The 7 Essential Things To Do in NYC during Christmas (From a Local)

An awe-inspired soul enchanted with finding magic in the world around her, Jess has always had a passion for documenting travel experiences - domestically around the United States, at Disney Parks, and internationally.
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New York City at Christmastime… there’s truly nothing like it.

The grandeur of glittering Christmas decorations, endless shopping options for the most advanced gift-giver, chilly weather with a hint of snow and plenty of fun things to do, all set the scene for the ultimate holiday experience.

There’s a reason so many quintessential Christmas movies, like Elf or Home Alone 2, choose New York City as their backdrop and it’s because anyone is bound to feel like a “main character” in the City during the holidays.

So, if you’re coming to NYC at Christmas time, here are 7 ways you can lean into that “main character energy” and make the most out of the holidays in this extraordinary city.

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Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center for Christmas, NYC

Rockefeller Center is the most recommended place to visit in New York City during Christmastime and that’s because it’s straight-up spectacular. The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree that anchors the scene is beautiful both day and night.

You may just want to grab a coffee, take a few photos, and enjoy the ambiance. Or maybe you’re a big fan of outdoor Christmas activities and want to glide onto the ice-skating rink.

Either way, you’re going to feel like Buddy the Elf seeing the biggest Christmas tree you’ve probably ever seen right before your eyes. It’s pretty darn magical.

TIP: If you want to ice skate, going earlier in the day pays off as ice skating prices and crowds increase as the day goes on. But if you really want that evening magic with all the lights, going during the Monday night football game is a good way to maneuver around the nighttime crowds!

As we all know, New York City can feel extremely large and crowded. If you prefer taking a walking tour to see these sights, here are a few affordable options you can book to guarantee you see these Christmas sights and learn some fun facts along the way:

The lights on Sak’s Fifth Avenue

Sak's Fifth Avenue in winter

If you’re walking anywhere near Saks Fifth Avenue, you are not going to be able to miss the gigantic light display on the exterior of the building during the holiday season. Approximately every 10 minutes, the lights come to life and dance along to music, making you wonder if you’re getting full-body chills from this twinkling sight or if it’s really just the chilly temperatures.

The Saks Fifth Avenue light and window displays change themes depending on the year. For example, in 2019, the entire display was based on Disney’s Frozen 2 since that was the release year.

If you want to take your Saks Fifth Avenue experience to new heights, you can book a dinner reservation or order a drink at the bar from L’Avenue at Saks, an offshoot of the legendary Paris restaurant on the 9th floor. Request a window table for the best view of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and skating rink while enjoying some fine dining options.

If Christmas lights are truly your jam and you’ve already seen the ones at Saks, check out these extraordinary Christmas light experiences:

Visit holiday markets in Union Square and Bryant Park

Christmas Markets

Although Europe is more well-known for Christmas markets than the United States, New York City’s holiday markets are some of the highest rated things to do during Christmas. They combine all of the goodness of the holiday season in one space so you can have a fully immersive experience.

The Union Square Holiday Market and The Bryant Park Winter Village are two of the best quality holiday markets in the city. Both have food stands from Urbanspace offering visitors a huge variety of options. There are even indoor spaces where you can go inside and warm up while you eat your treats.

Grab a hot chocolate or Christmassy coffee and wander around over 160 shopping stands, featuring many local craftsmen, entrepreneurs, and businesses. You will inevitably be able to knock a few things off of your Christmas shopping list.

One a budget? The Bryant Park Winter Village has the only free admission ice skating rink in the city! Make sure to book a skating time online, bring your own skates (or rent some on-site), and you can enjoy this 17,000 square foot ice skating rink in the middle of Bryant Park.

These markets tend to be less busy on weekdays, so plan accordingly to beat the crowds.

If you would prefer someone to guide you through, check out this Holiday Markets and Lights Walking Tour.

Take a carriage ride through Central Park

Carriage Ride

“Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh…” Horse drawn carriages are always mentioned in Christmas songs, aren’t they? Lean into the romance of the holiday season and take a carriage ride through Manhattan’s Central Park.

You can cozy on up to your loved one or ones and see all of the best sights of the park. Central Park is expansive and has many hidden gems, so this is the perfect way to cover a lot of ground and see it all.

Here are a few  carriage ride options. All tours are private and prices include up to 4 people:

See the Christmas decorations at the Plaza Hotel

Plaza Hotel on Christmas

The Plaza Hotel is beautiful to visit at any time of year, and their Christmas decorations are absolutely worth stopping in to see. The luxurious French Renaissance-inspired architecture that The Plaza is known for is only enhanced with a multitude of Christmas trees and complementing color schemes of Christmas decorations.

Even if you just take a peak in the lobby or perhaps go to the bar for a drink, spending any time at The Plaza can make you feel like you’re in a Christmas movie. No wonder Kevin McAllister had the time of his life there.

Dine at Rolf’s

Rolf's on Christmas

All of this exploring would make anyone hungry! If you’re looking to keep the holiday theme going during your meal hours, then you have to dine at Rolf’s German restaurant. This restaurant is famous for its stunning,  Instagrammable, and permanent Christmas decor. There are ornaments, icicles, and garlands hanging from every inch of the ceiling — you will truly be in a Christmas wonderland any day of the year!

Take note: Rolf’s is quite small and is booked months in advance, especially over the Christmas Eve, so make your reservation the moment your plans are locked in if you want to dine here. Due to its popularity and location, it is quite pricey so just be prepared. If you cannot get a reservation, or just want to see inside, come at an off-peak time for a drink at the bar.

See the Radio City Music Hall Rockette’s Christmas Time Spectacular

Radio City Music Hall

This list would not be complete without mentioning the Radio City Rockettes and their Christmas Spectacular. The Radio City Music Hall has so much history, and the Christmas Spectacular has been a holiday tradition for over 80 years. The Rockettes dazzle their audiences with their precision and class, putting even the grinchiest of Grinches into the holiday spirit.

Outside of seeing the show, another unique experience is taking a tour of the Radio City Music Hall, learning more about the history and the architecture, and meeting a Rockette yourself! Check it out here: New York: Radio City Stage Door Tour Ticket.

So that about wraps up this comprehensive list of must-dos for New York City during the holiday season. Wherever your travels take you, I hope that they are full of magic and enchantment, and that you feel like the star of your very own Christmas movie. 

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

An awe-inspired soul enchanted with finding magic in the world around her, Jess has always had a passion for documenting travel experiences - domestically around the United States, at Disney Parks, and internationally. She is currently living a nomad lifestyle abroad, which is her ultimate dream come true! Her goal is to help people live their best lives by providing travel advice and inspiration for others to align with their true authentic selves.

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