5 Best Things to Do During the Holiday Time In New York City

christmas decorations in nyc - giant christmas lights on 6th avenue in manhattan
by Anisa // 6 Comments

If you need help getting in the holiday spirit, New York City is definitely the place to be.  The big apple goes all out for the holidays with lots of special festivities that shouldn’t be missed.  I could probably write a book on everything there is to do and see for the holidays in NYC, but I am going to just summarize the highlights in this post. 

Click here to get a downloadable map with all these special Christmas spots.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Please see disclosure for more information.

5 Things You Must Do When Visiting NYC during Christmas

The holiday season is a popular time to visit NYC! In addition to the normal tourist attractions (Statue of Liberty, Central Park, museums), there are a few holiday things to do that you have to experience.  Keep in mind a lot of this is outdoor, so be sure to pack your winter gear.

If you haven’t been to NYC before, you should also read my tips for visiting New York for the first time.

#1 See the New York City Holiday Decorations

The city definitely “Decks the Halls” for the holidays.  The most famous decoration is the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, which of course you must brave the crowds and visit.  This has been a very New York Christmas tradition since 1933 and ever since 2004 it has been topped with the Swarovski Star.”  

The famous Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree!
The famous Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree!

There are several other memorable trees around the city, but another one I wanted to point out is the Origami Holiday Tree located inside the American Museum of Natural History.  It’s been a tradition for more than 50 years.  You can only see this tree with your admission to the museum.

In addition to the trees, the large department stores (Macy’s, Saks, Bergdorf, Barney’s, Bloomingdales etc) all have very elaborate holiday windows.  These windows are different each year, and there may be lines to see them.

Barney’s has taken the windows to a whole new level with live ice carving one year.  Saks also has a light show on the outside of the building that only lasts a few minutes. It is worth checking out especially since you will be in the area to visit the Rockefeller Center Tree.

You could also opt to take a guided tour to see the holiday window displays.  This one also includes going inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

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The Lord and Taylor added video to their Holiday Windows!
The Lord and Taylor added video to their Holiday Windows! (Note: Lord and Taylor has sadly gone out of business.)

One other place to highlight for holiday decorations, is the German Restaurant, Rolf’s.  There are so many decorations that some people say it is like Christmas on steroids. 

It’s a popular NYC date spot, so be prepared for the crowds and plan on making a reservation in advance if you want to have dinner.  If you’re short on time, you can also just stop in for some mulled wine (or another beverage of your choice).  

If you have more time, you should venture out to the Dyker Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, where the house decorations are over the top!  They go all out and it will definitely get you in the holiday spirit.

#2 Shop at the New York City Christmas Markets

Another winter trend in NY are the holiday markets.  The Christmas markets are great for finding unique gifts and stocking stuffers for that person that is hard to buy for.  I also usually find a few things for myself too.

The best Christmas markets in NYC are Bryant Park, Grand Central, and Columbus Circle.  New in 2017, the Oculus downtown now has a holiday market as well.  Please check the links for operating days/hours and list of participating merchants.

The Bryant Park Market has some great food options.  The Grand Central and Oculus markets are inside, so that might be the best option for Christmas shopping in New York when the weather is not good.  All have a wide variety of shops, some that have brick and mortar locations and others that are just at the market.

You could also opt to do a guided tour of the NYC Christmas markets.  This one also includes seeing some of the other holiday displays.

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#3 Go Ice Skating

Ice Skating at Rockefeller Center
Ice Skating at Rockefeller Center

If you like ice skating, you have plenty of ice rinks to choose from in Manhattan.  There are three main outdoor ice skating rinks in NYC.  

The Wollman Rink in Central Park and the rink in Rockefeller Center are both very iconic.  There is also a rink at Bryant Park, which is in the middle of the holiday market.  It’s actually free to skate at Bryant Park, you just need to bring your own skates or pay the rental fee.  

If you are not a skater, it is also fun to just go and watch.  The ice skating rinks usually open the beginning of November and stay open until the end of February, but check the links for specifics for each location.

Anisa at the Wollman Rink in Central Park
Anisa at the Wollman Rink in Central Park

#4 Watch The Rockette’s Christmas Spectacular

New York City has amazing shows (check out my post about how to score discounted Broadway tickets) year around, but there are a few shows you can only catch over the holidays.  The most famous and traditional is the Radio City Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes, which was first presented in 1933.  

I went last year for the first time and I was impressed, there is a reason it has lasted so long and also started touring across the country.  Of course, the Rockette’s are amazing but the technology used in the shows to create amazing visuals is mesmerizing. 

Radio City Music Hall is also such a New York institution, so I definitely recommending seeing the show here if you can.  There are several performances each day.  Sometimes you can even find a Groupon to get the tickets!  (Click here to see if there is a groupon for the Rockette’s Christmas Spectacular now.)

If there aren’t any Groupons available, you get purchase tickets through Ticketmaster here or you might be able to find it on Stubhub here.  If you want save money look at booking a daytime weekday show or one after Christmas as the demand will be less.

Santa and the Rockettes at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Santa and the Rockettes at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular

#5 Attend the NY Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show

The Holiday Train Show at the NY Botanical Gardens is another great tradition.  You can watch the model trains go by miniatures of 150 New York City landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge, Rockefeller Center, and the Statue of Liberty.  

The Holiday Train show is inside, so you don’t have to worry about the weather, although you may have to wait outside to get in.  It is a very popular event, so I definitely recommend that you get your tickets in advance here.  

The NY Botanical Garden is located in the Bronx but is easily accessible by Metro North Train (there is a Botanical Garden Station).  You can also take the B,D, or 4 subways to the Bedford Park Blvd stop and then walk about 20 minutes.

Miniature NYC buildings and train at the Holiday Train Show
Miniature NYC buildings and train at the Holiday Train Show

Visiting NYC During the Holiday Season

So as you can see New York City has lots of special things to see during the holidays.  It’s something you need to experience at least once in your life.  However, these attractions do bring out the crowds, so you will definitely need to bring a dose of patience with you.  

If you have any specific questions as you are planning your holiday trip, I would be happy to answer in the comments below or feel free to send an email.  You can also read my suggestions for the best things to do in NYC in the winter to get more ideas.

Have you been to New York City during the holidays? What are your favorite holiday traditions?


PS Don’t forget to grab the downloadable map with all these special Christmas spots here

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christmas decorations in NYC with text overlay

Expert Tips for the Holiday Season in New York City

  • Check out the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and the holiday windows at the department stores.
  • Explore the holiday markets to find some unique gifts.
  • Go ice skating at Bryant Park for free if you bring your off skates.
  • Go see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular – check and see if there is Groupon available here.
  • Check out the Holiday Train Show at the NY Botanical Garden – book in advance here.
  • You might also like to venture to Dyker Heights in Brooklyn to see some amazing holiday light displays.

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Last Updated on January 23, 2024

About the Author

Anisa is an experienced international traveler with extra pages in her passport and stamps from 41 different countries across 5 continents (and counting). She was born and raised in Texas. After a 13 year stint in NYC, she moved to England to live with her husband.