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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 anyplace more iconic than 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.
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.
Update for 2020: The Tree is now available to view from 6 a.m. to midnight! But, if you’re heading into Manhattan to see the tree this year, you won’t be able to just show up. Instead, there will be a virtual queue:
- Start by scanning the QR codes placed all around Rockefeller Center, and you’ll receive a text with your reserved time slot
- To enter Rockefeller Center at your viewing time, you must report to one of the four available entrances – on the corners of 49th and 50th streets and 5th and 6th Avenues
- Socially distant viewing pods are set up for 4 guests per pod. Groups of more than 4 will be separated into more than one pod, and you’ll have 5 minutes to take your pictures and enjoy!
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.
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, and Louis Vuitton.
When you finish your walk up Fifth 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.
Update for 2020: The Channel Gardens, the walkway in Rockefeller Center that leads through to the front of Saks Fifth Avenue, is closed to visitors.
Admire the view from Top of the Rock
So you’ve seen the Christmas view of Rockefeller Center 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 the Top of the Rock observation deck isn’t on your NYC Christmas bucket list, check out my guide to the best observatories in New York City.
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 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.
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.
Update for 2020: The Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall has been canceled this year.
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.
Update for 2020: The New York City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker has been canceled this year.
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 an inside Christmas market at the Oculus!
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.
Update for 2020: The Bryant Park Winter Village is open for the season! However, many others, including the ones in the Oculus, Union Square and Columbus Circle, as well as Artists & Fleas, Smorgasbord, Grand Bazaar, are all closed this year.
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, sunset 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.
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 the New York City subway 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.
Visit Santa at Macy’s Santaland
They say the REAL Santa is 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 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 the Macy’s website to make reservations for the Santa Express Lane.
Update for 2020: While you can’t come in-store to visit Santa this year, check Macy’s Santaland website for how you can interact with Santa from home!
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.
Update for 2020: This year, the New York Botanical Gardens Holiday Train Show is only open for Members, Patrons, or Corporate Members, or Bronx Community Partners of the New York Botanical Gardens.
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
Kicking back at 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.
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, 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 is just steps away from the Fifth Avenue stores’ bright holiday 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 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.
Read More: What Not to do on the New York City Subway
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 reverie. 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.
Make reservations in advance
Everyone is coming to New York City during the holidays to experience the same things you want to, but there are limits to how many times or spaces 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 at the holidays for the 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.
There are so many things to do in New York City for Christmas, it’s truly one of the most incredible places to be during the holiday season. What do you plan to add to your New York City Christmas itinerary?
- The Best Christmas Tours in New York City
- Your Guide to Navigating the New York City Subway
- The Best Free Things to do in New York City
- Your Guide to New York City Free Museum Hours
- The Best Observatories in New York City
- The Best New England Winter Getaways
- Top Tours in North America