It’s the most wonderful time of the year! New York at Christmas is my absolute favorite time to be in the city. Everything is just so pretty– trees covered in twinkle lights, stoops covered in evergreen boughs, and restaurants with baubles hanging from the ceiling…
And as cranky as New Yorkers can be, they’re a little less so during the holidays. (Unless they’re trying to get to work and have to cut through Rockefeller Center to get there.)
There is so much to do in New York during Christmastime, from eating delicious treats, to wandering the holiday markets, to ice skating. While the tree at Rockefeller Center is certainly a must-see, it does get crowded, and there are other things to do all over the city.
In my ten years here in NYC, I have done pretty much all of it, so I’ve compiled the ultimate guide to Christmas in New York.
So layer up, wear comfy shoes, and bring your holiday cheer as you discover the best things to do in New York at Christmas!
Visit Rockefeller Center
You can’t visit New York at Christmastime and not visit Rockefeller Center. Since 1933, there has been a Christmas tree on display at this NYC landmark, with the ice rink following a few years later. It has become synonymous with Christmas in NYC, with millions of people visiting every year.
The Rockefeller Tree
The true symbol of Christmas in New York, each year one giant spruce is decorated with 50,000 colorful LED lights and a 900-pound Swarovski crystal star on top. Trees are chosen and donated from around the country and are then donated as lumber to Habitat for Humanity at the end of the season.
The tree is incredibly popular during the holiday season, with everyone wanting to take photos. To avoid crowds, I recommend trying to visit either early in the morning or late at night. (The tree looks magnificent during both day and night.)
In true holiday spirit, usually, you can ask someone to take a photo for you in front of the tree and they’ll be happy to do it. Just be sure to return the favor!
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular
As a dancer, I’m telling you, you must see the Radio City Rockettes perform once in your life. The skill it takes to be part of the most famous synchronized dance troupe is immense. (Believe me, I tried their summer training program!)
Another New York Christmas staple, the Rockettes’ performance in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is, well, spectacular.
With additional singers, dancers, and actors, the Radio City Rockettes shine in their annual Christmas show in the beautiful and historic Radio City Music Hall. Dressed as reindeer, wooden soldiers, and even Santas, they jump, spin, and of course, kick it up on stage to Christmas classics and original music!
Gaze at 5th Ave. Storefronts
Known for its high-end stores, 5th Avenue in New York goes all out during Christmas time. From dazzling lights to magnificently dressed mannequins in intricately-staged scenes, the shops on 5th Ave. spare no expense on their holiday decorations.
Usually, each store has a theme, and it’s fun to wander from window to window as you work your way along 5th Avenue.
Bergdorf Goodman always has some of my favorite holiday window displays. They’re always incredibly colorful and full of fun stuff, in addition to whatever the mannequins are wearing. The luxury department store covers its windows starting in the fall then holds an annual unveiling to reveal that season’s windows.
Saks Fifth Avenue
Located across from Rockefeller Center, on 5th Ave, you can behold the beauty of the Saks light show.
Every year, the exterior of the Saks Fifth Avenue store is decked out with hundreds of thousands of lights. The lights not only sparkle and change color but are animated to match the festive music that rings out over 5th Avenue. The light show lasts several minutes and is repeated every 10 minutes.
After you enjoy the light show, check out the windows underneath!
(My favorite year was 2019 when ‘Frozen 2’ came out! It was stunning.)
(While technically not on 5th Avenue, Macy’s makes the list because their windows are world-famous.)
With the conclusion of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the department store is always ready for Christmas. Macy’s has been decorating for Christmas every year since 1874 (…that’s 73 years before ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ hit the big screen).
Now each year their windows feature characters from that season’s commercials. Each glowing window is a snippet of that character’s story, which you can read as you work your way around the building.
For those visiting New York at Christmas with kids, go inside Macy’s and enter Santaland, where you can meet the jolly old man himself!
Go Ice Skating
You do not need to be a good skater to enjoy the ice rinks around New York…you don’t even have to know how to skate! The rinks of New York are almost as fun to watch as they are to skate because you’ll see all skill levels: from those clinging to the railing to those literally spinning circles around you.
(Note: Most rinks charge a skate and locker rental fee in addition to tickets.)
The Rink at Rockefeller Center
If you want to go classic, there’s nothing like skating at The Rink at Rockefeller Center. With the lights, the fountain, and the music, it’s just picture-perfect. You’ll even forget, as you make your way around the ice and gaze up at the tree…that there are people gazing down at you!
Wollman Rink in Central Park
When I first saw the rom-com ‘Serendipity’ in the early 2000s, my favorite scene was Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack skating around the rink in Central Park. (Of course, it begins to snow *sigh*.) It seemed, to me, the ultimate romantic winter date.
Located at the South end of Central Park, Wollman Rink is a good stop to make after window-shopping along 5th Avenue. To avoid the crowds, try going on a weekday afternoon!
Winter Village at Bryant Park
My personal favorite skating rink in New York is the centerpiece of Bryant Park’s Winter Village. Why is it my favorite even though it gets crowded? Because the rink at Bryant Park is free if you have your own skates! (However, you still need to reserve a time slot.)
Indulge at Festive Restaurants
Much like the shops on 5th Ave. many restaurants have taken it upon themselves to go above and beyond with holiday decorations. It’s just delightful to sip a seasonal cocktail while surrounded by twinkling lights and ornaments. Many of these places book up during the holiday season, so make reservations if you can!
Rolf’s German Restaurant
You’ve probably seen Rolf’s all over Instagram. Their renowned Christmas decorations stay up all year! It truly is beautiful; every inch of the place is covered.
While they do get crowded during the holidays, you can either call to reserve a table or just walk in and get a delicious drink at the bar.
SERRA by Birreria at Eataly
SERRA by Birreria is one of my favorite restaurants in New York, no matter what time of year. In this rooftop restaurant on top of Eataly in the Flatiron District, the decorations change with the seasons.
Their winter decorations are usually inspired by the Italian Alps, with snowy and alpine touches. The roof is also enclosed during the colder months so you’ll stay nice and warm as you enjoy some insane charcuterie.
Papillion Bistro & Bar
Just a short walk from Rockefeller Center, you can find Papillion decked out in its holiday best. The Christmas vibe at Papillion is as if someone stole a bunch of lawn decorations and shoved it all inside a beautiful two-story bar.
A popular spot for post-work drinks, you can avoid the crowds by coming for lunch. They even have a great lunch deal at the bar that comes with a glass of house wine or draft beer!
Shop the Holiday Markets
Whether you are downtown, midtown, or uptown, be sure to check out one of the holiday markets. Rows of vendors sell everything from clothing to puzzles to soaps. Many items are handmade and you’d be supporting small businesses!
My personal favorite, the Union Square holiday market is one of my go-to places to shop for Christmas presents. You never know what you’ll find within these stalls. Grab a hot chocolate or hot cider as you wander through the booths!
When you see the Winter Village booths being set up in Bryant Park, you know the holiday season is coming! With the addition of the ice rink, Bryant Park makes an excellent spot to spend a holiday afternoon in New York.
Though slightly smaller, you’ll be able to find many of the same vendors from the above markets at the Columbus Circle holiday market! For a tasty Christmas treat, you really can get roasted chestnuts from one of the nearby street carts.
Then after perusing the market, cross the circle to see one of my favorite New York holiday displays ever: the giant stars inside the Shops at Columbus Circle.
- The Nutcracker-New York City Ballet: I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen this performance live, but as a child I was obsessed with the VHS version! It’s definitely on my list of things still to do in NYC at Christmastime.
- Dyker Heights Christmas Lights: This iconic neighborhood in Brooklyn is known for their impressive Christmas lights and lawn decorations.
- Afternoon Tea at The Plaza Hotel: While this is fun to do any time of the year, doing an afternoon tea at The Plaza amonst their beautiful Christmas decorations is extra special!
I hope you are able to visit New York at Christmas at least once! It’s a magical time to be in the city. Don’t let the crowds deter you; you can still have fun.
What are your favorite New York Christmas traditions?
Save this post for planning for the ultimate New York Christmas trip!