Ready to visit one of the most popular places in the world at one of the most popular times to go? Whelp, after five visits myself, here’s my list of all the best things to do in NYC at Christmas! Plus I’ve added some quick tips on visiting NYC in December!
One my most recent trip, I kind of surprised myself when I realized this was my fifth trip to NYC for Christmas in the last decade. In total, I’ve been twice in high school, once in college, and twice in my twenties! Crazy, right?
There’s just something about visiting New York in December. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to paint a rose tinted gloss over NYC in the winter like everyone with a tulle skirt does to Paris. However, there is something quite magical about this bustling city once all the lights and Christmas decorations and displays pop up.
Sure, it’s cold and those wind tunnels are a thing. And while I do think New Yorkers are more openly grumpy in the summer humidity than they are in the blistery December weather, they’re still not particularly rays of sunshine either way. And, yeah, everyone wants a taste of Christmas in New York City, so out of towners, like me, flock to the city at once and hotel prices are 5x what they are in the off season.
However, I dunno, all of that (minus the hotel prices) kind of just adds to the Christmas magic for me. There’s just that right mix of festive cheer and chaotic reality, and even the most cynical local has to have a favorite thing to do, even if it means doing something anti holidays.
Anyway, here’s my semi nostalgic, probably very touristy, guide for places to visit in New York City to enjoy the Christmas magic! If you want to try to beat some of the crowds, go earlier in December and on a weekday if you can manage. It’s really not so bad as it is in the weekends leading up to the big day.
Magical Things to Do in New York City at Christmas
Alexa, play “Silver Bells”
1. See the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
I mean, I’ve seen it on TV, and that was fun enough for me. If I’m going to drag myself to NYC in the winter to stand outside in the cold, I’d rather go up for the ball drop at NYE.
But the parade is a fun way to kick off the season because it ends with Santa coming to town, so if you’re really trying to do all the Christmassy things in NYC, this should be the first on your list! My friend, Sher, wrote a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade guide for those that wind up going!
2. Watch the Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Okay, I’m not going to lie. This was fun the first time and then the second time I was tired from the early bus ride up, so I wound up falling asleep… So, maybe it’s best seen once or far apart. It really is quite a fun show that my 17 year old bum should have appreciated more. This is the show, of course, features the famous Rockettes! Book ticket here
3. Admire the Decor Around Radio City Music Hall
When you’re done seeing the Christmas Spectacular, don’t miss all the decorations right outside, including Radio City Music Hall itself! This is also where the fountain with the giant Christmas ornaments are.
4. Ride the Nostalgia Train
Ahhh! I saw this on @jenniferscamera and thought it was the cutest thing! Sadly I was in town on a Tuesday through Wednesday, not a Sunday or else riding the nostalgia train would have been my #1 thing to do! I’m such a sucker for this kind of stuff.
Sher said she accidentally rode it once, and it even has ads from the 1920s to match the train! Check here for all the times and stops.
5. Stroll Down 5th Avenue
Fifth Avenue in general is the huge tourist shopping area, so all the big department stores and brands are here. This means from 34th to 58th Street, you’ll see plenty of stores going all out with their window displays and decorations. I quite like the Cartier display for this year. You can book a tour here if you want to make sure you don’t miss a single one!
6. Catch the Saks Fifth Avenue Light Show
Of all the shops on Fifth Avenue, Saks Fifth Avenue is like the gran fromage of Christmas decoration displays. Just this year alone, they revealed its decor with a performance by Idina Menzel in collaboration with Disney on Frozen 2!
The light show runs nightly, but they’re still fun to see during the day too if you can only got then.
7. Visit the Tree at Rockerfeller Plaza
Nearby the Saks Fifth building is the famous Rockerfeller Plaza. Is this not the most iconic spot to visit in NYC for Christmas? I think the prettiest view is to go behind Channel Gardens to see the tree framed by the statues and trumpets.
8. Go Ice Skating at the Rink
If you want to skate, go through the Channel Gardens on 5th Ave. Then go down the stairs and turn right to look for the Skate House. They have greeters in red coats, so you shouldn’t get turned around!
You can’t reserve ahead, only in person at the Skate House. It’s actually open from October through April, so there’s plenty of time outside of Christmas to go! Check here for costs
Just a warning, don’t try going on the day they light the tree because when we were there, it was closed down, probably to make it easier for everyone prepping or covering the tree lighting.
9. Also Skate at Wollman Rink in Central Park
Another big spot to skate at is at Wollman Rink in Central Park, where you’ll get the pretty city backdrop to go with! It’s between 62nd and 63rd Streets on the east side.
10. See the Displays at Lotte New York Palace Hotel (or Stay!)
Wanna be really ritzy? Stay at the Lotte New York Palace! Or just check out the very pretty Christmas tree in their courtyard like we did last year.
11. See the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Gardens
I don’t really think I’ve been too far north in NYC, so I haven’t had a chance to see the New York Botanical Gardens. The Holiday Train Show is supposed to a lot of fun though. It features 25 model trains that go through all the iconic NYC landmarks. The track itself is a half mile! You can see more info on going here.
There’s also a smaller scale train model exhibit at Grand Central Station if you also can’t make it all the way north.
12. See the Nutcracker Ballet at the Lincoln Center Plaza
Classic! And the nosebleed seats aren’t actually that expensive. I missed out on taking Fran to see this in NYC because tickets sold out, so if that happens to you too, check out the ones in nearby New Jersey. We really enjoyed our show!
But if you do get lucky, the “Nutcracker Ballet” is at the Lincoln Center. I imagine it’s absolutely magical! Bonus, if you’re there at night, check out the Lincoln Center Plaza lit up, it’s quite a beautiful site. Check here for more information.
13. Stroll Around Bank of America Winter Village in Bryant Park
Right in Bryant Park and in front of the New York Public Library is nice, whimsical winter village! Tick off another spot to go ice skating or walk around the little Christmas market there.
14. See the Decorations at Dyker Heights
All the way down along 82nd to 86th Street, Dyker Heights, between 11th and 13th avenue is one of the best things to do in Brooklyn during the holidays! We went the first week of December and there were already a ton of houses crazily decorated, so I’m sure it gets even fuller closer to the 25th and through the New Year.
If you’re in Brooklyn, you can book this nice little tour of the area. For those in Manhattan who don’t want to deal with the subway, you can book this tour, so you can have a nice, cushy bus instead. It’s not that convenient to get to, especially if you stay in Manhattan, so a nice tour is your best bet.
15. Get a Drink at Rolf’s German Restaurant
Now, this restaurant books up crazy for the actual Christmas season, but lucky for you, its decorations are up year round if you want to pop in at a less chaotic time. The entire interior is decorated for Christmas and is such a fun display. Sher and I only managed to pop in last year to see them, that’s how crazy crowded it was. We were going to try this year but said screw it and went to Eataly instead haha.
16. Get a Cocktail at the Miracle on 9th Pop Up
Another cute holiday thing to do: the Miracle @ Pop Up! Next time I’m visiting NYC in December, I’d like to stop here. There are actually locations all over the world and the US, so check them here. This year it’s on 9th Street, 12th Street, and Livingston Manor in Brooklyn.
17. Grab a drink at Eataly NYC Flat Iron’s Bier Garden
When Sher and I decided to not go to Rolf’s, we decided to head over to Eataly instead! It was my first time there, and it was so cute. At the top is a seasonal restaurant, and for this winter it was called Serra Alpina. The decor is so ethereal, and the drinks are quite tasty. There’s food too, but we wanted pasta, which they didn’t have, so we went down to the first floor to eat at the main pasta spot!
18. Eat a Chimney Cake from the Stackery
Um, click here to see their IG page at your own risk because these look so sugary and good! The spiral shaped pastry is originally from Eastern Europe, and are filled with all sorts of delicious things.
19. Go on a Holiday Cruise
And to end out your trip, why not go on a nice little holiday cruise with fun Christmas carols and cocoa and see the skyline at night? Book a spot here
My Best Tips for Visiting NYC in December
Best Area to Stay in NYC
I have a whole guide on where to stay in NYC based on my past experiences. However, I will say I’m quite spoiled now because I have friends who I can stay with which saves me a lot on accommodation.
If you want to be near everything, your best bet is to stay around Fifth Avenue and Midtown. Lucky for you, this is where all the big hotels are! However, unlucky for you, the hotels are astronomically expensive compared to just about any other time of the year. A hotel I stayed in February for like $100, was around $500 for the Christmas season!
Getting in and Around NYC
I cannot emphasize this enough, but do not even think of trying to drive through Manhattan during December. Never mind if the weather is bad, you’re going to experience the actual worst gridlock traffic in the country.
You’re much better taking the train or bus in and then taking a subway around or walking. A lot of the big spots above are pretty close to each other, so you can walk most of it.
And, of course, for those who may not be able to get around on foot that easily, there’s the hop on, hop off bus. Check here to see where it goes and to book tickets.
The Weather in December
It’s cold, man. There’s no which way about it. Sure you work up some heat walking around, but you still need a good heavy coat to keep you warm. It’s not so much the temperature drop as it is the wind tunnels. You’ll be so much colder than if there was no wind at all. I made the mistake of not dressing properly on a visit, and I was frozen the whole time we were outside!
What to Wear
Obviously, you want to be kind of cute for NYC, especially since you’ll be all around Manhattan! The big thing here is to layer because you’re going to get warm and cold constantly. Walking outside? Frozen without a hefty jacket. Sitting down inside to a hot cocoa? Sweating with a hefty coat.
Here’s what I’d pack to wear:
- Weather Ready Ankle Boots: I think a nice pair of black ankle boots always looks quite chic. They look good with jeans and tights and offer more warmth than flats. I got the Deena boots from Naturalizer since they outer soles have good traction, the inside is designed to retain heat, and the shoe itself is waterproof.
- Jeans: They just look so nice with boots and are way warmer than tights, especially in the wind. Warp + Weft have a style of jean fabric that’s thicker too. Plus, ya know, sustainable and size inclusive!
- Sweaters: A nice waffle sweater should keep you plenty warm without being stifling when you take off your coat to sit in a restaurant. I have some old ones from Old Navy and H&M that have surprisingly held up well, so I just rotate them.
- Turtlenecks: Okay, maybe just long sleeved! But I’m really into turtlenecks lately. Everlane has this nice black mockneck that I’ve been loving.
- Heattech tanks: For those of you get really cold, I cannot recommend UNIQLO’s Heattech products enough. I swear by the tanks I have!
- A Good Winter Coat: This can be a lot of different brands. Mine is from the men’s section of UNIQLO and is huge but keeps me perfectly warm outside. Everlane has a Re:Down collection that uses recycled down and feathers if you’re looking for something more ethical.
- Other Winter Accessories: I find I don’t love gloves, hats, and earmuffs in the winter. In the city you’ll constantly be taking things on and off, so if anything I’d just bring a pair of gloves if your hands get cold. I actually forgot my scarf this last trip but didn’t miss it with how warm my jacket was.
- Proper Socks: This is a no brainer, but I swear a good pair of socks is so underrated! Get yourself a nice pair designed for winter, even if it’s only an ankle sock, and your feet will be SO much warmer! I’ve heard good things about Bombas, so they’re on my list to try whenever I wind up needing new socks.
And there you have it! All the best things to do in NYC at Christmas AND my best tips for visiting NYC in the winter. I know I’m probably missing something, so if you have a favorite activity, let me know below!
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