Free Things to Do in New York City in the Winter, Recommended by a Local

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Thinking of visiting NYC in winter?

The winter holidays in New York City are a whirlwind of special holiday performances, good cheer (even from New Yorkers) and a celebratory spirit. We native New Yorkers know where to find the best free things to do in New York City in the winter.

Gov­er­nors Island Win­ter Vil­lage

The 3rd annual Winter Wonderland on Governors Island is just a short ferry ride from lower Manhattan or Brooklyn (Ferry is free on weekends before noon and free at all times for kids 12 and under). Free activities include corn­hole, can jam and giant Jen­ga.

There are fire pits so you can warm up. Gov­er­nors Island Win­ter Vil­lage, open through Feb­ru­ary 2024, includes hol­i­day lights along Colonels Row and an outdoor ice skating rink, with free skating on Thursdays.

New this year: Expanded Win­ter Dog Days, Decem­ber 1, 2023, through April 302024, with dogs allowed to vis­it Gov­er­nors Island every day with their owners.

The Seaport

South Street Seaport has free ice skating at Seaport Square. This year’s rink, where you can reserve free 75-minute skate sessions online, is open November to February 2024.

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

Store Windows

No city does holiday window displays like NYC. Macy’s, the first department store to feature Christmas window displays, first decorated its windows in 1874, with animated windows debuting in 1899. Macy’s Herald Square display opens following the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Saks 5th Avenue has another great holiday window tradition. Nordstrom has its holiday display indoors (a chance to warm up!), with a daily Santa Snow Show.

What are your favorite free things in NYC in winter?
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree brightens midtown – for free. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Rock Solid at 30 Rock

Don’t want to pay to skate at the Rock Center ice rink? It’s still fun to watch the skaters. You can listen to music and watch the music from outside. Or go into 30 Rock and stay warm while you watch the skaters through plate glass windows. Don’t miss the gorgeous Art Deco columns in 30 Rock.

You can’t see the Rockettes Radio City Music Hall or the views from the Top of the Rock for free. But the best thing to see is the giant Christmas tree in front of the skating rink. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lights up the area from late November until early January.

LEGO Store

The LEGO Store has cool NYC landmarks built from plastic bricks. And the store has free activities, like scavenger hunts where you can win a free LEGO figure. You can build with LEGOs in hands-on areas throughout the store. At the Nintendo NY store, you can try out new video games for free.

Free Ice Skating

For free ice skating, head a bit downtown to the Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park. Bring your own skates and hit the ice for free; rental skates are available for a fee.

When you need a break from skating, there are more than 125 holiday shops and food stands surrounding the rink. Shops are open through January. The skating rink is open October through early March.

A Moment at the Cathedral

St. Patrick’s Cathedral welcomes visitors of any religion. St Pat’s, the largest Gothic-style Catholic Cathedral in the United States, opened in 1879. Free tours are offered on select days.

Celebrate Epiphany, aka Three Kings’ Day

El Museo del Barrio has an annual Three Kings Day Parade and Celebration on January 6, 2024. Enjoy music, dancing and a street carnival. Dress warmly; this is held outside.

Hanukkah Lights

Just as you don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate St. Pat’s, you don’t have to be Jewish to attend a menorah lighting. Every night of Hanukkah, Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn has a menorah lighting open to all.

There is music and free latkes. Kids get bags of chocolate gelt, gold coins, with chocolate inside. Near Central Park, Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan has nightly lighting of a 32-foot-tall menorah, billed as “the world’s largest menorah.”

Hanukkah 2023 runs from December 7-15.

If you can resist impulse buys, holiday markets are top free things to do in NYC in winter
The festive Union Square holiday market. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Winter and Holiday Markets

The Union Square Holiday Market, the granddaddy of NYC winter markets, started more than two decades ago. Columbus Circle has a sister holiday bazaar, from the same group that runs the Union Square Market. The Columbus Circle market also has a large Christmas tree.

Both markets offer crafts and handmade gifts. And, you can try samples of the many foods sold at the food kiosks.

The indoor Chelsea Market is a cool place to visit any time of year, but it truly is a wonder to see in the wintertime. Light displays enhance historic architecture and food shops entice. Browse the market for interesting and unusual finds from spices to local artwork.

Downtown, the World Trade Center’s Holiday Market at the Oculus has climate-controlled holiday shopping. Live music and dance performances make the Oculus even more festive.

Free Things in NYC: It’s in the Stars

The Shops at Columbus Circle is an upscale urban mall. There are clean public bathrooms, high-end shops and live entertainment, depending on the day.

At the Holiday Under the Stars display, 14-foot -stars hang from the 150-foot ceiling. Go up a level or two and you can see Central Park. The stars are part of a light and music show every half hour (on the hour) between 5 p.m. and midnight.

Hudson Yards Shine Bright has more than 2 million white lights inside and out, and free photos with Santa.

Ringing in the New Year(s)

If you’ve ever watched TV on New Year Eve’s, you’ve probably seen the ball drop in Times Square. You can be part of the fun, for free. Just bring plenty of warm clothing and a strong bladder. You will be standing in crowds for hours and bathroom access is limited. This is one of those love-it-or-hate-it experiences.

If you prefer fireworks, see them in Central Park, before the Midnight Run. There is a free party in the park, with music, before the fireworks. There are also fireworks and a party in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine has an annual free New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace. Line up that day for free tickets.

In late January or early February, head to Chinatown for the New Year’s Day Firecracker Ceremony. Learn about Chinese culture as you line Chinatown’s streets. Thousands of firecrackers are set off to keep the bad spirits away in the New Year. Chinatown also celebrates a Lunar New Year parade in February with plenty of costumes, floats and dancing!

One of the many dog friendly things to do in NYC in winter
Take a free self-guided tour through Dyker Heights. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Head to Brooklyn for More Free Things to Do in NYC

Wander around the Dyker Heights light displays for free. It will just cost you a Metrocard swipe to get there. These private homes have lavish, often professional, Christmas light displays. Some homeowners even hand out candy canes or hot drinks. And if you are traveling with your dog, he is welcome to stroll with you.

While you have to pay for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Lightscape, running through January 1, 2024, the gardens are “pay what you wish” on weekdays through March. And kids under 12 are always free.

Triceratops skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC
Triceratops is one of the awesome dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Warm Up Inside

The Museum of Modern Art is free from 4 to 8 p.m. on Fridays. (It’s always free for kids 16 and under and local college students.)

The American Museum of Natural History is “pay what you wish” at any time, for the regular exhibits only.

The Guggenheim Museum is “pay what you wish” on Saturdays, from 5–8 p.m.

Whitney Museum of American Art has “pay what you wish,” Saturdays, from 7–10 p.m.

Sadly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art now limits its suggested admission to locals, so if you aren’t a New Yorker, you have to pay full freight.

NYC has great public space, open to all. Consider the lush garden lobby in the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice on East 43rd Street. You will feel like you’re sitting inside a greenhouse. Brookfield Place, downtown, has palm trees, lots of places to sit and great water views.

Members of the New York Botanical Garden receive free admission to the annual Orchid Show.

Read More: NYC’s Best Museums

Savings Galore

Winter is also the time to get bargains. Restaurants have special low-priced menus during a 3-week-long Restaurant Week. Lines at the TKTS booth that sells half-price Broadway theater tickets are the shortest in winter. And stores clear out last year’s merch at a steep discount.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Dress warmly for the half-price tickets line at TKTS. You could be there awhile.

Judy Antell is an empty-nester mother of 3 who spends a lot of time visiting her daughters. Why don’t they live in Brooklyn? Judy and her husband love to travel, by bike, car, or plane, whether to see their kids or have friend or couple adventures, mostly centered around vegetarian food.
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8 responses

  1. So appreciate these insider tips. Used to visit from Jersey. Now live in the deep south. Need advice like this. Never knew about Bloomingdale music school events. Thanks.

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  8. You forgot to mention any spots where one can go for free in order to escape this winter’s bitter cold while traveling from one free destination to another.

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