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How to do Christmas in New York City

The Christmas season in NYC is so magical, and it’s never too early to start planning Christmas I say!

If you have the beautiful light installations in Saks Fifth Avenue’s windows to the massive Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center on your bucket list, you’ll love everything about Christmas in the Big Apple during the holidays.

Below are some of the best attractions and sights to see in NYC during the holiday season, including bustling Christmas markets, seasonal shows, local staples, and so much more.  

Ice skating in Bryant Park
Ice skating in Bryant Park

Admire the Dyker Heights Christmas lights

The Dyker Heights Christmas lights, initially a hit amongst locals 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. 

Dyker Heights Christmas lights
Stroll along the houses of Dyker Heights and see the Christmas lights

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 guided stroll through Dyker Heights, then stops to take in the view of the skyline from DUMBO and ends in Bryant Park Winter Village.

Or for something a bit quicker, but still incudes a guide and bus ride from downtown Manhattan, take this 90-minute tour of the Christmas lights of Dyker Heights and the sparkling views along the way.

Trees wrapped in Christmas lights
Trees wrapped in Christmas lights

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. Situated in Union SquareBryant Park, and Columbus Circle, you can easily find one of these lovely Christmas markets throughout Manhattan. 

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. If you visit, get a cup of hot cocoa from S’mores N’more, because they do the tastiest and most unique marshmallow pairings! 

Pop up Christmas shopping in Bryant Park
Pop up Christmas shopping in Bryant Park

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. 

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. 

Skating in Rockefeller Plaza
Skating in Rockefeller Plaza

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 tradition first began in 1923, almost 100 years ago, making it even older than the Rockefeller Tree lighting celebration. Be on the lookout for updates about when the event will occur this December. 

The Wall Street Christmas tree
The Wall Street Christmas tree!

Dine at Rolf’s German Restaurant

It’s Christmas 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.

Wall Street Bull covered in ice
How amazing is this pic of the Wall Street Bull covered in ice! Pixabay

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. Personally 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.

Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree
Such a great pic of the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree! Photo by Johnell Pannell on Unsplash

Located in Manhattan’s famous Central Park, Wollman Rink is the perfect place to skate, followed by a nice walk through the park. It looks even more magical in the wintertime, especially if snow is on the ground.

Then after you’re done ice-skating, check out the Columbus Circle Holiday Market near the park’s entrance. 

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. 

Inside Grand Central Terminal
Inside Grand Central Terminal

See the famous Rockettes

Catch the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.

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!

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 before they sell out for Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular.

Radio City Music Hall
Radio City Music Hall

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.

A miniature trolley comes past the Apollo towards Radio City
A miniature trolley comes past the Apollo towards Radio City

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 during the holidays 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!

Lord and Taylor's Christmas window
Lord and Taylor’s Christmas window

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.

Macy's Christmas windows
Macy’s Christmas windows

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.

Empire State Building lit up for Chanukah
Empire State Building lit up for Chanukah

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.

Get your skip the line tickets to the top of the Empire State Building.

You might also like

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 great New York posts:

Best, dreamy rooftop restaurants in New York

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.

Magic Hour rooftop restaurant and bar
Magic Hour rooftop restaurant and bar

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!