- 1 Things to do in New York City for Christmas
- 1.1 Visit Rockefeller Center
- 1.2 Watch the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall
- 1.3 Admire the holiday window displays on Fifth Avenue
- 1.4 Marvel at the amazing view from Top of the Rock
- 1.5 Enjoy The Nutcracker from the New York City Ballet
- 1.6 Visit the Christmas Markets in New York City
- 1.7 Take a Christmas tour of New York City
- 1.8 See the Christmas Lights in Dyker Heights
- 1.9 Jump on the vintage train on Sundays
- 1.10 Meet Santa at Macy’s Santa Land
- 1.11 Visit the New York Botanical Gardens Holiday Train Show
- 1.12 Lace up your ice skates at an ice skating rink
- 1.13 Head to IFC Theaters to watch It’s A Wonderful Life on the big screen
- 1.14 Explore Christmas at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park
- 1.15 Catch a Christmas show on or Off-Broadway
- 1.16 See the Christmas tree and Menorah on Wall Street
- 1.17 Enjoy the Hudson Yards Christmas lights
- 2 Where to Eat for your New York City Christmas Itinerary
- 3 Where to Stay for 4 Days in New York in December
- 4 Tips for your New York City Christmas Itinerary
- 5 Sample 4 Days in New York at Christmas Itinerary
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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
There’s just something extra-special about New York City at Christmas time. It’s one of the best places to visit during the holiday season, and for a good reason. Many movies and songs have been made about how romantic the season is in the City. If you’re looking for things to do in New York City for Christmas, here’s your guide to creating a perfect New York City Christmas itinerary for you and your family.
Things to do in New York City for Christmas
Visit Rockefeller Center
As far as an NYC Christmas bucket list goes, is there anything more iconic than visiting Rockefeller Center for things to do in New York City for Christmas? When you walk into the plaza, you’ll be met with the incredible views of flags from all over the world, waving in the wind, and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Centered below the tree, you’ll find Prometheus’s famous statue, watching over the ice skating rink.
There’s not really a time of day that 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 of 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.
Pro Tip: While you’re in Rockefeller Center, make sure you add FAO Schwarz to your NYC Christmas bucket list, 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. Make sure to ask the famous life size toy soldiers to take a photo with you!
Or, you can catch a live stream of the tree from 8 a.m. – 12 a.m. EST any day at the Rockefeller Center website.
Watch the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall
One of the most quintessential experiences on an NYC Christmas bucket list might be watching the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall featuring The Radio City Rockettes. From moments like Santa Claus flying high above New York City and the Rockettes’ famous Parade of the Wooden Soldiers performance to new songs, you’ll really never see the same show twice. Watching the Christmas Spectacular is really one of those can’t miss experiences for your New York City Christmas itinerary.
If you’re interested in theater history, schedule a backstage tour of Radio City Music Hall to get an inside glimpse into the magic behind the production.
Fun Fact: If you’re wondering–yes, the animals in the Christmas Spectacular are real! If you happen to be out and around Radio City Music Hall either late at night or early in the morning, you might catch a glimpse of handlers walking the camels, sheep, and donkeys that are featured in The Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
Admire the holiday window displays on Fifth Avenue
Although classic department stores like Lord & Taylor and Barneys have closed in the past few years, there are still several department stores along Fifth Avenue that go all out for the holidays. Across from Rockefeller Center and the famous Christmas tree, start your New York City Christmas itinerary walk along Fifth Avenue to admire the window displays Saks Fifth Avenue. Every year, Saks has a full 5 minute light show on its storefront every 10 minutes, featuring music, stunning lights, and an epic new storyline each year. Once the light show ends, walk across the street to the Saks Fifth Avenue storefront and admire their window displays.
Christmas window displays at the department stores along Fifth Avenue is a historic practice. It’s said that the tradition started in 1874 when R.H. Macy arranged scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe with porcelain dolls in the department store’s front holiday windows to attract customers. Obviously, it worked!
Once you pass Saks, you’ll come upon St. Patrick’s Cathedral, all decked out and in its holiday splendor. Make sure you head inside and catch a glimpse of the largest Catholic church in North America before continuing up Fifth Avenue to admire the window displays at stores like Cartier, Harry Winston, Louis Vuitton, and Bergdorf Goodman.
When you finish your walk up 5th Avenue, you will reach Pulitzer Square. In front of you will be Central Park, and to the left will be another NYC Christmas bucket list icon–The Plaza Hotel. You might recognize The Plaza from famous movies like Sleepless in Seattle, Plaza Suite, and the Christmas movie Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
You’ll find Sleepless in Seattle and many more on my list of favorite films that feature New York City.
Marvel at the amazing view from Top of the Rock
So you’ve seen the Christmas view of Rockefeller Plaza on the ground, but what about from above? Head to the Top of the Rock, the observation deck on top of 30 Rock, the famed NBC Studios building, to take in the sights of the City from above. You’ll have unbelievable panoramic views of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, the ice skating rink, and Central Park.
While you’re at the top, make sure you grab a drink at Bar SixtyFive at the Rainbow Room, Top of the Rock’s upscale bar.
If you’re interested in visiting several major sites in addition to the Top of the Rock, check out my guide on comparing New York City passes to see if one is right for you. And if you want to visit an observation deck, but maybe not Top of the Rock, check out my guide to the best observatories in New York City.
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!
Enjoy The Nutcracker from the New York City Ballet
If you love the classics, there’s nothing like watching 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, it’s a genuinely dazzling production on par with any other show you’d find in New York City.
Visit the Christmas Markets in New York City
If you’re interested in finding some really unique gifts, make sure you add a visit to one of the New York City holiday markets to your New York City Christmas itinerary. There are Christmas markets and holiday villages in every borough of the City, showcasing items and foods from all different shops and stalls local to the metropolitan area.
Although the most well-known holiday villages in New York City are the Bryant Park Winter Village and the Union Square Holiday Market, there are holiday shopping villages all over. You can even go to indoor Christmas markets at the Oculus or the Grand Central Terminal Holiday Market!
You’ll find some really unique gifts sold by local artisans and shops from all around the five boroughs. I always make sure to include at least one gift for my holiday giving from one of the shops at the holiday villages. It’s a great way to be festive and shop local.
Pro tip: While you’re visiting the Bryant Park winter village, make sure you stop by the New York Public Library next door. The building is beautifully decorated for the holidays each year, and it’s a great place to sneak away for a restroom!
And don’t forget about long-term New York City Markets. Markets like Artists & Fleas–which has a few locations around the City–Smorgasbord in Brooklyn and Grand Bazaar on the Upper West Side all go all out with holiday spirit. You’ll find additional vendors and local artisans with their holiday wares.
Take a Christmas tour of New York City
There are tours for everything in New York City, but especially at Christmas! Movie tours showcasing filming locations for plenty of holiday movies, holiday-themed boat tours on the Hudson River, and walking tours of Rockefeller Center are only a few of the incredible things to do in New York City for Christmas.
For an in-depth look, head over to the guide of my favorite Christmas tours in New York City.
See the Christmas Lights in Dyker Heights
New York City is a little different than other areas of the country. Most people live in apartments; 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. In this area of the City, families do have their own front Lawns to decorate for the Christmas spirit. And do they ever!
The tradition of the Dyker Heights Christmas lights 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, and it paved the way for the whole area to take part. If you’re interested in seeing the spectacular holiday displays yourself, you can either take the subway out or hop on a bus tour.
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, here’s my guide to navigating the New York City subway. I promise that using New York City public transportation is pretty easy, and it’s something you definitely should experience while you’re here.
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. Some of them will even pick you up in front of your hotel.
Jump on the vintage train on Sundays
Have you ever wondered what riding on a vintage subway car was like? While you can go look at and learn about the New York City subway through the ages at the New York Transit Museum, if you’re here during the holiday season, you can ride one for the price of your MetroCard.
Every Sunday between Thanksgiving to New Year’s, the MTA and the New York Transit Museum partner together to run the Holiday Nostalgia Rides. The holiday subway train consists of several vintage subway cars from the 1930s. Since the holiday train only runs a few times during the season, make sure to plan for a pleasure ride based on the train’s schedule available on the New York Transit Museum’s website.
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Meet Santa at Macy’s Santa Land
They say the REAL Santa is sitting in Santa Land at Macy’s in Herald Square.
Step onto the top floor of the 34th Street department store to be transported to Santa Land. While the tradition of the real St. Nick visiting Macy’s began in the 1860s, since the mid-1970s, Santa has had a permanent home on the 8th floor. When you arrive to check this off your NYC Christmas bucket list, you’ll wind your way through interactive exhibits before stepping on the Santaland Express train that will take you right to Santa.
If you want to make sure you see Santa, you need to book a reservation in advance. Time slots are booked out well in advance, and if you try to show up and wait in line on the same day, you might have to wait hours, or you might be turned away. You can head to Macy’s website to make reservations for the Santa Express Lane.
Visit the New York Botanical Gardens Holiday Train Show
For the past 29 years, the New York Botanical Gardens has hosted its Holiday Train Show. Model trains move through a tiny replica of New York City, complete with iconic landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, the Brooklyn Bridge, and many others.
While you’re there, you can also explore the gardens themselves and view GLOW, a new outdoor exhibition that illuminates the Botanical Gardens’ landmarks. You can grab your tickets to the New York Botanical Garden’s Holiday Experience here.
Lace up your ice skates at an ice skating rink
If you’re looking for a classic wintertime date in NYC, ice skating is the way to go. It’s a fun activity that everyone can enjoy, and you can get outdoors and enjoy the fresh air. These are my favorite skating rinks in the city:
- The Rink At Rockefeller Center
- The Rink at Bryant Park’s Winter Village
- The Rink at Brookfield Place
- Wollman Rink in Central Park
- Winterland at Pier 17
- Vale Rink at The William Vale (Booking | Hotels) in Brooklyn
- LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Prospect Park
- Abe Stark Rink at Coney Island
Fun Fact: The Rink at Bryant Park’s Winter Village is the only ice rink in NYC with free admission (just pay for your skate rentals!)
You can see the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life on the big screen down in Greenwich Village. The IFC Center shows classic and independent feature films, and is located right off of the A/B/C/D station at West 4th street. During the holiday season, they show the 1946 movie many times. First enjoy a great dinner downtown at Solaro, an Italian restaurant around the corner, before watching James Stewart’s iconic performance as George Bailey.
A magnificent museum called The Cloisters is located in Upper Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park, which takes visitors back to Medieval Europe.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s museum 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 each year 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 an amazing place to explore during the year, but if you have ever wondered what a Medieval holiday celebration would have looked like, this is the place to go. You can see the architecture and learn about the era when you wander through the holiday halls.
Catch a Christmas show on or Off-Broadway
When I was a New York-based actor, watching a Broadway production happened to be my absolute favorite thing to do at this magical time of year!
Every year during the holiday season, performance schedules change to accommodate the influx of visitors who want to see a show–which is great for you, because there are more showtimes than usual! You can check out Playbill’s list of Broadway performance times (updated weekly) 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. There, 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 whole guide on the best ways to buy Broadway tickets and tips for attending a Broadway show for more tips!
See the Christmas tree and Menorah on Wall Street
In front of the New York Stock Exchange in the Financial District, you’ll find another one of New York City’s Christmas trees. Visit the Wall Street 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.
Enjoy the Hudson Yards Christmas lights
The newest private development in New York City, Hudson Yards is located on 11th Avenue, between West 28th and West 38th streets. It’s considered the northern-most part of the High Line and offers unique views of the Hudson River and Jersey City.
At Christmastime, The Vessel is adorned in twinkling lights, bringing a festive glow to the complex. Then inside the Shops at Hudson Yards (one of my favorite indoor activities in New York City,) you’ll find additional holiday decorations among the many interactive stores.
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Where to Eat for your New York City Christmas Itinerary
Holiday dinner at a gorgeous restaurant
Just like the storefronts, many restaurants totally transform for the winter holidays. Rolf’s German Restaurant on 22nd Street and 3rd Avenue is one of the most popular Christmas dining experiences in New York City. While the restaurant changes its decorations according to each season, it really goes all out decorating for Christmas.
Another favorite is Lillie’s Victorian Establishment, either on West 49th Street or East 17th Street. When you walk inside at any time of year, it feels like you are transported to a modern take on a Victorian dining room. But, step in during the holiday season. You’ll find garlands, wreaths, and ornaments hanging all over the restaurant.
Cozy up at a festive rooftop bar
Enjoying the city skyline from a rooftop bar is one of my favorite New York City summer activities, but you can also add it to your NYC Christmas bucket list! There are many rooftop bars throughout the City, each with its own way to keep you warm. 230 Rooftop has igloos each winter, SERRA by birreria at Eataly Flatiron transforms into a winter chalet, and Bar 54 becomes another igloo haven right in the heart of Times Square. Grab a hot cocoa and enjoy the chilled winter air!
Where to Stay for 4 Days in New York in December
If you’re committing to a full-on New York City Christmas vacation, there are a few different hotels that go all out decorating for the holidays.
Lotte New York Palace (Booking | Hotels), located on Madison Avenue and East 50th Street, hosts a 30-foot Christmas tree each year, and garlands, colorful lights, and ornaments adorn the hotel. They also host events throughout the holiday season for guests, like holiday-themed happy hour specials, Story Time for Christmas classics, cookie decorating, and carols. Check with the hotel for details.
At 700 Fifth Avenue, The Peninsula Hotel (Booking | Hotels) is just steps away from the Fifth Avenue stores’ bright lights and Rockefeller Center. The hotel’s decorations are aligned with its signature “Stories from the Tree” theme incorporating six character ornaments, including the Gingerbread Man. You can read The Gingerbread Man’s Tale, the hotel’s featured story, on its website.
Just outside Times Square, The Algonquin (Booking | Hotels) is another excellent hotel beautifully decorated for the holidays, perfect for your New York City Christmas itinerary. The hotel first opened in 1902 but rose to prominence after World War I when it became a haven for writers and artists to meet and discuss. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Edna Ferber are just a few of the incredible writers that met for lunch at the hotel daily.
Now, the historic hotel is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. You’ll find ornate decor, enhanced at Christmastime with a large Christmas tree in the lobby and garland throughout.
Tips for your New York City Christmas Itinerary
Prepare for the crowds
If it feels like the City is packed at any time of year, it feels even more crowded in the winter, when tourists come from all over the world to be part of the holiday cheer. Leave yourself more time than you expect to get somewhere. If Citymapper (my favorite subway app) says it’ll only take 45 minutes to arrive wherever you’re going, leave an hour or so ahead of time instead.
To make the most of your NYC Christmas bucket list, you need to learn how the city works to get around quickly and effectively. Thankfully, I have two guides to help you out!
The first is on how to understand NYC streets. Manhattan is laid out like a grid, with a defined system.
The second is on how to navigate the NYC subway. The metro runs 24/7 all throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx, and it also has its own defined system.
Again, Citymapper is my favorite subway app, and Google Maps is my favorite app for saving landmarks, restaurants, other points of interest, and giving walking directions. Once you understand both systems, you’ll be moving across the city in no time at all!
Make reservations in advance
Everyone is coming to New York City for their holiday vacation to experience the same things you want to, but there are limits to how many times or spaces are available per day. Make sure you make reservations for restaurants and excursions in advance to ensure you’ll be able to do what you planned in your New York City Christmas itinerary.
Plan a budget, and stick to it
To be honest, New York City is expensive, and there might even be surge pricing during the holidays for major attractions and things to do in New York City for Christmas. When you live here, you get used to the prices, but your dinner bill might cause a bit of sticker-shock the first few times. Make sure you create a budget and stick to it for your trip. A helpful way to stay within your budget is to take advantage of the many free activities in New York City or to plan your New York City Christmas itinerary around free museum hours in NYC. I have guides to both of these topics, and they really make a difference for your bottom line.
Among the magic, you need to know that it’s really, really cold in NYC in the winter. The daily temperature averages are a high of 44°F and a low of 31°F–and you need to factor in additional wind chill and possibly even snow. Your best bet is to wear layers as the temperature tends to fluctuate.
It’s a must to wear winterized, waterproof boots and thick socks if you’re going to be on your feet outside all day. When it snows, there’s no shortage of puddles and slushie sidewalks, and it will ruin your trip if you have to walk around with cold wet feet. You also need gloves, a hat, and a scarf. Fortunately, if you happen to forget any of these items, you can always stop in any shop or purchase some from street vendors.
As always, keep an eye on NYC’s weather forecast as your packing for your trip, and try to plan accordingly in advance!
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Sample 4 Days in New York at Christmas Itinerary
Day 1 – Rockefeller Center and Fifth Avenue
Drop off your bags as you check into your hotel! Get ready and go outside to start enjoying your New York Christmas vacation. Start by visiting the iconic Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center, and head up to Top of the Rock for another perspective.
Then, walk uptown on 5th Avenue to enjoy the Saks Fifth Avenue lights show and go window shopping through all of the holiday displays. Stop off at one of my favorite free sites in NYC, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one of the largest churches in the city and home to the Archbishop of New York.
Once you arrive at the southeastern corner of Central Park, you can either head into iconic The Palm Court at The Plaza Hotel for afternoon tea or an elegant dinner, or walk into Central Park to go skating at Wollman Rink.
If you’re interested in seeing a late show, grab tickets to the 8 p.m. production of the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall.
Day 2 – Christmas Tours and Santa Land
Today is all about holiday tours and experiences! Depending on what time you’ve pre-booked seeing Santa at Macy’s Santa Land, that will determine what tour you can take today. I highly recommend a walking tour, so you can learn more about the city’s historic sites along with the holiday splendor.
After Santa Land, you have three different options to spend your evening. Take a Christmas cruise on the Hudson River to have dinner and see the city from a new perspective, head to Dyker Heights for the dazzling light displays, or visit the IFC Center to enjoy It’s A Wonderful Life on the big screen.
For your New York City at night activity, finish your evening enjoying a drink from a rooftop bar with a view of the Empire State Building.
Day 3 – Holiday Markets, Hudson Yards, and Broadway
Are you ready to shop ‘til you drop?! For day 3 of your New York in December itinerary, you need to visit the Bryant Park Winter Village to start, but there are several other holiday markets you can check out throughout the city for gift shopping and souvenirs. Columbus Circle, Union Square, Grand Central Terminal, and the Oculus also have great holiday markets or you can head over to the Brooklyn for Winterfest at the Brooklyn Museum, Smorgashboard, or Artists & Fleas.
Once you’ve finished running around the holiday markets, stop back at your hotel to drop off your shopping before heading to Hudson Yards. If you want to add some more walking into your day, start at the bottom of the High Line in the Meatpacking District above the Whitney Museum and walk up until you reach Hudson Yards. Enjoy The Vessel all decorated before heading inside the Shops at Hudson Yards–for more shopping.
Once you’re all shopped out, enjoy a nice dinner at a beautifully decorated restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, like Becco’s or Lillie’s Victorian Establishment, before attending a Broadway show.
Day 4 – Endless Possibilities
Maybe you’re a history lover who’s dying to see The Cloisters at Christmas? Or, you love model trains and are desperate to get to the New York Botanical Gardens for the Holiday Train Show? Better yet, do you want to wander around downtown to see the Christmas tree and Menorah on Wall Street before taking the free Staten Island Ferry to Empire Outlets and Snug Harbor, with a view passing the Statue of Liberty?
While you might not have time to do everything, spend today visiting the iconic sites you’ve always dreamed of seeing in New York City or experiencing one of the incredible holiday sites of the city before checking out of your hotel and heading home.
There are so many things to do in New York City for Christmas, it’s truly is one of the most incredible places to be during the holiday season. What do you plan to add to your NYC Christmas itinerary?