Ah, New York. Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do – unless of course you find yourself landing in the City either intentionally or unintentionally on the eve of Thanksgiving weekend, armed with nothing but a very limited (and by limited I mean absolutely zero) understanding of what Thanksgiving actually is, in which case you might have a bit of a tough time navigating your way in and around the wonderful place. You’re headed to New York City for the biggest holiday of the year. You’re a foreigner, and don’t know what this Thanksgiving thing is or how it works or what that means for your NYC adventure. Here, let me help.
A Brief History
First up, you might as well know a little bit about what Thanksgiving is, because it will make dealing with the chaos and the people that little bit easier. In short, Thanksgiving is celebrated annually in the USA on the fourth Thursday of November. In 1620, a ship of English separatists, now known as the Pilgrims, sailed to the New World seeking new life and prosperity. They celebrated their first successful harvest in November 1621, alongside some of their Native American allies. The second Thanksgiving was held in 1623 and was continued annually. In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation, urging Americans to express their gratitude for a happy conclusion to the war of independence and the ratification of the US Constitution. New York became one of the first states to officially adopt an annual holiday in 1817, with Abraham Lincoln proclaiming a national holiday in 1863.
There you have it!
And so, celebrating the holiday of Thanksgiving is an annual tradition for most American households with the coming together of families for their own feast. In fact, 90% of households eat some variation of Turkey, according to the National Turkey Federation. (Yes, that really exists). Other traditions include the President’s pardoning of a turkey and The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, conducted since 1924 and drawing some 2-3 million spectators to New York along its 2.5 mile long route annually.
Many Americans describe Thanksgiving as a bigger deal than Christmas. Resultantly, New York can be an exciting and crazy city to take on around this time. These are my top three tips for handling New York City on and around Thanksgiving.
1. Plan ahead
This is an absolute imperative unless you have all the time in the world, which most travellers do not. Various restaurants, shows and attractions are closed on Thanksgiving Day; even prior to and post. If you are planning on doing a particular activity on Thanksgiving, ask any New Yorker, shop assistant or your concierge and they should be able to give you an indication of what’s open and what’s not. Easier still, turn to your best friend Google to find out. Attractions such as Central Park Zoo, Top of The Rock Observation Deck and the Statue of Liberty are all open on Thanksgiving. Many attractions, shops and restaurants will be closed, however, as well as banks and post offices. Additionally, check out the schedule for Broadway shows you’re interested in. Some run on Thanksgiving, but most do not. If they do, prices may be increased to take advantage of visitors to New York and the best seats may be gone. Alternatively, many great seats may be available as the natives head out of town for the holiday. Don’t wait till you get there to be disappointed. Plan in advance!
2. Map out the parade route
Every year the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is held which features floats, giant balloons and musical acts. If this is something you’re into, check out the route before hand. Online maps are available as well as information on the best vantage points to watch the parade and which spots to avoid. If you’re really keen, it could pay to book a hotel somewhere along the parade route, or at least one with a half decent view. I stayed at the Cassa Hotel 45th Street, which was about a 10m walk to the parade’s edge. It is also recommended that for a decent view, you take up your spot no later than 6.30am for the 9am start time. However, with a close enough hotel, we were able to head down to the street at around 7.30am, see there was plenty of room, and head back to our hotel room for another hour before heading back down again, where there was still ample viewing space. A close hotel also meant that when we had seen enough, we could head back to our hotel quickly and stay there until the crowds dispersed – a good tip for anyone, but particularly those travelling with young kids that easily get lost in a crowd. If you’re really keen, head down to 79th St and Columbus Ave the day before to see the balloons being inflated. The spectacle begins at 3pm, but head down a bit later as it takes a while before they’re fully inflated. 8 or 9pm is much more appropriate if you’re looking for the finished product. Alternatively, if you don’t like crowds, watch the live coverage of the parade from your hotel room and still map it out so you know which areas to steer clear of, what will be blocked off and where the crowds will be to avoid interference with your plans for the day.
3. Shop (or don’t)
The notorious Black Friday sales begin the day after Thanksgiving, however plenty of shops open their doors either late Thanksgiving afternoon or at midnight that night. Many shoppers actually spend their Thanksgiving queuing up for the doors to open. Depending on how keen you are for a bargain, you might like to take advantage of these opening hours while many New Yorkers are away from the stores celebrating with family and friends. Bare in mind, though, that the Black Friday sales have a reputation for chaotic and crazy behaviour, so no time is really ideal if you don’t feel like fighting over a handbag. Also remember that while some stores boast a ‘one day only’ sale, they tend to carry on for a few days afterwards and can also be accessed online. So, if you are just wanting to browse, give it a day or two to settle down and then shop til you drop.
These are just some tips I picked up along the way on my 2015 NYC adventure, though there’s nothing a bit of research can’t tell you. Gather as much information and advice as you can from travel books, brochures and anyone you know who has been and done it before. Everyone will have a different little tip to give you which may mean the difference between a crowded and chaotic trip or a smooth, pre-planned experience. Either way, book those flights and that hotel, and prepare to catch some of that sensational “Thanksgiving in New York” feeling.