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11 Christmas things to do in New York City

The definitive guide to enjoy the city during the most magical time of the year

Isabel Catalán

Isabel Catalán

13 min read

11 Christmas things to do in New York City

Rockefeller Center at Christmas | ©Hellotickets

Christmas is one of the most magical times of the year for a trip to New York. The city is filled with Christmas trees, lights, carolers, decorated avenues, and stores... Without a doubt, the city is at its most charming. As Andy Williams said in his popular song: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

1. Don't miss the Rockefeller Center Lights Switch-On Ceremony

Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting Ceremony | ©Lafactoriadelshow
Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting Ceremony | ©Lafactoriadelshow

Every year New York inaugurates Christmas with the lighting of the enormous Rockefeller Center Tree. A tradition that dates back to the 1930s, when workers building the skyscraper put up a fir tree to commemorate the holidays.

The Rockefeller tree is always lit on the Wednesday of the week after Thanksgiving and as the date of Thanksgiving changes annually, so does the lighting ceremony.

What is the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony like?

It's quite a show! It's known as the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting and follows a two-hour event in which several music stars, enraptured in the Christmas spirit, perform and sing Christmas carols for the crowd gathered in Rockefeller Plaza.

As it is already a New York tradition at Christmas, the surrounding area is pretty crowded so if you want to witness it, my advice is to go to the place a few hours before to get a good place as if you were going to any concert. Of course, dress warmly because winter in the city means freezing temperatures, and being still for so long can turn you into a snowman.

The show culminates with the Rockefeller Center tree lighting around 10 p.m. and it will remain lit from dusk to midnight until early January. Because it is the big day of the holidays, December 25 is lit all day long.

2. Marvel at the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree and decorations

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree | ©Hellotickets
Rockefeller Center Christmas tree | ©Hellotickets

Once the lights are turned on, you will not get tired of walking around Rockefeller Center, where Christmas will invade your five senses. The only downside is that no matter what time of day you go, there will be tourists and New Yorkers who, having the same plan as you, will crowd the area, either because they want to go shopping, to take pictures of the decorations, or to skate on the ice rink (keep reading and I'll tell you about that!).

3. Ice skating

Central Park Ice Rink | ©FJKFJK / Flickr.com
Central Park Ice Rink | ©FJKFJK / Flickr.com

In Central Park

Wollman Rink is the public ice rink that opens every winter in the southeast corner of Central Park to the delight of New Yorkers and tourists alike. Personally, I think the feeling of skating at this spot in the city is simply unmatched. With Central Park on one side and the views of the iconic skyscrapers in the background, you will feel like you are part of a Christmas scene in of the many movies that have been filmed here.

If you feel like making the most of your visit to the area and get your skates on, I recommend you check the Wollman Rink webpage to make sure what the opening hours are on the day that better suits you. I've also put together a handy guide on 10 things to do in Central Park so you can get organized for your visit to the park and have an awesome time there. Don't let the cold bring you down!

  • Where: Between 59th and Sixth Avenue in Central Park.
  • When: Usually open from late November through March or even April.
  • Price: $ 12 to $ 19, depending on the day of the week (skate rental, if you need it, is extra).

At Bryant Park

From late October through early January you can skate at Bryant Park, which becomes the Bank of America Winter Village Christmas center for a few weeks. Here you'll find The Rink, a large, free ice skating rink, as well as a lovely holiday market filled with souvenirs, decorative items and gourmet treats - how can you resist the hot chocolate from Ice Bites? It's delicious!

  • Where: 42nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
  • When: The ice rink is open from late October through early March from 8AM to 10PM / The flea market is open Monday through Friday from 11AM to 8PM and weekends from 10AM to 8PM.
  • Price: Free admission (you will have to pay to rent skates if you don't bring them yourself).

At Rockefeller Plaza

Of all the options in New York, this may be one of the most typical, but it's personally not my favorite. The rink itself is very small and the long lines to access it can get a bit tiresome.

Anyway, if you want to experience The Rink, the place where you can enjoy ice skating in this iconic New York plaza, you can check all the information at Rockfeller Center page.

  • Where: 45 Rockefeller Plaza.
  • When: Normally open from late November through March.
  • Price: $25 to $35, depending on the season (skate rental, if you need it, is extra).

4. Get your mind blown with Radio City Christmas Spectacular

The Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular | ©Billboard
The Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular | ©Billboard

During a trip to New York at Christmas you have to make room in your schedule to attend the legendary Radio City Christmas Spectacular, a magical Christmas show that first premiered in 1933 and has become a true tradition at this time of the year.

It really is as spectacular as the name says! A show of music, dance, humor, and lights like those of yesteryear starring the fantastic The Rockettes that makes you relive Christmas with the illusion of a little kid. A classic!

Whenever I have the opportunity to go to New York at Christmas I do not miss it because the show varies every year and each time is a surprise. If you travel to the city with your family, I highly recommend it because Radio City Christmas Spectacular is suitable for all ages and even the little ones will have a blast. You might even get the itch to catch a theater show —during the Christmas season, magic invades Broadway!

How to buy tickets?

Whether for Radio City Christmas Spectacular or for a Broadway musical, it is best to buy your tickets online because the theaters are full and the box offices immediately hang the sold out sign at Christmas.

From my experience, I recommend that you buy tickets online as far in advance as possible. If you wait to buy them once you are in New York, you run the risk of running out of tickets for the day you would like to see the show due to the high demand.

Also, by booking online you will be able to choose the seats you like best and in some cases, the prices are cheaper than at the theaters' box offices. Don't hesitate, buying your tickets online is easy, safe, and fast.

5. Visit the Dyker Heights Christmas lights

Typical Dyker Heights house decorations at Christmas time | ©Hellotickets
Typical Dyker Heights house decorations at Christmas time | ©Hellotickets

The Dyker Heights neighborhood has become a must-visit Christmas in New York City with the decorative display and Christmas lighting put in place by the locals themselves.

This Brooklyn neighborhood would be nothing special if it weren't for its residents who transform it into a place that looks like something out of a movie. Some choose sophisticated lights to decorate their homes while others indulge in excess and horror vacui with all kinds of garlands, balls, figures, and Christmas inflatables that sing Christmas carols until there is no free space in the garden.

A real neighborhood competition that began in the 80s and has become an event for which some families even pay professional decorators to make a different design every year.

It is so popular that there is even a guided tour of Dyker Heights at Christmas to discover even the smallest detail of the neighborhood! I recommend it because it's quite spectacular and it's a lot of fun to see a whole community dressed up for Christmas. The locals go all out and the tourists have a great time taking pictures of all kinds of Santa Claus, reindeer, snowmen, elves, and more. You will love it!

Practical information

  • When: Although there are neighbors who turn on the lights at the end of November, it is usually done in December until the end of the year.
  • Where: In the Dyker Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
  • How to get there: As a residential area there is no subway station but you can take the R line and get off at the 86 Street station in the Bay Ridge neighborhood. It is a 15-minute walk from the neighborhood.
  • Which are the most spectacular ones?: The ones between 10th and 12th avenues and 83rd and 86th streets.

6. Ride the Botanical Garden Christmas train

The Botanical Garden Christmas Train | ©Nyc Arts
The Botanical Garden Christmas Train | ©Nyc Arts

This is just metaphorically speaking since it is actually a magnificent show with toy trains that has become a Christmas tradition and pays tribute to New York City through the display of tiny models of some of its tourist attractions, such as the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building or the Brooklyn Bridge all in the middle of the Botanical Garden.

But what makes the Holiday Train Show special? Not only its beautiful location surrounded by nature in the Enid A. Haupt Greenhouse but also the unique setting of this model of New York, which is made with 100% organic materials such as wood, leaves, bark, and seeds from the Botanical Garden itself.

This tradition was started by architect Paul Busse in the 90s and every year a team of more than a dozen people including gardeners, architects, electricians, and engineers shapes this amazing model through which small toy trains run.

A very endearing experience that is absolutely recommended checking out with the kids during a trip to New York at Christmas. Since the Holiday Train Show is very popular, it is best to book your ticket in advance at the official website.

Practical information

  • Where: New York Botanical Garden at 2900 Southern Blvd, Bronx.
  • When: Mid-November through mid-January.
  • Hours?: The Botanical Garden is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10AM to 6PM. Mondays closed.

7. Enjoy the NBA in the heart of New York City

The Knicks at Madison Square Garden | ©Carmen Navarro
The Knicks at Madison Square Garden | ©Carmen Navarro

Enjoying a live NBA game is one of the experiences that every traveler visiting New York must live, especially if the tickets are Santa's gift for Christmas!

What's a better plan than to spend Christmas or New Year's Day having a blast with the best basketball league on the planet? Even if you don't like sports or the NBA, attending a basketball game in New York is a true spectacle of partying, music, good vibes, and above all, sport.

New York is home to two NBA teams: the New York Knicks (who play at the iconic Madison Square Garden in Manhattan) and the Brooklyn Nets (whose home is the modern Barclays Center in Brooklyn).

How to buy NBA tickets?

The demand to go to an NBA game is extremely high in Christmas so it is not surprising for tickets to sell out quickly. The NBA regular season starts at the end of October and ends at the end of April so if you want to attend a Knicks or Nets game at Christmas my advice is to buy tickets online as far in advance as possible.

Also, by booking online yourself you will be able to choose the seats you like the most. Don't hesitate, buying your tickets online is easy, safe, and fast.

So grab your hot dog and hat and get ready to catch some of the t-shirts thrown by the cheerleaders - with any luck you might even get on the stadium's "kiss-cam"!

8. Go to the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg Winter Market

Typical holiday flea market shopping | ©Hellotickets
Typical holiday flea market shopping | ©Hellotickets

Who doesn't love Christmas markets? New York dazzles with its lights and decorations but the flea markets are decorated in a very special way that you can't miss.

This one, in particular, combines a vintage flea market (where you can find real treasures) with a food hall (where you can try surprisingly creative delights) and a space for cultural events.

Although the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg Winter Market is not just open during the holidays, it's worth exploring one of Brooklyn's most diverse and active markets during this time of the year. It's perfect for those freezing days in the city and for a good old shopping afternoon among its unique stalls for antiques and sweet treats.

You'll find it at 25 Kent Avenue, on the eighth floor of a building with impressive views of the Manhattan skyline. Right between the two trendy neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

Practical information

  • Where?: 25 Kent Avenue - 8th Floor, Brooklyn. Right between the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods.
  • How to get there: Take the gray L subway line and get off at Bedford Ave. Then walk to Kent Ave for a few minutes and you will arrive at the flea market.
  • When: Every weekend from 10AM to 6PM.

9. Visit the iconic department stores and Christmas window displays

Christmas window displays in New York City | ©Hellotickets
Christmas window displays in New York City | ©Hellotickets

If the rest of the year New York is the mecca of shopping, when Christmas comes, the stores put all the meat on the grill to elevate the experience of shopping to another level at this time of the year.

Decades ago, New York department stores began to decorate their windows with Christmas-themed ornaments. In fact, in recent years, professional window dressers and decorators have been doing their best to impress locals and visitors alike with their increasingly creative and imaginative displays.

At Macy's during the Christmas season, you can walk around the North Pole without leaving the department store. Can you believe it? Well, it's true, at this time of year Macy's recreates a village known as Santaland, where children can meet Santa Claus himself. It's free, but you have to book a time-slot.

To tell the truth, all the stores in New York are decorated according to the Christmas spirit so if you like shopping and stores at Christmas, my advice is to prepare a Christmas window shopping tour with a stop at Tiffany & Co, Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman, and Barneys or Saks Fith Ave, among others. You will be amazed!

10. Experience an unforgettable New Year's Eve in Times Square

Times Square | ©Hellotickets
Times Square | ©Hellotickets

I'm sure you've seen on TV countless times how New Yorkers celebrate New Year's Eve from Times Square: the falling orb to mark the end of the year, the confetti explosion that follows at midnight, the jubilation of the gathered crowd and the always mesmerizing fireworks. Remember that? Yes, definitely welcoming the New Year in Times Square is one of the best things to do for Christmas in New York.

The pre-party, the evening of the 31st

But celebrating New Year's Eve in Times Square isn't just about getting there a little before midnight to wait for the orb to drop. As you know, it is a massive party attended by many people and a good spot in Times Square is a precious commodity. For this reason, some people arrive at the famous square in the morning on December 31 and stay there until the big moment known as New Year's Eve Ball Drop.

However, the vast majority usually meet there before six o'clock in the evening, when the famous Swarovski balloon prepares to fulfill its important mission on New Year's Eve and the concerts and performances start entertaining the public until the big moment.

The twelve bell chimes

At 11:59 p.m. everyone gathers for the countdown, the sphere descends from the top of the One Times Square building for 60 seconds and when it reaches the end, the confetti jumps through the air coloring the entire square and for the exploding joy of those present. The music starts to play and the sky lights up with fireworks because... It's the New Year!

Tips for New Year's Eve in Times Square

  • Since the New Year's Eve Ball Drop ceremony is free, it also has massive attendance. To make sure they will see the ball drop, many people usually start taking positions early in the afternoon.
  • As people congregate in Times Square, the streets are cut off to traffic and no one is allowed to enter.
  • The evening is enlivened with concerts and performances. You can take a look at the program of the event at the official website. If you want to see it you will have to arrive very early to get to a good place and once there, you will not be able to leave the area without the risk of missing it.
  • The bad thing about this is that you will spend a lot of time standing and there are no food stalls or restrooms around so it is best to bring some food and not drink too many liquids.
  • And of course, be as warm as possible! You'll have to wait many hours in the outdoors until the New Year's Eve Ball Drop ceremony begins and winter in New York is almost as cold as the North Pole.

Practical information

  • Where: 42nd Street, at the intersection of 7th Avenue and Broadway.
  • How to get there: By subway, Times Square station on the 1, 2, 3, 3, 7, N, Q, R, and W lines.

11. Join thousands of Santa Claus at the "Santacon"

Image of the latest Santacon | ©Carmen Navarro
Image of the latest Santacon | ©Carmen Navarro

Designed purely for enjoyment, this Santa Claus convention in Times Square kicks off the holiday season (it's usually held the Saturday before Christmas Eve). If you head to Times Square at 10 a.m. you'll find several thousands of people dressed as Santa Claus ready to spend the day pub-hopping to celebrate the holidays with their friends at this Santa Convention.

I didn't know what it was until I found myself there a year ago and the truth is that since then, I always recommend it, I assure you that I had never seen anything like it! Don't be shy, put on a Santa hat, and go out ready to have fun. If you go with children or with friends, you will enjoy this celebration even more if possible.