It will come as zero shock to any of you that I’ve always dreamt of spending Christmas in New York City. Growing up on holiday classics like Elf, Home Alone 2 and the very underrated rom com Serendipity, all set in New York, it was only a matter of time before I twirled my way through the decked halls of NYC for myself… something I finally got to check off my bucket list on a recent trip!
Is it overly romanticized? Probably. Will it smell a lot more like garbage than you imagined? Of course. And will there be thousands of other starry-eyed tourists fa la la la lunging at the same sights as you? Yes, a thousand times yes.
But still… it’s Christmas in New York!! And it is magical, so long as you plan smartly.
And that’s what in this post is all about! In this post, I’ll be walking you through all the best things to do in New York City during the holidays, separated by area and with links to activities and tickets to help you save time and stress. Meaning more time for you to shovel cookies in your mouth and prance. Oh, and I’ll be adding in some realistic tips too, just to make sure you have your expectations straight.
Click here to see my full NYC Christmas map, and jump to the following sections to find what you’re looking for:
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1. Admire the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree & Skating Rink
Now let’s start with holiday magic in the most obvious spot – Midtown Manhattan, where you’ll find the highest concentration of festive New York sights, AKA every establishing shot in every NYC Christmas movie ever.
Rockefeller Center (along with its tree) is possibly the most iconic scene of New York Christmas, featured in countless Christmas movies and TV shows. Lit every year the Wednesday after Thanksgiving, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is a near century-old tradition that dates back to 1931… and is a true must-see in festive New York as far as photo opps are concerned.
Do note though that this is hands down the busiest area during the holidays in New York, with legions of crowds that will grinchify even out of the jolliest of visitors. So, be sure to visit during off peak periods like early in the morning (I’ve heard 5am is actually the sweet spot – no joke) or late at night. We found the crowds must more tolerable at around midnight (after we did the final time slot going up Top of the Rock).
While here, a whirl on the (much smaller in person) Rockefeller Center skating rink is the stuff of festive New York dreams, with an eye watering price tag to match.
With skate rentals, this signature New York Christmas experience will set you back over $50 per person for an hour of skating, though for those like me who grew up wanting to do it, it can be worth it… just make sure you book well in advance, because they do sell out. Yes, even at that price! What a world.
For a unique view of the tree away from the many crowds, you can book a tour of Rockefeller Center that’ll give you special access to a view of the tree up close. Do note that this tour mainly focuses on the architecture of the buildings around Rockefeller Center though so it isn’t for everyone but it may be one of the only ways to get a crowdless photo of you and the tree.
Lastly, while here, you can also head up the Top of the Rock, home to probably my personal favourite view of New York City because of its head on views of the Empire State Building. I’d recommend going skating in the evening and booking the last entry slot (around 11pm) for the fewest crowds. We practically had the whole place to ourselves!
2. Decorations Around Radio City Music Hall
Of course, contrary to popular belief, Rockefeller Center includes much more than just its most famous building at 30 Rock. Another festive must-see within this sprawling complex is the Radio City Music Hall, the world’s largest indoor theatre.
Surrounding this iconic venue are fun Christmassy displays like giant baubles and candy canes, so be sure to take a walk around to admire them! Again, this is the busiest area of festive New York, so try to visit either early in the morning or late at night… and be sure to avoid the area around the Christmas Spectacular showtimes, as this is when you’ll see the highest density of crowds… unless you’re going to see the show, of course! On that note…
3. The Radio City Christmas Spectacular
The decorations around Radio City Music Hall are cute, but the real magic can be found behind closed doors at the Christmas Spectacular, an incredible show featuring the famous Radio City Rockettes, performed 4-5 times a day.
This incredible show is honestly one of the best festive performances I’ve ever seen, with a breathtaking venue, impeccable choreography, fun story, and a near impossible amount of festive cheer. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say there were drone-powered Christmas fairies.
… Much more Christmassy than Sweeney Todd, which I also enjoyed during my visit.
4. Decor and displays on 5th Avenue
In this area, 5th Avenue is also a great place to experience some New York Christmas sparkle… though beware that this avenue spans over 10km, or 6.2 miles and only a select few spots go all out for Christmas, so if you expect extravagant decor for the entire thing, you’ll be disappointed. Many of the storefronts are, in fact, fairly normal-looking, with splashes of decadent construction along the way to really kramp(us) your style.
You can of course book a tour like this one to bring you to see the best ones, but some highlights include…
- Bergdorf Goodman
- Saks (more on this below)
5. Saks on Fifth Avenue Light Show
The main highlight (literally) of a festive stroll along 5th Avenue is a stop at dreamy Saks, which puts on a special light show every year along with a new unique display and themed windows too.
This year’s theme was Carousel of Dreams, and it was honestly breathtaking.
NOTE: Be sure to check the showtimes before you visit! The shows don’t run all throughout the night, so that’s one of the main downsides of visiting early in the morning or late at night.
6. Bryant Park Winter Village
A few blocks south of Saks is the Bryant Park Winter Village, the city’s largest Christmas Market event, with over 180 kiosks to browse selling food and gifts from around the world.
To be honest, this spot gets really crowded and there’s limited seating if you want to enjoy food and drink, but it is a nice spot to stroll through and soak in the ambiance. Just try to time your visit for earlier in the day to avoid the crowds, which make browsing considerably less fun.
Besides shopping and food stalls, the event’s main draw is its signature skating rink, which spans 17,000 square feet, and offers free skating for those who bring their own skates. (A much more affordable alternative to the Rockefeller Center rink!)
7. North Pole Express
To see all these sights in the most festive possible way though, you can do as I did and book yourself a ticket on the North Pole Express, a shamelessly festive ride on an open top bus that’s decked out with garlands and lights.
The attention to detail on this ride is immaculate, with on board elves (said to be study abroad students from the North Pole) providing plenty of entertainment through singalongs, jokes, and informative facts.
The experience not only includes a golden ticket, it also comes with souvenir hats, blankets, hot chocolate, cookies and a special visit from Santa himself along with a little gift. The commitment to theme here is extraordinary, and cheesy as it is, there’s no quicker way to get into the Christmas spirit!
8. Grand Central Terminal Holiday Market
Another unexpectedly festive spot to check out in Midtown is Grand Central Terminal.
With 44 platforms spread across two levels, this is the largest train station by platform number anywhere in the world, with an incredible celestial ceiling well worth a look on its own.
During the festive season though, there’s additional draws, including its own pop up Christmas market and a splash of festive cheer on its iconic facade in the form of a small but cheerful wreath.
9. Empire State Building
While there are now many other options for amazing views in the city, the Empire State Building is still one of the most famous buildings in the entire world, and one especially worth visiting for movie lovers thanks to its starring role in hits like Elf, among others.
They’re fairly proud of this association too, so you can find plenty of Buddy-inspired merch while on site.
Plus, your visit ends in one of the most iconic entryways in the world, complete this time of year with its own Christmas tree.
So I’d say a stop here is more than worth it, especially at Christmas, when it’s decked out in fun festive decor. The views aren’t bad either!
10. Macy’s Herald Square
Just around the corner, you’ll find the iconic Macy’s flagship store at Herald Square, said to be the largest store in the world… period.
During the festive season, it’s draped in lights on the outside and decked in fun decor on the inside. Plus, tourists can get a 10% discount if they show ID confirming they’re from out of town, so be sure to take advantage.
Another highlight here is Macy’s Santaland, an epic indoor village/landscape where Christmas spirit will leap at you over 13,000 square feet. Entry to this is free, but you do need to book a time slot in advance. Click here for more info.
11. Times Square Holiday Market & Shops
Times Square may be known by many locals as the world’s worst tourist trap but honestly, I still think it’s a cool spot to visit, so long as you watch your pockets and stay away from the creepy mascots. T
here’s something undeniably thrilling about being in a place you’ve seen so many times in movies and TV shows, especially if you grew up ringing in the New Year watching the Time Square New Year’s ball drop.
Home to its own mini Christmas market this year, Times Square is packed with reminders of the holiday season, whether that’s through flashy ads splashed across its dozens of screens or through its many touristy but fun shops that are fully decked for the holidays.
Nearby you’ll find some festively decorated restaurants and bars, including the iconic Lillie’s Victorian.
NOTE: Beware when it comes to New York’s most festive bars and read reviews beforehand because many do not seem at all worth the money. Rolf’s for instance is known for its extravagant festive decor year-round, but its prices are known to be extortionate even by NYC standards, with many reviews complaining about poor quality food, drink and service.
12. Festive Highlights in Central Park
Covering over 840 acres of green space in the very centre of Manhattan, this park is probably one of the city’s most famous spots.
You could easily spend all day exploring Central Park’s countless winding paths, but if your goal is to capture the city’s most festive sights, then don’t miss the iconic Wollman Rink in the southeast portion of the park, where skating will cost you only a fraction of what it would at Rockefeller Center.
There’s also Tavern on the Green, which offers a festive and cozy dining experience.
13. Columbus Circle (and its Holiday Market)
You can also head to the Southwest corner of the park, where you’ll find Columbus Circle, home to festive installations and shopping.
… along with its own holiday market with over 100 stalls to browse.
14. Lavish Hotel & Home Facades Around Central Park
Of course, surrounding the park are also some of New York’s most luxurious hotels, including the Plaza as featured in Home Alone 2, as well as beautifully decked homes in the Upper East Side and beyond.
If you’re looking for a scenic slice of New York to explore, daydream and maybe live out your best Gossip Girl dreams, then this is it.
15. Festive Events at the Edge
Moving west over to Hudson Yards, more festive magic awaits. One of the highlights here is a visit to the Edge Observation Deck, the highest sky deck and outdoor viewing platform in the Western Hemisphere, as demonstrated very cooly by me here:
In time for the holidays, they even have a small skating rink set up, along with other festive photo opps and, for those who dare, even an opportunity to walk and dangle yourself from the outside.
16. Hudson Yards Shops & Restaurants
Down below, Hudson Yards itself is a festive force to be reckoned with, with an array of beautiful holiday displays grounded in a whimsical hot air balloon motif… and lots of stores to peruse for holiday shopping. I’m honestly still dizzy from the amount of lights they use here – they really go all out!
The Vessel, located just outside, offers another fun photo opp… although it was sadly was closed to the public during my visit.
17. Chelsea Market & its Gingerbread Way
No time to be sad though, from here, you can do as I did and walk along the Highline to Chelsea Market, a spot known for its mouthwatering food options and during the festive season some fun surprises too, like pretty Christmas decor and an impressive gingerbread village with over 1000 houses, said to be inspired by the streets of New York itself.
This market is a foodie’s paradise, with tons of overwhelming options. I opted for tacos from LOS TACOS No.1, which probably wasn’t the most festive choice but I assure you their horchata tasted like Christmas in a cup.
18. Union Square Christmas Market
A 20 minute walk away from here, you’ll find another one of New York’s top festive events, the Union Square Christmas Market, where you can take your pick from over 150 vendors, whether you’re looking to buy fun gifts or just grab yourself a little treat. Pete’s Tavern nearby is also one of the most festively decorated bars in New York, so don’t miss it!
19. New York Stock Exchange Christmas Tree
Now, let’s move even further south to Manhattan’s southern tip where you’ll find the iconic Financial District, home to Wall Street, the World Trade Center, and probably the world’s most photographed bull.
The main hub of Christmas magic here can be found in front of the New York Stock Exchange, where they have their own impressive tree set up and a fun wreath above its signature ticker. Coming on a weekday just after work hours, there was a surprising lack of people around, so I’m not sure if I just got lucky or if this is a lesser known spot for festive magic in NYC… just be sure to put it on your list because it’s really pretty!
NOTE: We missed the official lighting by a few days, so it looks even more magical when lit!
20. Festive Events at the Oculus
There’s also festive events at the Oculus, an impressive piece of (relatively new) NYC architecture that’s part shopping centre, part transport hub, and part photogenic hotspot.
During my visit, they had beautiful Christmas decorations along with a fun skating rink. It’s definitely a spot worth checking out, though I will say it was a lot smaller in person than I expected from all the photos. Adjust your expectations accordingly!
NOTE: While you’re in the area, you can also do as I did and check out the incredible viewpoint at the One World Observatory, the highest indoor viewpoint in the Western Hemisphere, offering epic 360 degree views across the city.
21. Festive Events at the Seaport District
Staying in Lower Manhattan, another great festive area to check out is Seaport.
This hidden gem of a festive area has a lot of great offerings during the holidays, including its own tree and lighting ceremony, special pop up markets and a glorious gem of a bookstore known as McNally Jackson Books, which is packed with curated reads on every topic you can imagine.
My personal highlight was visiting a beautiful pop-up event on the rooftop of Pier 17, which had amazing views of the Brooklyn Bridge, along with ice skating, festive installations, and even cozy cabins you could rent out.
Lastly, it has to be said that like most itineraries for first time visitors to New York, this post has focused on Manhattan. But there’s plenty more Christmas magic to be found in the city’s other four boroughs, so I’m going to run through some ideas for you now. Beware that I didn’t get a chance during my trip to check them out though, so I’ve just listed them here for your reference!
22. Dyker Heights in Brooklyn
In Brooklyn, the signature Christmas thing to do is a visit to Dyker Heights, a neighborhood known for its elaborate Christmas decor, with houses fully consumed by giant nutcrackers, lit-up angels, window lights, and much much more.
Other festive things to do in Brooklyn include…
23. New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show & Glow
In the Bronx, the New York Botanical Garden is home to a number of cool festive events, like the Holiday Train Show where you can marvel at model trains gliding through a miniature New York City, while admiring festive lights in their Holiday Light Show.
Other fun festive things to do in the Bronx include…
24. Astra Lumina in Queens
In Queens, there’s the Astra Lumina walk, a mile long stretch of beautiful lights at Queens Botanical Garden, known for its picture-perfect lighting displays.
Other fun festive things to do in Queens include…
- Astoria Christmas Parade and Christmas Tree Lighting
- Winter Lantern Festival
- Winter Wonder at the Garden
25. Staten Island Festivities
Lastly, you can hop on the free Staten Island ferry for incredible views, fun festive shows and plenty of great opportunities for shopping! Granted, I only really ventured over to Staten Island for the views, but during my brief visit, I saw loads of ads for festive events, including…
Did I Miss Any of Your Favourite New York City Christmas/Holiday Activities?
All in all, New York at Christmas time can be just as overwhelming as it is magical, but I hope this post helped you see all the glittering possibilities that await. Let me know in the comments if I missed any of your favourite NYC festive must-dos! Safe and happy travels 🙂