Ever since my first visit during the holidays, I haven’t been able to resist a Christmas in New York. To me, visiting New York in December is when the city is at its best. It’s when everything is the most shimmering and magical. New York City comes alive with holiday spirit and is home to some of the biggest and best light displays. For kids from 1 to 92, the five boroughs have something for everyone and we rounded up the “must dos” and tossed in a few of our favorites in our guide to things to do in NYC at Christmas.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
Officially, the tradition of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree began in 1933, the same year that 30 Rockefeller Center Plaza opened. Each year the tree is scouted by the head gardener for Rockefeller Center and it is transported by a special custom trailer through the streets of New York City to its home at Rockefeller Center. The star is a Swarovski Star weighing in at 550 pounds and nearly 10 feet in diameter. Locals and tourists alike pack Rockefeller Center all wanting to pose for the perfect holiday photo in front of the tree.
It’ll be lit in the official Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting on December 2, 2020.
If you’ve always dreamed of seeing the tree lighting in person, there are typically at least one or two restaurants and private spaces that host a Rockefeller Center Holiday Christmas Tree Lighting Gala. Of course this being 2020, there will be no public access to the tree lighting this year. The only way to watch is from the comfort and safety of home on tv.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker
The New York City Ballet’s entire cast and crew are immersed in the production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker during the holiday season. The intricate costumes, lighting, and the music itself transport you into Marie’s magical world of dancing mice battling marching wooden soldiers.
As you enter act two through a child’s imagination, the land of lollipops and snowflake waltzes will leave sugar plum fairies dancing in your head for many hours after the final curtain. The Nutcracker is definitely one of the must-see Christmas shows in NYC and a perfect choice for things to do in NYC on Christmas Day when many attractions and stores are closed.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker and the NYC Ballet are not performing in 2020 due to COVID-19. You can take part in Nutcracker Virtual with dance classes and experiences for all ages.
Radio City Christmas Spectacular
The gloriously glitzy costumes and the leggy high kicks of the Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular are practically synonymous with New York during Christmas. I’ve seen the show at least five times now and while some old favorites are staples of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, there are always a few new numbers to delight the audience.
If you’re spending Christmas Day in New York, it’s the perfect day to to go see the show since many shops and other attractions are closed on December 25. I also think it’s one of the best things to do in NYC at Christmas.
Radio City Christmas Spectacular is not performing in 2020 due to COVID-19. You can take part in special Dance from Home Classes with the Rockettes to learn choreography from the Christmas Spectacular every Wednesday at 3pm ET from November 18 – December 23.
A Christmas Carol on Broadway
London, another fabulous city to visit during the holidays, has been home to one of the best Christmas stories of all time. A Christmas Carol has had critically acclaimed runs at The Old Vic, London and in 2019 it is coming to NYC’s Broadway for just 8 weeks.
A Christmas Carol is an immersive experience that’s brimming with Christmas spirit. It’s a familiar Christmas story brought to life with costumes and scenes designed by Tony-award winner Rob Howell. And you’ll want to sing along to 12 of the most cherished Christmas carols, including “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”
A Christmas Carol is on from November 20, 2019 – January 5, 2020. Tickets start from $69. Find your tickets for A Christmas Carol Broadway and other shows and events at hellotickets.
Outdoor Ice Skating Rinks in NYC
Come winter in NYC, it’s time to bundle up and hit one (or several!) or the outdoor ice skating rinks that pop-up throughout the city. These outdoor NYC ice rinks are perfect for any experience level of ice skater and an excellent activity for families or a date night out skating hand-in-hand.
Ice Skating at Wollman Rink in Central Park
Easily one of the most iconic and picturesque activities for a Christmas in Manhattan, ice skating at Wollman Rink in Central Park is the stuff movies are made of. Literally. John Cusak and Kate Beckingsale skated on a snowy night in the movie Serendipity and the rink also appeared in Love Story.
Just a few minutes walk from the entrance at Central Park South, you’ll forget the hustle and bustle of Manhattan for a few hours as you take to the ice. Figure eights, anyone?
Wollman Rink is open from October – April. Hours for public skating are Monday and Tuesday 10am – 2:30pm, Wednesday and Thursday 10am – 10pm, Friday and Saturday 10am – 11pm, and Sunday 10am – 9pm. Admission is $12 for adults and $6 for children on weekdays and $19 for adults Friday – Sunday. Skate rental is $10 and locker rental is $11 ($6 returned deposit with the rental receipt). Spectator entry is $5. Cash only.
A greasy burger always hits the spot and Burger Joint is one of my NYC faves. It’s tucked away behind a curtain in the lobby of Parker New York Hotel (119 W 56th Street. Cash only).
Or take a walk through Central Park up to 80th Street and head over to Amsterdam Avenue for traditional lobster rolls with a seasonal twist like a white truffle or caviar topped lobster roll at Luke’s Lobster (426 Amsterdam Ave).
Ice Skating at the Rink at Rockefeller Center
If ice skating in Central Park’s Wollman Rink isn’t your thing, possibly because the rink is operated by a certain POTUS’ business, then head to the Rockefeller Center rink. You can even book ahead and avoid a chilly wait in the line for general admission with the Rockefeller Center Ice Skating Experience or a Rockefeller Center Night Ice Skating VIP Experience.
Both include a 90-minute ice skating session, access to the heated VIP chalet, skate rental, a hot chocolate, coffee or bottle of water and freshly baked cookies. Plus, the experience ends with a visit to the Top of the Rock observation deck.
The Rink at Rockefeller Center is open for 90 minute sessions from 8:30 – 10am, 10:30am – 12pm, 12:30 – 2pm, 2:30 – 4pm, 4:30 – 6pm, 6:30 – 8pm, 8:30 – 10pm, and 10:30pm – midnight. The schedule does change regularly, so we suggest checking the schedule when planning your trip to NYC for the opening hours during the dates you’re visiting. Check the schedule online.
The Rink at Bryant Park
The Rink at Bryant Park is one of the best in Manhattan, both because it’s much larger than the Rink at Rockefeller Center and Wollman Rink and because it’s free if you bring your own skates. Twirl around the 17,000 square foot rink with the iconic Empire State Building towering over the rink and the hopping holiday market surrounding it.
There’s even special events like the ice bumper cars that return from January 2020, ice-skating-based exercise classes on Thursday mornings that are given by trained figure skaters and hockey players, read-to-skate story time where kids skate free on Saturdays in January and February.
From 2019 you can even avoid the lines by reserving your skate time online in advance. Note that it’s required to store your shoes and belonging in a locker, which are free to use so long as you bring your own lock. Otherwise locks are available for purchase at the rink.
The Rink at Bryant Park is open from October 31, 2019 – March 1, 2020 from 8am – 11pm daily and 8am – 4pm December 31. Admission is free, skate rental is $18 – $33 per person depending on the date. Locker rental is free if you bring your own lock or $12 to purchase a lock onsite. Reserve your skate time online in advance to skip the line.
See NYC’s Christmas Lights and Christmas Displays
Department Stores Holiday Window Displays
Many Manhattanites consider it a holiday tradition to visit the festively decorated holiday window displays at Manhattan’s major department stores. From Bloomingdale’s to Bergdorf’s, you find everything from the classic fairy tales to the titillatingly imaginative as the holiday window displays get more creative and interactive year after year.
If you only visit one NYC department store for the holiday display, make it Saks Fifth Avenue. Not only do the window displays rival any other in NYC, but the entire facade on Fifth Avenue turns into a nightly holiday light show with the 3-minute long show playing every 10 minutes from 4:30pm nightly.
Follow our do-it-yourself walking map to cover all the best 2019 NYC holiday window displays from the Upper East Side down to Macy’s at 34th Street.
Tour Brooklyn’s Christmas Lights
Escape Manhattan for Brooklyn with A Slice of Brooklyn and let this team of Brooklynites guide you through some of the best holiday light displays in all of America. Italian-American and Brooklynite Lucy Spata started the tradition over 30 years ago and when the neighbors didn’t like it, she simply told them to move.
The neighbors took a if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em outlook. Lucy’s house has more lights than ever and her neighbors on nearly four blocks surrounding her have joined in to see who can build the biggest and best display each year.
The tradition is being adopted by some other Brooklyn neighborhoods and you’ll visit a few others on one of the best New York Christmas lights tours.
The Original Christmas Lights Tour is nightly at 6pm, 7pm and 8pm from December 1 – December 30 (except December 24 and 25). The tour lasts about 3 1/2 hours and departs/returns to Union Square in Manhattan. The price is $58 per adult and $48 per child under 12 years of age.
New York Holiday Lights and Movie Sights Guided Tour
It’s the most wonderful time of the year and Christmas lights in New York are a pretty spectacular sight. It’s no wonder the city has been the backdrop for so many holiday movies from 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street to Elf.
The New York Holiday Lights and Movie Sights guided tour is a bus tour with photo stops that shows you the sights that have served as backdrops in some of the most famous holiday movies. While we’re not usually ones for a bus tour, on a blustery December day the warmth of the bus can be a welcome break from exploring the city on foot. We traversed the city from the Upper West Side all the way down to Macy’s, with stops for photo ops along the way.
Just in case you haven’t had time to watch all your holiday favorites just yet (like us), video clips played as we made our way through the city. It was fitting that the snow was falling as we crossed through Central Park, just as the snow was falling as John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale skated around Wollman Rink in Serendipity.
We could have walked to many of these NYC holiday lights and movie sites on our own, but we wouldn’t have necessarily recognized them from the movies or known exactly what they were. Like the giant, sparkling snowflake we’ve seen hung at 57th Street and 5th Avenue all the years that we’ve been visiting NYC at Christmas. It’s actually the UNICEF Snowflake and serves as a symbol of hope and a reminder of UNICEF’s commitment to reach a day when no children die from preventable causes.
We inched our way down 5th Avenue, past the glittering diamonds of Tiffany’s, where Zac Efron takes Michelle Pfeiffer for a modern day Breakfast at Tiffany’s in New Year’s Eve. Harry Winston and Cartier were wrapped up in jewels and sparkly aliens beckoned shoppers in to Fendi.
Oohs and aahs filled the bus as the famous 76-foot tall Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree came in to sight. The 45,000 multi-colored lights twinkled and we were reminded that Macaulay Culkin’s mom knew this is no doubt where she’d find her son as she finally reaches New York in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
We had opportunities to pose for pictures at NYC’s biggest department stores’ holiday window displays. Lord and Taylor has been decorating their windows for passersby since 1938, making them the very first department store in NYC to put up a display that didn’t advertise anything in their store and just for the delight of their customers. Some of the department stores even have photo booths where you can pose for a picture and have it texted to yourself these days.
Our NYC Holiday Lights and Movie Sites tour was a great way to easily cover all the department store holiday windows in one shot, plus see where some of our favorite holiday movie scenes were filmed.
NYC Christmas Markets
Shop at the Winter Village at Bryant Park
The Winter Village at Bryant Park is a massive open-air European-style inspired Christmas market with more than 170 individual pop-up stalls. Not only is this NYC’s biggest holiday market, the really awesome thing is every food, drink and shop vendor is locally based in NYC.
The shops sell items made by artisans right there in NYC and you’ll find everything from hand-painted Christmas ornaments with iconic NYC landmarks on them to unique gifts like Hell’s Kitchen hot sauce. It’s truly NYC’s best Christmas market.
There’s loads of food and drink vendors, too. So many that you could sample some of NYC’s best eateries for every meal of your holiday. Don’t miss the pierogis from Pierogi Boys or a NYC classic pastrami sandwich from Berg’s Pastrami.
The Winter Village at Bryant Park is open from October 31, 2019 – January 5, 2020 from 11am – 9pm Monday – Friday, 10am – 9pm Saturday – Sunday, and 11am – 3pm December 31. Many shops will be open Christmas Day.
Shop at the Columbus Circle Holiday Market
5th Avenue is full of tourists shopping at the same Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Cartier shops you can find just about anywhere around the world. Instead, pick up unique gifts like handmade wooden puzzles, handcrafted jewelry, or French macarons (the maple bacon from Macaron Parlour are ah-mazing!) to bring back to everyone jealous at home.
There’s plenty to snack on too, like mini donuts from Glazey Days Donuts and hot apple cider or mulled wine.
The Columbus Circle Holiday Market is open December 4 – December 24, 2019 from 10am – 8pm Monday – Saturday and 10am – 7pm Sunday.
Shop at the Market at Westfield in the Occulus at the World Trade Center
The “Occulus” is NYC’s 3rd largest transportation hub. Designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, it’s much more than a train and subway station though. Set adjacent to the site of the September 11th attacks, it’s a mall and transit hub that millions of people have passed through since it opened in 2016.
This holiday season there’s also an indoor pop-up holiday market with 22 different vendors set along “cobbled” streets of a village designed to be Instagrammed. A European-inspired clock tower and a massive chrome snowman complete the holiday village.
It’s great for escaping a blustery NYC day for a bit and the shops have all been handpicked to bring visitors a choice of unique gifts and gourmet treats.
The Market at Westfield in the World Trade Center is open daily from November 23, 2019 – January 5, 2020 from 10am – 9pm Monday – Saturday and 11am – 7pm Sunday.
Shop at the Union Square Holiday Market
More than 150 stalls wind their way through the southern side of Union Square Park at the Union Square Holiday Market. Run by Urban Space, just as the Columbus Circle Christmas market is, you’ll find both local and national artisan vendors selling everything from unique jewelry to home brewing beer kits. You can surely find something for anyone you’ve got on your Christmas shopping list.
This is also another great place to eat with some of NYC’s best joints bringing their food to the holiday market. Don’t miss the pierogis from Veselka Pierogi Bar (yes, the favorite NYU haunt of Dan and Vanessa in Gossip Girl) or get a taste of Italy at Arancini Bros.
The Union Square Holiday Market is open from November 21 – December 24, 2019 daily from 11am – 8pm Monday – Friday, 10am – 8pm Saturday and 11am – 7pm Sunday.
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden is a beloved annual event for New Yorkers and tourists alike. Each year the garden puts on a spectacular holiday display with model trains zipping around nearly a half-mile of track. The model trains make their way past more than 175 New York landmarks in miniature size that have been creatively crafted out of cinnamon sticks, holly, mosses, acorns and more.
The 2019 Holiday Train Show theme showcases Central Park, including the park’s iconic Belvedere Castle.
There’s even Bar Car Nights exclusively for adults 21 and over, where you’ll get an exclusive after dark visit to the Holiday Train Show. You can wander with your adult beverage and grab a bite to eat the at Bronx Night Market Holiday Pop-up.
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden is on from November 23, 2019 – January 26, 2020. Tickets are $30 for adults and $18 for children 2 – 12 years of ages. Students are $28 with a valid student ID.
NYC Christmas Eve Brunch Cruise
If you’re actually in NYC for Christmas, you’ll find that not many of the tours or events run on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. While there’s still plenty of free holiday sights to take in around the city, if you’re looking for a bit of different way to take it all on then hop aboard a Christmas Eve brunch cruise.
The 2-hour Christmas Eve brunch cruise sails around New York Harbor. Take in the sights of NYC from the water while enjoying bottomless mimosas, a holiday-themed brunch buffet and an endlessly flowing chocolate fountain.
It’s a great way to take in the sights of the city like the Statue of Liberty while staying cozy warm. There’s also a live jazz band onboard to entertain you along the way.
The NYC Christmas Eve Brunch Cruise is on December 24th with boarding at 12pm. The cruise runs 2 hours and is $90 per adult, $54 per child ages 4 – 12 and free for children 3 and under.
Other Things to Do in NYC in December
Eat Your Way Through Little Italy and China Town
NYC food walking tours are a great way to escape Midtown, take a break from the New York City Christmas tours, and find out the secrets of more off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods like Little Italy and China Town. Ahoy New York Food Tours takes small groups to family owned shops, restaurants, and locations that have been in existence for over 100 years – and for the US, that’s amazing! You’ll learn about the best places to eat and the interesting history from an NYC insider.
Book Ahoy NYC Food Walking Tours online. Tickets are $55 per adult and the tour lasts approximately 3 hours.
If you didn’t get your fill of dumplings on the food tour, head to Shanghai Dumpling. The must on the menu is #2 xiao long bao pork dumpling. (104 Mott Street; cash only)
Visit the Tenement Museum for a look at how immigrant families lived through a series of restored apartments of past residents (103 Orchard Street; tickets are $29).
Where to Stay in NYC at Christmas
The Elf Suite at Club Wyndham Midtown 45
Son of a nutcracker! There’s an actual Buddy the Elf suite inspired by the popular Christmas movie Elf.
Club Wyndham Midtown 45 (read the TripAdvisor reviews) has transformed one of their suites in an exclusive Elf experience with all of Buddy the Elf’s favorite Christmassy things. You’re welcomed with a door dressed with an elf jacket, which opens to the living and dining area of the one-bedroom suite.
It’s a Christmas wonderland with hundreds of paper snowflakes, popcorn and paper garlands adorning the ceiling, and a towering Christmas tree beautifully decorated with golden ornaments. Guests will love the Lite Brite welcome message, jack-in-the-box toys under the tree, a colorful gift wrap mural wall and more.
Perhaps the best part is that you have a fully equipped kitchen with all the fixings to prepare an Elf-inspired Christmas feast. The full-size fridge is stocked with elves’ four essential food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn and maple syrup. Other treats stocked in the suite include spaghetti, marshmallows, chocolate sauce, Pop-Tarts, cookie dough, M&Ms and, lots of soda.
Then there’s even more Christmas Elf fun in store in both the bedroom and bathroom. Look out for the Lego replica of the Empire State building, Etch-A-Sketches and toy trains. Take a 360-degree tour of the suite here.
The Elf-inspired holiday suite sleeps up to four guests, and reservations will be available to book starting November 25, for stays beginning December 2. Rates start at $399 per night, or 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points on select nights. For additional information and to book a stay, visit ClubWyndham.com/HolidaySuite.
Other NYC Hotels We Recommend
Splurge at the Mandarin Oriental New York and be right in the heart of NYC, steps away from ice skating at Wollman Rink and the Columbus Circle Holiday Market.
Another favorite is the Empire Hotel for its location and Gossip Girl fame. Located on the Upper West Side near the Lincoln Center, American History Museum and Central Park West, the Empire is an excellent location for exploring NYC during the holidays.
Primarily a European brand, citizenM has become one of our favorite urban mid-range luxury hotel brands that we’ve discovered. The citizenM Times Square is in an awesome location just off of Times Square on 50th Street. This location is perfect for easily walking to many Midtown attractions and the subway is only a block away for zipping up to the Upper West Side or downtown.
What we love about citizenM is you can expect excellent service no matter which of their locations you stay at, and TripAdvisor reviews agree with us. The rooms are all exactly the same regardless of location, so you know exactly what to expect. But that can be a good thing when they supply a hair dryer worthy of any good hair salon, a smart room with endless movie choices and tv channels for when you need a relaxing break back at the hotel, and a delicious breakfast buffet.
Parker New York Hotel is an excellent Midtown hotel located close to Rockefeller Center and a short walk from Times Square.
Find More NYC Hotels
Know Before You Go
Getting to NYC is easy from destinations within the United States or from around the world. For foreign visitors, be sure to visit NYC for Christmas with ESTA and obtain your visa in advance.
Getting around NYC is also easy. The NYC subway is safe and easy to use to quickly get around. We suggest downloading the NYC Subway MTA Map app, which works offline if you don’t have service, for navigating between stops.