15 Christmas things to do in New York City

The definitive guide to enjoying the city at the most magical time of the year

Isabel Catalán

Isabel Catalán

16 min read

15 Christmas things to do in New York City

Rockefeller Center at Christmas | ©Hellotickets

Christmas is one of the most magical times to be in New York. The city is filled with Christmas trees, lights, carolers, decorated avenues and shops... It's definitely the time to travel to New York. As Andy Williams said in his popular song: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

1. Visit the Christmas lights in Dyker Heights

Typical Dyker Heights home decorations at Christmastime| ©Hellotickets
Typical Dyker Heights home decorations at Christmastime| ©Hellotickets

The neighbourhood of Dyker Heights has become a must-visit New York City Christmas destination with its Christmas lights and decorations installed by the locals themselves. This Brooklyn neighbourhood would be nothing special were it not for its residents who transform it into a place that looks like something out of an American movie.

Some choose discreet and sophisticated lights to decorate their houses, while others go overboard and decorate them with all kinds of garlands, balls and figures. A real neighbourhood competition that began in the 1980s and has become such an event that some families even pay professional decorators to come up with a different design every year.

It's so popular that there's even a guided tour of Dyker Heights at Christmas time to get to know the smallest details of the neighbourhood! I recommend it because it's quite a spectacle and it's great fun to see an American-themed neighbourhood for Christmas.

Practical info

  • When: Although there are neighbours who turn on the lights at the end of November, it's usually done in December until the end of the year.
  • Where: In the Dyker Heights neighbourhood of Brooklyn.
  • How to get there: As a residential area there is no underground station but you can take the R line and get off at 86 Street station in the Bay Ridge neighbourhood. It's a 15-minute walk from the neighbourhood.
  • Which are the most spectacular: The ones between 10th and 12th Avenues and 83rd and 86th Streets.

Book the Brooklyn Christmas Tour

2. See the Radio City Christmas Spectacular

The Rockettes' Christmas Show| ©Billboard
The Rockettes' Christmas Show| ©Billboard

During a trip to New York at Christmas time you must make time in your schedule to attend the legendary Radio City Christmas Spectacular, a magical Christmas show that first premiered in 1933 and has become a true tradition at this time of year.

It really is as spectacular as the name says it is! A show of music, dance, humour and lights like the ones of yesteryear, starring the fantastic The Rockettes that will make you relive Christmas with the illusion of a child. A classic!

Whenever I have the chance to go to New York at Christmas I don't miss it because the show changes every year and it's a real surprise. If you're travelling to the city with your family, I highly recommend it because the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is suitable for all ages and even the little ones will have a blast. You might even get the itch to spend a holiday among the theatres with this show - during Christmas, magic invades Broadway!

How to buy tickets?

Whether it's for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular: or any other Broadway musical, it's best to buy your tickets online as early as possible because the theatres fill up and the box offices quickly hang the sold out sign for Christmas.

Moreover, by booking online you can choose the place you like and in some cases the prices are cheaper than at the theatres' box offices. Don't hesitate, buying your tickets online is easy, safe and fast.

Book your tickets for Radio City Christmas

3. Enjoy also at Christmas time the NBA, the best league in the world.

The Knicks at Madison Square Garden| ©Carmen Navarro
The Knicks at Madison Square Garden| ©Carmen Navarro

Seeing an NBA game in person is a must-do experience for every traveller to New York, especially if you get your tickets from Santa Claus for Christmas! Even if you don't like sports or the NBA, attending a basketball game in the USA is a real spectacle where the party, the music, the good vibes and, above all, the sport reign.

New York is home to two NBA teams: the New York Knicks (who play at the legendary Madison Square Garden in Manhattan) and the Brooklyn Nets (whose home is the modern Barclays Center in Brooklyn).

How to buy NBA tickets

The demand to go to an NBA game is extremely high so it is normal for tickets to sell out quickly. The NBA regular season starts at the end of October and ends at the end of April, so if you want to attend a game, my advice is to buy tickets online as far in advance as possible. Also, by booking online you will be able to choose the place you like the most.

I recommend you to read the post NBA tickets in New York: how to buy and prices because there you will find a guide that will help you to get the most out of the experience. So grab your hot dog and your cap and get ready to catch some of the jerseys thrown by the cheerleaders - with any luck you might even get on the legendary "kiss-cam" at the stadium!

Buy NBA tickets

4. Don't miss the Rockefeller Center lights-up ceremony!

Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting Ceremony| ©Lafactoriadelshow
Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting Ceremony| ©Lafactoriadelshow

Every year New York inaugurates Christmas with the lighting of the huge Rockefeller Center tree. A tradition that dates back to the 1930s, when workers building the skyscraper put up another fir tree to commemorate the holidays.

The Rockefeller tree is one of the top 11 Christmas trees in New York. It is always lit on the Wednesday of the week following Thanksgiving and as the date of Thanksgiving changes annually, so does the lighting ceremony.

What is the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony like?

It is known as the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting and follows a two-hour event in which several musical stars dance and sing Christmas carols for the crowds gathered in Rockefeller Plaza.

Rockefeller Center at Christmas is a spectacle and attending the tree lighting has become a holiday tradition. The surrounding area is packed with people, so if you want to see it, my advice is to get there a few hours early to get a good spot. Be sure to wrap up warm because winter in the city is freezing and waiting for so long can freeze you like a snowman.

The show culminates with the lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree at around 10pm and the tree will remain lit from dusk to midnight until early January. Because it's the big day of the holidays, December 25 is lit all day.

Buy tickets for the Top of the Rock

5. Go ice skating

Central Park Ice Rink| ©FJKFJK / Flickr.com
Central Park Ice Rink| ©FJKFJK / Flickr.com

In Central Park

Wollman Rink is the public ice rink that opens every winter in the southeast corner of Central Park to the delight of New Yorkers and tourists alike. Personally, I think the feeling of skating at this spot in the city, with Central Park to one side and the views of the legendary skyscrapers in the background, is simply unbeatable.

If you feel like taking advantage of your visit to the area to get your skates on, I recommend you check the Wollman Rink website to make sure of the opening hours. I've also put together a handy guide to 17 things to do in Central Park I've also put together a handy guide on how to organise your visit to the park and make the most of your time there - don't let the cold weather get you down!

  • Where: Between 59th and Sixth Avenue in Central Park.
  • When: Usually open from late November to March or even April.
  • Price: Between $12 and $19, depending on the day of the week (skate rental, if you need it, is extra).

At Bryant Park

From late October to early January you can skate at Bryant Park, which becomes the Bank of America Winter Village for a few weeks.

Bryant Park is home to The Rink, a large, free ice skating rink, as well as an iconic Christmas market filled with souvenirs, decorative items and gourmet treats - how can you resist the 'Ice Bites' hot chocolate? It's delicious!

  • Where: 42nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
  • When: The ice rink is open from late October to early March from 8AM to 10PM / The flea market from Monday to Friday from 11AM to 8PM and weekends from 10AM to 8PM.
  • Price: Free admission (you will have to pay to rent skates if you don't bring your own).

At Rockefeller Plaza

Of all the options in New York, this may be one of the most typical, but it's not my personal favourite. The rink itself is very small and the long queues to get there can get a bit tiresome.

  • Where: 45 Rockefeller Plaza.
  • When: Normally open from late November to March.
  • Price: $25-$35, depending on the season (skate rental, if you need it, is extra).

Book a horse-drawn carriage tour of Central Park and Rockefeller

6. Hop on the Botanical Garden Christmas train

The Botanical Garden Christmas Train| ©Nyc Arts
The Botanical Garden Christmas Train| ©Nyc Arts

And I mean that metaphorically speaking, as it's actually a magnificent toy train show that has become a Christmas tradition and pays homage to New York City by displaying scale models of some of its tourist attractions such as the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building or the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the Botanical Gardens.

But what makes the Holiday Train Show special? Not only its beautiful location surrounded by nature in the Enid A. Haupt Greenhouse, but also the unique setting of this model of New York, which is made from 100% natural materials.

This tradition was started by its creator Paul Busse in the 1990s and every year a team of more than a dozen people, including gardeners, architects, electricians and engineers, work together to create this amazing model, in which small toy trains run. A very endearing experience and absolutely recommendable to go with the kids. Given that the Holiday Train Show is very popular, I recommend you book your ticket in advance on the official website.

Practical information

  • Where: New York Botanical Garden at 2900 Southern Blvd, Bronx.
  • When: Mid-November to mid-January.
  • Hours: The Botanical Garden is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10AM to 6PM. Mondays closed.

Reserve your ticket to the New York Botanical Garden

7. Go to the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg Winter Market

Typical Christmas Market Shopping| ©Hellotickets
Typical Christmas Market Shopping| ©Hellotickets

Who doesn't love Christmas markets? New York is dazzling with lights and decorations, but the flea markets are decked out in a very special way. This one in particular combines a vintage flea market (where you can find real treasures) with a food hall (where you can sample creative offerings that will test your taste buds) and cultural events.

Although the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg Winter Market is not limited to the Christmas season, it's worth exploring one of Brooklyn's most diverse and active markets. It's perfect for those frosty days in the city and a good time spent shopping among the quirky stalls browsing for antiques or grabbing a sweet treat from the food stalls.

During the winter you'll find it at 25 Kent Avenue, on the eighth floor of a building with stunning views of the Manhattan skyline. Right between the two trendy neighbourhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

Practical info

  • Where: 25 Kent Avenue - 8th Floor, Brooklyn. Right between the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighbourhoods.
  • How to get there: Take the grey L underground line and get off at Bedford Ave. Then walk down Kent Ave for a few minutes and you will arrive at the flea market.
  • When: Every weekend from 10AM to 6PM.

Book a tour of Williamsburg in Brooklyn

8. Visit the iconic department store and Christmas window displays

Christmas window displays in New York City| ©Hellotickets
Christmas window displays in New York City| ©Hellotickets

For decades, New York's department stores have been decorating their windows with Christmas motifs to coincide with the holiday season. And in recent years it has gone even further: professional window dressers and decorators have been doing their best to impress us with their increasingly creative and imaginative displays.

At Macy's during the Christmas season, you can walk through the North Pole without leaving the department store. Don't you believe it? Well, it's true, at this time of year Macy's recreates a village known as Santaland, where children can meet Father Christmas himself. It's free, but you have to book an appointment.

To tell you the truth, all the shops in New York are decked out for the Christmas spirit, so if you like Christmas shopping, my advice is to prepare a Christmas window shopping tour with a stop at Tiffany & Co, Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman or Saks Fith Ave, among others. You'll be amazed!

Book a shopping tour of New York

9. Discover the Holiday Lights Festival at the Bronx Zoo

Holiday Light| ©Andy Eick
Holiday Light| ©Andy Eick

If there's one thing we love to see during the holiday season, it's the beautiful lights that decorate every corner of the city. And the Bronx Zoo has one of the best holiday light festivals around. It's the Holiday Lights Festival, a fun outdoor event for the whole family that runs from 19 November to 9 January.

The entire zoo is decorated with hundreds of huge lanterns and lanterns in the shape of the plants and animals that live in the park to create an amazing spectacle of colour, light and music to brighten up the winter nights. But during the Holiday Lights Festival you can also attend other events such as ice carving championships and demonstrations (at Grizzly Corner), puppet theatre (at Dancing Crane Pavilion), animal costumes (at Somba Village) or ride the Christmas train through the zoo (at Astor Court).

Don't miss the Bronx Zoo's Holiday Lights Festival post to find out what you can see during your visit and how to get your tickets.

Book your ticket for the Bronx Zoo

10. Start the year with a splash on the beaches of Coney Island!

Coney Island| ©aloucha
Coney Island| ©aloucha

If you're one of those travellers who aren't afraid of the cold, taking a dip in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean is definitely one of the city's traditions that you must observe. Every January 1st, New Yorkers flock to the beaches of Coney Island (in Brooklyn, near the famous amusement park) to take part in the event organised by the Coney Island Polar Bear Club and welcome in the New Year in this unique and chilly way.

If you've partied hard the day before, this is definitely a good way to wake up. In the months of December and January, the average water temperature is around 9ºC, although on some occasions it can be even lower and slightly above 0ºC. But, who said fear? But who said fear, the best thing to do is not to think about it too much and jump straight into the water! Some people do it in swimming trunks and others choose to go in costume, but everyone goes in at the same time following the event coordinator dressed as a polar bear.

This will be one of the funniest anecdotes you'll take away from your stay in New York over Christmas, so don't miss out!

How to participate?

Registration to participate in this activity is free but you can also make a donation to help the organisers with various charitable causes.

Book a Boroughs and Coney Island Tour from Manhattan

11. Marvel at the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree and decorations

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree| ©Hellotickets
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree| ©Hellotickets

Once the lights are turned on, you won't get tired of strolling around Rockefeller Center, where Christmas will amaze you with its five senses.

The only downside is that, no matter what time you go, there will always be tourists and New Yorkers crowding Rockefeller Center at Christmas time. It's super popular and you'll find many people who have gone there to take pictures of the decorations, or Christmas shopping in the area, or because they want to skate on the legendary ice rink (but I'll tell you about that later!).

12. Experience an unforgettable New Year's Eve in Times Square

Times Square| ©Hellotickets
Times Square| ©Hellotickets

I'm sure you've seen on TV countless times how New Yorkers celebrate New Year's Eve in Times Square: the falling ball to mark the end of the year, the confetti explosion that follows at midnight, the jubilation of the crowd and the always fascinating fireworks. Do you remember? Yes, welcoming in the New Year in Times Square is definitely one of the best things to do at Christmas in New York.

The pre-party on the evening of the 31st

But celebrating New Year's Eve in Times Square is not just about getting there a little before midnight to wait for the ball to drop. As you know, it's a huge party, and getting a good spot in Times Square is very popular. For this reason, some people arrive at the famous square in the morning on 31 December and stay there until the big moment known as the New Year's Eve Ball Drop.

However, the vast majority are usually there before 6pm, when the famous Swarovski balloon prepares to fulfil its important New Year's Eve mission and the concerts and performances begin to entertain the public until the big moment.

Its twelve chimes

At 11:59pm everyone gathers for the countdown, the globe descends from the top of the One Times Square building for 60 seconds and when it reaches the end, confetti bursts into the air, colouring the entire square and the joy of those present explodes. The music starts to play and the sky lights up with fireworks because... It's New Year's Eve!

Tips for watching New Year's Eve in Times Square

  • As the New Year's Eve Ball Drop ceremony is free, it also becomes massive. To make sure you'll see the ball drop, many people usually start taking up positions early in the afternoon.
  • As people congregate in Times Square, the streets are closed to traffic and no one is allowed to enter.
  • The night is enlivened by concerts and performances. You can check out the programme of the event on the official website. If you want to see it, you'll have to get there very early to get a seat, and once you're there, you won't be able to leave the area without risking missing it.
  • The downside of this is that you will spend a lot of time on your feet and there are no food stalls or toilets around so it's best to bring some food and not drink too many liquids.
  • And of course, be as warm as possible! You'll have to wait many hours outdoors until the New Year's Eve Ball Drop ceremony begins and winter in New York is almost as cold as the North Pole.

Practical information

  • Where: 42nd Street, at the intersection of 7th Avenue and Broadway.
  • How to get there: By underground, Times Square station on lines 1, 2, 3, 3, 7, N, Q, R and W.

13. Join thousands of Father Christmas at "SantaCon"

Image from the last SantaCon| ©Carmen Navarro
Image from the last SantaCon| ©Carmen Navarro

SantaCon is a "Father Christmas" convention held in Times Square to kick off the holiday season.

It's usually held on the Saturday before Christmas Eve and if you head to Times Square at 10am, you'll find thousands of people in Santa costumes ready to have a great time at this Santa Convention, going from pub to pub to celebrate the holidays with their friends.

I didn't know what it was until I found myself in the middle of it a year ago and since then, I highly recommend it. I've never seen anything like it! So get in a good mood, put on a nice Christmas hat and go out in the street with a great desire to have a good time. If you're going with kids or friends, you'll enjoy SantaCon even more.

14. Combat the New York cold with a delicious hot chocolate

Hot Chocolate| ©Erick Houli
Hot Chocolate| ©Erick Houli

It gets cold during Christmas in New York. Very cold. So the best way to warm up and still enjoy the city at this magical time of year is with a delicious hot chocolate.

If you're an inveterate chocoholic, you're sure to feel like you're in seventh heaven in places as fabulous as..:

  • Serendipity III: A café that Andy Warhol used to frequent to exhibit some of his works and where today you can taste the Frozen Hot Chocolate, the house speciality. It is on the Upper East Side, near the Roosevelt Island cable car.
  • The Chocolate Room: Located in Brooklyn, this café is entirely dedicated to chocolate. I recommend ordering the classic hot chocolate with a spicy twist and accompanying it with a slice of cake.
  • Little Spain Market: If you fancy trying a cup of Spanish-style chocolate (a little thicker than the rest) along with some delicious churros, I recommend you go to this market located in the trendy Hudson Yards neighbourhood.
  • Cocoa Bar: This East Village café serves a delicious cinnamon hot chocolate, but if you're looking for something original, the chocolate cocktails are sensational. The 'chocolatini' and the 'french hot chocolate' are both delish.

15. Go caroling in Washington Square

Washington Square| ©Kevin Bedell
Washington Square| ©Kevin Bedell

If you're lucky enough to spend Christmas Eve in New York, one of the most intimate Christmas plans you can't miss is singing Christmas carols by the famous Washington Square Arch.

The night of December 24th is one of the most special days of the holiday season. Hundreds of people gather there to sing some of the most popular carols such as 'Jingle Bells', 'Let it snow!, Let it snow!, Let it snow!, Let it snow!', 'Silent Night' or 'White Christmas', among many others.

If you don't know the words to the carols, don't worry, because the organisers provide songbooks for anyone who needs them. Just remember to bring your Christmas spirit, your best Santa hat and... let's sing!