I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Bryant Park, the European-styled parcel of land in midtown just off Sixth Avenue and 42nd street has always been significant. It supported George Washington's Revolutionary War troops, was once a potter's field, and in 1840, became the site of the Croton Reservoir that brought clean drinking water to all New Yorkers.
Today the publicly owned but privately funded park is a social hub grounded by the central branch of the New York Public Library. The Bryant Park Corporation hosts year-around events and activities for New Yorkers of all ages, finally returning the park to its former splendor after years of neglect in the 1970s. But Bryant Park shines best during the holiday season when a temporary pond is installed, the annual holiday tree goes up, and quaint glass-boxed boutiques line the promenade.
Citi Pond (sponsored by CitiBank) offers New Yorkers free skating all season long, beginning in late October and running though the end of February. Skate rentals cost $13 and amenities like locker rentals and bag checks are extra, but those who travel light and have their own skates can spend the day without spending a cent. The open-air rink features gorgeous views, but weekends get crowded and those in the know get on line early beginning at 8AM.
More than 100 jewel-box boutiques surround the pond and promenades making up a holiday village experience beginning each year in early November. Each one is brimming over with exquisite and unique items for gift giving and visitors can enter each shop to warm up and browse. Expect everything from decorative home goods like pillows and candles to unusual imports, distinctive apparel, toys, and handmade goods from local artists. Shops are open from 11AM–8PM during the week and 10AM–9PM on Saturdays. (Sunday nights close at 6PM.)
A favorite way to get in the holiday spirit is by attending one of the city's many tree lighting ceremonies and Bryant Park is no exception. Festivities kick off December 2, with guest celebrities, top-notch skaters, and a 25-foot live holiday tree. To make your evening complete, visit the carrousel, dine in one of the surrounding restaurants (Bryant Park Grill, Bryant Park Café, or 'Wichcraft), eat al fresco, or just take advantage of the free skating admission, free WiFi, and endless window shopping.