This post may contain affiliate links! I will receive a commission, at no extra cost to you, if you purchase something recommended here.
You think the city of New York is pretty special any time of year, right? Well, get ready to experience it at Christmas.
As I’m sure you’ve gathered from other posts around here, I love New York City–living in it, learning from it, and experiencing its best.
And although there’s nothing quite like summer in the city, the perfect other half is New York City at Christmas.
You’ll feel the cold, crisp air of the winter season as you walk down the street.
See Christmas displays in the windows of shops and garlands hanging from the front doors of stores–it feels like a touch of magic has entered your life.
Whether you’ve been creating your Christmas in New York bucket list since you were a child watching Eloise at The Plaza or Home Alone 2, or you’re just now considering your options, this list will spark your inspiration and let your imagination run wild.
Your New York City Christmas Bucket List
1. See the world’s most spectacular Christmas tree
Topping everyone’s Christmas in New York bucket list is visiting the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
One of the most iconic symbols for Christmas that New York City has, the tree is lit every night during the holiday season, making this one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Big Apple.
When planning your NYC Christmas itinerary, remember there’s not really a time of day when you can be in Rockefeller Center without significant crowds.
While early mornings will probably be the least crowded in front of the Christmas Tree, you’ll be met with a group of people standing outside the TODAY Show studios, the NBC morning show that shoots right in the Center.
And the later in the day you venture into Rockefeller Center, the more and more people you’ll find.
2. Meet Santa at Macy’s Santaland
The REAL Santa is said to be sitting in Santaland at Macy’s in Herald Square.
Step onto the top floor of the 34th Street department store to be transported to Santaland.
While the tradition of the real St. Nick visiting Macy’s dates back to the 1860s, Santa has had a permanent home on the 8th floor since the mid-1970s.
You’ll wind your way through interactive exhibits before boarding the Santaland Express train, which will take you directly to Santa. However, you must make a reservation in advance if you want to see Santa.
Time slots are reserved well in advance, and if you try to show up and wait in line on the same day, you may have to wait hours or be turned away.
To make reservations for the Santa Express Lane, visit the Macy’s website.
3. Marvel at the Saks Fifth Avenue bright lights
Every year, Saks Fifth Avenue has a 5-minute light show on its storefront every 10 minutes, with music, lights, and an epic new storyline.
The best views of the festive decorations come from standing across the street from the store, in front of Rockefeller Center.
After the light show, walk across the street to the Saks storefront and admire its holiday displays.
4. Walk up Fifth Avenue to see the gorgeous Christmas displays
Although classic department stores such as Lord & Taylor and Barneys have closed in recent years, there are still several department stores along Fifth Avenue that go all out for the holidays.
Christmas window displays in Fifth Avenue department stores are a long-standing tradition.
It’s said that the tradition began in 1874 when R.H. Macy arranged scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin with porcelain dolls in the department store’s front windows to attract customers.
Clearly, it worked!
After you pass Saks on Fifth Avenue, you’ll come across St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is all decked out for the holidays.
Head inside to see the largest Catholic church in North America before continuing up Fifth Avenue to admire the window displays at Cartier, Harry Winston, and Louis Vuitton.
When you finish your walk up Fifth Avenue, you will arrive at Pulitzer Square.
Central Park will be in front of you, and The Plaza Hotel, another New York City holiday icon, will be to your left.
You may recognize The Plaza from films such as Eloise at The Plaza, Plaza Suite, and the Christmas film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
5. Time for tea at The Plaza
Now that you’ve arrived at this historic hotel that’s perfect for your holiday stay, it’s time to head inside to enjoy a fine traditional tea.
The Plaza is beautifully decorated for the holidays.
The same can be said for inside their restaurant, The Palm Court.
Every day from 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m., The Palm Court serves an elegant afternoon tea. It’s beautifully decorated for the holiday season. With its smart-casual dress code, you feel like you’re enjoying a refined experience.
You can learn more about their tea time menu and reserve a table on their website.
6. Head to Radio City Music Hall for the Christmas Spectacular
Is there more Christmas bucket list in NYC activity than heading to Radio City Music Hall and watching the Christmas Spectacular?
Although the show has been running almost every year since 1933, elements change yearly.
So while you always see the famous toy soldier in March or the nativity scene procession with the live camels, other dances and moments in the show change from year to year.
With three performances a day on the weekends and two every day during the week, you can purchase your tickets for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular online here.
And once the show is over, make sure to head across the street from the entrance on Sixth Avenue to see the larger-than-life Christmas ornaments!
7. Snag Tickets to the Nutcracker
Another annual tradition is The Nutcracker, performed by the New York City Ballet.
Each year, the troupe expands from its 90 dancers to include an additional 125 children, 40 stagehands, and more than 60 musicians to perform the iconic ballet at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.
From its choreography by George Balanchine to its extraordinary visual effects, this stunning rendition is classical ballet at its finest and definitely worth being on your Christmas in New York bucket list.
8. Take pictures with another gorgeous Christmas tree at Lotte New York Palace
Gossip Girl here! Although super fans will recognize the hotel from its presence in the show, it’s one of the prettiest places to visit in New York City throughout Christmastime.
Every year, the Lotte New York Palace, located on Madison Avenue and East 50th Street, displays a 30-foot Christmas tree, garlands, lights, and decorations.
They also organize events for customers throughout the holiday season, such as holiday-themed happy hour, Story Time for Christmas classics, cookie making, and singing.
9. Have a magical Christmas stay at The Peninsula Hotel
The Peninsula Hotel, located at 700 Fifth Avenue, is just steps from the brilliant Christmas lights of Fifth Avenue shops and Rockefeller Center.
The hotel offers two different festive packages every holiday season to get into the Christmas spirit.
If you’re coming with your family, the Night Before Christmas package is available from mid-November until the New Year.
With this package, any children on the “nice” list will get to do their own in-room candy canes scavenger hunt, and they’ll get to decorate their own gingerbread cookies. They can even visit The Peninsulas Sweet Shoppe.
For the adults, you can choose their Holly Jolly Holiday package, which includes VIP access to Top of the Rock, a window-display walking tour, and drinks in their infamous igloos.
10. Catch some holiday magic during dinner at Rolf’s
If you’ve ever heard of that famous restaurant where everyone goes for Christmas photos in New York City, Rolf’s German Restaurant on 22nd Street and 3rd Avenue is probably one you’ve seen.
Every holiday season, the restaurant goes all out with its holiday decorations. From the moment you step inside, it feels like you’re transported to a holiday wonderland.
However, if this has been on your NYC Christmas bucket list, you must schedule a reservation as soon as possible! The restaurant books out months in advance for its holiday service.
If you’re interested in hearing more, fill out this form to receive my list of the best Christmas restaurants in NYC.
- Your Guide to the Best Free Things To Do in New York City
- The Ultimate New York City Passes Comparison
- Tips for Visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum from an NYC Tour Guide
- How To Understand NYC Streets: The New York Grid System Explained
11. Go Ice Skating
If you’re looking for a classic winter date in New York City, there’s nothing quite like ice skating.
While there are some pretty famous rinks around the city, here is a list of my favorites:
- The Rink at Rockefeller Center
- The Rink at Bryant Park
- Wollman Rink in Central Park
- The Vale Ice Rink in Brooklyn
- LeFrak Center at Lakeside at Prospect Park
- Abe Stark Rink at Coney Island
- The Rink at Brookfield Place with Gregory & Petukhov
While I love Brookfield Place’s rink because of its proximity to the water and its a little bit less crowded than, let’s say, Rockefeller Center, there’s no denying the iconic skating site.
Insider Tip: If you bring your own skates to the Bryant Park ice rink, you can ice skate for free!
12. Wander around in Central Park
Central Park is a perfect place to add to your bucket list for Christmas in New York City.
Especially if it’s recently snowed!
Central Park is a lovely area to walk around in the winter in New York City.
Although there won’t be any leaves on the trees, and the Bethesda Fountain might be off, it’s still a beautiful, peaceful walk in the Center of this hectic city.
And if you love ice skating, Wollman Rink is right in the center of Central Park and a fantastic option if you don’t want to deal with crowds as big as you’ll find at the Rockefeller Center or Bryant Park ice skating rinks.
13. Visit Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights
Since most people live in apartments in NYC, they don’t often have their own front lawn to decorate in the Christmas spirit.
However, that’s not quite the case in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. Families in this neighborhood have their own front lawns to decorate for the Christmas spirit.
And do they ever!
The Dyker Heights Christmas lights tradition began in the 1980s when a woman named Linda Spata moved into the neighborhood.
She decided to carry on the holiday decorating tradition her mother had started, which paved the way for the whole area to participate.
If you’re interested in seeing the spectacular displays yourself, you can either take the subway out or hop on a bus tour.
I promise that using the New York City subway is pretty easy, and it’s something you definitely should experience while you’re here.
You can take either the Brooklyn-bound R train to 86th Street or the Brooklyn-bound D train to 79th Street and walk to the Dyker Heights Christmas lights neighborhood.
If you feel like you need a little bit more help, though, click here to read my guide on using the NYC subway.
If you want a more guided experience or you don’t want to figure out your way there yourself, many companies offer tours out to Dyker Heights specifically to see the Christmas light displays.
This Dyker Heights Holiday Bus Tour leaves from Manhattan and takes you right over to the Dyker Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn to marvel at the twinkling lights. The 3.5-hour tour has almost 500 reviews with an average ranking of 4.5 out of 5 stars.
14. Go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for Lightscape
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden hosts an incredible lights show called Lightscape every year.
Walk along a 1-mile path through the garden’s 52 acres after dark, where you’ll be dazzled by the colorful twinkling lights and soundscape as you explore the famous gardens in a new way.
You’ll also have the chance to experience displays like the Fire Garden, the Field of Light, the Winter Cathedral Tunnel, and other light works developed by Brooklyn-based artists.
15. See NYBG’s Holiday Train Show
The New York Botanical Gardens has hosted its Holiday Train Show for over thirty years.
Miniature trains move through a tiny replica of New York City, with famous landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, the Brooklyn Bridge, and many others.
While there, you can also explore the gardens and view GLOW, a 1.5-mile path that winds through the Botanical Garden’s grounds at night for their outdoor light and color show.
16. Shop at a Holiday Market
One of the most iconic NYC Christmas bucket list items is visiting one of the Christmas markets around the city!
Winter festivals, Christmas markets and holiday villages can be found in every borough of New York City, featuring products and foods from various businesses and booths around the city.
Although the Bryant Park Winter Village and the Union Square Christmas Market are the most well-known winter villages in New York City, there are holiday villages throughout the city–including the one in the Oculus.
Local artists and stores across the five boroughs sell some one-of-a-kind items.
I always include at least one present from a holiday village stall in my Christmas giving. It’s a fantastic place to find thoughtful gifts for your loved ones.
A few of my favorite outdoor holiday markets include:
- Bryant Park Winter Village
- Union Square Holiday Market
- The Market at Westfield World Trade Center
- Columbus Circle Holiday Market
- Christmas Market at Amaze Light Festival
Pro Tip: While visiting the Bryant Park Winter Village, don’t forget to pay a visit to the New York Public Library right next door. The historic building is elegantly ornamented for the holidays every year, and it’s a perfect place to slip away for a bathroom break!
Don’t overlook long-term New York City Markets, either.
Artist & Fleas, found in a few venues across the city, Smorgasbord in Brooklyn, and Grand Bazaar on the Upper West Side, all go all out for Christmas. Even the Brooklyn Navy Yard has an annual holiday market!
17. Enjoy Lantern Fest Fridays on Staten Island
In Staten Island, take advantage of Lantern Fest Fridays.
Every Friday in December, three museums—the Staten Island Museum, the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, and the Noble Maritime Collection—are open until 8 p.m. to celebrate the Winter Lantern Festival.
Once you finish at the museum, follow the lights to walk your way to the front lawn of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden to see some incredible light exhibits.
18. Stay toasty warm in a rooftop igloo
Have you ever had drinks outside in New York City in the winter in an igloo?! I’ll bet you haven’t, which is why this is an activity on your Christmas bucket list in New York City.
A couple of bars around the city have this wintertime experience. However, the grandest is at 230 Fifth Avenue.
Under the lights of the Empire State Building, you can order drinks and enjoy the stunning views from inside a glass igloo. It feels like you almost have privacy with your friends, tucked up in an igloo together.
The only thing better than enjoying drinks in an igloo would be if there was snow falling, too.
19. Head to a Broadway show
Every year during the holiday season, performance schedules change to accommodate the influx of visitors who want to see a show–which is excellent for you because there are more showtimes than usual!
You can check out Playbill’s updated weekly list of Broadway performance times to find something that works for your schedule, or check out the production’s website online to see their holiday showtime calendar in advance.
Pro Tip: If you aren’t sure which Broadway show you want to see, visit the TKTS Booth and ask! In Times Square, you’ll find them under the red stairs, but they also have a location at Lincoln Center and South Street Seaport. You can find a selection of Broadway and Off-Broadway tickets between 30-50% off the price you’d pay at the box office.
You can also read my complete guide on the best ways to buy Broadway tickets and tips for attending a Broadway show.
Once you’ve decided which production to see, check out my recommendations for great restaurants around Broadway.
20. Enjoy the Empire State Building’s annual Holiday Light Show
If you’ve ever seen Sleepless in Seattle, one of my favorite New York movies, you must remember the iconic ending.
Meg Ryan’s character is having dinner at a fancy NYC restaurant. She looks out the window to see a heart illuminated on the Empire State building. This prompts her to leave her date and meet Tom Hanks on top of the Empire State building. *sigh*
Although life doesn’t quite work out like that, the Empire State Building does light up with beautiful colors to celebrate different holidays.
Any guesses for its Christmas colors? You got it–green and red.
If you’re in New York City at night during the holidays, you need to watch, look up and see one of the most iconic buildings lit up with the Christmas spirit.
- 37+ Phenomenal Things to do in NYC Alone (from a Tour Guide)
- 30+ Gifts and Essentials For Someone Moving to New York City
- 13+ Top Tips for Moving to New York City Alone: Everything I Wish I’d Known
21. See the city from the water with a bit of holiday cheer on a New York City Cocoa & Carols Holiday Cruise
If you think New York is overrated, you haven’t seen the city from the water!
Head out on the Hudson and East Rivers for a Christmas-themed boat cruise.
Drift by New York City’s skyline from your private table in the heated, glass-enclosed 1920s-style yacht.
The tour includes a complimentary drink with your ticket, as well as your entertainment for the magical experience.
Listen to the captain tell you about the world you’re floating by outside or sing along to carols playing as you take in the views of the New York City skyline at Christmas.
This one-and-a-half-hour cruise tour departs from Chelsea Piers during the holiday season.
You can check my list of the top Christmas tours in NYC for more ideas!
22. Enjoy the extravagant holiday lights display at the Amaze Light Festival
Over at Citi Field in Queens, the New York Mets baseball team’s home stadium, you can find the Amaze Light Festival.
Hosted by Artistic Holiday Designs, visitors can walk among the enchanting decorations and dazzling lights in this interactive storybook experience.
Have a magical time with your friends and family, spend quality time together during the holidays and get into the festive spirit.
You can purchase general admission and VIP tickets online.
23. Go Christmas caroling
This is a real thing that you can actually do in New York City at Christmas time! Have you always wanted to go Christmas caroling?
Every year on Christmas eve, you can join other New Yorkers in Washington Square Park to sing Christmas carols.
This event and the park’s Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony are organized annually by the Washington Square Association, Inc.
You can check their website for this year’s information on where to meet and how to join in the reverie.
24. Get festive at a museum
Visiting one of New York City’s famous museums should be high on your Christmas in New York bucket list!
Not only can you explore some of the world’s more revered art and artifacts, but the city’s major museums also decorate beautifully for the holiday season.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is my favorite place to admire Christmas decorations before getting lost in the museum for hours. It’s also an excellent NYC activity indoors to stay out of the cold.
25. Admire the Upper East Side townhouses
While, obviously, Dyker Heights, Brooklyn is known for her there over the top Christmas decoration displays, the townhouses on the Upper East and Upper West Sides of Manhattan also put out some lovely holiday decorations.
Nothing will get you more in the Christmas spirit than stopping for a photo in front of these beautiful front steps.
26. Attend an annual Christmas Concert at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
Found on Fifth Avenue across from Rockefeller Center, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is the largest Catholic church in North America.
The inside is beautifully decorated to celebrate each holiday season, and they host an annual Christmas Concert series.
Admission to their concerts is free and open to the public; you can find this year’s concert schedule on their website.
27. Have a frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity3
Did I just say frozen hot chocolate? Yes!
You haven’t lived until you’ve tried frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity3.
This iconic restaurant in the Lenox Hill neighborhood in Manhattan is famous for its cold spin on an otherwise warm treat.
With flavors to try like Frrrozen Hot Chocolate, Salted Caramel, White Chocolate, and Mint Chocolate, among some other outstanding options, it’s one of the hottest–and coolest–desserts in NYC.
28. Ride the holiday train from Harlem on down through Manhattan
From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, the New York Transit Museum partners with the MTA to run the Holiday Nostalgia Rides every Sunday.
Starting from the 145th Street B line and heading all the way downtown, vintage NYC subway cars from the 1930s through the 1970s are brought out of their retirement to make up the holiday train.
People come dressed up in their finest throwback outfits and herald back to a time when subway riding was a refined activity.
Whether you love vintage trains, vintage fashion, or are ready for more holiday spirit, traveling down Manhattan on the Holiday Nostalgia Train is an excellent addition to your Christmas bucket list for New York City.
Since the holiday train only runs a few times during the season, look at the train’s schedule on the New York Transit Museum’s website to plan ahead.
Need some gift-giving inspiration this holiday season? Check out my guides on the best travel essentials for women, travel gifts under $20, zero-waste travel essentials, and great gifts for friends going abroad!
29. Take a New York City Christmas Eve Dinner Cruise
What are your plans for Christmas Eve? If you’re skipping your usual celebrations to spend the night in NYC, then consider drifting away on a New York City Christmas Eve Dinner Cruise.
This 2.5-hour unforgettable experience includes a buffet dinner and a standard open bar, including wine and beer.
Enjoy the views of iconic New York City landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, One World Trade Center, and the Brooklyn Bridge as an onboard D.J. plays your favorite holiday music.
The tour leaves at 7 p.m. from Pier 83.
30. Visit Fort Tryon Park for Christmas at The Cloisters
A magnificent museum called The Cloisters is located in Upper Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park, which takes visitors back to Medieval Europe.
This outpost of The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses more than 5,000 works of European art dating from the Byzantine period to the early Renaissance and was constructed in the medieval European monastery style by architect Charles Collens.
The halls are adorned with historic Medieval ‘Christmastide’ decorations yearly to celebrate the season.
Garden staff and volunteers work for weeks handcrafting the locally-sourced holiday furnishings, including evergreen trees, holly, ivy, and other plants used to celebrate Christmastide, the 12-day Medieval festival between the Nativity and the Epiphany.
This is a fantastic place to explore during the year. Still, if you have ever wondered what a Medieval holiday celebration would look like, this is the place to go. You can see the architecture and learn about the era when you wander the holiday halls.
31. Visit the Christmas tree and Menorah on Wall Street
In front of the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan’s Financial District, you’ll find another one of New York City’s beautiful trees.
Visit the Wall Street Christmas tree and Hanukkah Menorah before wandering into Federal Hall, the site of the first Congress and where George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States.
The building that stands there today was a U.S. Customs House.
32. Take a festive-filled day trip outside the city to the American Dream
Over in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the American Dream is a huge shopping mall with over 300 stores, restaurants, an aquarium, an indoor ice skating rink, and even an indoor amusement and water park.
You’ll find plenty of reasons to spend the whole day inside this holiday season.
Check off everyone on your Christmas shopping list, enjoy the festive decorations, and spend some time releasing your holiday stress inside at the attached Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park.
You can purchase tickets for the Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park, the Sea Life Aquarium, and their indoor ice skating rink.
33. Finish your Christmas shopping at FAO Schwarz
Have you really completed your NYC Christmas bucket list if you haven’t stepped inside FAO Schwarz?
If you haven’t heard of FAO Schwarz before, it’s an iconic New York City toy store.
The larger-than-life store features experiences like the famed floor piano–featured in the movie BIG with Tom Hanks–to hosting classic toys and toy brands your parents and grandparents loved.
Head inside to find the last toys and games you need to complete your holiday shopping.
More Resources for Visiting New York City at Christmas
- In charge of planning your complete Christmas itinerary? I have a full guide on how to spend your time in NYC this Christmas.
- Trying to find a perfect hotel for your Christmas trip? Here are all the best places to stay in New York City during the Christmas season.
- Are you interested in all the most Instagramable romantic spots? Be inspired by my list of the best Christmas photo spots all around NYC.
- Are you hoping to see snow this Christmas season? Find out here if it snows in New York at Christmas.
- Interested in taking a holiday-themed tour? Check out my list of the top Christmas tours throughout the five boroughs.
- Are you visiting New York City this winter with your significant other? Be inspired by my list of the best winter dates all around NYC.
- Trying to find some other wintery activities? Check out my list of awesome winter activities in New York City.
Christmas in New York Bucket List: Wrap-Up
New York City has so much to offer during the holiday season. From the lights along Fifth Avenue to the ice skating rink in Rockefeller Center, you’re sure to have an incredible time!