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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

17 min read

11 Christmas things to do in New York City

Rockefeller Center at Christmas | ©Hellotickets

Christmas is one of the most magical times to experience in New York. The city is filled with Christmas trees, lights, carolers, decorated avenues and stores... It's definitely the time to travel to New York. As Andy Williams said in his popular song: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

1. Don't Miss the Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting Ceremony

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

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

The Rockefeller tree is one of the top 11 Christmas trees in New York. It is always lit on the Wednesday of the week following Thanksgiving, and as the date of Thanksgiving changes annually, so does the lighting ceremony.

What is the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony like?

It is known as the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting and follows a two-hour event in which several music stars, imbued with the Christmas spirit, dance and sing Christmas carols for the audience gathered in Rockefeller Plaza.

Rockefeller Center at Christmas time is a spectacle and attending the lighting of the tree has become a New York tradition at this time of year. The surrounding area is crowded with people so if you want to witness it, my advice is that you approach the place a few hours before to get a good place as if you were going to any concert. Of course, wrap up warm because winter in the city is freezing and waiting so long can freeze you like a snowman.

The show culminates with the lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree 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.

Buy tickets to the Top of the Rock

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 won't get tired of strolling around Rockefeller Center, where Christmas will surprise you with its five senses.

The only downside is that, no matter what time you go, there will always be tourists and New Yorkers crowding Rockefeller Center at Christmas time. It is super popular and you will find many people who have gone there to take pictures of the decorations, or Christmas shopping in the area, or because they feel like skating on its legendary ice rink (but I'll tell you about that later!).

3. Go 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. Personally, I think the feeling of skating at this spot in the city, with Central Park on one side and the views of the mythical skyscrapers in the background, is simply unparalleled. You will feel like you are shooting a Christmas scene of the many movies that have been filmed here.

If you feel like taking advantage of your visit to the area to get your skates on, I recommend you check the Wollman Rink page to make sure of the opening hours on the day that suits you. I've also prepared a handy guide to 15 things to do in Central Park so you can organize your visit to the park and make the most of your time there - don't let the cold get you down!

  • Where? Between 59th and Sixth Avenue in Central Park.
  • When? Normally open from the end of November until March or even April.
  • Price? Between 12 and 19 dollars, depending on the day of the week (skate rental, if you need it, is paid separately).

At Bryant Park

From late October through early January you can skate at Bryant Park, which becomes the Bank of America Winter Village for a few weeks.

Bryant Park is home to The Rink, a large, free ice skating rink as well as an iconic holiday market filled with souvenirs, decorative items and gourmet treats. How can you resist the 'Ice Bites' hot chocolate - it's delicious!

  • Where: On 42nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 42nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
  • When: The ice rink is open from late October to early March from 8AM to 10PM. The ice rink is open from the end of October to the beginning of March from 8AM to 10PM / The flea market from Monday to 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 your own).

At Rockefeller Plaza

Of all the options in New York, this may be one of the most typical, but personally it is 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 live the experience of skating at The Rink, the rink of this iconic place in New York, you can check all the information on the Rockefeller Center website.

  • Where to go? 45 Rockefeller Plaza.
  • When? Normally open from late November through March.
  • Price? Between 25 and 35 dollars, depending on the season (skate rental, if you need it, is paid separately).

4. Be amazed by the Radio City Christmas Spectacular

The Rockettes Christmas Show| ©Billboard
The Rockettes Christmas Show| ©Billboard

During a trip to New York at Christmas you have to make a hole in your agenda to attend the legendary Radio City Christmas Spectacular, a magical Christmas show that premiered for the first time 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 child. 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 is a surprise. If you travel to the city with your family, I highly recommend it because the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is suitable for all ages and even the little ones will have a blast. You may even get the itch to spend a vacation among theaters with this show, because during Christmas magic invades Broadway!

How to buy tickets?

Whether it's for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular or another Broadway musical, it's best to buy your tickets online because the theaters fill up and the box offices immediately hang the sold out sign for Christmas.

From experience, I recommend that you buy your tickets online and as far in advance as possible because 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 because of high demand.

Moreover, by booking online you will be able to choose the place you like the most and in some cases the prices are cheaper than at the theaters' box offices. Do not hesitate, buying your tickets online is easy, safe and fast.

Buy tickets for Radio City Christmas

5. Visit Dyker Heights Christmas Lights

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

The Dyker Heights neighborhood has become a must-see Christmas in New York with the decorative display and Christmas lighting installed 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 an American movie.

Some choose discreet and sophisticated lights to decorate their houses while others indulge in excess and recharge them 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 time to get to know the smallest detail of the neighborhood! I highly recommend it because it's quite a spectacle and it's so much fun to see an American themed neighborhood 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'll love it!

Practical information about Dyker Heights

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

6. Hop on the Botanical Garden Christmas train

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

And I say that metaphorically speaking, since it is actually a magnificent show with toy trains that has become a Christmas tradition and that pays tribute to New York City thanks to the exhibition of scale models of some of its tourist attractions such as the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building or the Brooklyn Bridge in 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% natural materials such as wood, leaves, bark and seeds from the Botanical Garden itself.

This tradition was started by its creator Paul Busse in the 1990s and every year a team of more than ten people, including gardeners, architects, electricians and engineers, takes part in shaping this amazing model through which small toy trains run.

A very endearing experience absolutely recommended to go with the kids during a trip to New York at Christmas. Since the Holiday Train Show is very popular, I advise you to book your ticket in advance on the official website...

Practical information

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

7. Enjoy the NBA, the best league in the world.

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

Enjoying an NBA game in person is one of the must-do experiences for every traveler visiting New York, especially if you get your tickets from Santa Claus for Christmas!

What 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 the sport or the NBA, attending a basketball game in the United States is a real spectacle where the party, the music, the good vibes and above all, the sport reigns.

New York is home to two NBA teams: the New York Knicks (who play at the legendary 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, so it is normal 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 you will be able to choose the place you like the most. Do not hesitate, buy your tickets online is easy, safe and fast. I recommend you to read the post NBA tickets in New York: how to buy and prices because there you will find a guide that will help you get the most out of the experience.

So grab your hot dog and your cap and get ready to catch some of the jerseys thrown by the cheerleaders, and if you're lucky you might even be on the legendary "kiss-cam" at the stadium!

Buy NBA tickets

8. Go to the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg Winter Market

Typical holiday shopping at the flea markets| ©Hellotickets
Typical holiday shopping at the flea markets| ©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 the vintage flea market (where you can find real treasures) with the food hall (where you can try creative proposals that will test your palate) and cultural events.

Although the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg Winter Market is not limited to the holidays, it's worth exploring one of Brooklyn's most diverse and active markets. It is perfect for those frosty days in the city and to spend a good time shopping among its curious stalls looking for antiques or having a sweet treat at their food stalls.

During the winter you will find it at 25 Kent Avenue, on the eighth floor of a building with stunning views of the Manhattan skyline. Right between the two trendy neighborhoods, Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

Practical Info

  • Location. 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 is it open? 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 a shopping mecca, when Christmas comes around, stores go all out to take the shopping experience to a whole new level.

For decades, New York department stores have been decorating their windows with Christmas motifs to attract all eyes. In fact, in recent years, professional window dressers and decorators have been doing their best to impress us with their increasingly creative and imaginative displays.

At Macy's during the Christmas season, you can walk through the North Pole without leaving the department store. Don't 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 reserve a time.

To tell the truth, all the stores in New York are decorated to live the Christmas spirit so if you like shopping and shopping at Christmas, my advice is to prepare a route through the Christmas windows with a stop at Tiffany & Co, Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman or Saks Fith Ave, among others. You're going to hallucinate!

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 ball to mark the end of the year, the confetti explosion that follows at midnight, the jubilation of the gathered crowd and the always fascinating fireworks. Do you remember? Yes, definitely welcoming the New Year in Times Square is one of the best things to do at Christmas in New York.

The pre-Christmas party on 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 getting a good spot in Times Square is very popular. 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 tend to be there before 6 p.m., when the famous Swarovski balloon prepares to fulfill its important mission on New Year's Eve and the concerts and performances begin to entertain the public until the big moment.

The twelve chimes

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

Tips to see New Year's Eve in Times Square

  • As the New Year's Eve Ball Drop ceremony is free, it also becomes massive. 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 closed to traffic and no one is allowed to enter.
  • The night is enlivened with concerts and performances. You can take a look at the program of the event on the official website. If you want to see it you will have to arrive very early to get a place and once there, you will not be able to leave the area without risking to miss it.
  • The downside of this is that you will spend a lot of time standing and there are no food stalls or toilets around so it is best to bring some food and not drink too many liquids.
  • And of course, be as warm as possible! You will have to wait many hours outdoors until the New Year's Eve Ball Drop ceremony starts and in New York the winter is almost as cold as in 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 lines 1, 2, 3, 7, N, Q, R and W.

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

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

SantaCon is a "Santa Claus" convention held in Times Square to kick off the holiday season.

It is usually held the Saturday before Christmas Eve and if you head to Times Square at 10 am, you will find thousands of people dressed up as Santa Claus ready to have a great time at this Santa Convention, going from pub to pub to celebrate the holidays with their friends.

I didn't know what it was until I found myself in the middle of it a year ago and since then, I recommend it every time, I've never seen anything like it! So arm yourself with a good mood, put on a nice Christmas hat and go out in the street with a great desire to have a good time. If you go with children or friends, you will enjoy 'SantaCon' even more if possible.

12. Discover the Bronx Zoo's Holiday Lights Festival

If there's one thing we love to see during the holidays, it's the beautiful lighting that decorates every corner of the city. And at the Bronx Zoo they have one of the best light festivals around this time of the year.

It is the Holiday Lights Festival, a fun outdoor event for the whole family that takes place from November 19 to January 9. If you are going to be in New York at Christmas you can not miss it, especially if you are traveling with children because they will have a great time.

The entire zoo is decorated with hundreds of huge lamps and lanterns in the shape of plants and animals that inhabit the park (bears, gorillas, turtles, lions, anacondas, zebras, monkeys, tigers, etc.) to create an amazing show of color, lights and music to liven up the winter nights.

But during the Holiday Lights Festival you can also attend other events such as ice carving championships and demonstrations (at Grizzly Corner), puppet theater (at Dancing Crane Pavilion), animal costumes (at Somba Village) or ride the Christmas train through the zoo (at Astor Court).

Don't miss the Bronx Zoo's Holiday Lights Festival post to find out everything you can see during your visit and how to get tickets.

13. Combat the New York cold with a delicious hot chocolate

During Christmas in New York it gets cold. Very cold. So the best way to warm up and continue enjoying the city during this magical time of the year is to have a delicious hot chocolate.

If you're an inveterate chocoholic, you're sure to feel like you're in seventh heaven in places as fabulous as:

  • Serendipity III: A cafe that Andy Warhol used to frequent to exhibit some of his works and where today you can taste the Frozen Hot Chocolate, the house specialty. It is on the Upper East Side, near the Roosevelt Island cable car.
  • The Chocolate Room: Located in Brooklyn, this is a coffee shop entirely dedicated to chocolate. I recommend ordering the classic hot chocolate with a spicy touch and accompany it with a slice of cake.
  • Little Spain Market: If you feel like trying a cup of Spanish-style chocolate (a little thicker than the rest) along with some delicious churros, I recommend you go to this market located in the trendy neighborhood of Hudson Yards.
  • Cocoa Bar: This East Village cafe serves a delicious hot chocolate with cinnamon, but if you are looking for something original, the chocolate cocktails are sensational. The 'chocolatini' and the 'french hot chocolate' are deluxe.

14. Go caroling in Washington Square

If you are lucky enough to spend Christmas Eve in New York, one of the most endearing plans you can't miss on Christmas is to sing Christmas carols next to the famous Washington Square Arch.

The night of December 24 is one of the most special days of the holiday season. Hundreds of people gather there to sing several of the most popular carols such as 'Jingle Bells', 'Let it snow!, Let it snow!, Let it snow!', 'Silent Night' or 'White Christmas', among many others.

If you don't know the words to the carols, don't worry, because the organizers provide songbooks for anyone who needs them. Just remember to bring your Christmas spirit, your best Santa hat and... let's sing!

15. Start the year with a splash on the beaches of Coney Island!

If you are one of those travelers who are not afraid of the cold, taking a dip in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean is definitely one of the traditions of the city that you must fulfill.

Every January 1, New Yorkers gather on the beaches of Coney Island (in Brooklyn, near the famous amusement park) to participate in the event organized by the Coney Island Polar Bear Club and welcome the New Year in this unique and cool way.

In case you had a good party the day before, there is no doubt that this is a good way to wake up and get rid of the New Year's Eve hangover. In the months of December and January, the average water temperature is around 9ºC, although on some occasions it can be even lower and slightly above 0ºC.

But who said fear, the best thing to do is not to think about it too much and jump straight into the water! Some people do it in swimming trunks and others choose to go in disguise, but everyone goes to one in the immersion following the coordinator of the event dressed as a polar bear.

This will be one of the funniest anecdotes you will take away from your stay in New York during Christmas, so don't miss it!

How to participate?

Registration to participate in this activity is free but you can also make a donation to collaborate with the organizers in different charitable causes.