I visited the iconic New York City holiday market with shops and an ice skating rink just steps from Times Square, and the experience was nothing like what I expected

bryant park holiday marketKatie Warren/Business Insider

  • I visited an iconic New York City holiday market to see if it lived up to the hype.
  • The Bank of America Winter Village is at Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, a short walk from Times Square.
  • I expected it to be overcrowded with tourists, filled with cheesy souvenir shops, and completely overrated.
  • But it was actually a lovely NYC holiday experience and I think everyone should visit.

I had low expectations going to the Bryant Park Winter Village, a holiday market in New York City.

It's in Midtown Manhattan, a short walk from Times Square, and it's on top of five subway lines, so I was sure it would be packed with people.

The market, which opened on October 27 this year, includes more than 170 holiday pop-up shops, an ice skating rink, and a heated lodge with food and a cocktail bar. There are also various eateries mixed in with the boutiques.

Read more: Disappointing photos show what iconic New York City attractions really look like during the holidays

To my surprise, the market was actually far from overcrowded. Even when it got busier as the evening wore on, I could always walk freely and I never felt like I was being surrounded by too many people. The atmosphere was calm yet festive, the shops sold artisanal wares from all over the world rather than just cheap tourist souvenirs, and everybody just genuinely seemed to be having a lovely time.

Here's what the market is actually like, and why I suggest any New York City local or visitor should give it a visit.

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Bryant Park is in Midtown Manhattan, a short walk from Times Square.

Bryant Park is in Midtown Manhattan, a short walk from Times Square.

I got there a little after 4 p.m. on a weekday in mid-December, just as it was starting to get dark.

I got there a little after 4 p.m. on a weekday in mid-December, just as it was starting to get dark.

The sidewalks surrounding the park were busy with wandering tourists and with locals leaving work. You can access five subway lines at the park, so the area always gets busy around rush hour.

The sidewalks surrounding the park were busy with wandering tourists and with locals leaving work. You can access five subway lines at the park, so the area always gets busy around rush hour.

But when I stepped into the park, it was immediately calmer and quieter, which took me by surprise.

But when I stepped into the park, it was immediately calmer and quieter, which took me by surprise.

It wasn't cold enough outside for Bryant Park's fountain to freeze, which happens sometimes.

It wasn't cold enough outside for Bryant Park's fountain to freeze, which happens sometimes.

The Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park, which includes pop-up holiday shops, an ice skating rink, and a heated "lodge" with food and drinks, opened on October 27 this year. The holiday shops are open through January 2, while the rink and the lodge will close after March 3, 2019.

The Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park, which includes pop-up holiday shops, an ice skating rink, and a heated "lodge" with food and drinks, opened on October 27 this year. The holiday shops are open through January 2, while the rink and the lodge will close after March 3, 2019.

I was immediately surprised that the market wasn't packed full of people. Last time I went to a holiday market in New York City was at Union Square last year, and it was so crowded at times that I could barely move.

I was immediately surprised that the market wasn't packed full of people. Last time I went to a holiday market in New York City was at Union Square last year, and it was so crowded at times that I could barely move.

I walked by the Southwest Porch, an al fresco restaurant and full bar, where people were gathered under heat lamps.

I walked by the Southwest Porch, an al fresco restaurant and full bar, where people were gathered under heat lamps.

There were a few fire pits set up as well, which several people and at least one little dog seemed to be enjoying.

There were a few fire pits set up as well, which several people and at least one little dog seemed to be enjoying.

Surprisingly, there was plenty of free seating.

Surprisingly, there was plenty of free seating.

Thanks to the heat lamps, it actually looked like a cozy, chill place to hang out and have a drink or some snacks.

Thanks to the heat lamps, it actually looked like a cozy, chill place to hang out and have a drink or some snacks.

I saw a large tour group gathered at the edge of the park and braced myself to navigate through more large groups, but I didn't see any others the whole time I was there.

I saw a large tour group gathered at the edge of the park and braced myself to navigate through more large groups, but I didn't see any others the whole time I was there.

Bryant Park's holiday market includes more than 170 pop-up boutiques selling "local crafts, artisanal food, and goods from around the world," according to its website. The winter village is inspired by European open-air markets.

Bryant Park's holiday market includes more than 170 pop-up boutiques selling "local crafts, artisanal food, and goods from around the world," according to its website. The winter village is inspired by European open-air markets.

Source: Bryant Park

The eateries included plenty of hot drinks such as cider and hot chocolate, but also donuts, fried pickles ...

The eateries included plenty of hot drinks such as cider and hot chocolate, but also donuts, fried pickles ...

... Belgian waffles, and much more.

... Belgian waffles, and much more.

I was expecting the shops to sell cheap tourist souvenirs.

I was expecting the shops to sell cheap tourist souvenirs.

But I found myself intrigued by many of the offerings. I actually did some Christmas gift shopping from two different shops, which I had absolutely no intention of doing.

But I found myself intrigued by many of the offerings. I actually did some Christmas gift shopping from two different shops, which I had absolutely no intention of doing.

Some of the shops were distinctly holiday-themed, such as "Santa's Workshop," which sold Christmas ornaments.

Some of the shops were distinctly holiday-themed, such as "Santa's Workshop," which sold Christmas ornaments.

Others were pop-up versions of chic boutiques based in the city.

Others were pop-up versions of chic boutiques based in the city.

It's actually a great place to shop for different types of gifts without having to trek all around the city.

It's actually a great place to shop for different types of gifts without having to trek all around the city.

I came to the holiday market with low expectations, expecting crowds of tourists and cheesy attractions. But I found myself reluctantly having a very pleasant time.

I came to the holiday market with low expectations, expecting crowds of tourists and cheesy attractions. But I found myself reluctantly having a very pleasant time.

Christmas music was drifting over the park from the skating rink. I understand that Christmas music is hated by many when it's played incessantly in grocery stores and shops starting in October, but this was exactly the right setting for it.

Christmas music was drifting over the park from the skating rink. I understand that Christmas music is hated by many when it's played incessantly in grocery stores and shops starting in October, but this was exactly the right setting for it.

Even the surrounding buildings were lit up in festive red and green.

Even the surrounding buildings were lit up in festive red and green.

And looking up, you had a clear view of the Empire State Building.

And looking up, you had a clear view of the Empire State Building.

As I watched friends, families, and couples shopping and wandering, I only wished I had someone else there with me to enjoy the market.

As I watched friends, families, and couples shopping and wandering, I only wished I had someone else there with me to enjoy the market.

It was quite romantic, actually. "I should come here with the girl I like," I heard someone say to his friend as they passed by me. I wanted to tell him that, yes, he totally should.

It was quite romantic, actually. "I should come here with the girl I like," I heard someone say to his friend as they passed by me. I wanted to tell him that, yes, he totally should.

There were plenty of people on the rink, as I'd expected, but it wasn't insanely crowded.

There were plenty of people on the rink, as I'd expected, but it wasn't insanely crowded.

Skating is free for those who bring their own skates, or $20 to rent. The rink is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Despite varying ability levels, everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Skating is free for those who bring their own skates, or $20 to rent. The rink is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Despite varying ability levels, everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Source: Bryant Park

It was endlessly entertaining to watch people ... especially the children who didn't quite know how to skate yet and who were given a penguin on skis to hold onto for balance.

It was endlessly entertaining to watch people ... especially the children who didn't quite know how to skate yet and who were given a penguin on skis to hold onto for balance.

The park's Christmas tree and the New York Public Library made for a lovely, festive background behind the skaters.

The park's Christmas tree and the New York Public Library made for a lovely, festive background behind the skaters.

I wandered over to The Lodge, a heated indoor area with a cocktail bar and several eateries, including Mah-Ze-Dahr bakery, Pierogi Boys, Good Stock, and Chimney Cakes by Stackery.

I wandered over to The Lodge, a heated indoor area with a cocktail bar and several eateries, including Mah-Ze-Dahr bakery, Pierogi Boys, Good Stock, and Chimney Cakes by Stackery.

Many people had apparently been drawn to the warmth, food, and alcohol inside. But there were still places to sit here and there.

Many people had apparently been drawn to the warmth, food, and alcohol inside. But there were still places to sit here and there.

The décor was cheesy in some places, but not over-the-top.

The décor was cheesy in some places, but not over-the-top.

The cocktail bar was the busiest part of the Lodge, but that, too, wasn't overcrowded. If I'd had company, I probably would've liked to stop for a drink here to warm up.

The cocktail bar was the busiest part of the Lodge, but that, too, wasn't overcrowded. If I'd had company, I probably would've liked to stop for a drink here to warm up.

And best of all, there were no long lines for food.

And best of all, there were no long lines for food.

I wandered back outside to browse some more of the shops.

I wandered back outside to browse some more of the shops.

Some of them were truly in-your-face Christmas overload, but I didn't really mind. If you're a Scrooge, this probably isn't the place for you.

Some of them were truly in-your-face Christmas overload, but I didn't really mind. If you're a Scrooge, this probably isn't the place for you.

But even my somewhat cynical, Grinchy heart was feeling soft as I watched people shopping with their friends ...

But even my somewhat cynical, Grinchy heart was feeling soft as I watched people shopping with their friends ...

... and enjoying hot holiday drinks.

... and enjoying hot holiday drinks.

Ultimately, it came as a total surprise — and relief — that the market wasn't overcrowded. I expected to have to elbow my way through crowds and struggle to get photos that weren't just of the back of strangers' heads.

Ultimately, it came as a total surprise — and relief — that the market wasn't overcrowded. I expected to have to elbow my way through crowds and struggle to get photos that weren't just of the back of strangers' heads.

So while I might avoid the holiday market on a weekend afternoon or evening, when it will likely be more crowded ...

So while I might avoid the holiday market on a weekend afternoon or evening, when it will likely be more crowded ...

... I'd suggest that anyone in New York City should go check it out for a truly delightful holiday experience.

... I'd suggest that anyone in New York City should go check it out for a truly delightful holiday experience.
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