Christmas in New York City is a magical place to be, and it’s never too early to start planning Christmas I say!
You’ll have almost left it too late if you wait for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade to be done, but as soon as that’s over, it’s all things Santa Claus and reindeer.
If your bucket list includes the beautiful light installations in department store windows on Broadway like Saks Fifth Avenue’s, Macy’s and Bloomingdales, and the massive Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center, you’ll love everything about Christmas in the New York – and indeed the whole build up.
I’m going to be there for a couple of days just after Christmas to take a whole lot of festive photos!
Below are some of the best attractions and sights to see in New York City during the holiday season, including bustling Christmas markets, seasonal shows, local staples, and so much more.
Traveling at Christmas time can also be fraught with chaos and delays and tempers get frayed, so I whipped this post up with 10 things to do to stay sane as you travel this Christmas!
You don’t have to spend Christmas Day here to get amongst the festivities, many of these below run for around a month.
*This post contains affiliate links. That means if you make a purchase I may make a commission at no extra cost to you.
Things to do in NYC at Christmas time:
See the Cirque du Soleil Christmas show
From December 9-27, 2023, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is an exciting show by the world famous Cirque du Soleil. It’s on at Madison Square Garden, and I’m hoping to be there myself this year!
This is Cirque du Soleil’s first-ever Christmas show. The story follows the main character, Isabella, a curious girl, jaded by the hype surrounding Christmas, as she is whisked away to an inside-out world.
Take a Christmas Day brunch cruise
Splash out (see what I did?) and take a Christmas Day 3-course brunch or dinner cruise sailing around the harbor on the Hudson and East Rivers aboard New York’s glass-enclosed Bateaux.
If you choose the evening dinner cruise, the menu will have all the traditional Christmas fare like roast turkey, as well as salmon, beef short ribs and of course, New York cheesecake.
Visit the Santa Clauses Winter Wonderland
This pop-up, immersive Christmas winter-wonderland experience is inspired by the Disney + series The Santa Clauses and runs from November 15 until January 15, 2023.
Step into the North Pole (at Pier 15) and into this magical Christmas village where Santa’s elves walk among you, and gigantic candy canes and enormous snow globes make the perfect Insta pic.
Rug up warm, as this is mostly an outdoor event. Come to drink in the free cocoa or try something a bit stronger like mulled wine, eggnog and cocktails. Stay for the ‘s’mores and sweet treats in front of Santa’s fireplace.
You can dine here too and also book Santa’s brunch on weekends in December. Bookings essential.
Tickets to The Santa Clauses Christmas pop-up start from $20.
Admire the Dyker Heights Christmas lights
The Dyker Heights Christmas lights, initially a hit amongst local New Yorkers who take their Christmas decorating to a whole new level, is now a full-fledged holiday tourist attraction complete with hot chocolate stands and live music performances with a Christmas carol or two thrown in.
The event spans from 83rd street to 86th streets between 11th and 12th Avenue in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.
Be sure to check out Lucy Spata’s home, as she was the first person to begin the annual Christmas tradition and continues to decorate her front yard to the nines. This festive South Brooklyn hidden gem is totally worth the train or express bus ride from Manhattan.
You can take a four-hour bus tour that starts in Manhattan and includes a walking tour through Dyker Heights, then stops to take in the view of the skyline from DUMBO and ends in Bryant Park Winter Village.
Take a holiday lights and movie sites tour
This 2.5 hour tour is on a warm bus driving you around some of the most iconic Christmas sites in New York.
See the apartment where Buddy the Elf stays with his Dad in Elf. Marvel at the electrifying storefront displays on Fifth Avenue. Relive a Home Alone Christmas moment outside the Rockefeller Center. Enjoy a photo-op in front of the Lincoln Center Christmas tree.
Visit a New York City Christmas Market
Pop-Up Christmas markets are what makes this season so exciting for me!
They are dotted all over the city during the holiday season and even shortly afterwards through January.
The Urban Space Holiday Markets are among the most popular choices for locals and tourists alike. I’ll have more info on where the pop up Christmas markets will be closer to the time.
The most famous of the NYC Christmas markets, Bryant Park Winter Village, has over 170 vendors, a heated lodge with a full bar, and an ice-skating rink.
As well as holiday markets, NYC is also home to many flea markets year round, where you can score great deals on gifts – or a little something for yourself.
Visit the Union Square Holiday Market where 150 of the restaurants, entertainment and retailers come together to create a magical experience for shopping, eating and taking in a live performance. The holiday market runs from November 16 to December 24, 2023 (except Thanksgiving Day).
See the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting
We obviously couldn’t talk about Christmas in the city without noting the famous Rockefeller Christmas Tree lighting that occurs annually at Rockefeller Center in late November or early December.
One lucky tree is chosen from a list of nominees each year and the winner sees the chainsaws come out and their gigantic tree felled, wrapped and shipped (sometimes across states) to NYC to stand in pride of place. Usually, the chosen evergreen tree is around 80 feet tall, towering over the entire block.
This year the tree lighting event takes place on Wednesday, November 30th, and you can see the tree until after New Year’s Eve.
Visit the less crowded Christmas Tree in FiDi
Everyone knows about the Rockefeller Tree, but many forget about the tree lighting hosted yearly outside the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street in the Financial District.
This year the 100th tree lighting in front of the NYSE will occur on November 30 with entertainment from 3pm – 6.30pm.
This tradition first began in 1923, making it even older than the Rockefeller Tree lighting celebration.
Take a Christmas walking tour
This 2-hour Christmas walking tour begins at St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 5th Avenue between 50th and 51st, at 6pm and ends at Macy’s on Heald Square so you can go “window” shopping. It’s a great way to find your way around the best sights like the Rockefeller Tree and ice skating, Bryant Park and stroll Fifth Avenue without needing a map!
Dine at Rolf’s German Restaurant
You can get into the Christmas spirit year-round at Rolf’s German Restaurant. The entire restaurant is covered head to toe in extravagant ornaments and string lights, making it a perfect destination for an Instagram-worthy holiday picture.
That said, it can be challenging to get a reservation last-minute. If you cannot reserve a table, there are many fabulous rooftop restaurants around the city to enjoy a nice view of the Manhattan Skyline instead.
Go ice skating
You can try out your ice-skating skills at Rockefeller Plaza, Wollman Rink in Central Park or Bryant Park Winter Village – if you dare.
As mentioned, I have a slippy-slidey phobia, so prefer to drink in the holiday spirit with a hot chocolate and do some shopping for Christmas decorations, watching everyone else glide gracefully on the ice.
Located in Manhattan’s famous Central Park, Wollman Rink is the perfect place to skate with your own skates, followed by a nice walk through the park. It looks even more magical in the wintertime, especially if snow is on the ground.
Another popular destination for ice skating is inside Bryant Park’s Winter Village, only a few blocks from the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. They also offer skate rental. Or, if ice-skating isn’t your thing, you can shop til you drop at the holiday market or grab a hot toddy at the lodge while your group skates.
Visit Grand Central Station
Have your main character moment inside Grand Central Terminal where so many romantic comedies and holiday films feature scenes have been filmed.
New York City’s Grand Central Station is the largest and prettiest terminal in the five boroughs. There are shops, eateries and bars in here and every year a holiday fair is held inside Grand Central Terminal.
The event was canceled last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but we expect to see vendors return this December.
See the famous Rockettes
I have tickets to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall this year!
New York City boasts a lot of live shows, from a Broadway show to low-key performances at music venues like Wild Birds in Brooklyn. But Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular is the ONLY show you should see in NYC this December. (That and Cirque – it’s hard to pick. I might do them both!)
The talented Radio City Rockettes always put on a fantastic performance in even more fantastic costumes. Is the show better than Hamilton or Wicked? No, but it is something that every child and Christmas-loving adult will cherish for a lifetime.
Get your tickets on Get Your Guide for Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular.
This post has a handy map of which are the best seats to book. I compared that with the prices to choose ours. If the tickets are sold out on the Get Your Guide link, go direct to Radio City Rockettes website.
Visit the miniature trains
Located in the Bronx near Fordham University, the New York Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show is severely underrated.
Aside: I built a miniature dollhouse after being inspired by the one in Washington, DC at the National Museum of American History. Then I spent about an hour staring at Queen Victoria’s dollhouse in Windsor Castle when I last visited (it has a running water and electric lights!) and still collect miniatures to this day.
At the New York Botanical Garden you can go see working miniature models of trains, trolleys, and notable landmarks like the Apollo Theater, Brooklyn Bridge, and Yankee Stadium.
This holiday event is exciting for kids of all ages, particularly if they love trains or the 2004 Christmas film Polar Express.
Window shop along Fifth Avenue
As you know, Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan is one of the best places to shop in New York City which I list here.
But this is the reason I have booked two nights this coming holiday season and will be staying in Times Square! The gorgeous holiday window displays are synonymous with Christmas in New York as the department stores of Fifth Avenue take things up a notch, boasting bright and beautiful window displays that change from year to year.
This is one of the best things to do at Christmas time – and it’s free!
Where to stay in New York for Christmas
>> Check out rates for Courtyard by Marriott Times Square West, which is located on 37th Street and close enough to peer in the windows without too much walking!
We are staying here for easy walking to the twinkly lights and sights.
Expect crowds throughout the day and night, – especially as nighttime is the best time to view the lights in all their glory.
Saks Fifth Avenue has an iconic holiday set-up at its flagship storefront, including a ten-story light show.
Other must-see Christmas windows in New York include Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Macy’s Santa Land, Bloomingdales, Prada, and Tiffany and Co.
Since the Fifth Avenue shops are near Radio City Musical Hall and the Rockefeller Christmas Tree, you can easily visit all of these festive attractions in one evening.
See the Empire State Building lights
Not to be outdone by the lights twinkling in the windows on street level, the Empire State Building takes lighting to a whole new level. Literally.
The building lights up in the clouds each night depending on causes or memorial days or celebrations, but in December its Christmas holiday light show is set to music.
Before that though, in mid-December it shows Chanukah lights of blue with a “candle” of white in the middle.
Then about a week before Christmas the lights change to red and green with a candy cane red and white stripe on the top, choreographed to music. This runs through until New Year’s Eve when it erupts into a lighting fiesta to bring in the new year, then back to Christmas colors until about January 4th.
Check out the Empire State Building lights calendar which shows the colours year round.
Get your skip the line tickets to the top of the Empire State Building here >
Where to stay in New York City that won’t break the bank!
Yes, staying in New York is expensive, but I’ve crawled the web to find a bunch of hotels in Manhattan that are under $300 a night in May – so they’ll be even less in winter.
Check them out here if you want stay nice and close to the action! Cheap and lovely hotels in NYC.
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If you’re staying on for a few days, new year’s eve in NYC is another huge excuse for celebrating and this post lists lots of great places to party including ticketed events with live music, rooftop restaurants you should book early, and where to stand to see the ball drop in Times Square.
I have more New York posts you might like to read next:
Where to have Thanksgiving Day at one of these NYC restaurants.
Where to go for the best brunch spots in New York
Awesome flea markets in New York to get your bargain hunting on
Where to find great shopping in NYC from malls to vintage neighborhoods
Or if you would rather go somewhere warm in the US in December, you need to check out these great locations.