals alike.

Ice skating on Frog Pond; Photo credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

Ice skating on Frog Pond; Photo credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

Candlelight Carols at Trinity Church (Dec. 13 at 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.)

A Boston tradition since 1909, the popular musical performance is offered twice to the public free of charge.  (Donations are welcome.)  Doors open an hour prior to the performance for those anxious to snag a seat in this historic church located in Copely Square.

BLINK! A Light and Sound Extravaganza (Nov. 22 – Jan. 4)

The free show, which illuminates the Boston skyline to the songs of the Holiday Pops, takes at Faneuil Hall Marketplace a dozen times daily between 4:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.  The iconic open-air marketplace is also home to the largest Christmas tree in New England and live performances from Broadway shows, dance troupes and holiday carolers.

Downtown Crossing Holiday Market (Nov. 27 – Dec. 24)

The sixth-annual Downtown BostonHoliday Market returns to Summer Street Plaza after Thanksgiving for holiday shopping hoopla.  Situated across from Macy’s, the giant white tent will feature a new weekly collection of artisan vendors, gourmet food makers, artists and more.

Harvard Square Holiday Craft Fair (Dec. 5-7, 12-14, 18-23)

Ivy League ambience adds collegiate charm to this holiday fair in Cambridge.  Browse unique gifts for you and loved ones before strolling Harvard’s campus.

Boston Common Frog Pond

Although taking a twirl on its iconic ice skating rink is not free, the holiday ambience at this winter favorite is spectacular.  Simply walking through the heart of Boston Common, the oldest U.S. park, especially after a light sprinkling of snow, can be magical.

San Francisco

Average Hotel savings: 30%

It might not be a white Christmas in the City by the Bay, but one of the most beloved holiday stories of all time takes place in San Francisco, The Nutcracker.  Although performances by the SF Ballet come with a price, here are some seasonal activities that don’t cost a dime.

San Francisco City Hall; Photo credit: Hugh Grew ©

San Francisco City Hall; Photo credit: Hugh Grew ©

Lighted Boat Parade (Dec. 12)

Experience the largest boat parade on San Francisco Bay by staking out a vantage point from Aquatic Park, PIER 39 or the Marina Green. More than 60 boats will be decked out with lights and holiday décor.

San Francisco Hotel Lobbies (December – early January)

Tour the grand hotels of Nob Hill and Union Square for opulent lobbies decked out for the holidays.  Favorites include the Westin St. Francis, The Palace and the Fairmont.

SantaCon 2014 (Dec. 13)

Dress up as Santa or one of his helpers to join this popular and often tongue-in-cheek pub-crawl through the city, where interesting interpretations ofpopular Christmas carols abound.

santacon2 copy

Santacon; Photo credit: Roy Asneeded

24th Annual Union Street Holiday Program (Dec. 6-31)

Holiday entertainment and merriment comes to Cow Hollow, one of San Francisco’s most beautiful historic neighborhoods.  The month-long celebration along Union Street comes with validated parking and store open houses complete with holiday refreshments. Join the group holiday caroling on Dec. 21.

SF Ballet’s Nutcracker under the Dome  (Nov. 20-Dec.31)

The iconic dome of the Westfield San Francisco Centre springs to life each night with an innovative 3D light show that includes digital performances by the San Francisco Ballet.  In addition to this show, enjoy live entertainment and performances throughout the holiday season.

Ice Skating (various, through mid-January)

Although none of the ice-skating venues in San Francisco are free, the holiday ambience swirling around them make them a must-visit during the winter season. Favorites include the Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center; the San Francisco Zoo’s “green” holiday skating rink made of recycled materials; and the Safeway Holiday Ice Rink in Union Square.

24 HoliDAYS on 24th Street (Dec. 1-24)

Free holiday hayrides on Saturdays are just oneof the many free attractions at this month-long celebration in the charming Noe Valley neighborhood.  Carolers, activities for kids – even live reindeer – are among the other anticipated attractions along the festively decorated shopping street.

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