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Growing up in New York, the holiday season always left me with such excitement. Although my family is not very into Christmas, some of my favorite memories with my mom are during the Christmas season in New York. This guide to Christmas in New York City will include insider tips for enjoying New York for Christmas like a local, the best things to do during the Christmas season in New York City, and some helpful tips for your trip to New York City.
First of all, I strongly recommend dressing warmly as New York is cold during winter. If you’re living somewhere a bit warmer, don’t fear, you can do your winter shopping (on a budget) once you arrive in New York. Most importantly, this is one of the most popular times of the year to visit New York City, so book your hotel as far ahead as you can. You can click for my picks for affordable hotels in New York where you can get your money’s worth. It is New York after all.
When people generally refer to Christmas in New York, they generally mean the entire holiday season. For all purposes, this season runs between Black Friday (the day after American Thanksgiving) and Christmas itself. The reason is that most attractions related to the holidays in New York kick into gear around this time, so don’t feel that you have to come for Christmas. You can come a week earlier, experience the best that New York has to offer for the Christmas season and still be home for your family’s dinner. This post has two sections: Christmas and holiday-themed activities in New York City and how to celebrate Christmas like local.
- The best things to do during Christmas in New York City
- How to experience Christmas like a native New Yorker
The best things to do during Christmas in New York City
Browse the windows
One of my all-time favorite things to do during the Christmas season in New York is to browse the windows of the various department stores. Each year, around Thanksgiving, New York’s major retailers decorate their windows in elaborate, beautiful decorations. (Some include animatronics that move!)
My favorite is typically Macy’s who often goes with telling a story as you walk down the street looking at the windows. It will be crowded with both locals and tourists, but it tends to be quieter in the middle of the day if you’re visiting during the week. Even if you don’t have the budget to shop at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, you can still enjoy the view! Where to go: Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Browse the Christmas markets in Bryant Park, Columbus Circle, and Union square
There’s nothing like grabbing a hot chocolate and browsing the stalls at the various Christmas markets in New York City. Bryant Park and Union Square are the most well-known markets and both open far before the Christmas season, so you don’t need to worry much about hours.
In Bryant Park, you’ll find a spacious ice skating rink (arguably the best outdoor rink in Manhattan!) with stunning views of the New York Public Library along with hundreds of booths at the Holiday Market. The Columbus Circle Christmas Market is a bit smaller, but a great place to support local designers and businesses. If you’re looking for a gift that can’t be bought on Amazon, come here. I always love Union Square as it’s often bustling. You’ll find more than a hundred stalls here, and even if you don’t find the perfect gift, you’re surrounded by some of New York’s most affordable shopping.
Have a drink at the Christmas pop-ups
If you’re looking for a memorable experience that you can’t have anywhere else, consider stepping into one of the Christmas pop-ups and bars around New York City! (Note: Most New York bars will not allow someone under 21 into the bars, even if they’re not drinking. Bring ID!)
The photo included is an older version of Rolf’s, New York’s most famous Christmas-themed restaurant that does not go light with its decor. Expect German food and homemade egg nog! It’s still a bit early for 2019’s best pop-ups, but still bookmark Nomad as they typically go all out for their holiday decorations. Be sure to look up the Miracle on 9th, which is a Christmas-themed pop-up bar and restaurant generally within the East Village although now with more locations to help with the demand for Santa.
See the Nutcracker
As a kid, my mom would often take me to see The Nutcracker put on by the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. No matter how many times we saw it together, it was always magical. Tickets aren’t particularly cheap, but if you plan well ahead, tickets are sold online through the official website. Dress up for the occasion and get a ticket!
Cozy up to enjoy the Christmas spirit at the Queens County Farm House
On the outskirts of New York City, you’ll find the oldest continuously operating farm in New York State. This is the Queen County Farm, which is open to the public. During the week of Christmas, they’re open for free to visitors to enjoy the cozy historic farmhouse. They’ll have cider and crafts for the kids. It’s a bit of a challenge to get out here (F train to the last stop + bus or Uber), but if you have extra time before heading to JFK, it might be worth the excursion if you’re with kids.
Similarly, during all of December, there will be a holiday market here for those looking to decorate their homes with beautiful wreaths. If you’re traveling and can’t bring one home, you’ll also find other nice locally-made souvenirs at this non-profit market. (Check the official website for hours/dates. Should be open on Christmas Eve/Day.)
See the Rockefeller Plaza tree
One of the most impressive Christmas spectacles in New York has to be the Rockefeller Center Tree. Whether or not you make the lighting, this tall tree (typically 80 feet!) just as impressive in person. The tree lighting itself is a very crowded event, so think carefully about coming here as it’s just as special watching it on TV… Still, drop by anytime after dusk to see the lights shining besides on Christmas day when the lights are on all-day. The tree goes up in 2019 as of December 4th, 2019 and it’s typically still up until the first week of January. This is free to visit!
Enjoy the light spectacle at the Bronx Zoo
Another New York Christmas tradition perfect for families visiting NYC is visiting the Bronx Zoo in the evenings for the light show. Somewhere in an album in my parent’s house are photos of me running around the Bronx Zoo and it’s definitely a nice thing to do if your kids are awake past dusk. The sunset is early in December in New York (around 4:30pm), so you don’t need to go very late! You’ll need to purchase a ticket (best bought direct), but it’s truly a winter wonderland with ice sculptures, wildlife-themed lights, trains, and caroling.
Enjoy the neighborhoods with houses decorated with Christmas lights
For the best Christmas lights in New York, you need to go where people have the space to decorate. Within the various boroughs, you’ll find a few key spots if you’re willing to venture outside of the popular tourist areas by stepping on the subway to Queens and maybe even taking a bus.
The most famous neighborhood in New York for Christmas Lights is Dyker Heights in Brooklyn, which has blocks of Christmas lights. I’d say that it’s the easiest to get to, namely because there are tours heading to Dyker Heights from Manhattan. For those looking to visit independently, it is accessible by public transit with multiple transfers.
Within Queens, you’ll want to look up Bayside and Whitestone, which are two quieter residential neighborhoods (close to Flushing) that often have nice light displays. Within the Bronx, you might want to look up Garabedian Christmas House, which is an impressive display if you put the effort into getting here.
Do a candlelight tour in Historic Richmond Town
Wanting to get away from the crowds close to Christmas? Consider heading to Staten Island to check out Historic Richmond Town! This historic park with multiple houses that have been fully preserved showcase the history of Staten Island and New York itself. Admission is pretty affordable and the whole venue is family-friendly!
During the Christmas season, they offer a few evening tours with candlelight showcasing yuletide traditions throughout the centuries. If you’re curious about how Christmas was celebrated in Ye Old Times, come here for English country dancing and wassailing.
See the Rockettes’ Radio City Christmas Spectacular
A beloved Christmas show throughout the year, but especially during Christmas, is the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. From holiday favorites to high-kicks, you cannot go wrong with booking this family-friendly favorite complete with dancing, music, and stories. I recommend booking a ticket well in advance through the official website, but if you’re last minute, you can book a tour to ensure that you get your tickets.
Drop by Macy’s to say hello to Santa!
For those with kids or those who just love Christmas, you need to stop by Macy’s Headquarters to say hello to Santa. After Thanksgiving, the top story turns into a Christmas-themed shop complete with NYC-themed ornaments and other souvenirs. Of course, Santa is there for the iconic photo if you wish, but I’d recommend stopping by here if you’re looking for a thoughtful Christmas souvenir to decorate your tree with!
Go Ice Skating at New York’s rinks
Lastly, I had to include ice skating. Although not all of us are overly graceful, ice skating in New York’s many public rinks is a favorite of tourists and locals. Personally, I avoid the Wollman rink due to an association with a certain president, but politics aside, it’s a beautiful location in the middle of Central Park. Similarly, most locals avoid the Rockefeller Center rink as it’s quite smal, expensive, and cramped. To avoid the crowds while enjoying ice skating in New York, consider heading to Chelsea Piers, Bryant Park, or even venturing out to Brooklyn to see Prospect Park in its prime. (The rentals add up, so check prices before you go!)
How to experience Christmas like a native New Yorker
Christmas Eve in New York
If you’re someone of faith, you’ll probably want to go to church on Christmas Eve. There is a church for virtually every denomination. You can click here for our picks for the most beautiful churches in New York City to figure out where you want to attend services.
On Christmas Eve, some shops will be open for last-minute purchases although things will start to quiet down as people settle in at home or leave town. Still, you can go ice skating and browse the Union Square & Bryant Park markets.
If you want to have dinner out on Christmas eve or Christmas day, I recommend making a reservation at a restaurant of your choice. This will not be inexpensive, but many restaurants and shops will be closed on Christmas day. If you forget to make a reservation, historical food landmarks like Katz’s Deli, Russ & Daughters, and the 2nd Avenue Deli will be open. Vegans should look up ABC Kitchen.
If you’re looking for a nightcap or to dance the night away, that’s an easy possibility. Quite a few bars and clubs will be having themed Christmas parties, so be sure to bring your ugly Christmas sweater. (TimeOut New York regularly updates about parties.)
One of New York’s most secretive traditions that I still have only read about is the Gramercy Park caroling. This private park is locked most of the year, however, it’s open to the public on Christmas Eve for caroling if you have nothing to do and love to sing.
Christmas Day in New York
In my opinion, there is nothing more New York than ordering in using a delivery app or going out for Chinese food on Christmas. If you’re wondering where to go, take the subway down to Chinatown or hop over to Queens to experience New York’s biggest Chinatown at this point, Flushing. Some shops will still be closed, but it’s a good start to finding options if you didn’t make reservations.
A few museums will be open on Christmas Day, namely the Jewish Museum. One of my favorite museums in New York has to be the Tenement Museum, which showcases how New Yorkers lived in the late 1800s-1900s. Buy your ticket ahead for one of their tours and enjoy the Lower East Side where things should be a bit less quiet.
Another tradition that I usually do with friends on Christmas day is going to the movies in the afternoon. I strongly recommend buying your tickets out in advance as many movie theatres will sell out. (Many New Yorkers who aren’t Christian or who have quieter plans often go to the movies as it’s a public holiday and not much is open.)