Spending Christmas in New York? Here is everything you need to plan the ultimate holiday vacation to NYC in December!
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Christmas is one of my favorite times in NYC.
There is just something so magical about a New York Christmas! You'll discover so many things to brighten your holiday spirit, from colorful decorations in shop windows to sparkling lights in the streets to nonstop holiday activities.
Add a little snow, and you truly have a winter wonderland!
If you're planning to spend Christmas in New York City, then this post is for you! I'm sharing all my insider tips to help make your visit super special.
Christmas in New York: How to Plan a Magical Holiday Vacation
There are so many fun things to do in New York at Christmas!
For those who don't know, I used to live on the Upper West Side. I dream of moving back one day, but in the meantime, I'm happy to visit as frequently as possible.
We just returned from a trip to the city ... it was so fun reliving our favorite holiday traditions (Christmas in Dallas isn't quite the same). And I can't wait to share all my favorite tips with you!
Most of these ideas focus on Manhattan, since that is where you'll probably spend most of Christmas trip to New York. I've included a few slightly more far flung activities too though.
Ready to jump in? Then keep reading for all the best things to do in NYC in December 2020!
I'm sharing all my favorite holiday activities below, then at the end of the post you'll find essential trip planning tips (like what to wear, plus where to eat and stay).
Check Out the Holiday Windows and Decorations
You simply can't visit New York at Christmas time without checking out all the amazing holiday windows and decorations found throughout the city. It's my favorite things to do during the holiday season!
There are beautiful decorations everywhere you turn in NYC, but for the most holiday cheer, plan a walk up 5th Avenue from Midtown to the Upper East Side.
Along the way, you'll enjoy all the holiday must sees ... Bryant Park, the New York Public Library's wreath-bedecked lions, the Rockefeller Christmas tree and ice skating rink, classic departments stores, and tons of other shops.
We did this walk every year when we lived in NYC, and it's always so fun. Crowded, but fun! Check out my Guide to the Best NYC Christmas Windows ... I'm sharing tons of tips for making this walk, plus a free map with my fave stops.
Of course, 5th Avenue isn't the only place you'll find gorgeous Christmas decorations in NYC. Here are a few other spots to check them out:
- Walk along Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side for classic New York charm, shopping, and restaurants.
- The Shops at Columbus Circle have a pretty Holiday Under the Stars display in their atrium. Visit from 5:00 PM to midnight daily to see the 14-foot starts light up.
- Have a little extra time in your itinerary? Head out to Brooklyn to see the amazing Dyker Heights Christmas Lights (more info on this below).
- Check out the World's Largest Menorah in Grand Army Plaza ... it's been towering over New York since 1985. We also spotted a large menorah in Herald Square.
- Visit The Oculus, the World Trade Center's transportation hub, in Lower Manhattan. Not only is the architecture cool, but you also find a small holiday market and mall here.
- Don't forget to look up as you walk around NYC's streets at night! You'll find that many are adorned with colorful lights, bright stars, and sparkling snowflakes.
Go Ice Skating at one of NYC's Outdoor Rinks
Outdoor ice skating is a classic holiday activity in New York City ... perfect for kids and adults alike!
Here are the best rinks to take a spin on the ice:
Fee to Skate (Skate Rental is Additional)
Create a classic NYC moment and skate underneath the giant tree! Rockefeller Center ice skating is extremely popular. There's only room for 150 people, and general admission is first come, first served. All that means there may be a very long wait. If you must skate here, make sure to make reservations ahead of time.
The Rink at Bryant Park
FREE to Skate (Fee for Skate Rental)
This is a fun place to skate with a pretty city backdrop in one direction and a Christmas tree in the other (see below). And if you get too cold, you can warm up at The Lodge, a rinkside bar and food hall. Skating is free, but you can reserve a space in advance for a fee (includes skates, priority admission, bag check).
Central Park Ice Skating
There are two ice skating rinks in Central Park, the popular Wollman Rink on the south end, and the less well known Lasker Rink on the north end. (FYI ... both rinks are owned by the Trump corporation.)
Wollman Rink in Central Park
Fee to Skate (Skate Rental is Additional)
This busy rink features beautiful city views.
Lasker Rink in Central Park
Fee to Skate (Skate Rental is Additional)
This is the quieter rink, although it's popular with hockey players. Make sure to check the schedule and plan your visit during open skating.
Pier 17 Winterland Rink
Fee to Skate (Skate Rental is Additional)
This rooftop rink features panoramic views of the Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building, and East River, plus there's a warming hut with ski lodge-style food and drinks ... all in a chalet-style setting.
The Standard Ice Rink
Fee to Skate (Skate Rental is Additional)
If you'll be visiting the high line, stop by The Standard to skate their petite, street-side rink, which opens on December 20. Then warm up under the nearby heaters with food and drinks. Hotel guests skate for free after 8:00 PM.
The Rink at Brookfield Place
Fee to Skate (Skate Rental is Additional)
For outdoor ice skating by Hudson River, you can't beat this rink located in Battery Park City. It's part of the Brookfield Place mall, so you can go holiday shopping or grab a bite when you're done.
Tip: no matter which rink you visit, make sure to check the schedule before going. Rinks are often closed for classes, events, and resurfacing. And you can find more rinks here (there are rinks listed in every borough, except the Bronx.)
Get Your Photo with an Iconic NYC Christmas Tree
The Christmas trees in New York are bigger and better than anywhere else!
Pretty much every store, business, and hotel has a tree, so they're definitely not in short supply. But these are some of my favorites that you won't want to miss:
Bryant Park Christmas Tree
There is so much going on in this park during the holidays! If you're stopping by to shop or go ice skating, make sure to check out the tree, too. You can walk right up to this tree, making it perfect for family photos.
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
This is the tree that everyone and their mother wants to see. It's worth going at least once, but expect massive crowds!
Metropolitan Museum of Art Christmas Tree
The MET's soaring tree is bedecked with angels and features a Neapolitan Baroque Crèche underneath ... a very classic, beautiful tree.
American Museum of Natural History Christmas Tree
Don't miss the "Oceans of Origami", tree inspired by the museum's Unseen Oceans exhibition. It's decorated with more than 800 hand-folded paper models created by local, national, and international origami artists.
Enjoy a Snow Day in Central Park
There's nothing more special than seeing Central Park blanketed in snow during the holidays.
Of course, it's impossible to control the weather. But if it happens, it's definitely magical. So let's all cross our fingers for some flurries!
If you do get lucky, make sure to get up early and go to the park before everyone else arrives.
And don't worry if it doesn't snow during your NYC Christmas vacation ... Central Park is beautiful to walk around whether the ground is coated or not.
I mean, isn't this view of The Dairy decorated for the holidays lovely?
Speaking of snow, it can be super fun to go sledding in NYC if you get some.
You'll find a bunch of smallish hills in Central Park. Pilgrim Hill, which is located just north of the 72nd Street entrance on Fifth Avenue, is the most popular. But you can sled pretty much anywhere with an incline. For bigger hills, head to Riverside Park, which is located along the Hudson River ... the steepest slopes can be found at 91st and 103rd Streets.
Looking for more hills? Here's a great list covering all five boroughs.
Don't have a sled? Get creative ... I've seen people sledding in NYC on everything from trays to shopping bags!
Visit NYC Holiday Markets
In my opinion, the best place to go Christmas shopping in NYC is at one of the European-style, outdoor markets. You'll find these charming markets throughout the city, and they're the perfect place to find unique gifts at a wide range of prices.
My favorite markets are Winter Park in Bryant Park and the Columbus Circle Holiday Market. But really, you can't go wrong at any of them! And most are open daily, which makes holiday shopping so convenient.
Columbus Circle Holiday Market
The Columbus Circle market is located at the entrance to Central Park (on the SW corner), and it has over 100 booths.
Winter Park at Bryant Park
I love the charming glass cottages at this market which hold over 100 shops selling crafts, food, and other goods from around the world.
Union Square Holiday Market
This recently upgraded market features gifts created by over 150 local craftspeople and artists, as well as a warming station and lounge, a kid's art studio, and more.
Grand Central Holiday Fair
Grand Central market is home to 40 vendors, and it's indoors, which means you'll stay warm (always a plus during December in NYC)!
Holiday Market at the Oculus
This petite market features 22 hand-picked specialty shops offering a selection of limited-edition gifts and souvenirs. And because this market is located in a shopping center, you'll find 125 other stores here, too.
Brooklyn Flea Winter Market
This popular Brooklyn market features hundreds of vendors selling furniture, vintage clothing, collectibles and antiques, as well as jewelry, art, and crafts from local artisans and designers, plus fresh food.
Check out this guide for even more holiday markets and pop-up shops!
Shop Till You Drop
Did you come to NYC for the Christmas Shopping? Then, you're in luck, because you can't swing a stick without hitting at least one (or more likely, ten) stores!
It would be impossible to cover everything, but here are a few ideas to get you started:
- If you're checking out the holiday windows on 5th Avenue, then make sure to visit some of the many stores you'll pass along the way. You'll find famous department stores, like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, upscale jewelers, such as Tiffany & Co. and Cartier, and lots of more affordable options, too.
- Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side is chock a block with upscale shops.
- Were you sad when FAO Schwartz closed? Good news ... it's reopened in Rockefeller Plaza!
- ABC Home & Carpet is one of my favorite places to shop during the holidays. They carry upscale home goods, as well as a unique holiday selection. Stop into nearby Fishs Eddy to pick up a non-cheesy NYC souvenir while you're at it.
- Satisfy your sweet tooth at Dylan's Candy Bar. Make sure to visit the upstairs cafe before you leave for a snack and a cocktail ... you'll love the giant candy furniture.
- Visit C.O. Bigelow, an apothecary that's been open since 1838, for a wonderful selection of unique bath and beauty products.
- If you find yourself on the Upper West Side, check out the shops found along Columbus Avenue.
But don't stop there! Check out this comprehensive guide to NYC's top shopping street and neighborhoods for more.
Enjoy NYC Christmas Shows and Events
Attending a holiday show or event is the perfect way to add a little excitement to your New York Christmas vacation. There are so many fun and festive options ... here are a few popular events to inspire you:
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
November 26, 2020
If you'll be in New York during Thanksgiving, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is a must, especially if you have kids! Can't make it to the parade, or don't want to deal with the crowds and cold? Stop by the American Museum of Natural History on the day before Thanksgiving to watch the balloons being blown up ... it's free and so fun!
Luminaries at Brookfield Place
Stop by this mall in Lower Manhattan to see a canopy of colorful lights emanating from hundreds of suspended lanterns. The interactive exhibit features three Wishing Stations where you can send a touch-activated wish to the canopy of lanterns above, activating the magical display of lights and colors.
Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting
If you're checking classic NYC Christmas events off your bucket list, the Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting surely tops the list. Although this event is free and open to public, it's also horribly crowded. So unless you have a lot of patience, consider watching it on TV instead.
Merry Tuba Christmas
This fun event features hundreds of tuba players from around the country performing Christmas music. If you can't make it to the NYC event, check to see if there's an tuba concert near you ... it's takes place in more than 200 cities worldwide!
The 10th Annual Jackson Heights Winter Holiday Sing-A-Long (Queens)
December 12, 2020
During this fun outdoor caroling event, you'll sing winter and holiday songs from all faiths, languages, and cultures while walking through Jackson Heights.
At this unique event, a composer leads a massive chorus of boomboxes from Washington Square in the West Village to Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. Bring your own boombox, if you have one. Unsilent Night takes place in cities throughout the US, as well as in Germany, Quebec, and New Zealand ... just in case you can't make it in NYC!
Holiday Joy: A Gospel Celebration
Lift your spirits during an afternoon of soul stirring holiday gospel music at The Apollo Theater. Featuring Grammy-award winning singer Yolanda Adams, gospel artist Donald Lawrence, and comedic host Marcus Wiley.
Holiday Nostalgia Train Rides
Celebrate the holiday season with ride on a vintage 1930's subway car or bus. This is a one-of-a-kind chance to ride these trains and buses, so don't miss it!
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights (Brooklyn)
Through January 1, 2021 (Some houses may shut off their lights sooner.)
This Brooklyn neighborhood goes all out for the holidays! It's worth doing a guided tour or walk, because the hosts know where all the best lights are, but you can do a self-guided tour, too. The most popular areas are 11th to 13th Avenues between 83rd and 86th Streets.
Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes
Cancelled for 2020
The Rockettes are a Christmas classic, and this show is a must! Make your day even more memorable with a Rockettes dance class, VIP pre-show reception, or a tour of Radio City.
Merchant's House Museum's A Christmas Carol
This classic holiday performance is inspired by a trip Dickens made to New York in 1867 for a month of sold-out performances of his holiday classic.
The Nutcracker Performed by the New York City Ballet
Cancelled for 2020
George Balanchine's classic production of The Nutcracker features 90 dancers, 62 musicians, 40 stagehands, and more than 125 children, in two alternating casts, from the School of American Ballet ... all of whom join forces to make each performance as magical as possible!
Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden (Bronx)
This popular show features model trains passing through a display of over 175 New York landmarks, each re-created with bark, leaves, and other natural materials! This year’s exhibition highlights Lower Manhattan ... see the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, iconic skyscrapers, and more.
Grand Central Holiday Train Show
Watch as Lionel trains depart from a miniature replica of Grand Central Terminal and travel to the North Pole. This annual train show is fun for kids and adults alike!
Get a Photo with Santa
You can't visit New York over Christmas without getting a pic with Santa, especially if you're traveling with kids! Here are the best places to capture that perfect holiday moment:
Santaland at Macy's
For the ultimate NYC Santa experience, stop by Santaland at Macy's! Lines to see NYC's most popular Santa have historically been hours long, so this year, they've implemented a reservation system. Basically, you are reserving the time that you'll join the line, so you can still expect a wait (join the Santa Express Lane on the weekends to save time). African American and Spanish-speaking Santas may be we available ... speak with an elf when you arrive. Admission is free; photo packages start at $20.99.
Winter Wonderland at The Apollo Theater
Visit the iconic Apollo Theater for a host of holiday activities, including pictures with with Santa Claus and amazing performances from local choirs. The event is free, and they invite you to bring an item for their toy and book drive.
Santa's Corner at Bryant Park
Visit Santa’s Corner on the Upper Terrace in Bryant Park (across from the Bryant Park Grill restaurant) ... it's free! Take your own pictures or download one of theirs from Flickr. When Santa’s away, feel free to take photos with Santa’s chair!
Santa Claus at Bloomingdale's Holiday Shop
Meet Santa and his elves at Bloomingdale's, then visit the free ice rink at Ralph's Winter Wonderland before you leave for even more holiday fun. Photo packages start at $22.
Brookfield Place Santa
Create lasting memories with Santa at Brookfield Place. Enjoy a special children’s activity center before your session, then spend the rest of your day ice skating, shopping, and dining! Walk-ins are welcome, although you can also reserve a space in advance. Photo packages start at $29.
Santa at The Plaza
Santa is busy at The Plaza ... from photos with Santa (packages start at $40) to a a Rawther Fancy Tea with Santa. You can even send off Santa on Christmas Eve if you're dining or staying at the Plaza!
How to Spend Christmas Day in New York
Will you be spending Christmas Day in NYC?
You'll find lots of ways to enjoy the day. And with so many people spending the day with their families, Christmas Day in New York can actually be pretty calm!
Here are a few things to do on Christmas Day in New York City:
- Go to a movie. Depending on the theater, you may even be able to catch a holiday classic.
- Head to Bryant Park to visit the tree and go ice skating.
- See a show on Broadway ... Kinky Boots is just one of the shows that have performances on Christmas Day.
- Go Christmas Eve Caroling in Washington Square Park. You'll be accompanied by the Rob Susman Brass Quartet. Free; songbooks are provided.
- Explore MoMath, the award-winning National Museum of Mathmatics.
- Enjoy some delicious Chinese food in Chinatown (Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a restaurant that opened in 1920, is a popular choice), or travel out to Queens. My favorite spots in Flushing are Xi'an Famous Foods and Tianjin Dumpling House, a stall located in the Golden Shopping Mall.
- Visit the Central Park Zoo.
- Take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. It's free, and you'll be treated to great views of Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.
- Check out the exhibits at The Jewish Heritage Museum, a living memorial to the Holocaust.
- Take in a sky high view of NYC at the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, or One World Observatory.
- Splash out on a fancy Christmas dinner. Here are the best NYC restaurants open on Christmas Day (find even more options on OpenTable.)
- Visit touristy areas like Times Square and Rockefeller Center. There are usually less people on Christmas Day.
- If it's not too cold, walk the Brooklyn Bridge or visit the High Line.
Christmas in NYC: Helpful Tips for Planning Your Trip
I hope you enjoyed reading about all the fun things to do in NYC at Christmas! It really is a special time to visit this busy city.
Here are a few more tips to make planning your holiday vacation easier:
When to Visit
The best time to visit New York at Christmas is from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. For the most holiday events, you'll want to visit in mid-December (although some occur earlier and later). Figure out what events are most important for you to see, then schedule your trip around them.
Things to Know When Visiting New York at Christmas
Although New York City is super festive in December, it's also extremely crowded (like, hard-to-walk crowded). So make sure your expectations are realistic.
If you're imagining the perfect family photo in front of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, realize that there will probably be people in the background or maybe even walking in front of your camera! You may need to wait in a line to see Christmas windows, your favorite restaurant might be booked solid, or the show you want to see sold out.
Whenever possible, make reservations and buy tickets as far in advance as possible. For fewer people, try visiting popular destinations very early in the morning or late at night. Wherever you go, be prepared to wait.
What to Wear
Although weather can vary drastically, December in NYC is generally pretty chilly, if not bitterly cold. You'll probably be cold when you're outside, then get overheated when you go inside or ride the subway.
For best results, wear lots of layers that can easily be removed when you're inside. Here's what I'd recommend wearing:
- Jeans (or Wool/Heavy Pants)
- Long Sleeve Shirt
- Sweater (Cardigan or Pullover)
- Warm Socks
- Comfortable Shoes or Boots ... make sure to wear waterproof boots if there is snow on the ground, otherwise your feet will get wet, and you'll be miserable!
- Knee-Length Winter Jacket, Ideally with a Hood
- Scarf, Hat, and Gloves
Of course, you may need something dressier if you're attending a show or special event (again, wear lots of layers to stay warm). But for the most part, this basic outfit will work well for most situations.
Getting Around NYC During the Holidays
The best way to get around New York City at Christmastime (or anytime) is to walk or take the subway. The subway is really not that hard to figure out (I promise), and it will take you everywhere. Plus, it's the fastest and cheapest mode of transportation. Take an Uber in a pinch, but be prepared to sit in traffic.
Best Classic Photo Opps
Trying to capture the perfect holiday photo or Instagram shot? Add these pictures to your NYC holiday bucket list:
- Radio City Music Hall
- Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
- Giant ornaments across from Radio City
- Christmas windows on 5th Avenue
- Snow covered Central Park
- Ice Skating
- Lions in front of the New York Public Library
Where to Eat
Wondering where to eat during Xmas in New York? These restaurants will put you in the festive holiday spirit (reservations are a must at most):
- Rolf's Restaurant - this bar and grill combines traditional German food and beer with kitschy, totally over-the-top Christmas decorations.
- Lucky Strike - enjoy classic holiday decorations with your meal at this French bistro.
- Serra Alpina by Birreria - step into a winter greenhouse on a rooftop for drinks or Italian food.
- Serendipity 3 - this cute restaurant is a fun place to enjoy classic comfort food and fun treats like Frozen Hot Chocolate.
- Tavern on the Green - they go all out with the Christmas decorations at this Central Park restaurant. Make a reservation for dinner or grab a drink at the bar.
- The NoMad - enjoy a fancy cocktail in the dark-paneled library with its gorgeous Christmas tree after dinner.
- Rock Center Cafe - treat yourself to a meal with a view of the Rockefeller Center tree and ice skating rink.
- The Bar Room - we enjoyed a late lunch and cocktails at this Upper East Side restaurant during our annual Christmas window walk.
Where to Stay
Deciding where to stay in NYC will probably be one of the biggest choices you make when planning your trip. Here are a few options to consider:
Hotel Indigo Lower East Side - we stayed here in early December, and I loved it! Our room, which was spacious by NYC standards, had great views of both One World Trade Center and the Empire State Building. I also love this neighborhood, and the fact that this hotel is not located in the middle of all the holiday madness (like a Midtown hotel would be), is a plus for me.
Lotte New York Palace - live out your Gossip Girl fantasies at "The Palace". This is a classic, old school, upscale New York hotel ... you may even rub elbows with a diplomat or two. There's also a Santa in the lobby every Saturday and Sunday in December and a life-size Molton Brown Advent Calendar from which guest can receive a complimentary product every day ... sign me up!
The Plaza - another fancy NYC hotel with lots of fun holiday activities, many involving the classic literary character Eloise. Your kids can enjoy tea with Santa here, send Santa off on Christmas Eve, and more!
InterContinental New York Barclay - for a more moderately-priced hotel (at least by NYC standards), the InterContinental is a great option that's conveniently located near Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Terminal (it was originally a railroad hotel, built to service men and women traveling to New York City).
Warwick Hotel - this historic hotel was built by William Randolph Hearst in 1926 (his mistress, actress Marion Davies, had her own specially-designed floor in the building). You'll find plenty of old world charm here!
The Standard High Line - another hotel that's removed from busy Midtown. The Standard has a prime location in the Meatpacking Districts with tons of shopping and restaurants just outside its doors, and it's literally perched over the High Line, one of my favorite spots in NYC.
Not sure where to start? I always find the reviews on Trip Advisor are super helpful when narrowing down hotels!
Have your ever spent Christmas in NYC? What was your favorite part?