The holidays in NYC are the best time to visit New York City. As a New Yorker born and raised, I've written tips for the holidays in NYC, the best things to do in New York at Christmas, tips for the Christmas windows in NYC, tips for the Macy's thanksgiving parade, and how to survive Times Square New Year's Eve. Keep reading for insider tips for New York during Christmas!
Note: This post uses affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more information. Post updated September 26, 2017.
The Holidays in New York City
If you're planning your trip to New York City in winter, it's worth timing your trip for the holidays in NYC. There's nothing more magical than snow falling in Central Park, watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, enjoying the Christmas windows, simply celebrating Christmas in New York, or counting down during New Years Eve in Times Square.
New York during the holiday season is not cheap as everyone else loved the movies about New York during Christmas...but it's worth it and I hope that these tips for the best things to do in New York at Christmas (or just during the holidays) inspire you to book your trip!
Thanksgiving in New York City
Thanksgiving in New York City is one of my favorite holidays and I have such a strong connection to the Thanksgiving parade, which I've watched every year. However, I'll admit to watching at home. Why? It's cold in November and the idea of standing outside without a bathroom for hours has actively discouraged me from attending the parade in person. Similarly, the music that you see on TV is limited to specific sections of the parade that are difficult to access without standing in a pen from 7am onwards or knowing someone. However, there is a secret to seeing the floats without the crowds for FREE.
If you're coming in from out of town, I recommend considering to splurge for 1 day for a hotel along the route where you'll be able to see the floats from the comfort of your hotel room.
The best way to see the floats from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
The night before the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, you can watch the balloons be blown up for free between 3pm and 10pm. If you head to Central Park West between 77th street and 81st street, you'll see all the balloons that you'll see the next morning. It's really magical and the earlier you go, the more they grow. It's an incredible sight and I would recommend it over the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade even!
For Thanksgiving dinner, you'll find some restaurants open, but you'll need to make reservations ahead of time. Expect most places closed after the morning.
Black Friday in New York City
The next day, enjoy all the amazing deals for Black Friday at all the major American retailers! About a week beforehand, you'll find a list of the best deals and where to find them although you might need to leave Manhattan to visit retailers like Walmart. Most stores typically have massive sales before, during, and after this period, so it's perfect for holiday shopping if you don't mind the lines.
The Lead Up to Christmas in New York City
The lead up to Christmas is the most bustling time and my favorite of all. My favorite tradition is the Christmas windows in New York. You'll find the Christmas windows at New York's most iconic department stores on 5th avenue. The major stores (think Macy's!) decorate their windows specially for the holiday season with elaborate themes, animations, and stories. The windows change every year, so read up on the windows before deciding. They typically emerge a bit before Thanksgiving and are taken down after New Years. I usually visit Macy's, Sak's Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale's!
The best things to do in New York during Christmas season
If you want to ice skate, skip the ice skating at Rockefeller Center and head to the stunning Wollman Rink in Central Park or Bryant Park for the best winter ice skating in New York City. If you're in Bryant Park, step into the beautiful New York Public Library for free warmth and incredible architecture.
Arts lovers, be sure to see the iconic Nutcracker Ballet or the Rockettes at the Radio City Music Hall. Otherwise, you cannot go wrong seeing a Broadway show, concert at Carnegie Hall, an opera at the Met, or for those on a limited budget, an off/off-off Broadway show or the Met. Tips for seeing Broadway for less here!
Staying indoors is an art form with the cold weather although the Union Square Christmas Market is worth browsing. It's better with a hot chocolate.
Santacon in New York City
Santacon is an annual tradition to love OR hate. If you're in town on one night in December 10-12th (check ahead!), you can dress up with thousands of New Yorkers in holiday costumes of varying degrees of creativity to drink all around Manhattan. It's pretty unique and you're guaranteed to make lots of new friends also in the holiday spirit.
Even if you miss the Rockefeller Centre tree lighting on November 29th (always verify the date in case of weather related changes) at Rockefeller Center, you still can view the famous tree for the entire season. The tree lighting in New York City is NOT overrated although this area is always quite crowded. Personally, I prefer it at night. Also absolutely free.
Central Park is great year-round. If you're lucky, you'll be able to build snowmen with the rest of New York. It's just absolutely beautiful to walk around, especially if there's a fresh snowfall.
Empire State Building changes colors for the holidays and if you're a heights lover, be sure to visit a rooftop bar, which will be quieter this time of year, or Top of the Rock.
If you're a cocktail lover, don't miss the pop-up holiday themed bars where you can feel the holiday spirit and enjoy the holiday season in a decked-out bar with festive cocktails. Sippin' Santa's Surf Shack opens up in December and serves up expertly made holiday-themed cocktails in a bar full of decorations. Similarly, you can visitMiracle on 9th Street in December for more holiday themed drinks.
Tips for the best things to do during Christmas in New York City
New York is notably quiet on Christmas due to many people being off enjoying the holidays with their family outside of the city, however you'll have NYC to yourself if you can find an open museum or restaurant. Like Thanksgiving, you'll need to plan ahead for food as many grocery stores will be closed or have limited hours. (Click for a list of open restaurants on Christmas!) Personally, I find the lead-up to Christmas to be more exciting than Christmas in New York City.
You can enjoy the best Christmas lights in New York City by visiting Dyker Heights, Brooklyn or in Whitestone/Bayside in Queens. (More info about great Christmas lights in New York here!)
If you're curious how the non-Christian New Yorkers spend Christmas, head to your local movie theater and/or Chinese restaurant, which are typically crowded—but open on Christmas. Just buy your tickets ahead of time and if you haven't checked out the neighborhood of Flushing in Queens, you should head to Queens for the best food during Christmas in NYC!
New Year's Eve in New York City
Who can resist the glitter and glamour of NYC on New Year's Eve? Well, this New Yorker can after doing it once. After a memorable and very cold NYE spent standing in a metal pen for hours, I vowed never to do it again, but it is a once in a lifetime thing that every person that I've ever met who did it said they'd never do again. Instead, celebrate New Years like a native New Yorker, who usually seeks out cozy neighborhood bars as well as glitzy parties with unlimited drinks. You'll spend a pretty penny (typically around $100) to buy a ticket for a party overlooking Times Square, but it is worth it.
Tips for going to Times Square for New Year's Eve
Do not bring ANY liquids/backpacks/champagne and be prepared to be searched by the police as security is tight. If you arrive past the afternoon, the likelihood that you will be in Times Square for the ball drop proper is close to 0.
Once you get through security in Times Square, you'll be led into a pen where you'll spend your time befriending you new pen-mates. Although drinking lots beforehand seems like fun, you will regret that once you're in the pen. You cannot leave if you need to use the restroom without losing your place and a friend ended up ditching the pen for a nearby diner, which he enjoyed more, after needing the bathroom.
If you're set on going to Times Square on New Year's Eve, know that the nearby train stations are shut-down and you'll need to walk quite a while from the avenues blocks over. Check that day on which subway stations are open. We were able to take a train into 59th street to give an idea of how far you will need to walk.
New Year's Eve in Times Square is NOT for people who get claustrophobic or who want to toast at midnight. If you're looking for an alternative, I spent last new year's in Reykjavik (Iceland), which was absolutely amazing if you're in search of a public square with fireworks, traditional bonfires, no pens, champagne in the streets, and not many people!
The sheer energy from Times Square on New Year's Eve is INCREDIBLE to experience even if you're in a pen for hours, but you'll experience it even if you're in the nearby bars.
Just be aware that there's a mad dash for the trains after midnight everywhere and you won't arrive back until very late due to the schedule/delays.
Another perspective on Times Square New Years Eve!
Toni was in the heart of Times Square for the ball drop. She waited 13 hours to see the ball drop. Although I personally didn't enjoy the experience, she loved it and when asked if she'd do it again, she said Absofuckingloutley. Head over to her blog for tips on being in the heart of the action!
She writes: "This experience is one I will never forget, because I felt so alive. Standing with a sea of strangers for hours just to enjoy 60 seconds of thrill was completely worth it..."
Experience the New York like a New Yorker the next day on New Year's Day, which is a traditional day when Italian families often visit each other. Visit the real little Italy in the Bronx to get fresh cannoli and other sweets. Read more about this historic area on Laura's blog.
General Tips for visiting New York during the holiday season
Public transit will be running. The schedule is often reduced on holidays to a Sunday schedule, which makes the trains/buses more crowded as they run less often, but you will be able to take the LIRR, bus, subway, and Staten Island Ferry. Just expect delays, crowds, and a wait. Cabs/Uber will be more expensive on major holidays and much harder to get. Don't depend on being able to find a taxi on New Year's Eve shortly after the ball drop.
Where to Stay in New York during the Holidays
This is the most busy time in New York and finding a place to stay in New York during the holidays will be more expensive than average. Be sure to book far in advance. If you're interested in the Thanksgiving parade or Times Square, it might be worth it to look into the cost of hotels along the route/close to the action. For more advice on where to stay in New York on a budget, read more here.
Getting to New York City during the holidays
Flights to New York City will be significantly more expensive as many New Yorkers travel during this time period, so expect to pay almost double in the lead up to the holidays although leaving/arriving on the same day as the holiday will be less expensive. (I took a flight at 8am on New Years Day, which saved me $500 per person!) Click for tips on Skyscanner about the best dates to book flights for the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve based on their data, however two months ahead is on average best.
Weather in New York in winter
Weather in New York City in November/December/January will be chilly. Make sure you dress the part with a good jacket, layers, a good hat, AND a scarf. If you come unprepared, visit UNIQLO for inexpensive winter jackets otherwise any good wool jacket will do fine. The wind chill is often what bothers me the most although a sturdy pair of boots and tights under your jeans should do the trick to help you stay warm. I prefer gloves that I can use a smartphone with, so I never have to take the gloves off outside. Not every Christmas is a white one, but the snow can shut a lot of things down, including the subway if there is a blizzard. Be prepared for temperatures slightly above freezing (32 F / 0 C) although daytime will be warmer.
Have you dreamed about spending the holidays in NYC? Which holiday have you wanted to see the most?
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Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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