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My first ever trip to New York (and in fact, the U.S) was at Christmas time. I had an incredible week in The Big Apple and I can happily say New York City is the place to be at Christmas. The festive cheer is so infectious in NYC that even the biggest Scrooge couldn’t fail to get in the Christmas spirit.
Ice rinks and fairy lights spring up all over the city, and the department store windows are transformed into festive works of art. Children’s’ faces beam as they stare up at the Rockefeller Christmas Tree, and everywhere you go, New Yorkers wish you “Happy Holidays!”
I now live in New York and when the holidays come around I always love searching for the best new popups and things to do! New York at Christmas is absolutely magical, so if you’re heading there at winter time, here are the top festive things to do in New York City:
Where to stay in New York at Christmas
There are tons of hotels in New York but here are some options in Manhattan:
Arlo Nomad – One of my favorite hotels in New York, Arlo Nomad is well-situated for all your New York city sightseeing. The hotel’s rooms are small rooms but they’re modern, tastefully furnished and have large windows with views of the city. Influencers often like to book corner sky rooms because they make for great photos!
The High Line Hotel – Located in Chelsea inside a portion of the General Theological Seminary, The High Line Hotel features gothic-style brick buildings and a gate Parisian-style courtyard with lush gardens. Rooms feature fireplaces and gothic accent details along with one-of-a-kind pieces from antiques fares and vintage shops. In the common area you’ll find an Intelligentsia coffee bar where you can load up on caffeine before your day of sightseeing.
Roger Smith Hotel – The lobby of the Roger Smith Hotel always features a beautiful Christmas tree and its location on Lexington and 47th is just steps from NYC’s major attractions. The hotel features an intimate rooftop bar called Henry’s and rotating art on the ground floor.
Royalton Park Avenue – One of my favorite hotels to stay at during winter time due to its heated outdoor pool with views of the Empire State Building. Not many hotels in Manhattan feature pools and Royalton Park Ev is one of the best, offering views of the Empire State Building.
Things to do in New York at Christmas
Gaze at the Rockefeller Christmas Tree
The Rockefeller Christmas Tree is probably the best known Christmas tree in the world. This massive Norway Spruce, decorated in 30,000 fairy lights, can be found at the Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, and has been put there every year since 1931.
The first time I ever became aware of this magical tree was when I watched Kevin make a wish in the movie Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and ever since then, I had wanted to visit it. The area around the Christmas tree and the ice rink gets very crowded after dark, but it’s definitely worth a visit to watch the ice skaters and have your photo taken. The Christmas tree lighting ceremony usually takes place around the week of Thanksgiving, and the tree remains up until the first week of January.
Do you have to pay to see the Rockefeller Christmas tree?
No you don’t have to pay and you don’t need a ticket.
Get your skates on at NYC’s Ice Rinks
Ice skating in New York City is a popular Christmas tradition. Every year ice rinks spring up all over the city, and the most famous one of all is the rink at the Rockefeller Plaza. People have been skating on the ice rink beneath the Rockerfeller Christmas tree since 1936, but there are also a number of other, cheaper options around the city. There’s Citi Pond at Bryant Park, Wollman and Lasker Rinks in Central Park, The Ice Rink at Riverbank State Park, Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers and the Standard Hotel Rink in the Meatpacking District.
Have dinner at Rolf’s German Restaurant
There’s no restaurant quite as festive as Rolf’s! Located in the Gramercy area of Manhattan, Rolf’s is a cozy restaurant with elaborate holiday decorations. The ceiling is covered in red, green and gold baubles and lots and lots of fairy lights – it’s an Instagram influencer’s dream! Rolf’s food menu features several different types of schnitzel plus hearty dishes such as roasted goose, steamed mussels, bratwurst, beef stew and meatloaf.
Grab drinks at a Miracle Popup
Every year Miracle Christmas popup bars appears in various locations around New York and New Jersey (and in fact, the world). The bars feature kitschy holiday decor and serve festive drinks in fun mugs! The concept actually started out in NYC at a bar called Mace and has now become popular around the world. One of the best known Miracle popups is Miracle on 9th Street in Manhattan.
Drink hot apple cider at the Christmas Markets
There are Christmas markets all over New York City, but my favourite ones were in Bryant Park and Union Square. There are food stalls selling delicious things like hot apple cider, dumplings, waffles and chocolate, as well as stalls selling unique gifts and handicrafts. It’s a great way to get into the holiday spirit and pick up presents at the same time!
Sit on Santa’s Lap at Macy’s Santaland
You don’t have to go as far as the North Pole to visit Santa Claus- you can find him on 34th street, Manhattan. Santa appears at the end of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, marking the beginning of the Christmas season. Thousands of people flock to Santaland at Macy’s to tell Santa what they’d like for Christmas and have a photo taken with him just like in the film Miracle on 34th Street. Every year, the well known store features two sets of window displays- one is based on Miracle on 34th Street, and one with a changing theme.
Saks Fifth Avenue Light Show
During Christmas Saks department store puts on a light show at its New York flagship store at 49th Street and 5th Avenue. The light show is timed to music and features hundreds of thousands of programmed LED lights that are attached to the exterior of the building. As you can imagine, the pavements get pretty crowded around this area.
Bryant Park Winter Village
Bryant Park Winter Village features an ice rink, a holiday market and a large lodge where visitors can enjoy a festive drink while watching the ice skaters do their thing. The ice rink is NYC’s only free-admission skating rink, as long as you bring your own skates and a backpack. If you need to rent shoes, you’ll have pay a fee to enter. Make sure you book a skate time in advance before you go.
Dance on the Big Piano at F.A.O Schwarz
This famous toy store is packed with all the latest toys, and even though I’m a little too grown up for them, I felt like a big kid in here! Have your photo taken with the F.A.O Schwarz Toy Soldiers at the entrance, then play a tune on the Big Piano, which featured in the Tom Hanks movie Big.
Take a Guided Tour of Brooklyn’s Christmas Lights
Every year at Christmas, the residents of Dyker Heights, an Italian-American section of Brooklyn, decorate their homes in crazy holiday light displays.
The Slice of Brooklyn Christmas Lights and Cannoli Tour takes you on a 3 1/2 hour tour to see these festive homes, and you also stop off at Mona Lisa Pastry Shop & Cafe for a cannoli and cappuccino!
Drink hot chocolate at Loreley Beer Garden
Loreley Beer Garden is a Biergarten that’s modeled after the “Brauhaus” in Cologne and decorated for the seasons. At Christmas time the restaurant is covered in holiday decorations and the menu features festive cocktails such as Bourbon Apple Cider and Boozy Bourbon Black & White Hot Chocolate with toasted marshmallows and candy cane. There’s a heated outdoor patio too, should you wish to sit outside.
Don your Santa costume for Santacon
I hadn’t heard of Santacon until @kelleyferro invited me along, but I’m glad she did because it was one of the best things I did during my week in New York City. The organizers would kill me for calling it a “pub crawl”- instead they prefer to use the term “Santa Claus convention”- but whatever it is, it was a LOT of fun. Basically everyone dresses up in Santa costume and bar hops all day around Manhattan having as much fun as humanly possible. It was really weird to wake up in the morning and see every street in Manhattan overrun by Santas!
Visit a rooftop
While not all rooftops in New York are open in winter, there are a few that are. One of my favorite rooftop bars to visit at Christmas time is 230 Fifth since there are heated igloos on the roof to keep you cozy and warm! Igloos can accommodate up to 10 guests and you can enjoy views of Manhattan from inside.
Another fun holiday rooftop bar is Chalet de Ning at the Peninsula. This winter wonderland features two domes decorated with chalet-inspired furnishings and a fireplace to keep you warm and cozy. The menu features specialty cocktails and seasonal dishes inspired by the Engadin region of Switzerland.
NYC Holiday Window Displays
All of the stores around Fifth Avenue take Christmas very seriously, transforming their windows into festive works of art. My favourite holiday window displays in New York were those at Tiffany & Co., Bergdorf Goodman, Barney’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s. The front of Cartier’s flagship store is dressed in a big red ribbon and bow too!
Get tickets to Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is an annual musical stage show starring world famous dance troupe, The Rockettes. This all-singing-all-dancing holiday extravaganza has been entertaining audiences since 1933 and takes place at Radio City Music Hall.
Walk around Central Park
While the leaves may have fallen off the trees in December, there are still lots of things to do in Central Park at Christmas time. Midtown Manhattan can be very crowded during the holidays so Central Park’s tranquil pathways and grassy lawns are great for escaping the chaos. Go ice skating at the Wollman Rink, order a hot chocolate from one of the Christmas markets and visit some of Central Park’s most famous attractions, including Bethesda Fountain, Strawberry Fields and Bow Bridge.
Is Central Park lit up for Christmas?
Yes! Every year there’s an annual holiday lighting at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, which concludes with a flotilla of illuminated trees on the Harlem Meer.
Is there are Christmas tree in Central Park?
While there isn’t a tree like the enormous one at Rockefeller Center, there’s a flotilla of trees on the Harlem Meer, located inside the park near 110th Street.
Hudson Yards Christmas Lights
One of Manhattan’s newest developments, Hudson Yards boasts a slick 720,000 square foot shopping mall with luxury shops and plenty of dining options. A highlight of the area is the Vessel – a 150 foot-high, copper-clad sculpture inspired by ancient Indian stepwells. At Christmas Hudson Yards is decorated with millions of lights to bring some holiday cheer.
Enjoy a horse and carriage ride in Central Park
A horse and carriage ride in Central Park isn’t cheap but it’s a romantic way to see the park at Christmas time. You can find the carriages at the entrance to the park on 59th street. You’ll be taken on a tour of the park to see famous sights such as Strawberry Fields, Belvedere Castle, Bethesda Fountain and The Mall. Walk-up rides without a reservation are $57.47 for up to 20 minutes. For each additional 10 minutes it’ll cost $22.99 and you’ll be expected to tip the driver on top.
The Nutcracker is one of the most famous ballet performances of all time and the show’s exquisite costumes and jumping candy canes will certainly get you into the holiday spirit. At Christmas the New York City ballet performs The Nutcracker at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. While there are other productions of The Nutcracker performed by other ensembles, this is the gold standard of productions.
FAQs about NYC at Christmas
Is Christmas in New York worth it?
Yes Christmas is a great time to visit if you want the ultimate festive experience. Having said that it can get very cold, so make sure you bring a puffer jacket, gloves, scarf and hat. The key is to layer up as much as you can! NYC at Christmas time can get very crowded, particularly around Midtown and the Rockefeller Christmas tree, but it’s a great place to do some Christmas gift shopping and get into the holiday spirit.
Personally I like New York the most in the summertime because I like to hit the beach and go to rooftops without having to wear a jacket. During the summer the weather is warm and everyone is dining outside and enjoying the sunshine.
What is there to do in New York at Christmas?
There’s so much to do in New York at Christmas! As you can see from the article above, the city is filled with decorations, ice rinks and Christmas trees! Definitely go shopping at the Christmas markets, order a mulled wine in a Christmas-themed bar and visit the Rockefeller Christmas tree.
How long do Christmas decorations stay up in NYC?
New York starts to get really festive after Thanksgiving and Black Friday. The NYC Christmas decorations stay up until the first week of January, usually around the 6th January but some come down as early as New Years Day. So if you want to get into the Christmas spirit, visit New York any time in the month of December.
Is New York decorated for Christmas in November?
Many decorations start going up after Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend, so you should be able to see the decorations if you visit in the last few days of November.
Is NYC still decorated for Christmas in January?
Some decorations come down on January 1st, while others stay up until epiphany, which is January 6th. If you want to see the holiday spirit in full swing, book your trip to New York for December.
Is Christmas eve busy in NYC?
The days leading up to Christmas can get busy in New York. Some people are already off work, while others keep working right up until Christmas Eve. Many people are out in SoHo or Fifth Avenue doing their last-minute Christmas shopping and lots of people go out for Christmas Eve drinks or dinners.
That being said, some people will have already left the city and be at home with their families. Always check the opening hours of restaurants as some businesses will shut on Christmas Eve.
Where is the big Christmas tree in New York?
The big Christmas tree is the Rockefeller Christmas Tree, which is placed every year at the Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan.
What should I pack for Christmas in New York?
New York in December is fairly cold, although not as cold as January-March. Make sure you pack the following winter clothes:
- Puffer jacket – I have the Super Puff from Aritizia
- Thermal top
Are things open in New York on Christmas Day?
On Christmas Day in New York, many shops, restaurants and attractions will be closed so that people can have a day off and enjoy Christmas at home. However, many people live in Manhattan so you will still see people walking around or catching trains and buses to go visit their families outside the city.
If you’re spending Christmas day in Manhattan, a great thing to do is go for a walk in Central Park. Some restaurants will serve Christmas lunch or dinner, so if you want to go out for a meal, make sure you book in advance as places get booked up quickly.
A final word…
There’s no place like New York at Christmas time. It’s one of the best places in the world to enjoy the holidays! There are so many festive things to do in New York and there are new popups, decorations and Christmas bars that spring up every year. Of course, there are also tons of attractions to visit including Times Square, The Vessel, Grand Central Terminal, Chelsea Market, Flatiron, Statue of Liberty, SUMMIT…the list goes on and on. You’ll never be short of things to do in the city that never sleeps.