The best things to do for Christmas in New York City

Christmas in New York is a magical experience. New York has long been regarded as one of America’s top holiday destination cities. Asides from several festive ice rinks, one of the country’s most iconic Christmas trees, and a host of special seasonal productions, there is also that tiny chance of a White Christmas. Odds are just 10 percent – hey it’s better than nothing! The last time it snowed more than an inch (the official definition of a White Christmas) on Christmas Day was back in 1992!

In addition to a month long lineup of holiday festivities, most restaurants and businesses really go all out with beautiful decor. The brisk cold weather also adds to the ambiance as you walk bundled up with a hot cocoa in hand. With the bustling crowds and holiday cheer, it really is a magical time of the year. As scenes of the city are so often featured in our favorite Christmas films like Home Alone 2, Elf, and Miracle on 34th Street, seeing all of these iconic holiday sights in person makes the entire experience all the more memorable.

6th avenue ornaments in New York City

Expectantly, the city is insanely busy during the holiday season. However, if you want to experience the Big Apple in the most festive way possible, it’s worth the hassle. With all the extra pizazz and excitement Christmas may just be the most wonderful time of the year in NYC. While the romanticized media version of Christmas in the City may be far from reality, plunging yourself into all the craziness (at least once!) is a totally exhausting, yet exhilarating once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Here are 10 festive activities, attractions, & events not to be missed during any December trip to NYC!

1. Ice skating in Central Park

Ice skating in Central Park - Home Alone 2

Ice skating in New York comes in number 1 as the most quintessential holiday experience. Central Park’s beautiful Wollman rink is the place to lace up your skates, whether you are a pro or first timer. First off, the Wollman Rink is much larger than the Rockefeller rink (in fact, about 4x so). The natural setting in the park is gorgeous as an added bonus. Plus, you do not have as many people gawking at you as you attempt to skate! As the capacity is much larger, there is typically not much of a wait to get on, whereas the mere chance to skate on the Rockefeller rink is another story.

For the ultimate pre-Christmas activity, enjoy a nice quiet skating session in the country’s most gorgeous urban park. It’s fun. It’s festive. And as an added bonus, you will burn hundreds of calories. Not a bad deal…

Christmas movie buffs will likely remember seeing this rink featured in both Home Alone 2 and the amazing John Cusack classic Serendipity. Do enjoy an ice skating session here, but skip the overpriced, tourist trap dessert restaurant.

  • Location: 830 Fifth Avenue
  • Pricing: $15-35 per adult, $10 senior and child 2-12. The cheapest rates are weekdays, non holiday periods. Expect to pay $35 pp over Thanksgiving week and from mid December through New Year’s. Skate rentals are $10, locker rentals are $5 ($6 deposit), $5 spectator fee.
  • Note: Cash only!
  • Tip: If you live in the area bring your own skates! They will pay for themselves in just a few sessions!

2. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree

The amazing tree at Rockefeller Center in NYC

While images of Kevin standing up close and personal with the tree with no one in sight in Home Alone 2 may immediately spring to mind, don’t expect the same quaint experience. In reality, the entire block leading up to the tree is mobbed. In fact, it’s hard to even squeeze through the throng of crowds and get a quality picture. Nevertheless, seeing this grand tree (which ranges between 70-90 foot tall) sure is a bucket list experience for all the Christmas lovers out there.

Surprisingly, this is not the tallest tree in the US. That honor goes to a 115 footer at the Citadel Outlets in the sunny L.A. area (go figure!) Rockefeller’s 2019 tree pictured above stands 77 foot tall and weighs 14 tons. This Norway spruce was planted in 1959. On a side note, the tallest tree on record at Rockefeller was a 100 footer in 1999, a fitting end to the 20th Century!

  • Location: 45 Rockefeller Plaza
  • Pricing: Details and pricing on the Rockefeller ice rink
  • Tip: Visit early on the morning to score a picture sans heavy crowds. Then go back at night to see the tree all lit up. It will be hard to get a quality pic, esp on the 2 weekends leading up to Christmas.

3. The giant ornaments at 6th avenue

Giant ornaments on 6th Avenue in New York City

One of the most iconic (and photographed) Christmas sites in the city is the giant glossy red ornaments. Featured in numerous movies and TV specials, these ornaments are even more mesmerizing to see in person. You really cannot leave NYC without getting your picture by one of America’s most recognizable Christmas scenes.

And better yet, the ornaments are not the only oversized Christmas decoration in town. Right down the street near is a giant string of lights. This is a really cool often missed attraction that you will want to take the time out to see while in such close vicinity.

Gigantic light strand holiday decor in NYC
  • Location: 1251 Avenue of the Stars
  • Tip: Head over here early on the in the day to avoid massive crowds. Also, the new FAO Schwarz is in the area if you want to squeeze in a quick look while in the area.

4. Department store holiday window scenes

Colorful pinball holiday window at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City

Sure the windows are not as spectacular as they once were, still, seeing the creative displays at Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bergdorfs should be high on every first timer’s holiday bucket list. While most big cities (i.e. Chicago, San Fran, Philly, etc) are now known for their unique holiday window scenes, nothing really compares to the buzz and excitement surrounding the department stores in New York. The windows draw so many people that several streets are closed and traffic needs to be directed.

Somehow, it seems a bit more fun & memorable seeing window displays in the city which started it all. Macy’s New York began this time honored holiday tradition in 1874. Since then, most other cities have followed suit, joining in on the fun of one of the country’s most beloved holiday traditions. Did you know that the Manhattan Macy’s is the largest store in the world with 11 floors of retail heaven? Couldn’t heart to take a browse around…

  • Location: Macys (151 W. 34th St), Bergdorf 745 Fifth Avenue, Saks (12 E. 49th St).
  • Tip: Escape the cold for a bit and visit the festive Santaland (Santa visits by reservation only).

5. Saks Fifth Avenue light show

Saks Fifth Avenue light show in New York City

In addition to enjoying the festive window scenes (2019 featured a wintry Frozen 2 theme), you will want to take in the enchantment of the Saks light show.

This spirited show takes place on the 10 story building, located between 49th and 50th street on Fifth Avenue. This dazzling choreographed music and light spectacular is one of the hidden holiday gems in the city. In fact, it is one of the few attractions which I’ve never heard of!

While the show is just 5 min long, it is mesmerizing enough to warrant pushing your way through the insane traffic! Yes, it will be over-the-top crowded! And yes, it is still worthy of your time! Visit on a weekday if you prefer to skip the added frustration! Luckily, the show runs every 10 minutes from 4:30pm to 10, so you can always come back later if it’s too crowded!

Location: 12 E. 49th Street

6. Hot cocoa at Le Maison du Chocolat

Decadent hot cocoa at Le Maison du Chocolat in NYC

Nothing really says winter like a steaming mug of hot cocoa. While there are plenty of trendy places throughout the city to grab a quality cup of hot chocolate, only a few come with the added bonus of a much needed escape from the clutter. Le Maison is an amazing Paris-based chocolatier which serves tasty treats and the best hot chocolate in the city. The vibe and presentation are both great and the shop is located nearby all the touristy activities.

Knave Espresso bar at The Parker Hotel is another perfect place to treat yourself to a delicious hot cocoa in a warm cozy setting before putting up with the crowds again.

Hot cocoa at The Parker Hotel in NYC

While a single cup runs a steep 8 bucks, it may be a worthy fee for anyone who has had it with the tourist traffic (at least for an hour or so!). Coffee, wine, and champagne, desserts as well as light snacks like pastries are also available. The coffee is quite delicious as they serve Stumptown, a renowned roaster which started in Portland back in 1999.

As a bonus, the holiday decor in the hotel lobby is gorgeous!

Parker Hotel NYC at Christmas

Location: 119 W. 56th Street

7. Rockettes Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall

Christmas at Radio City Music Hall in NYC

Seeing the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular is always a contender for top things to do during the holiday season. The Rockettes have been dazzling audiences around the world with their dance moves (including their famous eye- high kicks) at Radio City since 1925. If you do have the time and spare cash, this is a great show for anyone seeking a fun high spirited holiday production. Kicking off each holiday season on a high note, the Rockettes continue to draw tourists throughout the new year.

Even if you can’t make it to the show, you do need to swing by to see the gorgeous Christmas tree. Radio City Music Hall is already a standout site that you cannot miss due to the huge neon sign. The festive seasonal decor makes it an even more mesmerizing sight come December.

8. Central Park

Winter day in Central Park

Nothing could be more romantic during the New York winter season than taking a stroll through Central Park. The early morning hours are actually quite peaceful. As I walk around the park, I am reminded of all the great scenes from Home Alone 2. You too will recall all of Kevin’s adventures in the big city as you make your way through this quaint park. Take in the beautiful city views, watch the skaters glide by on the Wollman rink, and simply enjoy a little peace and quiet before embarking on the craziness in Rockefeller Center.

If you are lucky, you will get to see the park covered with a fresh dusting of snow! Do not get your hopes up through as snow is quite rare this time of year. Nevertheless, the park is beautiful anytime of year and especially tranquil and rejuvenating during the cold winter season.

If you do not mind shelling out a few bucks, treat yourself to a cozy carriage ride.

9. Holiday markets & Christmas Shopping

It's Always Christmas in New York Store

There are a number of great holiday shopping markets scattered throughout the city. The best is a European inspired Winter Village at Bryant Park. Here you will find over 170 holiday shops, plus specialty food and drinks, at an open air market. While here, you may also want to check out New York’s only free ice rink.

Free ice skating at Bryant Park in New York City

Although admission is free, it really is not that “free” when you have to pay $30 for skate rentals! I recommend investing in a good pair of skates if you live nearby, as they will easily pay for themselves in just 2 visits (I purchased figure skates at Dick’s Sporting Goods for $40 with a free shake sharpening).

The Columbus Circle Market near Central Park and the Union Square market should also be added to your itinerary if you love shopping and have the extra time. It’s Always Christmas in New York (pictured above) is a fun year-round shop where you can pick up some cute NY specific ornaments. And don’t forget about FAO Schwarz, which recently reopened at its’ new location in Rockefeller Center. Although it looks nothing like it did in Home Alone 2, you can still play the piano like in Big!

The piano from Big at FAO Schwartz in Rockefeller Center

10. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Grinch balloon at the 2019 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC

You watch it on TV every year, now tough it out and watch all the iconic character balloon floats march by live in person. For the past 92 years, millions have both tuned in and braved the cold NY winter to watch this beloved American tradition. Seeing all the action in person after dozens of TV airings is quite the experience. At 50 to 60 foot tall, the balloons are so much larger than you would expect. And of course, the Christmas season officially kicks off with the arrival of Santa to close out the parade.

Although the parade does not start until 9am, you will need to get here between 6-7am to score a front row view. Although it is quite crowded, hard to find a bathroom (skip the coffee!), and a bit boring waiting this long, this is a bucket list contender for anyone wanting to check one of America’s longest standing holiday traditions off their bucket list.

More info on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade