Christmas in NYC: Best Things to Do During the Holidays

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The public library stone lions wear wreaths during Christmas in NYC.

There are so many fun things to do in NYC during the Christmas holidays, you need to start making a list and checking it twice to make sure you hit them all. We cover 25 of the best things to do in New York during the 2023 holiday season to help you plan your visit.

Some of the events, like the Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes, the NYBG Holiday Train Show and George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker are traditional annual events that remain wildly popular year after year. You’ll want to buy your tickets well in advance, especially if your dates aren’t flexible.

If you’re obsessed with getting your family photo in front of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree…good luck. The crowds are dense with everyone juggling for the “best shot.” As a native New Yorker, I recommend heading off the beaten path to one of New York’s wealthier neighborhoods – the Upper West Side is a good choice. The decorations on many of the apartment buildings are dazzling and make great backdrops for your snapshots. And it’s one of the great free things to do in one of the most expensive cities on the planet.

Get ready to sparkle as bright as the lights in Times Square! NYC is one of the best Christmas vacations for families and here are the best things to do.

Radio City Music Hall with large tree and taxi in foreground during Christmas in NYC
It’s a not to be missed classic – the Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes at Radio City. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

1. See the Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes

Some make it an annual trip. For others, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Tickets are on sale now for The annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes, so get yours ASAP.

The show features a series of marvelous holiday-themed song and dance numbers, all set on the Grand Stage in Radio City Music Hall. I still gape and gawk like an 8-year-old. The highlight, for me, is the Living Nativity with real animals. Seeing the Rockettes perform the “March of the Wooden Soldiers” is incredible – they’re perfectly synchronized and adorably costumed.

Ice skaters on the Winter Village rink in Bryant Park in the evening is one of the best things to do during Christmas in NYC
Skate, then shop at the Bank of America Winter Village in Bryant Park. Photo credit: Angelito Jusay

2. Go Ice Skating in NYC

Fans of the film “Serendipity” will want to recreate the reunion of Jonathan and Sara at Wollman Rink in Central Park. If only it was easy to cue a picture-perfect snowfall! Manhattan’s outdoor ice skating rinks are positioned in just the right spots for Instagrammable moments, whatever the weather. Here are the top outdoor skating rinks in New York City:

Before heading to a rink, check out the venue website to see the latest information about operating hours, rates and rental availability. Several operate on a reservation-only system. Bring your hot chocolate, a pretty scarf and your best skating moves.

3. Beyond Christmas in NYC: See the World’s Largest Menorah

Head to Grand Army Plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park to see the world’s largest menorah. Standing 32 feet tall, the menorah is lit each evening during Chanukah – the 2023 dates are December 7-15.

In Brooklyn? There’s a slightly smaller menorah in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza too. Head to the northern entrance to Prospect Park.

Illuminated angel sculptures in front of the Rockefeller Center tree at Christmas in NYC
Don’t skip it. The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is worth a visit. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Andrew F. Kazmierski

4. Be Dazzled by the Famous Rockefeller Center Tree

For one month, the center of the New York Christmas universe is Rockefeller Center. The season kicks off with a nationally broadcast tree-lighting ceremony. The 2023 date is Wednesday, November 29.

From then until New Year’s, the giant evergreen will be lit and the crowds will circulate. If you’re staying overnight at a NYC hotel, sneak out late at night after the out-of-towners have left for the best view.

Replica of the NYBG Enid Haupt Conservatory at the Holiday Train Show, a popular NYC Christmas event
The details on this replica of the NYBG Conservatory are stunning. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

5. All Aboard! The Holiday Train Show at NYBG

Whether you’re a kid or an adult, it’s hard not to be charmed by the annual Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The show features trains choo chooing through miniature replicas of New York’s most famous neighborhoods. There’s one that travels underneath Grand Central Terminal. Another goes round and round Macy’s Herald Square department store.

To celebrate the 32nd year of the show, an outdoor woodland display has been added. The box cars on the trains zipping through an artfully constructed landscape carry the foraged materials used to create the replica buildings.

The buildings are fashioned from natural materials like pine bark, cocoa nuts and magnolia leaves by artisan Paul Busse and his staff at Applied Imagination in Kentucky. It’s taken 30 years to collect the more than 175 replicas staged in the show. On the Bloomberg Connects app, there’s a Holiday Train Show Treasure Hunt that spotlights plants used in the models that are in the Garden’s permanent collections. And kids can pick up the Evergreen Express Winter Activity Guide, a colorful booklet designed to inspire children to explore the collections of plants growing at The New York Botanical Garden.

The dates for the 2023 show are November 18, 2023–January 15, 2024. On 17 select nights, you can combine the train show with NYBG GLOW, the outdoor lights display at the garden. Popular Bar Car Nights also return for the 21+ crowd on December 7, 14, and January 5.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you’re crowd-adverse, consider attending in January. It’s a way to extend holiday magic through January’s cold, dark days.

NYBG conservatory illuminated during the holidays
The New York Botanical Garden’s GLOW. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

6. More than Just Christmas in NYC: Learn About Kwanzaa

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum traditionally hosts an annual Kwanzaa celebration in December. It’s billed as the largest family Kwanzaa event in NYC.

Hosted in collaboration with the Asase Yaa Cultural Foundation, the event features a gift-making workshop, storytelling and the chance to play the djembe drum and learn African dances.

The holiday windows at Bergdorf Goodman make spectacular backdrops for a selfie. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

7. Go NYC Christmas Window Shopping

One of the not-to-be-missed experiences for Christmas in NYC is checking out the holiday window displays at the city’s department stores. You’ll find the four ritziest displays at Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Queue up and ooh and aah as you soak up the holiday spirit. The windows provide a great background for a selfie. Window decorations appear around Thanksgiving and don’t come down until after New Year’s.

Christmas theater shows - Nutcracker
New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker. Photo credit: NYC Ballet.

8. Watch a Performance of “The Nutcracker”

Want to be enchanted? A performance of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” by the New York City Ballet is a holiday tradition enjoyed by generations of families and the glorious staging is something you’ll never forget.

Although the story and Tchaikovsky’s score are as familiar as a well-worn sock, the NYC show is so elaborate it feels new. The two acts are under 50 minutes each, so you can feel comfortable bringing well-behaved children, 5 and older.

The tickets sell out quickly. Sign up for email alerts on the New York City Ballet website.

Read More: Best “Nutcracker” Performances Across the US

Baroque creche at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC
Christmas in NYC is more laid back at this display at the Met’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. Photo credit: Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

9. Celebrate Christmas at the Met

Elegant and refined. Two adjectives you don’t normally associate with Christmas, a season when over the top (That’s right, Clark Griswald, I’m looking at you!) is the norm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art erects a 20-foot blue spruce in its Medieval Sculpture Hall. The tree and crèche will be on display from late November through early January.

Want something even more low-key? The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Middle Ages collection is housed in the Cloisters, in the northern section of Fort Tryon Park. The architecture is medieval; you’ll feel immediately transported back in time. Think “Game of Thrones”…without the bloodshed.

If you like your Christmas understated, visit during the holidays. Utilizing natural elements like pine boughs, the Cloisters is beautifully decorated. And, if you’re lucky, a soft snowfall might dust the museum’s elegant gardens. You can enjoy the seasonal decorations from mid-December through early January.

exterior of holiday kiosks in Bryant Park's Winter Village, a wonderful place to celebrate Christmas in NYC
You’ll find beautiful jewelry, scented soaps and more at the holiday shops in the Bank of America Winter Village in Bryant Park. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

10. Shop Christmas in NYC Holiday Markets

New York’s a shopper’s paradise. During the year, I like to drool while window shopping along Madison Avenue, and then check out the sale racks at Bloomingdale’s. But, during the holidays, I gravitate to the city’s pop-up holiday markets.

My favorite is the Bank of America Winter Village in Bryant Park. It’s steps away from Grand Central Terminal and opens early in the season. In 2023 you can start gathering the jolly in late October!

Several of the pop-ups are outdoors and take their inspiration from Europe’s famous Christmas markets. Others are seasonal twists on venues that are open year-round. What you’ll find are gift items for everyone on your list – and don’t forget something for yourself!

Interior of Grand Central Terminal decorated for Christmas in NYC
Enjoy the hustle and bustle of the holidays in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Photo credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority

11. Visit with Santa Claus

The big guy’s been visiting Macy’s Herald Square since the 1860s. He arrives at the tail end of the Thanksgiving Day parade and takes up residence in Macy’s Santaland. Watch the classic movie “Miracle on 34th Street” to get in the mood and if your kids (or you!) want to meet Santa in person, make your reservation online.

Crowd gathered at tree lighting at The Seaport during Christmas in NYC
Celebrate Christmas in NYC at The Seaport’s tree lighting. Photo credit: The Seaport

12. Holiday Fun at The Seaport

You’ll get fab city skyline and Brooklyn Bridge views plus lots of festive things to do at The Seaport in lower Manhattan. There’s an annual holiday lighting of the towering tree, located on the cobblestone streets at the intersection of Fulton and Water streets. Also featured is a menorah lighting with musical performances and Chanukah crafts. Check The Seaport website for dates and times.

If your tumbly gets rumbly while visiting The Seaport, head to the roof. The Greens on the Roof at Pier 17 features a seasonally focused menu and trendy cocktails. For the holidays, you can reserve an individual ski-inspired cabin for your group of up to 10 people for an Adirondacks-style night on the town!

The roof also features NYC’s only rooftop ice skating rink and, in 2023, the space will be transformed into Disney’s The Santa Clauses’ Winter Wonderland at Pier 17. Visit the North Pole without leaving Gotham.

13. Alleluia! Handel’s “Messiah”

Tickets are already on sale for performances of Handel’s “Messiah” by the New York Philharmonic. The Baroque masterpiece is elevated by the performance space, the Neo-Gothic Riverside Church – listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Marvel at the Holiday Lights of Christmas in NYC

Everything is illuminated in the Big Apple during Christmas time. Sit still long enough and someone will drape a strand of lights over you. Just kidding. But it feels that way.

Read More: Best Drive-through Holiday Light Shows in the United States.

14. Brooklyn Botanic Garden Lightscape

You’ll have to head to Brooklyn for this one, but it’s worth it. Reimagined for 2023, Lightscape is an immersive illumination for all ages. Follow a trail through the moonlit Garden, enjoy seasonal tasty treats and a holiday soundtrack. This year’s dates are November 17, 2023 – January 1, 2024.

15. Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo

The only animals you’ll see are illuminated, but that doesn’t dim your joy during the annual Holiday Lights celebration at the Bronx Zoo.

There are musical performances and seasonal treats too. Combine your Zoo visit with the NYBG Train Show and cap it off with a cannoli on Arthur Avenue for a perfect day/evening in the Bronx.

Glittering hot air balloon suspended in Hudson Yards, a fun thing to see during Christmas in NYC
Go big or stay home. This giant hot air balloon is one of the holiday treats you must see in NYC. Photo credit: Hudson Yards

16. Giant Red Ornaments

You’ll be tempted to ask for directions. “Where are the big balls?” I beg you – don’t do it. New Yorkers can be snarky. The huge red Christmas ornaments and tree lights are located in midtown at the fountain plaza at 1251 Sixth Avenue.

17. Hudson Yards

Witness the sparkle of two million lights at Shine Bright at the Hudson Yards shopping complex.

The display opens in mid-November and features over 700 glittering trees and a suspended installation of hot air balloon structures. It’s really, really popular with Instagrammers. Like all of the best things in New York City, it gets crowded, so your best bet is to go early or wait until later in the evening to check it out.

If you’ve been naughty and intend to stay that way, there’s an adults-only immersive holiday experience at Hudson Yards called “Santa’s Secret.” Picture the North Pole transformed into a speakeasy.

18. Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights Christmas Lights

Imagine a neighborhood where everyone was Clark Griswald competing for an over-the-top Christmas light display. That’s Dyker Heights. The homes are located in the vicinity of 11th to 13th Avenues from 83rd to 86th Streets in Brooklyn. Expect crowds and slow-moving traffic; bring a thermos of cocoa and snacks. Or book a 3.5-hour tour with A Slice of Brooklyn. The tours leave from Union Square in Manhattan.

Interior of Rolf's German Restaurant, a great place to celebrate Christmas in NYC
The interior of Rolf’s literally drips with Christmas ornaments. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

19. Dine at Rolf’s

Octoberfest meets Christmas at Rolf’s, a beloved East Side restaurant that leaves its holiday decorations up all year round. It’s a little much in summer (but, then again, so’s schnitzel), but once the leaves begin to turn, it’s fun to look at the glimmer and glitz and get your beer on.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The place gets nutty from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Consider an off-hour visit.

oversized holiday wreaths at The Plaza Hotel, a sight you'll see during Christmas in NYC
Got an Eloise fan in the family? You’ll want to check out The Plaza Hotel, one of the stops on the Holiday Lights and Movie Sites tour in NYC. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

20. Take a Christmas Movie Tour

From “Elf” to “Home Alone 2” to “Scrooged,” New York City’s been featured in many of your family’s holiday favorites. If you’d like to learn more about them, book a “Holiday Lights and Movie Sites” tour with On Location Tours. You’ll board a heated (yeah!) motorcoach near Lincoln Center (remember the scene with Cher in “Moonstruck”?), then drive around town for approximately 2 1/2 hours.

The tour guides are aspiring actors, like my enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Benji. We made 3 stops along the way for photo opps (Columbus Circle holiday market, Bloomingdale’s holiday windows and Grand Army Plaza) before ending at Macy’s. I enjoyed reliving some of my favorite holiday movie scenes.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The tour does not stop at the Rockefeller Center tree, but does drive by it. Sit on the right side of the bus, not the driver’s side, if you want the best photo opp.

21. Sip a Frozen Hot Chocolate

Serendipity3, the 69-year-young sweet shop, retains the nostalgic look families love and the old-timey menu. What’s new? A super reservation system. Book a table now and you’ll be enjoying their famous frozen hot chocolate soon. The location can’t be beat. The 60th Street restaurant is steps away from Rockefeller Center.

fao-schwarz-camping-playset
Love this teardrop camper playset – complete with faux stumps! Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

22. Buy Toys at FAO Schwarz

If you’re going to NYC with kids, a visit to FAO Schwarz is obligatory. The city’s oldest and most famous toy store is guaranteed to make you go broke, but you’ll be smiling as it happens. 

I have fond memories of the old 5th Avenue location, as a child and a mom. But the store’s new location in Rockefeller Plaza is convenient for tourists. Go early in the day to avoid the holiday crowds. If the weather’s cold, dress for it. Capacity limits inside are enforced for fire safety reasons; you may have to queue up outside if the store gets too crowded. Get a photo with the employees watching the doors – they’re dressed like wooden soldiers and are happy to strike a pose with kids…of all ages!

23. Spend an Evening with Charles Dickens

Before there were podcasts and streaming services, authors would tour the world to read from their books. In 1867 Charles Dickens conducted 400 readings in the US, including a stop during Christmas in NYC.

The Merchants’ House Museum recreates the Dickens visit during the holidays. An actor dressed in period costume reads the original “A Christmas Carol” script. It’s a 1-hour performance, recommended for children over 12.

ornaments suspended from the ceiling at More and More Antiques in NYC
More and More is known for its collection of Christmas ornaments, but the store has a charming assortment of gifts too. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

24. Go Ornament Shopping at More & More Antiques

Need something special for your ornament collection? This shop is known for its inventory of antique Christmas decorations. Stop in to browse or buy. More & More Antiques is a short walk from the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side.

25. Visit MSG, the World’s Most Famous Arena

Madison Square Garden is known as the World’s Most Famous Arena. Home to the New York Knicks and Rangers, it’s also a fantastic concert and performance venue. 

During the month of December, Cirque du Soleil presents its first holiday show at Madison Square Garden. “‘Twas the Night Before…” is a family-friendly production based on the beloved poem, featuring dazzling acrobatics and a soundtrack of holiday classics.

You may not think “basketball” when you think of the holidays. But the Knicks normally play on Christmas Day. This year’s opponent is the Milwaukee Bucs; game time’s at noon. If you’re in town for the holidays, it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours in MSG. Wear your Santa hat. And check out the Empire State Building while you’re in the area.

Cathy Bennett Kopf serves as the Daily Editor of SheBuysTravel, reporting to Editor-in-Chief Cindy Richards. She began travel writing after serving as the unofficial (and unpaid) vacation coordinator for hundreds of family and friend trips. She launched her blog, The Open Suitcase, in 2012 and joined the SBT (formerly TravelingMom) team in 2016. A lifelong resident of New York, Cathy currently resides in the scenic Hudson River Valley. She’s a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, the International Travel Writers Alliance and TravMedia.
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