10 Ways to Enjoy Christmas in New York

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New York City makes for an exciting trip any time of year. But the holidays are special as the city offers a wealth of seasonal activities to enjoy. Here are the best things to do in NYC at Christmas:

See the holiday windows

New York’s department stores are known for their elaborate holiday windows. These aren’t your typical windows with products and styled mannequins. They’re extravagantly designed displays that the stores work on for months before they’re unveiled.

Holiday window at Macy’s Herald Square
Holiday window at Macy’s Herald Square

Each store usually chooses a theme for the year. The 2017 windows’ themes included Snow White, family traditions, snow globes, New York, and Earth through the ages.

Seeing holiday windows is free and easy. Here’s a list of stores to visit:

  • Saks Fifth Avenue
  • Macy’s (Herald Square)
  • Barneys
  • Bloomingdale’s
  • Lord & Taylor
  • Tiffany & Co
  • Bergdorf Goodman
  • Henri Bendel

Watch the Saks Fifth Avenue light show

Saks Fifth Avenue plays a holiday light show on its building facade every 10 to 15 minutes. It’s best seen from Rockefeller Center across the street.

Saks Fifth Avenue light show

See the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree

They put up this iconic Christmas tree and hold a public lighting ceremony in November or December every year. The tree is usually a 69- to 100-ft tall Norway spruce; last year’s was 76 feet tall and was lit by 45,000 LED bulbs.

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree

While you’re at Rockefeller, you may want to check out the Lego store and their elaborate Lego constructions.

Rockefeller Center Lego store
The boy was like a kid in a Lego store

Shop at the holiday markets

Here are some notable holiday markets during Christmas in New York:

Traditional markets

These markets are open all week long for multiple weeks.

Bryant Park Winter Village — A European-style outdoor Christmas market with 125+ stalls selling decor, jewelry, clothing, and gifts. There’s food and drinks like waffles and hot cider. The 17,000-square-foot ice skating rink is a big draw.

Union Square Holiday Market — A large al fresco market with 150+ local merchants selling handmade gifts, leather goods, jewelry, and art pieces. They also have food vendors serving crepes, churros, pretzels, empanadas, macarons, and sausages.

Grand Central Holiday Fair — An indoor fair in Grand Central terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall—a good market to visit when it’s especially cold outside. They have 40 vendors operated by artists and businesses selling jewelry, art, crafts, and ornaments.

Grand Central Holiday Fair

Columbus Circle Holiday Market — An outdoor market in Central Park featuring 100+ booths with art, jewelry, home goods, and food items.

Weekend markets

These markets have specific schedules. Make sure to check the dates and times they’re being held.

Brooklyn Flea’s Winter Flea & Holiday Market — New York’s most popular flea market. During the holidays, 50+ vendors sell candles, scarves, hats, vintage items, and more. There are also food stalls and a bar. This market operates in two locations: SoHo and DUMBO.

Etsy Handmade Cavalcade — A DIY-focused market featuring 50+ fashion, beauty, and lifestyle craft sellers. It takes place on select dates in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Renegade Craft Fair — A large curated showcase of independent crafts, featuring 150+ stalls of handmade crafts and artisanal food and beverages. They hold the fair in various cities throughout the year, including a holiday fair in NYC.

Other markets and fairs

Watch the Radio City Christmas Spectacular

The Christmas Spectacular is a holiday-themed musical show with singing, dancing, and acting. It features the Rockettes, a women’s troupe famous for dancing and moving in sync.

Walk around Dyker Heights

Visit the Brooklyn neighborhood Dyker Heights, and you’ll see homes with thousands of Christmas lights and large decorations such as nativity scenes and nutcrackers. Word has it that it started off as friendly neighborhood competition, only later turning into an annual destination for dazzling Christmas lights and decor. These days, many of the houses are professionally decorated.

Dyker Heights house with Christmas lights

The best displays are usually on weekends in mid-December or later. You can go there yourself, or take a walking tour or bus tour.

See holiday-themed shows and musicals

In addition to the Christmas Spectacular, there are plenty of Christmas shows in NYC throughout the season. Here are some examples:

The Nutcracker — A two-act show performed by the New York City Ballet, one of the best ballet companies in the world. The choreography is unparalleled, and the set, props, and lighting make for enchanting visual effects.

The Nutcracker by New York City Ballet

Paul Winter’s Winter Solstice Celebration — A multimedia show featuring music, singing, and dancing. The show is held on select dates annually at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The concept is inspired by ancient solstice rituals, where people gathered on the longest night of the year and performed rituals to await the sun’s return.

Elf the Musical — A musical about an orphan named Buddy. He somehow crawls into Santa’s bag of toys and ends up in the North Pole, where he grows up thinking he’s an elf. When it becomes obvious that he’s human, he travels to New York in search of his birth father and true identity.

A Christmas Carol — A musical based on Charles Dickens’s classic novella. Ebenezer Scrooge hates Christmas and treats others poorly. He’s visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, all of whom show him how his behavior affects the people around him. In the end, he decides to be a better person and to enjoy Christmas.

Go ice skating

These are the best-known ice skating rinks in New York during the holidays:

The Rink at Rockefeller Center — The most popular rink in NYC with the crowds and prices to match. Be ready to pay $25–32 per 90-minute session, add $12 to rent skates, and wait in long lines. If you really want to go, try the First Skate or VIP Skate package for a guaranteed no-wait reservation.

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and skating rink

Wollman Rink — This Central Park rink comes with a great view of the city skyline. It’s also very popular but has shorter lines and lower prices than the Rockefeller rink. It’s $12–19 per session and $9 to rent skates.

Bryant Park’s Winter Village Rink — With free admission and $20 skate rentals, this is probably the best deal if you still want an “iconic” New York skating rink. Of course, there’s still a wait unless you get an Express Skate or Reserve Skate package.

Bryant Park’s Winter Village Rink
Pro tip: When they resurface the rink, take advantage of the photo opportunity.

Besides the above, there are several smaller skating rinks around New York. If you’re more into the actual skating and less into the quintessential skating-in-New-York-like-in-the-movies experience, your best bet is to avoid the rinks above and just check Yelp.

Drink some hot chocolate

Hot chocolate at City Bakery

There’s nothing like nursing a mug of hot chocolate on a cold day. New York has plenty of options, but here are a few popular places:

Just enjoy New York City

Even if you explore New York like you normally would any other season, you’ll get a lot of Christmas spirit for free.

Christmas tree under the Washington Square Arch
Christmas tree under the Washington Square Arch

The Met — Visit the Medieval Sculpture Hall and admire the 20-ft Christmas tree, as well as the 18th century nativity scene below it.

Christmas tree at the Met

New York Public Library — The lions look stately wearing wreaths and covered in snow. The library’s reading rooms make for a cozy sanctuary from the cold.

Central Park — In winter, the park is less crowded than in better weather—and it’s beautiful when it snows.

Central Park in winter

Empire State Building — Red and green lights illuminate the building in November and December. The best way to see it is from Top of the Rock, the Rockefeller Center’s observation deck.

Tips for Christmas in New York

Christmas in NYC isn’t all lights and ornaments. It helps to know what you’re getting into before booking a trip. Here are a few tips:

Plan far ahead

While New York is expensive throughout the year, prices are even higher during the holiday season. Plan far ahead to find better prices for flights and hotels. Make reservations for restaurants and busy attractions ahead of time.

Be ready for crowds

New York is a very popular place to go during Christmastime. When I visited, Fifth Avenue was absolutely crawling with people, and Rockefeller Center was packed even at 10:30 PM. Just go in knowing what to expect. Give yourself more time to transit between points of interest whether you’re traveling by car, subway, or even walking.

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and its crowds
Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and the crowds that go with it

Prepare for the weather

The cold will be an unwelcome companion in your otherwise wonderful trip. It can get seriously cold and windy. If you’re not used to chilly weather, I wouldn’t recommend a Christmas or winter trip for a first-time visit to New York. Either way, make sure to check weather forecasts beforehand so you can pack and dress appropriately.

Snow at Newark Airport
It was snowing when I arrived in mid-December

A note about snow: Snow in New York looks lovely when it’s fresh. But within hours, it turns into slush, which then gets mixed with dirt, dust, mud, garbage, and general city pollutants. In the end, you get a brown-gray-white slush that you have to step on when crossing the street. Suffice it to say that snow in New York is not fun—with the possible exception of places it isn’t constantly stepped or driven on, like Central Park.

Slush on the streets of New York
Slush on the streets of New York

Plan an itinerary that works for short days

Scheduling activities can be a challenge during this time of year. The short days require you to schedule daylight activities into a narrow range of time. The gray weather and lack of sunlight may also make you less energetic.

Making the most of gray days

For example, a summer day in New York could look like this:

  • museums and tours from 10 AM to 6 PM
  • Central Park from 6 PM to 8 PM
  • an observation deck from 8 PM to 9 PM (sunset)

Given the daylight hours in December, the same activities now need to be crammed into the 10 AM to 4:30 PM time range.

So my tip for planning a trip to New York in December is to put less on your plate than you normally would. I know, I know—it’s easier said than done in a city with so many things to do.

In Summary

New York City is a fun place to visit throughout the year—but the bright lights, seasonal decor, and holiday cheer make Christmas in New York a special experience. If you’re well-prepared and know what to expect, you’ll have a good time. I would recommend taking this trip at least once in your life.

Photo credits: Grand Central Holiday Fair by MTAPhotos. Dyker Heights by Wally Gobetz. The Nutcracker by Paul Kolnik. City Bakery hot chocolate by Bionic Bites.