A visit to New York City during the holiday season has never been for the faint of heart.
As the top tourist destination between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, according to Tripadvisor’s Winter Travel Index, 750,000 people visit the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in the Big Apple alone every day during a typical holiday season.
That doesn't include the masses who go to the neighboring ice skating rink or take in the extravagant window displays at the city’s most well-known retail stores.
However, COVID concerns will likely keep some people from hopping on the train this month.
The good news is that you can find holiday cheer on our side of the river. The Ironbound Business Improvement District, which represents the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, said there is plenty to do in the state's largest city.
“Particularly because as people are dipping their toes back into the waters of travel, this is an easy, comfortable, local experience with world-class amenities,” said Vince Baglivo, director of communications for the district. “It’s a way for people to get those holiday experiences without the New York City schlep.”
The Ironbound, which is also known as Down Neck and is a part of Newark’s East Ward, is a neighborhood rooted in immigrant traditions. It is heavily influenced by Portuguese, Spanish and Brazilian cultures, as well as Central and South American cultures. It has been estimated that more than 40 different ethnic groups live here.
But it’s also become a local tourist destination: The Ironbound is home to more than 170 restaurants and 570 businesses.
Newark's crime rate has dropped 70% since 2000, according to the city. The homicide rate has dropped 53% since 2013. And city police did not fire a single shot in the performance of their duties in 2020 — the same year that Forbes called it the most underappreciated city in the nation.
"The Newark that most people knew is long gone. Crime is at an all-time low, residential buildings in the downtown area are being built, and you see more people walking their dogs and stopping at coffee shops to get their day started," said Ricardo Salazar, president of the Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau. "While any major city comes with danger, the mayor has done an excellent job curbing major crime in the city ... People are seeing a different Newark."
Here’s what’s happening in the Ironbound district and nearby this season:
Newark Winter Village
The Newark Winter Village is returning to Mulberry Commons, a public park in front of the Prudential Center, through Jan. 31, 2022. It includes an indoor shopping marketplace with only Newark-based vendors at the nearby Ironside Building; igloos that seat six people; games and activities; and, for the first time, an outdoor ice skating rink.
"It's exciting to host the winter village in the heart of our vibrant downtown area, where both families and visitors can come together during this festive season," said Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka in a release. "We're especially looking forward to seeing people enjoy the skating rink. This will be the first time our residents will be able to enjoy outdoor public skating here at home in Newark."
Hours for the free-admission village are from 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays to Fridays, and noon to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ice skating costs $10 to $15, and $5 per child. Igloo rentals are $15 to $25. Tickets and reservations are available at eventbrite.com/e/newark-winter-village-tickets-203256915907.
Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart
As the fifth-largest cathedral in North America and the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, which is in the North Ward of Newark, goes all-out for the holidays.
"I just think it's magical," said John Miller, director of music ministries. "The cathedral with nothing is a great work of art, just architecturally-speaking, and then when you add all of these holiday elements, it really comes alive."
Those elements include up to 700 candles lit for the Candle Sing performances; red and white poinsettias; and green wreaths with red bows on pillars and on both sides of the altars.
The church is also hosting a free, first-come, first-serve holiday concert series that includes performances such as Navidad Latina on Dec. 10, presented by the Cathedral Spanish Choir, as well as singers and instrumentalists from other Latin American communities; and the Candlelight Carol Sing on Dec. 15 and 16, presented by the Cathedral Choir, which features the church's pipe organ (the largest in any New Jersey church).
Candlelight Carol Sing is always a highlight, attracting so many visitors that a second show was added a decade ago. This year is its 50th anniversary, which is being commemorated with a new Christmas carol.
Candlelight Carol Sing began by accident, Miller said. Half a century ago, an organ recitalist was supposed to fly to Newark to perform, but a snowstorm kept the airports closed. The music director at the time, not wanting to disappoint the audience, told them to simply sing a few carols while he played the organ. People loved it, and it's only become more popular.
The Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart also hosts free, one-hour tours of the church every first Sunday of the month. Visitors can attend the tour, which sometimes includes an organ demonstration, by meeting at the pulpit at 1:30 p.m. Guided group tours are also available on weekdays by appointment.
Even those who have never strolled through Newark are familiar with the city’s Prudential Center and New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). This holiday season, both venues have lineups of festive performances. The Prudential Center is less than a 10-minute walk from parts of the Ironbound, while the NJPAC is about a 10-minute drive away.
The Prudential Center will present holiday performances including “Evergreen Christmas” by Pentatonix on Dec. 7; and “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra on Dec. 22.
At NJPAC, shows include “A Swingin’ Little Christmas!” starring Jane Lynch on Dec. 9; “The Nutcracker” by The State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine on Dec. 11; a Christmas concert presented by Mannheim Steamroller on Dec. 15; and “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” featuring MC Kurtis Blow on Dec. 18.
Tickets for NJPAC's lineup range from $30 to $150.
"We will continue to do world-class orchestras, but if you want to double your amount of programming, people on fixed incomes aren't going to suddenly have double the disposable income," said Dave Rodriguez, NJPAC executive vice president and executive producer. "When you look at New Jersey and you see the wealth of African-American, Latino, Indian, South Korean and Portuguese constituencies, we have enhanced those programming areas significantly and it's given ... people a sense of home."
To keep audiences safe, NJPAC spent $700,000 on new air, safety and security systems.
"During COVID-19, I heard people say, 'I don’t know if people will come back to the theater,' " he said. "But the reality is there is something about going out with family, the dinner that you have beforehand and the laughs that you share that doesn’t happen in front of a television screen. No one talks about the memories that they had in front of the television screen for years to come. They talk about memories that they had in front of a live performance."
For many, the holidays are nothing without great food.
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Looking for a place to celebrate? Fornos of Spain features Spanish surf, turf and wines served on white tablecloths, while Fernandes Steak House is a lively rodizio restaurant with an endless parade of meats.
Have kids or on a budget and looking for something casual? Try Seabra's Marisqueira, a Portuguese restaurant known for its seafood dishes. Celebrity chef Chef Marcus Samuelsson also has a restaurant in Newark — Marcus B&P, a New American spot featuring comfort cuisine.
For a pre-dinner drink, diners can head to All Points West Distillery, which makes rum, vodka, gin and whiskey in small batches. Here, liquors are made using a combination of Irish, Scottish, British and American approaches, and can be tasted on their own or in cocktails at the distillery’s bar. Distillery tours for $24 per person, which can be scheduled through its website, are also available Saturdays.
For the holidays, All Points West Distillery is also offering a limited release of its grain and malt pot still whiskey, which was aged for 28 months and finished in Brix City Brewing's stout barrels.
Although visitor numbers to the Ironbound “went into the tank” last year due to the pandemic, many boutiques in the Ironbound still did well during the 2020 shopping thanks to local residents, Baglivo said.
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“Because so many people live in the Ironbound, stores were open with restrictions but we never shut down,” Baglivo said. “People shopped really hard here last year.”
Helena Vinhas, who co-owns 40-year-old jewelry store Vinhas Jewelers, said holiday shopping season is always bustling in the neighborhood.
"I'll get into work very early, and I’ll see lines forming already at some places," she said. "The stores get very busy as it gets closer and closer to Christmas."
The Ironbound has more than 200 stores featuring specialty items with Spanish, Portuguese and Brazilian influences. That includes filigree jewelry (made up of intricate metalwork) from Vinhas Jewelers; Portuguese cork handbags, accessories and filigree jewelry from Joias De Portugal; other cork products as well as earthenware and metal cooking vessels from Portugalia; wine and liquor so rare it’s secured behind a "porto gate" from Lisbon Wines & Liquors; and high quality pork and other groceries from Caseiro e Bom.
"What makes the Ironbound unique is the products and services you find here," Vinhas said. "You’ll find certain products that you can't find anywhere else locally. A lot of it is imported from Europe, like 19-carat gold or handmade filigree jewelry."
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It’s all topped off with an ambiance that includes LED holiday lighting across Ferry Street, as well as music and decorations.
“If you’re shopping in the Ironbound during the holiday season, you’re hearing music that’s international, smelling the scents of the food cooking,” said Baglivo. “There are people out and about, but it’s not crazy crowded like it used to get in New York.”
Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member at the USA Today Network New Jersey since 2014, after becoming a blogger-turned-reporter following the creation of her award-winning travel blog. To get unlimited access to her stories about food, drink and fun, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. Contact: JIntersimone@Gannett.com or @JIntersimone.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Your guide to Christmas in the Ironbound, Newark NJ