15 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

16 min read

15 Christmas things to do in New York City

Rockefeller Center at Christmas | ©Hellotickets

Christmas is one of the most magical times to live in New York. The city is filled with Christmas trees, lights, carolers, decorated avenues and stores... Without a doubt, it is 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. Visit the Christmas lights of Dyker Heights

Dyker Heights Christmas home decorations| ©Hellotickets
Dyker Heights Christmas home decorations| ©Hellotickets

The neighborhood of Dyker Heights has become a must-see for Christmas in New York with the decorative display and the typical Christmas lighting installed by the neighbors 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 homes while others indulge in excess and recharge them with all kinds of garlands, balls and figures. 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 know the smallest detail of the neighborhood! I highly recommend it because it's quite a spectacle and it's a lot of fun to see an American themed neighborhood for Christmas.

Practical information

  • 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.
  • How to get there: Being 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.

Book the Brooklyn Christmas Tour

2. 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 schedule 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 its name says! A show of music, dance, humor and lights like those of yesteryear, starring the fantastic The Rockettes that will make 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 might even get the itch to spend a vacation among theaters with this show, because during Christmas magic invades Broadway!

How to buy tickets?

Whether for Radio City Christmas Spectacular: or for any other Broadway musical, it is best to buy your tickets online and as far in advance as possible because the theaters fill up and the box offices immediately hang the sold out sign at Christmas.

In addition, when booking online you can choose the site you like and in some cases the prices are cheaper than at the box office of the theaters. Do not hesitate, buy your tickets online is easy, safe and fast.

Book tickets for Radio City Christmas

3. Enjoy also at Christmas time the NBA, the best league in the world.

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

Enjoy an NBA game in person is a must-do experience for every traveler visiting New York, especially if you get your tickets from Santa Claus for Christmas! Even if you don't like sports or the NBA, attending a basketball game in the USA is a real spectacle where the party, the music, the good vibes and, above all, the sport reign.

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 game, 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 place you like the most.

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 - if you're lucky you might even be on the legendary "kiss-cam" at the stadium!

Buy NBA tickets

4. Don't miss the Rockefeller Center lights-up 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 Rockefeller Center tree. 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 dance and sing Christmas carols for the crowds gathered in Rockefeller Plaza.

Rockefeller Center at Christmastime is a spectacle and attending the tree lighting has become a holiday tradition. The surrounding area is crowded, so if you want to see it, my advice is to go to the place a few hours before to get a good spot. Of course, dress warmly 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 pm and it will remain lit from dusk to midnight until early January. Because it's the big day of the holidays, December 25 is lit all day.

Buy tickets for the Top of the Rock

5. 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 in this part of the city, with Central Park on one side and the views of the legendary skyscrapers in the background, is simply unparalleled.

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. I have also prepared a practical guide on 17 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 beat you!

  • Where: Between 59th and Sixth Avenue in Central Park.
  • When: Usually open from late November through March or even April.
  • Price: Between $12 and $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 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: 42nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
  • When: The ice rink is open from late October to early 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's not my favorite. The rink itself is very small and the long lines to access it can get a bit tiresome.

  • Where: 45 Rockefeller Plaza.
  • When: Usually open from late November through March.
  • Price: Between $25 and $35, depending on the season (skate rental, if needed, is charged separately).

Book a horse-drawn carriage tour of Central Park & Rockefeller

6. Hop on the Botanical Garden Christmas train

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

And I mean that 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 thanks to the display of scale models of some of its tourist attractions such as the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building or the Brooklyn Bridge 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 from 100% natural materials.

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, work together to give shape to this amazing model, through which small toy trains run. A very endearing experience and absolutely recommended to go with the kids. Since the Holiday Train Show is very popular, I advise you to book your ticket in advance on their official website.

Practical information

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

Reserve your ticket for the New York Botanical Garden

7. Go to the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg Winter Market

Typical Christmas Market Shopping| ©Hellotickets
Typical Christmas Market Shopping| ©Hellotickets

Who doesn't love Christmas markets? New York dazzles with its lights and decorations, but the flea markets are decked out in a very special way. This one in particular combines the vintage flea market (where you can find real treasures) with the food hall (where you can sample creative offerings that will test your taste buds) 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's perfect for those frosty days in the city and for a good time shopping among its curious stalls for antiques or grabbing a sweet treat at its food stalls.

During the winter you'll 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 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 down Kent Ave for a few minutes and you will arrive at the flea market.
  • When: Every weekend from 10AM to 6PM.

Book a tour of Williamsburg in Brooklyn

8. Visit the iconic department stores and holiday window displays

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

For decades, New York's department stores began decorating their windows with Christmas motifs to coincide with this special date. And in recent years it has gone even further: 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 book an appointment.

To tell the truth, all the stores in New York are decked out to live the Christmas spirit so if you like Christmas shopping and stores, 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'll be amazed!

Book a shopping tour in New York

9. Discover the Holiday Lights Festival at the Bronx Zoo

Holiday Light| ©Andy Eick
Holiday Light| ©Andy Eick

If there's one thing we love to see during the holiday season, it's the beautiful lighting that decorates every corner of the city. And the Bronx Zoo has one of the best holiday light festivals. It is the Holiday Lights Festival, a fun outdoor event for the whole family that takes place from November 19 to January 9.

The entire zoo is decorated with hundreds of huge lamps and lanterns in the shape of the plants and animals that live in the park to create an amazing show of color, lights and music to brighten 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.

Reserve your ticket for the Bronx Zoo

10. Start the year splashing on the beaches of Coney Island!

Coney Island| ©aloucha
Coney Island| ©aloucha

If you're one of those travelers who aren't afraid of the cold, taking a dip in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean is definitely one of the city's traditions that you must observe. 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. In the months of December and January, the average water temperature is around 9ºC, although sometimes it can be even lower and slightly above 0ºC. But, who said fear? 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 dive 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 various charitable causes.

Book a Boroughs and Coney Island Tour from Manhattan

11. 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 amaze 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. 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 want to skate on the legendary ice rink (but I'll tell you about that later!).

12. 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 explosion of confetti that follows at midnight, the jubilation of the 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-party on the evening of the 31st

But celebrating New Year's Eve in Times Square is not 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 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 begin to entertain the public until the big moment.

Its 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 jumps through 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

  • Since the New Year's Eve Ball Drop ceremony is free, it also becomes massive. To make sure you'll see the ball drop, many people usually start taking up 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 taking lines 1, 2, 3, 3, 7, N, Q, R and W.

13. Join thousands of Santa Claus at "SantaCon"

Image from the last SantaCon| ©Carmen Navarro
Image from the last SantaCon| ©Carmen Navarro

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

It's usually held the Saturday before Christmas Eve and if you head to Times Square at 10 am, you'll 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 the truth is that since then, I always recommend it. I've never seen anything like it! So arm yourself with a good mood, put on a nice Christmas hat and go out to the street with a lot of desire to have a good time. If you go with kids or friends, you'll enjoy SantaCon even more.

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

Hot Chocolate| ©Erick Houli
Hot Chocolate| ©Erick Houli

It gets cold during Christmas in New York. Very cold. That's why the best way to warm up and still enjoy the city during this magical time of the year is to drink a delicious hot chocolate.

If you are 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 advise you to 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 'french hot chocolate' are deluxe.

15. Go to Washington Square to sing Christmas carols

Washington Square| ©Kevin Bedell
Washington Square| ©Kevin Bedell

If you are lucky enough to spend Christmas Eve in New York, one of the most endearing plans you can't miss 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!, 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 beanie and... sing along!