There’s no doubt that the Big Apple is worth visiting, but it’s even more magical when you can experience New York at Christmastime.
From NYC’s Christmas markets to the carolers, decorations, and Christmas tree lightings throughout New York City, there is so much to see here during the holidays. As you can imagine, there is no shortage of activities and attractions, so I recommend coming here with your friends, family, or partner to take in all the sights, sounds, and tastes.
In this guide, I’ll share the 15 best things to do in NYC in December, as well as the best hotels in NYC at Christmastime and where to enjoy a delicious holiday meal.
1. Rockefeller Center, the best Christmas tree lighting in New York City
If there is one thing you must do during the holidays in NYC, it’s visiting the Rockefeller Center and seeing its legendary Christmas tree. The Rockefeller Center’s New York City Christmas tree lighting is an annual tradition that has been going strong for over 80 years. The tree usually stands about 80 feet tall and has over 50,000 colorful LED lights, so it’s one of the most beautiful things to see in the city at Christmastime.
While you’re here, you should also go ice skating at the Rockefeller Plaza rink and visit the rooftop Channel Gardens, which get decked out in holiday decorations and lights. If you want to do some Christmas shopping in New York, the Rockefeller Center has lots of high-end shops.
In addition, this famous building in NYC is a popular venue for couples, so consider coming here with your sweetheart. Together, you can go to the Top of the Rock, one of the best observation decks in NYC, or head to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes perform in the annual Christmas Spectacular.
The Rockefeller Center is close to other main attractions, so consider this guided holiday tour through Manhattan. It includes a stop at the Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Bryant Park’s Winter Village, which I’ll talk about next.
2. Bryant Park Winter Village, a beautiful place to see Christmas lights in New York
A visit to Bryant Park’s Winter Village is a great thing to do in Manhattan with family during the holidays. This popular winter attraction in New York City offers activities for all ages, whether you want to go Christmas shopping, ice skating, or sit back and enjoy a warm beverage.
The Winter Village’s main attraction is its ice rink, the only one in the city that has free admission. You’ll still have to pay for rental skates, but this is a lovely place to go ice skating in New York at Christmas. There are even skating guides for little kids, so everyone can join in on the fun. Also, keep an eye out for the village’s ice programs, like curling and bumper cars on ice.
This winter wonderland also has one of the best Christmas markets in NYC where you can find artisan crafts, ornaments, and other specialty items. Make a day of it and rent out a private igloo with friends. These heated, enclosed tents are perfect for hanging out while enjoying snacks, drinks, and views of the festivities.
3. Dyker Heights Holiday Lights, the best Christmas decor in New York City
One of the best things to do in Brooklyn during the holidays is to explore Dyker Heights, the coolest neighborhood in Brooklyn. The neighbors here have a tradition of decorating their beautiful homes and gardens for the season, resulting in glowing streets filled with holiday spirit.
The displays can be quite elaborate, from life-sized inflatables to illuminated nutcrackers and snowflakes, to extravagant gingerbread houses. Some neighbors even sync up their lights to Christmas music and carols.
The decorations run along Dyker Heights Boulevard, from 83rd to 86th Streets, so take a stroll and stop to capture photos of the sparkling displays. It’s a fun thing to do in NYC with kids, although you can also take this Dyker Heights bus tour that departs from Manhattan.
If you decide to see these New York City Christmas lights on your own, be aware that most of the neighbors turn their lights off at 9 pm.
4. Peruse the best Christmas window displays in NYC
Of course, there are other places to see amazing Christmas displays in NYC. Many stores and businesses deck the halls with string lights, wreaths, and other décor, and you can see several beautiful displays along Fifth Avenue.
It all began about 150 years ago when the Herald Square Macy’s store adorned its windows with festive lights for the holidays. Other businesses soon followed suit, creating a spectacular collection of pretty window displays.
Today, you can walk along Fifth Avenue and see the decorations at Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co., Barney’s New York, Bergdorf Goodman, and Lord & Taylor, among others. The displays change every year, but in the past, they’ve included faux ice sculptures, fairytale characters, fine art, themes of love and peace, and of course, Santa and his reindeer.
It’s also worth visiting Bloomingdale’s on Third Avenue at Lexington and 59th Streets. This flagship store works with interior designers to create intricate window displays you won’t want to miss.
To make sure you see everything, do this walking tour and visit the Fifth Avenue stores, the Rockefeller Center, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. After seeing all the glittery decorations, do a bit of New York Christmas shopping for your loved ones.
5. Holiday Train Show at New York Botanical Gardens
The Garden Glow and holiday train show at New York Botanical Gardens is an awesome thing to do in NYC in December. The NY Botanical Gardens are already gorgeous, so you can imagine that they’re even more beautiful during Christmastime!
As far as Christmas festivals in New York go, this is one of the most magical. The colorful outdoor display stretches for about 1.5 miles, with thousands of LED lights, digital installations, string light arches, and life-sized ornaments.
Throughout the gardens, you’ll find whimsical decorations and lights everywhere – in the trees, along the walking paths, on the landscaped lawns, in the gazebos. Be sure to check out the twinkling topiaries display and the special projection lighting on the Mertz Library Building.
Also, don’t forget to go to the Haupt Conservatory, where you can see the holiday train show. This miniature train set chugs through a diorama of New York City, complete with landmarks made of natural materials like acorns and pinecones. In addition to the Christmas train, you can marvel at the ferns, palms, and other plants in the greenhouse.
The Garden Glow is fun for all ages, so be sure to bring the kids. They’ll love the intricate ice sculptures, while you’ll appreciate the outdoor cafes and bars, and the pop-up night market. Just be sure to book your ticket in advance since spots fill up quickly.
6. Ice skating in Central Park, a popular thing to do in New York City at Christmas
As with everything in the Big Apple, Central Park seems to take on a whimsical feel during the holidays. Take some time to stroll the walking paths and check out Belvedere Castle, the Loeb Boathouse, and the sculptures and monuments throughout the park.
Also, you can’t miss ice skating at Wollman Rink. This famous rink has been featured in several movies, including Night at the Museum and Home Alone 2, and it’s a great place to go ice skating in New York at Christmas.
If you’re visiting during the first week of December, you can catch the Central Park holiday lighting ceremony, which takes place at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center. The festivities include a visit from Santa, hot chocolate, carolers, and ice-carving demonstrations.
7. See the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall
Seeing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall is a quintessential thing to do for Christmas in NYC. The Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular is their biggest show of the year, so it’s something you must see for yourself!
The Rockettes are known for their precise dance moves and synchronized high-kicks. During the Christmas Spectacular, they’ll amaze you with impeccable choreography to some of the most popular Christmas songs.
The 90-minute show has been a New York Christmas tradition since 1933 and, while some details of the show have changed over time, you can always count on there being lots of dancing and singing. It’s a wildly popular show, so be sure to book your ticket in advance.
Also, if you love theater and the Rockettes, consider this behind-the-scenes tour. You’ll get an exclusive tour of the Great Stage, a look at Radio City Music Hall’s celebrity guest book, and a meet-and-greet with a Rockette.
8. See The Nutcracker, a traditional way to celebrate Christmas in NYC
If you’re looking for another indoor Christmas event in New York City, you can’t go wrong with The Nutcracker. This famous ballet act originated in 1892 and is based on the 1816 short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. These days, ballet companies across the world perform The Nutcracker every year, and some of the best performances are in NYC.
You can see The Nutcracker at various venues across NYC’s boroughs, including the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Some other options include Kings Theatre in Brooklyn and Queens Theatre in Queens. You can find tickets here, and I recommend buying them in advance.
While the kids will certainly love seeing the ballerinas and the Sugar Plum Fairy, there are other New York Christmas shows you can attend. Consider Holidays with the Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, or the Broadway Inspirational Voices Choir in Manhattan. Seeing any of these shows would be a great thing to do in NYC at night, so treat yourself to a performance and enjoy the holiday spirit.
9. Stroll through the Christmas markets, a fun activity to do in NYC at Christmas
NYC’s Christmas markets are some of the coolest attractions you can find in the city during the holidays. Whether you want to shop for unique Christmas gifts, or you’re just browsing, visiting the markets is something you must do.
I already mentioned some of the markets in New York City, such as the night market at NY Botanical Gardens and the open-air market at Bryant Park’s Winter Village. That said, there are some other markets that you should check out during your trip.
The Columbus Circle Holiday Market in Central Park boasts a convenient location and over 100 vendor stalls, so I’m sure you’ll find something that tickles your fancy. It’s also worth visiting the Union Square Holiday Market, which also has over 100 vendors ranging from jewelers and artists to bakers and international businesses.
Moreover, the Grand Central Holiday Fair in Vanderbilt Hall offers artisan crafts and specialty items, all in a warm, indoor environment.
As you can see, there are plenty of options, so if you want to shop ‘til you drop, take this Christmas markets walking tour which will take you to several markets and past some of the most beautiful landmarks in Manhattan.
10. NYC Winter Lantern Festival, a place with stunning Christmas lights in NYC
For the best Christmas lights in New York City, head to the NYC Winter Lantern Festival. This event takes place across three venues: Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island; the Queens County Farm Museum; and the Nassau County Museum of Art on Long Island. The Long Island event is a drive-thru attraction, while the other two are walk-throughs.
Each attraction takes 15-45 minutes to experience, and you’ll want to soak up every minute. The whimsical displays are breathtaking and reflect the lantern-making tradition that originated in China, during the Han Dynasty in 25 AD. Today, the lanterns are much more elaborate and made of steel frames and wiring that allows designers to create incredible shapes. The lanterns are covered with Chinese silk and illuminated with LEDs and seeing them all together is quite a sight!
There are thousands of lanterns and Christmas lights scattered throughout the three venues, so it’s worth visiting all three. In addition to the lit-up arches, tunnels, and pathways, you can see lanterns in fantastical shapes like dinosaurs, dragons, marine animals, and Christmas toys.
At Snug Harbor Cultural Center, you can walk through the 300-foot-long Starry Alley, go skating at the ice rink, and enjoy a bite at the concession stands. Cultural performances take place throughout the season, making for some of the most unique Christmas events in New York City. Among the performances are straw hat juggling, plate-spinning, and Tibetan folk dancing. Visitors of all ages will love the costumes and masks, which reflect the traditional attire for the Chinese Sichuan Opera.
11. Celebrate New Year’s Eve at Times Square
Times Square at Christmas is absolutely magical, but it’s even more incredible on New Year’s Eve. The Times Square Ball Drop is a New York tradition that began in 1907, and it’s a holiday staple for many people.
The original ball was made of iron, wood, and 100 incandescent light bulbs. Today, the ball is much more elaborate and made with over 2,600 Waterford Crystals. The geodesic sphere weighs a massive 11,875 pounds and measures 12 feet in diameter. Over 32,000 LED lights illuminate the ball in a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns, captivating audiences at home and on the ground.
This December event in NYC attracts at least one million visitors annually from all over the country, and even all over the world. They brave the cold temperatures and wait for the clock to strike midnight when the ball atop One Times Square descends its pole in a cacophony of cheers and applause.
The New Year’s Eve celebration at Times Square also involves fireworks and celebrity performances, so if you’ve been watching it on TV for years and have dreamed of experiencing it in person, go for it!
12. Buy gifts and Christmas ornaments in New York City
Seeing all the beautiful night markets and NYC Christmas displays in the store windows might encourage you to pick up a few gifts during your visit. So, if you want to do some shopping, you’ll have plenty of options in the city and its surroundings.
For example, Christmas in the City is a holiday-themed shop in Little Italy, one of the best neighborhoods in Manhattan, that’s open year-round, so it’s the perfect place to go for last-minute gifts. Here, you can purchase decorations like wreaths and ornaments, as well as personalized items for your loved ones. Not only is this store a huge shopping mecca, but it also has intricate displays and animated attractions that create a little Christmas museum.
Another popular Christmas shop in New York is the Christmas Cottage on 7th Avenue in Manhattan. It’s a family-owned business that’s been operating for over 30 years, selling ornaments, snow globes, and a wide variety of souvenirs.
If you’re shopping for kids, you can’t miss FAO Schwarz at the Rockefeller Center. The famous high-end toy store is a wonderland for kids and kids-at-heart, with life-sized stuffed animals, state-of-the-art tech games, dolls, puzzles, and more.
Finally, if you’re way behind on Christmas shopping, or you want to make a whole day of it, do this shopping trip to the Woodbury Commons Premium Outlets in New Jersey (but the most convenient outlets to go from NYC). This mall has over 200 retailers, including luxury brands like Coach and Burberry, as well as more casual brands and kids’ stores, so you can find something for everyone.
13. Christmas caroling, another wonderful way to spend Christmas in NYC
It wouldn’t be the holidays in New York without some old-fashioned Christmas caroling. Some of NYC’s best parks host Christmas caroling events during the holidays, so you’ll never be far from some Christmas cheer.
For example, Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village hosts Christmas Eve caroling under its 45-foot Christmas tree. St. George’s Church in Gramercy has an annual candlelight caroling celebration, usually on the first Sunday of December. Neighbors also gather in Gramercy Park on Christmas Eve to sing carols together.
The Jackson Heights Winter Holiday Sing-Along in Queens is another free Christmas event in NYC where neighbors and visitors sing carols while walking through the neighborhood. A similar celebration takes place in Prospect Heights at Elizabeth Street Garden. Conductors hand out bells and hot cocoa and invite kids and families to sing carols for the public.
You can also visit the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and Central Park for traditional Christmas caroling. For something a bit different, check out the Coopertones’ acapella performance at Astor Place, see a caroling and dancing show by the Mark Morris Dance Center at Brooklyn’s Albee Square, or watch live singers, drummers, and dancers from Cumbe’s Center for African and Diaspora Dance in Brooklyn.
14. Santaland, something to do for Christmas in New York City with kids
Families with kids can’t miss the NYC Christmas tradition of visiting Santaland at Macy’s. While Macy’s stores around the country host this holiday event, the flagship Herald Square store in Manhattan is the most popular venue, attracting over 170,000 visitors annually.
Macy’s Santaland covers 13,000ft² on the store’s 8th floor, creating a winter wonderland of colorful Christmas lights and decorations. The interactive exhibit includes an enchanted forest with snow, gingerbread houses, and toy soldiers that will delight kids of all ages. It’s no wonder why this New York City Christmas attraction has been a favorite among locals and tourists for years.
While you’re here, you can write a letter to Santa and drop it off at the Santaland mailbox, as well as see the window displays that I mentioned earlier. And of course, Santa and his elves are available for pictures and visits. Admission is free, but you should book a spot in advance since lots of people want to meet the big man in red.
15. Enjoy a holiday high tea and live jazz at the Williamsburg Hotel
Christmas in New York City is a magical time for children, but it’s also a special time of year for adults, too. If you’re looking for things to do in NYC as a couple during the holidays, consider having high tea at the Williamsburg Hotel.
This swanky hotel has an enchanting ambiance, especially during Christmastime when the property is decorated with Christmas trees, wreaths, florals, and twinkle lights. It’s one of the best hotels in New York City for Christmas brunch or afternoon high tea, where you can enjoy a selection of international teas like Mint, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Lemon Verbena, and Corazon de Cien Fuegos.
The high tea menu also includes small plates in sweet and savory flavors, so prepare to indulge in delectable finger sandwiches, scones, cakes, and fruit tarts. The tiered serving trays and antique teapots add a charming touch, and during your meal, you can listen to relaxing live jazz.
Williamsburg’s holiday high tea is available on Saturdays and Sundays during the Christmas season from 12 pm to 5 pm.
Best hotels for Christmas in New York
With so many fun things to do when visiting New York during Christmas, you may want to book a hotel and spend a few days here. This way, you’ll have plenty of time to see and do everything on your list.
We have a guide on where to stay in New York City, although I’ll tell you now that these are the best hotels for Christmas in New York:
- Lotte New York Palace in Midtown Manhattan is one of the best luxury hotels in NYC and offers large rooms, views of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and a short walk from Rockefeller Plaza, so it’s a great place to stay during the holidays.
- The Plaza at Fifth Avenue is next to Central Park and boasts spacious, clean rooms, friendly staff, and a salon and spa. It’s one of the best luxury hotels in Manhattan.
- The Peninsula New York is another accommodation on Fifth Avenue with a luxury spa, pool, and rooftop terrace, and it’s just steps away from Broadway.
- The St. Regis New York is another Fifth Avenue hotel with marble bathrooms, in-room minibars, an on-site gym, and close foot access to many NYC attractions.
Restaurants in New York City open for Christmas Eve
While some restaurants are closed on Christmas Day, there are many others that are open for Christmas dinner in NYC. Whether you’re with your partner or the whole family, consider enjoying a delicious meal while you’re here.
We also have an article about the best restaurants in NYC, so you can check if they’ll be open or have any holiday specials. That said, these are some of the best restaurants for Christmas in NYC:
- The Smith – We had a delicious Christmas dinner here, although the restaurant is also open for Christmas brunch in New York City. The menu includes a raw bar, cocktails, and a variety of sweet and savory American dishes.
- Pete’s Tavern – This is another great restaurant open for Christmas Eve in New York City. The tavern serves American and Italian dishes, and it has a cool vintage bar that’s open late.
- Rolf’s – This cozy German restaurant is a nice change of pace, serving European specialties, schnitzel, and an extensive selection of wines.
- Tavern on the Green – A popular eatery in Central Park, this restaurant serves a fixed Christmas menu with soup, appetizers, a main course, and dessert.
That’s it for this guide on how to spend Christmas in New York! There are so many things to do in NYC for the holidays, so here is a tourist map of New York City you can download. It’ll help you quickly locate all the activities, attractions, and places to visit during Christmas in New York City that I mentioned.
If you have any questions about NYC Christmas events or info, don’t hesitate to leave me a comment. I’ll be delighted to answer you. Until then, have a great trip!