I love visiting New York during winter. When my kids were little, we drove from Philadelphia to see the giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, watch the skaters, enjoy the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, and visit the department store Christmas displays. Now that my kids are older, visiting New York at Christmas is still magical. Lots of the fun is free – and there’s still time to see it.
The winter holiday season in New York is a crowded, neon-lit, magical experience. Best of all, a lot of my family’s favorite things to do in New York during Christmas season are free.
Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center
The towering Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is the essence of New York at Christmas. It stays up until January 9 – so there’s still time for you to see it. Visiting the enormous tree, the giant nutcrackers, and the angel decorations is free. The only price of admission is squeezing your way through the crowd.
Skating Rink in Rockefeller Center
Stopping by Rockefeller Center to watch the skaters is fun for kids of all ages, and it’s free. The skaters are lower than ground level, so it is easy to gather around the rim to look down from the surrounding railing, once you squish into the crowd. While you can skate, it is expensive, the line is long, and the rink is small, so I don’t recommend it with kids. Most skaters are pretty shaky but you might see one or two fancy skaters at the center. Once we even saw a skater propose to his girlfriend in the crowd. The skating rink is open until April 2016.
Saks Light Show
This year, Saks transformed its entire Fifth Avenue streetside wall into a winter light show. The wall is covered in 225,000 lights that change in tune to music, and the whole looks a lot like a tracing of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, located on the next block. You can see the Saks light show every 10 minutes, starting at 4:35 pm, until January 10, 2016.
Like most Manhattan department store windows, the display windows facing the street at Saks are filled with fantastical winter-themes until about January 4. The Saks windows have an icy winter wonderland theme, with world travel sites like the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, and the Australian coral reefs, all rendered in shimmering silver, white, and crystals.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
The Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, just steps from Rockefeller Center, is beautiful anytime of the year. Its dramatic doors, soaring stone arches, and stained glass windows are gorgeous. During the Christmas season, giant wreaths hang near the entrance. A beautiful place to stop anytime you visit New York.
Radio City Music Hall
This theater is the home of the Rockettes, the high-kicking line of dancers who put on a special Christmas show each winter. The show itself is especially fun for kids under 12, but it is a very pricey splurge (and ends January 3). Now that my kids are older, we mostly appreciate Radio City Music Hall for its lights, the fun of people-watching the crowd outside, and the iconic reindeer and giant Christmas ornaments that are displayed across the street.
Who can resist the glitzy charm of the brilliant neon and flashing screens of Times Square? When my daughter was only 3, we took her to Times Square for the first time, and I was worried the sensory overload of lights, crowds, and noise might overwhelm her. I leaned down nervously to find out what she thought, and she looked up beaming: “I want to come here every night,” she said. She’s in college now, and we still enjoy visiting Times Square at night whenever we are in New York.
Year-round, the several blocks of Times Square are lit by giant ads selling everything from clothes to cars to new movies, clogged with visitors from around the world, and surrounded by Broadway theaters, street vendors, restaurants of every kind, and stores selling New York souvenirs and just about everything else. For a good view, climb the red staircase in the center of the square. It’s free.
You can get half-price tickets to Broadway shows on the day of the show, if you wait in line at the TKTS booth in Times Square or their other locations. Generally, matinee tickets are for sale from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. and evening shows from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m.; check the website for details.
Some current Broadway shows my kids have loved:
- The Lion King, which transforms the Disney musical by making magical use of giant puppets.
- Stomp, a percussion-based music and dance show, is fun even for young kids.
- Fiddler on the Roof, the classic musical about Jewish families driven from their homes in rural Russia.
- West Side Story uses some Spanish in updating Romeo and Juliet by setting it in 1950’s New York as a clash between street gangs, one of recent arrivals from Puerto Rico and the other European Americans living in the same neighborhood.
- For older kids, Hamilton, a new hip-hop musical based on the biography of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Book of Mormon, an irreverent musical that we loved but is only suitable if your family is comfortable with South Park, created by the same people.
Do you have a favorite place you return to each winter? Tell us about it in the comments.