RadioCityMusicHallNew York City during the holidays is a magical time – holiday lights, good cheer, special activities. But it is also an expensive, crowded time. This list of must-sees and insider info can help you enjoy NYC like a native during your family holiday.

 

Tree Lighting
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is the biggest and definitely worth a peek, but give yourself permission to skip the lighting ceremony itself. During one extremely packed evening, the lights are turned on. That’s it. If you want a party, head to Winter’s Eve at Lincoln Square. The 11th annual tree lighting November 29, kicks off the holiday season with free concerts, food tastings ($1-$4) and Big Apple Circus performers. The Kidrockers performance at the American Bible Society includes free cupcakes for kids from Magnolia Bakery. Most of the festivities are outside, on Broadway from the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle to 68th Street.  If you want to see the Rock Center tree (also being lit on November 30) try to avoid prime hours, around 5-8pm daily.

Nutcracker
Seeing the Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet in Lincoln Center is a classic, but it is also expensive and long. If you kids are huge ballet fans, and can sit still for three hours, go for it. If not, try The Yorkville Nutcracker at The Kaye Playhouse December 9 -12. The show is perfect for kids 5 and under and husbands with short attention spans. And, the top ticket price is only $90, not $140.

If you must see the real deal (and it is worth it, at least once) choose the standard, not peak or prime performances. At the standard shows, tickets are $40 (WAY in the back) to $115. The New York City Ballet Nutcracker runs November 26 – January 2.

Holiday Windows
One of the best times to see the holiday windows is on Christmas itself, when most people are home opening presents and getting an early start on the eggnog. If you can’t go on Christmas, try to go early in the morning. The windows at Macy’s, Saks and Lord & Taylor are usually the most crowded; if you only have time for one, head straight to Lord & Taylor. These intricately designed windows, with a story and moving elements, are the best, year in and year out. Be sure to start at 39th Street and go up to 40th Street so you can follow the narrative.

Holiday Train Show
The New York Botanical Garden has its annual Holiday Train Show November 20 – January 9. You see New York landmarks in miniature – the old Yankee Stadium, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty with model trains running through. Structures are made from natural elements: nuts, tree bark, fruits, pine cones, and leaves, The show is indoors, in the glass-enclosed conservatory, so you don’t have to bundle up. But you may want to spend time at Children’s Adventure Garden, checking out gingerbread houses and decorating gingersnaps. Buy your timed tickets in advance – like much in NYC, this is very popular and you could be shut out.

Radio City Christmas Spectacular
The first time I took my kids to The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, I was sure they would dismiss it. Broadway regulars, they would see right through the dated story. But you know what? The dancing Rockettes, the snow falling onstage and the precision kick line wowed them and they want to return year after year. I enjoy the incongruity of lighting Hannukkah candles and then watching a nativity scene. Radio City Music Hall itself is worth the price of admission. The show, through December 30, has no intermission; visit the gilded bathrooms before.

Ice Skating
Skating outdoors is one of those activities everyone seems to want to do when it gets cold. Citi Pond at Bryant Park offers free ice skating daily through February 27, 2011, though you do have to pay to rent skates. If you travel with a luggage lock, bring it so you can use the free lockers without buying a lock. Go across the street to Le Pain Quotidien for great, if pricey sandwiches and rich hot chocolate.

Dyker Lights
Dyker Heights in Brooklyn features extravagant Christmas displays and music at private homes. The Italian-American enclave, 11th Avenue to 13th Avenue, 83rd to 86th Street is best reached by subway. Take the D to 18th Avenue or the R to 86th Street. Parking at night here during the holidays is as scarce as midtown, so you are forewarned if you insist on driving.

Tree Art
The Metropolitan Museum displays its annual Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche, November 23 – January 6, 2011. This is one of the few indoor tree displays, so go here when it’s cold, rainy, windy, or all three. The candle lit tree, decorated with angels, and music are very different from other trees around town, and you can see the tree lit daily, at 4:30pm. While you are there, you can check out some of the kid-friendly exhibits, including the armor and period rooms.

Big Apple Circus
The intimate Big Apple Circus is a New York City holiday tradition and is great for little ones who haven’t been to a circus, or who might be overwhelmed by a three-ring extravaganza.  Be sure to arrive early; some of the performers are in the lobby, offering previews of their shows. And bring your own water; since the tent is in a plaza behind Lincoln Center, there are no water fountains, and bottled water gets expensive. Bathrooms are also a little grim; rows of portable toilets. Through Jan 9, 2011.

Menorah Lighting
You don’t have to be Christian to enjoy Christmas, and you don’t have to be Jewish to participate in a Menorah lighting. Every night of Hanukkah (December 1 – 9, 2010), a giant menorah is lit at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Take the 2 or 3 train and enjoy live music, free latkes (potato pancakes) and small gifts for kids.

Other Cool New York City Stuff
If you are in New York on Christmas and not visiting family, you will be surprised at how many places are open. On Christmas Eve, take a page from the Jewish New Yorker’s book:  see a movie and eat Chinese food. On Christmas Day, ethnic restaurants around the city are open. The Jewish Museum  has an annual Christmas Day party, except on years when Christmas falls on a Saturday.

FAO Schwarz dresses up for the holidays and the toy store is next to one of the coolest Apple stores, where my kids like to spend their holiday money. This Apple store is a glass box at street level, with a glass staircase or elevator down to the selling floor.

Every year, the American Museum of Natural History has an Origami Holiday Tree with about 500  folded designs decorating the tree. You can learn how to make your own origami ornaments. November 22, 2010 through January 2, 2011.

The New York City Transit Museum has a free train show at its annex, in Grand Central Station. Great to pop into if you are catching MetroNorth to visit Westchester friends or relatives (closed, though on December 25 and January 1). Grand Central also has a holiday fair through December 24, where you can get knit hats, wooden toys and jewelry.