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With department store windows dressed up for the holidays, larger than life light displays and that big ball that drops to ring in the new year at the world’s largest New Year’s Eve party, experiencing New York City during the holidays is a bucket list item for millions. If you’ve never been, you’ll want to do it all—which means you’ll be fighting the crowds. But there are plenty of terrific things to do in at Christmas in NYC Christmas beyond those traditional spots, including some new-to-NYC events for 2020 and some secret spots New Yorkers prefer to avoid the crowds.
Christmas is a great time to visit NYC. In a normal year, that is. The city would get so crowded with visitors in search of the shopping-caroling-festive holiday experience. Even Jews in New York City have their Christmas Eve routine: Chinese food and a movie. At least that’s the way it works during a non-Covid-19 quarantine year.
Like so much of our world, Christmas in NYC will be a little different this year. There still will be plenty of beautiful Christmas lights, but some of the other city traditions, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, have gone virtual or are suspended altogether.
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Read on for some of our favorite ways to spend Christmas in NYC.
Christmas in New York
Bronx Zoo Holiday Lights
This seasonal evening event returns for 2020 with social distancing in place. The outdoor festivities include global animal lantern safaris, ice-carving demonstrations, holiday treats, costumed characters, bird meet & greets, wildlife theater and stilt walkers.
Tickets are required and must be reserved in advance. Bronx Zoo Holiday Lights are on select dates November 20, 2020 through January 10, 2021.
When I was a kid, 5th Avenue used to be closed to vehicles one Sunday every year. We would walk through midtown, looking at the store window displays and eating roasted chestnuts.
But with the closing of some major department stores, and the spread of window displays in other parts of the city, shutting down 5th Avenue doesn’t make sense anymore. But there are plenty of places to see great Christmas window displays. Bloomingdales on Lexington Avenue has wonderful holiday window displays. Macy’s Herald Square on Broadway is also a draw.
NYC Winter Lantern Festival
The Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden in Staten Island started this holiday festival in 2018. The gardens are lit by more than 1000 lanterns. There is no word yet on the Winter Lantern Festival this year.
Lights on Randall’s Island
Randall’s Island Park, which sits on an island in the East River between East Harlem, the South Bronx and Astoria, Queens, hosts LuminoCity Festival, a stunning holiday spectacular of light sculptures, from November 27, 2020-January 10, 2021. Join Lumi, a magical light bulb, on an immersive art experience through a wonderland of fantastical ancient civilizations, lush illuminated jungles and mystical towering light art displays more than 30 feet high. Entry is by timed ticket only — no ticket sales onsite. General admission tickets are $38 for adults, $22 for kids ages 3-12 and $32 for students and seniors ages 65+.
Latkes in Brooklyn
Every year, The Brooklyn Museum also hosts a latke festival. This potato pancake contest is open to all religions and eaters. These are not your Bubbe’s* latkes. Toppings may include pork belly or lobster, and even the potatoes may be subbed out for beets, carrots or parnsips.
Proceeds benefit The Sylvia Center, which teaches healthy eating habits to children and families. No word yet on 2020. (*Bubbe is the Yiddish word for grandmother.)
Shopping at Union Square Holiday Market
Sadly, the European-style market is closed for 2020 thanks to Covid-19. But in a non-Covid year, it’s one of the best places to shop for Christmas in NYC. Traditionally, there are more than 150 local and national vendors selling an impressive array of artwork, leather goods, jewelry, holiday ornaments, wooden puzzles, board games, and more.
There also are plenty of food vendors to keep your hunger pangs under control. Dive into a Belgium waffle by Wafels & Dinges, or satisfy your sweet tooth with cookies from Momofuku. If you need a break from the cold, warm up with a cup of hot chocolate at nearby Max Brenner’s Chocolate Restaurant. In fact you can have hot chocolate, chocolate pizza, chocolate cookies…pretty much any kind of chocolate you want to keep you in the holiday spirit.
New York Botanical Gardens’ Holiday Train Show
Only a Grinch wouldn’t love this Holiday Train show. The show, which runs for more than two months, began in 1992. My kids grew up with it. But it has grown and transformed so much over the years that when we visited in 2018, it was as if we had never been before.
When we took our young children, the model trains were the main attraction. Now that the kids are older, they were more interested in examining the model buildings. Bark, leaves, acorns and stones comprise the 175 buildings, bridges and structures. Yankee Stadium, (though not Citi Field, home of the New York Mets baseball team – this is, after all, the Bronx) the Cyclone and the Brooklyn Bridge are also represented.
Back in the day, we just showed up at the botanic garden when it was convenient. This year, the capacity is severely limited and the show is open only to members and Bronx community partners.
TravelingMom Tip: If you drive to the botanic garden, don’t despair if the parking lot is full. Street parking across the street is free.
Dog Friendly Christmas in NYC
As a Brooklynite and native New Yorker, I assumed everyone in Brooklyn went to the Dyker Heights Christmas extravaganza at least once. We go every year to see the houses of this Brooklyn neighborhood decked out in Christmas lights — and don’t even celebrate Christmas! It’s a great evening outing with your family – and your dog.
You can drive to Dyker Heights and park a couple of blocks away, or take the subway. The streets with the highest concentration of holiday lights are closed to traffic. Seeing these holiday decorations is free, and social distancing is easy.
Ice Skating in NYC
Our holiday season always includes ice skating, whether at the free rink at Bryant Park, the touristy Rockefeller Center or the winter wonderland skating rinks in Central Park and Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Central Park has canceled its 2020 skating season, but skating it still open at Bryant Park by timed reservation only.
There also will be skating at The Rink at Brookfield Place. The downtown Manhattan outdoor ice skating rink, run by United States Olympians Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov, has views of the Statue of Liberty and the Hudson River.
Traditional Events for Christmas in NYC
You don’t have to celebrate Christmas to enjoy the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. I’ve always gotten a kick out of the high stepping Rockettes. The Rockettes started in 1925, and first performed at Radio City Music Hall on the night it opened, December 27, 1932. No wonder the Christmas Spectacular is a holiday tradition! The 2020 production of the Christmas Spectacular has been canceled due to continued uncertainty associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The New York City Ballet has the quintessential Nutcracker Ballet, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. This is canceled in 2020. But the Brooklyn Ballet is presenting a reimagined Nutcracker this year.
Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Central Park
In a normal year, thousands celebrate New Year’s Eve in Times Square — standing for hours in the freezing cold waiting for that ball to drop. There are no bathrooms and no champagne to toast the New Year. New Yorkers will ring in 2021 virtually — no crowds in the square.
Instead of fighting the crowds on a normal year, celebrate New Year’s Eve in Central Park where a brilliant fireworks display lights up the sky at midnight. There’s no need to arrive early. In fact you can have a leisurely dinner, drinks, stay in a place where there are restrooms when you need them and then walk to the park just before midnight. It’s a sane and civil way to ring in the new year in New York’s most iconic park.
More Ways to Celebrate Christmas
A Note on Getting Around NYC in Winter
I love driving around the city over the holidays. So many people leave the city that street parking is easier this time of year. And I am trying to avoid public transportation right now.
I recently had the opportunity to drive the 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum AWD, a family crossover designed for urban driving. The bird’s eye view camera makes the SUV easy to park on the street, and it has pedestrian detection, so you can safely navigate around jaywalking New Yorkers.
TravelingMom Tip: Don’t stray into the crosswalk when waiting at a light; the car’s pedestrian detection system will start beeping.
If you are here when there is snow or ice, you will appreciate the AWD. The heated seats in the first and second rows will warm you up from outdoor treks. And with 36 miles per gallon, you can feel good about the environment, too.
The Toyota Highlander fits a family of up to 7, plus a dog and all your gear. If you are planning to ice skate during your winter holiday in NY and you are driving, bring the family’s ice skates. Rentals can be as high as $20 a pair, so bringing your own is a huge savings.
Another plus about driving in Manhattan or around the boroughs in winter – streets are not closed for street festivals. Spring, summer and fall, you can find street fairs all over, which means you can’t drive down the block.