January in New York: The Time to Shop

You’ll still need sharp elbows when you shop for bargains at Century 21 in January, but you can leave your cattle prod back in the hotel room. Li Muzi/Xinhua/Redux

Visiting New York in December can feel like taking a trip to the winter holiday capital of the world—the elaborate window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue, the ice rink at Rockefeller Plaza across the street, the aroma-filled aisles at Zabar's food emporium on the Upper West Side. There's one problem: You are not the only person who thinks it's enchanting. The place is packed. The pavements are overcrowded, the subway cars are jammed, and if you're hoping to do any Christmas shopping, you'll probably want to run back to your hotel room and log on to Amazon.

Sound less than fun? If so, try visiting in January. You'll be able to enjoy all that New York has to offer at much greater leisure, and it is sales time in one of the world's great shopping cities. As one of Manhattan's best-known hotel concierges, the Peninsula's Frederick Bigler, says, "Suddenly there's breathing room. Everything is a bit slower, the maître d's are returning our calls, and of course everyone likes a bargain."

New York's department stores have flash sales throughout the year, but January is when they do concentrated shelf-clearing. The top stores, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale's, all offer discounts of up to 50 percent on high-end designers.

A quick comparison of the J. Crew shops in New York and London highlight the savings Europeans can make by shopping in New York. In the London shop, a J. Crew V-neck cashmere sweater costs 228 pounds (314 euros), compared with $228 (207 euros) in Manhattan. A woman's quilted puffer jacket costs 168 pounds (231 euros), compared with $168 (153 euros). And a Nordic men's down-filled parka costs 425 pounds (586 euros), compared with $450 (410 euros). (Don't forget New York sales tax, though: On clothing and footwear costing more than $110, factor in an additional 8.8 percent.)

At Macy's, I picked up a pair of Levi's jeans for $61 (55 euros), when I would expect to pay at least 85 euros in Europe. Wealthy New Yorkers don't spend a lot of time shopping at Macy's, but they're missing a trick; the store carries brands like Thomas Pink, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, often at knockdown prices, and will have rolling sales—special offers that change week to week—throughout January. Even more deeply discounted is Century 21, which has two stores in Manhattan. Shoppers who are prepared to rummage through piles of fashion tat may well find items from Gucci, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana for a third of the listed price.

I have always bought my photographic equipment in New York at B&H Photo-Video, a megastore on Ninth Avenue. Although the prices of name-brand cameras are similar to European prices, most of the other equipment is significantly cheaper. I buy 32-gigabyte SanDisk compact flash memory cards for my Nikons at B&H for around for $38 (34 euros) when the basic U.K. price is 54 euros.

Another reason for the cost-conscious to go to New York in January: getting there is comparatively inexpensive. Air fares between Europe and the East Coast of the U.S. tend to be at their cheapest: Virgin Atlantic economy fares in January start at 500 euros, compared with 637 euros in December; Alitalia fares from Rome start at 838 euros, compared with 1,015 euros in December; and Air France fares from Paris start at 1,142 euros, compared with 1,540 euros in December. Staying there works out nicely too: Manhattan hotels offer deep discounts and special packages in January. I stayed at the charming, bohemian, family-owned Roger Smith Hotel on Lexington Avenue. In peak season, rooms go for $369 (336 euros), single or double occupancy, but in January the price falls to $150 (136 euros).

New York is not just cheaper in January—it's easier. Want a table at a fashionable restaurant such as Ralph Lauren's Polo Bar, or the even newer, more fashionable Gabriel Kreuther? You might have luck in the first days of the new year, when the city is quieter and New Yorkers hunker down and spend more evenings at home. The same applies to the hot Broadway shows, including An American in Paris and Something Rotten! Tickets are more frequently available.

Roaming the city's art galleries in January is also markedly more relaxing than at most times of the year. You don't have to compete so much for choice positioning in front of the Rothkos at the Museum of Modern Art or feel as if you've come across a street party at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Right now, the most exciting museum in New York is the new Renzo Piano-designed Whitney on Gansevoort Street, which opened here in May. It features six floors of light-filled galleries and four open-air terraces, and at the moment the two must-see exhibitions feature the work of Jazz Age artist Archibald Motley (ends on January 17) and abstract expressionist Frank Stella (closes February 7).

And if you want a stroll, head for the High Line, which starts beside the Whitney on Gansevoort and runs up to 34th Street. This former elevated train track became a clever way to make a park out of an urban relic in a city short on green space. But when the sun is out or the crowds are in town for Christmas, it can all too easily feel as roomy as the aisle of an airliner during boarding. During the unpeopled, chilly days of January, the High Line—like the whole city—is a relaxing joy.

Graham Boynton flew to New York with Virgin Atlantic (www.virginatlantic.com, 0844 2092 770), which offers five flights a day from London Heathrow, and stayed at the Roger Smith Hotel (www.rogersmith.com; +1 212 755 1400).