Christmas in NYC
As I just said, Christmas in NYC is the absolute best! Prior to this trip, I had only been to NYC before Christmas once many years ago. Since then, I’ve been twice for NYE in NYC to celebrate my birthday and I highly recommend this time. However, there is just something magical about NYC in December before Christmas.
Whether you visit before or after Christmas, you can largely do the same itinerary with the exception of the Christmas markets. If those are important to you, please plan your trip in December prior to Christmas. However, if the Christmas markets don’t matter as much, I definitely recommend arriving a couple of days prior to New Year’s to get the best of both worlds for Christmas and ringing in the New Year!
What to See in NYC at Christmastime
The window displays in NYC during the holidays are absolutely incredible. I like to describe them as an entire mini Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade meets FAO Schwarz all in ONE, single window! Yeah, let that sink in…😂
Elaborate, colorful, themed displays. Over-the-top, elaborately themed. They are beautiful and I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into them; however, I can imagine the amount of raw talent it takes to bring them to life!
My personal favorite window displays are those from Bergdorf Goodman. My all-time favorite theme is 2022’s “Magic in the Making: A Celebration of Craft”. Anytime there is a celebration of creativity, I get ultra-excited! Included were crafts such as scrapbooking, woodcraft, metalcraft, dressmaking, and mosaics! 😍
Holiday shows are a big bucket list item in New York City. The most popular show is the Radio City Christmas Spectacular featuring the world-famous Radio City Rockettes! The 90-minute musical contains both secular elements and a live Nativity scene. And yes, those iconic eye-high kicklines do make an appearance!
TIP: This year, 2022 will introduce a new element to the show!
If you are a Cirque de Soleil fan, ‘Twas The Night Before is a great holiday activity for the entire family. As a traveling (vs permanent) show, it could be hit-or-miss but I wanted to call attention to it just in case.
The show includes most, if not all, its famous varieties and elements. To quote Cirque…”Discover what happened before Santa dropped in!”
TIP: This year’s show looks to be Cirque Dreams Holidaze and will occur after Christmas. I have seen this one too (albeit in Atlanta) but I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you’re a Cirque fan, I say go for it!
A classic, The Nutcracker performed by New York City Ballet is always a perfect choice. The performances are at The Lincoln Center, home to the Ballet. If you’re checking out the calendar, look to see if the New York Philharmonic is performing Handel’s Messiah (which is on my list to see)!
Saks Fifth Avenue Light Show
Every year, Saks Fifth Avenue puts on a themed light show occurring every few minutes after sunset. The lights (over 600,000 of them!) dance to music and the Saks windows are typically themed to go along with the show. It’s definitely worth catching while you are visiting Rockefeller and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral!
Adorning the city everywhere you look? Absolutely gorgeous Christmas decorations. In Midtown, walk along 5th or 6th Avenue, through Times Square, and around Hudson Yards. These places and just about anywhere else will have cheerful holiday decorations to enjoy for whatever you celebrate!
Inside Hudson Yards & Shops
Walking along Fifth Avenue
Fifth Avenue in NYC
Hudson Yards & Shops
You might also like: NYE IN NYC: WATCH THE BALL DROP WITHOUT THE CROWD
It wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas trees, right? Well, NYC has them. Lots of them! It’s no surprise that the most famous, iconic tree is in Rockefeller Plaza. However, there are several Christmas trees located throughout the city such as in Bryant Park, The MetLife Building, The Plaza, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brookfield Place and so many more!
Empire State Building Christmas Music & Light Show
ESB in Signature White
ESB on the Fourth of July
ESB on New Year’s Eve
In case you weren’t aware, the Empire State Building lights up every night without fail. The normal, regular lighting is its signature white. Peppered throughout the year, depending on different holidays as well as special or commemorative occasions, it lights up with different colors.
The lights celebrate Christmas, Hannukah, Chanukah, Diwali, 9/11, Easter, special events, other religious holidays, and special people or partnerships. However, there is (sometimes) a day in December when it conducts a Holiday Light Show featuring music from top artists. These light shows are synced to music from different sources such as radio stations and online channels.
TIP: Check out the ESB Lights calendar to see what colors it will light up during your trip!
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
Stopping in to see the stunning Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is a must. From its exterior decorations to the beautiful interior decorations and lighting, it is truly a sight to see. Time your visit just right and you might even hear one of the choirs singing!
Holiday Under the Stars
Another thing I happened upon last year was Holiday Under the Stars. Located in the Time Warner Center as a part of The Shops at Columbus Circle, these 14-foot stars are “the largest specialty crafted display of illuminated color in the world”.
There are twelve of these beautifully illuminated stars hanging in the 150-foot atrium of the Time Warner Center. Watch as they magically change colors!
TIP: On select Wednesdays in November and December, Broadway Under the Stars is a free broadway concert series featuring various productions.
Rolf’s German Restaurant
Perhaps the place that put the most genuine, organic smile on my face was Rolf’s German Restaurant. Self-described as “an old-world vibe known for its elaborate holiday decorations” and “NYC’s most festive restaurant”, this place is just drop-dead gorgeous.
I’m fairly certain Christmas literally threw up in there and I couldn’t have been happier. How I had not known about this place in ALL of my many trips to NYC, I don’t know. However, that is the past and this is now. And now, I KNOW. Now, I’m making sure YOU know!
There are a few things visitors need to be aware of. Rolf’s is a VERY small venue. Reservations are pretty much required (especially during the holiday season) to eat there as tables are few and demand is great. The problem with this is that reservations can only be made via phone.
They list two numbers on their website yet one is always off the hook (both this year and last year when I tried to make them it was always, forever a busy signal) and the other number’s voicemail is always full. Neither number has been answered and I tried two different years with the exact same result.
UPDATE: I checked with the doorman on my trip this week and they start taking dinner/table reservations for December in September. They stay so full that they do not answer the phone in December. 😱
You will have to wait in line and possibly a long line. It did move quickly for us on rainy, Saturday nights in December two years in a row. Once again, keep in mind that it is a small venue and people are tightly packed in, almost shoulder to shoulder at times.
I want to be transparent about this for anyone who isn’t yet comfortable being indoors with this many people or who has compromising conditions where it isn’t advised for them to do so.
TIP: Unless German food is just your all-time favorite, skip the dining and just go for the incredible decorations and exceptional seasonal craft cocktails. They are WORTH it (in my opinion 😊)!
What to Do in NYC at Christmastime
Winter Village at Bryant Park
Christmas at Shops at The Oculus
NYC is one of the top places for Christmas markets across the country. There are many to choose from so you might want to plan ahead if you don’t have much time. However, if you have more time, why not hit them all?
My personal favorites are Winter Village at Bryant Park, Columbus Circle Holiday Market, and Union Square Holiday Market. There are smaller ones in places like The Oculus, Hudson Yards, Times Square, and other places you might not think of. Keep in mind that most of the markets are only open until Christmas and not through the new year.
Union Square Holiday Market
Most of the markets are European-style and feature food, drinks, handmade goods by local artisans, and more from all over the world!
You might also like: NEW YORK IN FEBRUARY FOR VALENTINE’S
While you are perusing all of the Christmas markets, don’t forget to take a little time for adventure. Ice skating is a very popular activity in the winter in NYC and there are many rinks from which to choose.
The most popular is Rockefeller Plaza but consider Wollman in Central Park or even the rink at Winter Village in Bryant Park. There you can get your shop and your skate on!
New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show
To me, the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden is one of the most unique things to do in NYC at Christmas. For over 30 years, this gigantic display of different trains running through mini replicas of New York’s most iconic locations has entertained both locals and visitors alike.
The sheer detail that goes into this enormous show is simply amazing. One does not have to be a fan of trains to appreciate the talent and enjoy such a holiday special. At night, there is the NYBG Glow where you can see illuminated displays, the largest of its kind in the city.
Macy’s on 34th Street
Macy’s on 34th Street is the headquarters for the company. One of the largest department stores in the world, it covers nearly an entire New York City block and features over 1 million square feet of space. Not only does it mark the spot where the iconic Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ends but at Christmastime, it transforms its many, large windows into elaborately themed displays of holiday cheer!
Brookfield Place was an accidental discovery of mine on one of my Christmas trips to NYC. Since said discovery, I’ve made a point to go back each time. In addition to one of the prettiest Christmas trees in all of Manhattan, they also have Luminaries, an incredible holiday light installation. These colorful luminaries were created just for Brookfield Place and draw in thousands of visitors each year.
TIP: Just across the street, is Freedom Tower and its exterior is usually lit up for the holidays. Sitting right outside of that is the XO World Project sculpture which is cool to see against the Christmas lights.
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
If you look up what you can’t miss at Christmas in NYC, you’ll likely see Dyker Heights on the list. While this takes place in Brooklyn, tours do offer pick-up and drop-off from Manhattan. This Brooklyn residential neighborhood is actually famous for its spectacular Christmas lights display!
Residents of these houses in this affluent neighborhood which dates back to the 1800s come together every year and put forth extremely elaborate decorations that draw visitors from all over the world. Keep in mind that they do this on their own and to be respectful and courteous whether you are on a tour or viewing on your own. Take your photos but please stay off the property even if it isn’t chained off or there isn’t a sign present.
TIP: I definitely recommend a tour. You can do it on your own but it is a LONG way from Manhattan and is somewhat obscure. Parking is difficult. There are trucks out selling hot chocolate, coffee, and popcorn but it will set you back about $15 per item. We passed!
Where To Stay in NYC at Christmas
There are so many great places to stay for Christmas in NYC. One of my personal favorites (especially if you will be in NYC for New Year’s Eve) is the Hilton Garden Inn Times Square Central. Conveniently located in the heart of Times Square, it’s an easy place to walk to most of the adventures in this post and if not, it’s definitely an easy jump on the metro!
If you have a higher, luxury budget, check out The Plaza, The Peninsula, or The Ritz Carlton Central Park. All are five-star hotels and have beautiful Christmas decorations, high-end amenities, and gorgeous views!
Where to Eat in NYC at Christmas
Salted Caramel Frozen Hot Chocolate from Serendipity 3
Afternoon Tea at Bergdorf Goodman
Food is absolutely glorious in NYC all year round. That’s a given. However, food during Christmas in NYC is even better. In addition to all of the unique places to eat in New York and the seasonal afternoon tea menus, there are seasonal pop-ups at the Christmas markets where all of the holiday favorites can be found.
Apple Cider Donut at Winter Village at Bryant Park
Cherry Chocolate Martini from Carmine’s
Try an apple cider donut in Winter Village in Bryant Park, a holiday craft cocktail at Rolf’s, red velvet cake banana pudding from Magnolia’s, or mulled wine from Union Square Holiday Market. Of course, these are just a few of the endless options available!
Sample 4-Day Itinerary
- Afternoon arrival into NYC
- Brookfield Place (for Christmas trees and Luminaries)
- Grab dinner (good restaurants at Brookfield)
- Walk over to XO World Project
- Walk over to Oculus for the Christmas market (until around 9 pm)
- Metro/Uber over to Rolf’s for Christmas cocktails (the bar is usually open late)
- Be sure to look up at the Empire State Building lights (before midnight)
- Central Park
- The Plaza (decorations)
- Columbus Circle Holiday Market
- Holiday Under The Stars (Time Warner Center-Broadway Under the Stars on certain dates)
- Magnolia Bakery (try the Red Velvet Banana Pudding!)
- AFTER SUNSET
- Hudson Yards (Shine Bright)-also a good place to grab dinner
- Macy’s on 34th Street window displays (don’t forget to go inside)
- Look up at ESB for lights (and go to the top if you like-it’s open late)
- Brunch or early lunch (highly recommend Sugarfish)
- Union Square Holiday Market
- Metro/Uber to Serendipity 3 for a sweet treat (frozen hot chocolate!)
- AFTER SUNSET
- Look up at ESB for lights
- Bergdorf Goodman
- Louis Vuitton
- Tiffany & Co
- The Peninsula
- Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (definitely go inside)
- Saks Fifth Avenue Light Show
- Rockefeller Plaza (tree, decorations, ice skating)
- FAO Schwarz
- Giant Red Ball Ornaments (6th Ave between 49th & 50th Streets)
- Radio City Music Hall
- NIGHT ENTERTAINMENT
- Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes
- Walk to Times Square to explore
- Carmine’s on 44th (gorgeous photo worthy interior-get the calamari and the cherry chocolate martini)
*reservations recommended via OpenTable
- Breakfast at Wafels & Dinges (Bryant Park)
- Grand Central Terminal for Christmas decorations
- Train to Botanical Garden Station
- Holiday Train Show, NYBG (1 pm)
- Train from Botanical Garden Station back to Grand Central Terminal
- MetLife Building Christmas tree (lobby)
- Bryant Park Winter Village (igloos, eats/treats, ice skating)
- AFTER SUNSET/NIGHTTIME
- Dyker Heights in Brooklyn (pickup and dropoff near Bryant Park)
*sells out quickly-if sold out, see a Broadway show or The Nutcracker!
See? Magical. That’s about the only way to describe the experience of Christmas in NYC. Definitely a bucket list trip, I highly recommend it. I truly hope you have the same magical time as I did and that you come away with amazing memories and experiences!
Have you been to NYC at Christmastime? What was your favorite thing? Is there an experience I should know about? I’m always looking for new ones for Christmastime in The Big Apple. And if you haven’t been…which one of these would you most like to do? Let me know below!
‘Til next time…