Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- 1. See the Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes
- 2. Go Ice Skating in NYC
- 3. Beyond Christmas in NYC: See the World’s Largest Menorah
- 4. Be Dazzled by the Famous Rockefeller Center Tree
- 5. All Aboard! The Holiday Train Show at NYBG
- 6. More than Just Christmas in NYC: Learn About Kwanzaa
- 7. Go NYC Christmas Window Shopping
- 8. Watch a Performance of “The Nutcracker”
- 9. Celebrate Christmas at the Met
- 10. Shop Christmas in NYC Holiday Markets
- 11. Book a Visit with Santa Claus
- 12. Holiday Fun at The Seaport
- 13. Alleluia! Handel’s “Messiah”
- Marvel at the Holiday Lights of Christmas in NYC
- 14. NYC Winter Lantern Festival
- 15. Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo
- 16. Giant Red Ornaments
- 17. Hudson Yards
- 18. Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
- 19. Dine at Rolf’s
- 20. Take a Christmas Movie Tour
- 21. Sip a Frozen Hot Chocolate
- 22. Buy Toys at FAO Schwarz
- 23. Spend an Evening with Charles Dickens
- 24. Go Ornament Shopping at More & More Antiques
- 25. Visit MSG, the World's Most Famous Arena
If you’re lucky enough to be heading to New York City for the holidays, make your “must do” list…and check it twice! Start with the classics – snap your family photo in front of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and go ice skating in Central Park. Then add one or more off-the-beaten path holiday events like hearing Charles Dickens read “A Christmas Carol.” Here are the top things to do during Christmas in NYC with kids.
New York City transforms itself into a winter wonderland for the holiday season, starting right after Thanksgiving and running straight through until the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. There are special concerts, tree lightings, holiday markets and more. Some of it is pricey. You can spend a ton of money for VIP experience tickets for the New York City Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker.” One year my family splurged on a limo tour; we felt like superstars stepping onto the curb right in front of the Rockefeller Center tree!
But there are many free or inexpensive things to do too during Christmas in NYC. I’m just as happy taking a late night stroll on the Upper East Side to gawk at the elegant wreaths and greenery on the posh brownstones.
TravelingMom Tip: New York City has fairly strict Covid rules. And these rules continue to change. Always check the vaccine requirements and mask rules in effect at the time of your visit.
1. See the Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes
**On December 18, 2021, the remainder of the season for the Christmas Spectacular was canceled due to a Covid outbreak. Refunds for shows are available at point of purchase and the producers indicate the Rockettes will return in 2022.**
Some make it an annual trip. For others, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. The annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes is returning in 2021! Tickets are on sale now, so get yours ASAP.
The show features a series of marvelous holiday-themed song and dance numbers, all set on the Grand Stage in Radio City Music Hall. I still gape and gawk like an 8-year-old. The highlight, for me, is the Living Nativity with real animals. Seeing the Rockettes perform the “March of the Wooden Soldiers” is incredible – they’re perfectly synchronized and adorably costumed.
2. Go Ice Skating in NYC
Fans of the film “Serendipity” will want to recreate the reunion of Jonathan and Sara at Wollman Rink in Central Park. If only it was easy to cue a picture perfect snowfall! Manhattan’s outdoor ice skating rinks are positioned in just the right spots for Instagrammable moments, whatever the weather. Here are the top outdoor skating rinks in New York City:
- Wollman Rink in Central Park – NYC’s skyscrapers are a super backdrop for your photos.
- Rockefeller Center Rink – Get the iconic shot of you and Prometheus, Rockefeller Center’s golden statue.
- The Rink at Brookfield Place – Panoramic views of New Jersey from this Hudson River rink.
- Bank of America Winter Village Rink in Bryant Park – The holiday market is one of the busiest, and prettiest, in the city.
Before heading to a rink, check out the venue website to see the latest information about operating hours, rates and rental availability. Several operate on a reservation-only system as a Covid response. Bring your hot chocolate, a pretty scarf and your best skating moves.
3. Beyond Christmas in NYC: See the World’s Largest Menorah
Head to Grand Army Plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park to see the world’s largest menorah. Standing 32-feet tall, the menorah is lit each evening during Chanukah – the 2021 dates are November 28-December 6.
In Brooklyn? There’s a slightly smaller menorah in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza too. Head to the northern entrance to Prospect Park.
4. Be Dazzled by the Famous Rockefeller Center Tree
For one month, the center of the Christmas universe is Rockefeller Center. The season kicks off with a nationally broadcast tree lighting ceremony. The 2021 date has yet to be announced; based on the event’s 88-year history, it will most likely occur on Wednesday, December 1.
From then until New Year’s, the giant evergreen will be lit and the crowds will circulate. If you’re staying overnight at an NYC hotel, sneak out late at night after the out-of-towners have left for the best view.
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5. All Aboard! The Holiday Train Show at NYBG
Whether you’re a kid or an adult, it’s hard not to be charmed by the annual Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The show features trains choo chooing through miniature replicas of New York’s most famous neighborhoods. There’s one that travels underneath Grand Central Terminal. Another goes round and round Macy’s Herald Square department store.
The buildings are fashioned from natural materials like pine bark, cocoa nuts and magnolia leaves by artisan Paul Busse and his staff at Applied Imagination in Kentucky. It’s taken 30 years to collect the more than 175 replicas staged in the show.
The dates for the 2021 show are November 20, 2021–January 23, 2022. The grounds are graced with lights. It really highlights the natural architecture of the towering evergreens. And it’s a way to extend your visit to the Holiday Train Show.
TravelingMom Tip: If you’re crowd-adverse, consider attending in January. It’s a way to extend holiday magic through January’s cold, dark days.
6. More than Just Christmas in NYC: Learn About Kwanzaa
The Brooklyn Children’s Museum will host its 12th annual Kwanzaa celebration December 26-30. It’s billed as the largest family Kwanzaa event in NYC.
Hosted in collaboration with the Asase Yaa Cultural Foundation, the event features a gift-making workshop, storytelling and the chance to play the djembe drum and learn African dances.
7. Go NYC Christmas Window Shopping
One of the not to be missed experiences for Christmas in NYC is checking out the holiday window displays at the city’s department stores. You’ll find the four ritziest displays at Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Queue up (socially distanced, of course!) and ooh and aah as you soak up the holiday spirit. The windows provide a great background for a selfie. Window decorations appear around Thanksgiving and don’t come down until after New Year’s.
8. Watch a Performance of “The Nutcracker”
Want to be enchanted? A performance of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” by the New York City Ballet is a holiday tradition enjoyed by generations of families and the glorious staging is something you’ll never forget.
Although the story and Tchaikovsky’s score are as familiar as a well-worn sock, the NYC show is so elaborate it feels new. The two acts are under 50 minutes each, so you can feel comfortable bringing well-behaved children, 5 and older.
The tickets sell out quickly. Sign up for email alerts on the New York City Ballet website.
9. Celebrate Christmas at the Met
Elegant and refined. Two adjectives you don’t normally associate with Christmas, a season when over the top (That’s right, Clark Griswald, I’m looking at you!) is the norm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art erects a twenty-foot blue spruce in its Medieval Sculpture Hall. Normally, there’s a weekly tree lighting. However, that event is suspended in 2021 due to building construction.
But you can still visit the tree and the Neapolitan Baroque Creche which is set up at its base. The tree and crèche will be on display November 23, 2021 – January 6, 2022.
Want something even more low-key? The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Middle Ages collection is housed in the Cloisters, in the northern section of Fort Tryon Park. The architecture is medieval; you’ll feel immediately transported back in time. Think “Game of Thrones”…without the bloodshed.
If you like your Christmas understated, visit during the holidays. Utilizing natural elements like pine boughs, the Cloisters is beautifully decorated. And, if you’re lucky, a soft snowfall might dust the museum’s elegant gardens. You can enjoy the seasonal decorations from December 16, 2021 – January 4, 2022.
10. Shop Christmas in NYC Holiday Markets
New York’s a shopper’s paradise. During the year, I like to drool while window shopping along Madison Avenue, and then check out the sale racks at Bloomingdale’s. But, during the holidays, I gravitate to the city’s pop up holiday markets.
My favorite is the Bank of America Winter Village in Bryant Park. It’s steps away from Grand Central Terminal and opens early in the season. In 2021 you can start gathering the jolly on October 29th!
Several of the pop ups are outdoors and take their inspiration from Europe’s famous Christmas markets. Others are seasonal twists on venues that are open year round. What you’ll find are gift items for everyone on your list – and don’t forget something for yourself!
- Holiday Shops at Bank of America Winter Village
- Union Square Holiday Market
- Grand Central Station Holiday Fair
- Columbus Circle Holiday Market
- Brooklyn Flea Holiday Market
Sadly, the Holiday Fair in Grand Central Terminal won’t return in 2021 due to Covid concerns. However, you will be able to get professional gift wrapping for FREE during the Holiday Wrap-Up Experience. Purchase up to 5 items at any of the marvelous shops in Grand Central and get them wrapped in themed paper, including one featuring the iconic constellation ceiling. My family will be totally surprised to receive presents that look nice this year – I’m not good with the paper and tape. Plus, you’ll receive a complimentary reusable tote to transport your gifts home.
The Holiday Wrap-Up Experience is offered on December 4, 11 and 18 from 11 am – 4 pm, weekdays December 20-23 from noon – 6 pm and procrastinators can get the help they need on Christmas Eve from 11 am – 3 pm. You’ll need to present your receipt as proof of purchase.
11. Book a Visit with Santa Claus
The big guy’s been visiting Macy’s Herald Square since the 1860s. He arrives as the tail end of the Thanksgiving Day parade and takes up residence in Macy’s Santaland. Watch the classic movie “Miracle on 34th Street” to get in the mood and if your kids (or you!) want to meet Santa in person, make your reservation online.
12. Holiday Fun at The Seaport
You’ll get fab city skyline and Brooklyn Bridge views plus lots of festive things to do at The Seaport in lower Manhattan. There’s an annual holiday lighting of the towering tree, located on the cobblestone streets at the intersection of Fulton and Water streets. Also featured is a menorah lighting with musical performances and Chanukah crafts. Check The Seaport website for dates and times.
If your tumbly gets rumbly while visiting The Seaport, head to the roof. The Greens on the Roof at Pier 17 features a seasonally focused menu and trendy cocktails. For the holidays, you can reserve an individual ski-inspired cabin for your group of up to 10 people for an Adirondacks-style night on the town!
13. Alleluia! Handel’s “Messiah”
Tickets are already on sale for performances of Handel’s “Messiah” by the New York Philharmonic. The Baroque masterpiece is elevated by the performance space, the Neo-Gothic Riverside Church – listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Another fab seasonal music event in New York is the annual Winter Solstice Concert. It’s also performed in a church. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, located in Morningside Heights on the Upper West Side, is magnificent and worth a visit, even if you’re not attending the concert.
Marvel at the Holiday Lights of Christmas in NYC
Everything is illuminated in the Big Apple during Christmas time. Sit still long enough and someone will drape a strand of lights over you. Just kidding. But it feels that way. Here are several special spots to get your sparkle on, including one of the most famous drive-through holiday light shows in the United States.
14. NYC Winter Lantern Festival
Get ready to fill your Instagram feed! The NYC Winter Lantern Festival will have 3 locations in 2021: Staten Island, Queens and Long Island. Each event features different themed Chinese-style lanterns illuminated by LED lights. Got littles? The festival at the Queens County Farm has oversized tractors, flowers and farm animals. Note: The Long Island event is drive-through only.
15. Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo
The only animals you’ll see are illuminated, but that doesn’t dim your joy during the annual Holiday Lights celebration at the Bronx Zoo.
There are musical performances and seasonal treats too. Combine your Zoo visit with the NYBG Train Show and cap it off with a cannoli on Arthur Avenue for a perfect day/evening in the Bronx.
16. Giant Red Ornaments
You’ll be tempted to ask for directions. “Where are the big balls?” I beg you – don’t do it. New Yorkers can be snarky. The huge red Christmas ornaments and tree lights are located in midtown at the fountain plaza at 1251 Sixth Avenue
17. Hudson Yards
The Hudson Yards shopping complex next to the Vessel on the lower West Side of Manhattan installs a tremendous light installation for the holidays. It’s really popular with Instagrammers. Like all of the best things in New York City, it gets crowded, so your best bet is to go early or wait until later in the evening.
18. Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Imagine a neighborhood where everyone was Clark Griswald competing for an over the top Christmas light display. That’s Dyker Heights. The homes are located in the vicinity of 11th to 13th Avenues from 83rd to 86th Streets in Brooklyn. Expect crowds and slow moving traffic; bring a thermos of cocoa and snacks. Or book a 3.5 hour tour with A Slice of Brooklyn. The tours leave from Union Square in Manhattan.
19. Dine at Rolf’s
Octoberfest meets Christmas. Rolf’s, an Upper East Side institution, leaves its holiday decorations up all year round. It’s a little much in summer (but, then again, so’s schnitzel), but once the leaves begin to turn, it’s fun to look at the glimmer and glitz and get your beer on.
The place gets nutty from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Consider an off hour visit.
20. Take a Christmas Movie Tour
From “Elf” to “Home Alone 2” to “Scrooged,” New York City’s been featured in many of your family’s holiday favorites. If you’d like to learn more about them, book a “Holiday Lights and Movie Sites” tour with On Location Tours. You’ll board a heated (yeah!) motorcoach near Lincoln Center (remember the scene with Cher in “Moonstruck”?), then drive around town for approximately 2 1/2 hours.
The tour guides are aspiring actors, like my enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide Benji. We made 3 stops along the way for photo opps (Columbus Circle holiday market, Bloomingdale’s holiday windows and Grand Army Plaza) before ending at Macy’s. I enjoyed reliving some of my favorite holiday movie scenes.
TravelingMom Tip: The tour does not stop at the Rockefeller Center tree, but does drive by it. Sit on the right side of the bus, not the driver’s side, if you want the best photo opp.
21. Sip a Frozen Hot Chocolate
Serendipity3, the 67-year old sweet shop, recently reopened. It’s retained the nostalgic look families love and the old timey menu. What’s new? A super reservation system. Book a table now and you’ll be enjoying their famous frozen hot chocolate soon. The location can’t be beat. The 60th Street restaurant is steps away from Rockefeller Center.
22. Buy Toys at FAO Schwarz
If you’re going to NYC with kids, a visit to FAO Schwarz is obligatory. The city’s oldest and most famous toy store is guaranteed to make you go broke, but you’ll be smiling as it happens.
I have fond memories of the old 5th Avenue location, as a child and a mom. But the store’s new location in Rockefeller Plaza is convenient for tourists. Go early in the day to avoid the holiday crowds. If the weather’s cold, dress for it. You may have to queue up outside if capacity limits are enforced. And make sure to get a photo with the employees watching the doors – they’re dressed like wooden soldiers and are happy to strike a pose with kids…of all ages!
23. Spend an Evening with Charles Dickens
Before there were podcasts and streaming services, authors would tour the world to read from their books. In 1867 Charles Dickens conducted 400 readings in the US, including a stop during Christmas in NYC.
The Merchants’ House Museum recreates the Dickens visit during the holidays. An actor dressed in period costume reads the original “A Christmas Carol” script. It’s a 1-hour performance, recommended for children over 12.
24. Go Ornament Shopping at More & More Antiques
Need something special for your ornament collection? This shop is known for its inventory of antique Christmas decorations. Stop in to browse or buy. More & More Antiques is a short walk from the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side.
25. Visit MSG, the World’s Most Famous Arena
Madison Square Garden is known as the World’s Most Famous Arena. Home to the New York Knicks and Rangers, it’s also a fantastic concert and performance venue. During December 2021, you can catch performances of ‘Twas the Night Before…by Cirque du Soleil. Expect a heartwarming family-friendly story, accompanied by dazzling acrobatic performances.
Or go to a basketball game. I know. It’s weird. But the Knicks traditionally play a home game on Christmas Day. If you’re in town for the holidays, it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours in MSG. Wear your Santa hat. And check out the Empire State Building while you’re in the area.