13 Festive Things to Do in NYC at Christmas [2021]

Is there anything more magical than New York City at Christmas?

When we visited New York for the holidays, back in 2015, Evelyn was just 6 months old. We’d planned the trip on a bit of a whim, but with a few trips with Evelyn under our belt, we were ready for our first real family vacation.

Turns out, our Christmas trip to NYC far exceeded our expectations! We walked the entire city in 5 days, learning the ins and outs of traveling a big city with a baby in tow. It helps that we lucked out with gorgeous weather and so many festive holiday activities happening!

We got a good primer into NYC at Christmastime, but I can’t wait to go back again with both girls someday – I know they’ll love it too.

Read on for 13 Christmas activities you absolutely must include in your NYC holiday itinerary!

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What to Pack for Christmas in New York City

Visiting New York City at Christmas this year? Be sure to bundle up! New York in December can range from freezing to mild, so it’s best to be prepared with lots of layers.

A few key winter weather essentials we recommend packing:

Winter Coat | You’ll be in your winter coat 99% of the time, so you might as well splurge and make it a nice one! Look for something that’s both comfortable, yet stylish, like this amazingly warm parka with a faux fur hood, or this simple, versatile down jacket.

Merino Wool Base Layer | Having this extra later is a must for visiting NYC at Christmas. This merino wool top and base layer pants are an Amazon favorite, though I’m a fan of this midweight strech top and matching base layer tights. Yes, the base layer is spendy, but you’ll wear it every day and it lasts for years to come.

PS. They make adorable kid-sized base layer sets too!

Lightweight Merino Wool Sweaters | Sure, big chunky sweaters are cute and all, but have you ever tried packing several of them? A simple merino wool sweater will keep you much warmer, plus take up far less space in your suitcase.

Fleece-Lined Tights | If you don’t want to go full wool base layer, at minimum include a pair of fleece-lined tights in your suitcase. They’re also a little dressier than thermal leggings and pair nicely with a sweater dress for fancier occasions.

Waterproof Gloves with Touch Fingers | Let’s be honest, how are you going to Instagram the beauty of Christmas in New York without them? You won’t regret investing in this pair.

Merino Wool Socks | Another must – you’ll want extra warm socks to keep your toes warm all day while out exploring. This set from Amazon is one of the best deals I’ve found.

Winter Boots | Opt for something both warm and waterproof, like these go-with-everything booties or these super warm winter boots.

shop winter travel favorites:

Where to Stay in NYC at Christmastime

New York is an expensive city, and finding a respectable hotel that sleeps 4 for under $250/night is most definitely a challenge. If you want to be right in the middle of the action in Manhattan (which I do suggest), expect to pay a good chunk of your budget on accommodations.

If you’re on a budget, consider these hotels:

“Affordable” Hotels in Manhattan

Freehand New York ($$, Gramercy) | Being in Gramercy puts you central to many of the places you’ll visit in New York City at Christmastime, like the Bryant Park Winter Village, Union Square Holiday Market, and Macy’s flagship store. Freehand’s stylish digs will put you even more at ease, however, Families should prepare to get cozy for the affordable price tag. Rooms that sleep 4 offer side-by-side twin bunks (par for the course in central New York City).

Compare Prices at: Hotels.com | Agoda | Booking.com

Hotel 50 Bowery ($$$, The Bowery) | If you’re looking to stay downtown, Hotel 50 Bowery is your best bet. While it’s the most expensive hotel listed here, it pales in comparison to more expensive hotel options in Soho or Tribeca. Hotel 50 offers an on-site restaurant with daily breakfast (with surcharge), a rooftop bar, and free crib rentals for families.

Compare Prices at: Hotels.com | Agoda | Booking.com

Shelburne Hotel & Suites ($$, Murray Hill) | Located in Murray Hill, the Shelburne is the most affordable on this list for a family of 4, but you’ll find the neighborhood to be lacking some character. That said, you’ll be in walking distance to Midtown’s major attractions, like Rockefeller Center, with quick subway access to wherever else you want to go.

Compare Prices at: Hotels.com | Agoda | Booking.com

Pro Tip: In addition to the nightly rate, most New York City hotels also charge a resort fee, ranging anywhere from $10-50 per night. This most definitely will wreak havoc on your budget if not noticed, so be sure to include this cost when comparing hotel pricing.

Budget-Friendly Alternatives to NYC

If you’re flexible on where you’re staying and willing to travel a bit each day, Jersey City, New Jersey is a great budget alternative to staying in Manhattan. Unlike NYC, Airbnbs are legal in New Jersey, so you’ll have plenty of cheaper options for your stay. Plus, it’s a short ride into Manhattan on the PATH train each day to get right into the action.

SEARCH JERSEY CITY AIRBNBS

The Best Things to Do in NYC at Christmas

Being in New York City in winter is magical enough in itself, but for a truly festive holiday season, there’s a few extra things you’ll most definitely want to include in your New York itinerary.

Here’s 13 things everyone should do in NYC at Christmas:

1 | See the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

There’s no more quintessential place to be in New York City at Christmas than Rockefeller Center. I mean, skating around the giant twinkling Christmas tree? Count me in.

And not only is the Rockefeller Christmas Tree and ice rink beautiful, but the entire plaza is decked out as well! The official Tree Lighting Ceremony will take place on December 1, and information about public access to the lighting will be posted on their website soon!

While you’re there, there are so many fun things to do at Rockefeller Center for kids, like the American Girl doll store, FAO Schwarz, the Today Show filming, and best of all, a trip to the Top of the Rock! On a sunny day, the views from the 70th floor are unparallelled. You can purchase tickets for all Rockefeller Center experiences here.

2021 Visitor Information

Christmas Tree Lighting: December 1 – January 10, 2021; tree lit daily from 6 am – 12 am

Ice Rink Holiday Hours: Starting November 6, 2021; 9 am – 12 am, daily

Top of the Rock Hours: 10 am – 10 pm, daily

2 | Stroll the Decorated Storefronts of 5th Avenue

Along 5th Avenue, prepare to see some of the most lavish Christmas displays you’ve ever seen in your life! The walk from Rockefeller Center to Central Park is particularly filled with some of our favorites from luxury retailers like Saltavtore Ferragamo, Lord & Taylor, Tiffany’s and Harry Winston Jewelers.

And of course, you absoultely can’t miss the impressive window displays at Bergdorf Goodman department store.

I highly recommend you try to avoid this activity on a weekend though, when the sidewalks are absolutely packed and you can hardly move, let alone get a close up look at any of the displays.

Instead, head out on a weekday morning when the streets are much quieter.

2021 Visitor Information

Holiday windows and decorated storefronts are generally on display from late November (around Thanksgiving) to early January (just after the New Year).

3 | Visit Santaland at Macy’s Herald Square

No trip to NYC with kids at Christmas would be complete without a visit to Santa at the Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square!

Lines have gotten so long in recent years that reservations are now required, so be sure to plan ahead! (reservations open starting November 21st*).

When you arrive at the Macy’s store at Herald Square, take the elevators up to the 8th floor and head to the back of the store near the Au Bon Pain. There you’ll find the magical Santaland, where a series of winding paths take you through a glittery North Pole. With each step you get closer and closer to the big man himself, before finally reaching his hut to say hello.

We visited on a quiet weekday first thing in the morning and waited about an hour in total before reaching Santa. With reservations, I’d guess you can anticipate a similar wait (though it doesn’t feel as long when you’re there).

2021 Visitor Information

Santaland Opening Dates: November 26 – December 24, 2021

Santaland Hours: Hours vary by day, but are generally 9 – 11 am to 9 pm

*Reservation time slots open 5 days prior to the selected day.

4 | Shop NYC’s Holiday Markets

There are four main holiday markets in New York City, and there’s a good chance you’ll run into all of them while out and about exploring New York City at Christmastime.

One of the most popular is the Union Square Holiday Market. This market at the southern end of Union Square features an eclectic collection of mostly handmade goods, with everything from jewelry to puzzles, hats, and tasty treats. If you’re visiting with kids, be sure to stop at Evelyn’s Playground at the north end of the park for some more fun afterwards.

Nearby, the Holiday Shops at Bryant Park is perhaps the most popular and quintessential Christmas market in New York City. With over 170 artisanal vendors, it’s also the largest, with vendors spread all throughout the park. (Plus, there’s lots more to do at Bryant Park in winter – more on that below!)

Read Next: A Guide to the Best Vienna Christmas Markets

The Columbus Circle Holiday Market is a bit smaller than Union Square or Bryant Park, but equally as charming. Located on the southwest corner of Central Park, it makes for an ideal stop before exploring the park’s winter activities further. Vendor goods range from jewelry to holiday trinkets and confections, so you’ll likely find a little something for everyone.

Finally, when you’re ready to escape the winter cold, the Grand Central Holiday Fair, held inside Grand Central Terminal, offers a one-of-a-kind shopping experience. Unfortunately, the Grand Central Holiday Fair remains closed this year, but plans to re-open in 2022.

Short on time? Book this NYC holiday markets walking tour to visit all 4 markets at once with the help of a knowledgable guide.

2021 Visitor Information

Union Square Holiday Market: November 18 – December 24, 2021; 11 am – 8 pm (7 pm on Sundays); closed Thanksgiving Day and at 4 pm on Christmas Eve

Bryant Park Holiday Shops: October 29, 2021 – January 2, 2022; Monday – Friday, 11 am – 8 pm, Saturday – Sunday, 10 am – 8 pm

Columbus Circle Holiday Market: November 29 – December 24, 2021; 11 am – 8 pm (7 pm on Sundays); closed at 4 pm on Christmas Eve

Grand Central Holiday Fair: closed for the 2021 season

5 | See the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular

The Radio City Rockettes are a New York institution, and there’s no better time to see them perform than at their Christmas Spectacular! Back for the 2021 season, the exciting 90 minute show takes place multiple times a day from late November to early January.

Want to make your visit extra special? Book the VIP Elite Exprience for pre-show dinner and drinks in the historic Roxy Suite before taking your place at one of the best seats in the house.

2021 Visitor Information

Performance Dates: November 5 – 7, 9, 12 – 14 and 19 – 28; December 2, 2021 – January 2, 2022

Showtimes: varies by day, ranging from 11 am to 8 pm

6 | Tour the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights

If you’re up for venturing outside of Manhattan, head to Dyker Heights in Brooklyn. Since the 1980s, homes in this Brooklyn neighborhood have been decking themselves out for the holidays, with the displays getting bigger and bigger every year! They say it’s become an unspoken competition between the families here.

Nowadays, you can even book a guided tour to make getting to Dyker Heights from Manhattan and seeing all of the best displays even easier! I’d recommend this Dyker Heights Christmas Lights tour, which includes transportation, a guide to take you through the neighborhood, and a stop at Brooklyn Bridge Park for skyline views, ending at Bryant Park Winter Village.

If you plan to do it on your own, it does take a bit of work to get there by subway, but can easily be done. The best home displays are centered in a rather small area, from 11th to 13th Avenue between 83rd to 86th Street. The advantage of a DIY tour is you can take your time and go at your own pace (perhaps bring your own hot chocolate in a travel mug for an extra festive experience).

There are a few different ways to get to the Dyker Heights holiday lights by subway, but the closest stops are 86th Street (with the R train) or 79th Street (with the D train). Expect to walk 15-20 minutes from the subway to the lights. Keep in mind that most homeowners turn their lights of a 9 PM, so you’ll want to arrive at dusk to allow plenty of time to see them all.

2021 Visitor Information

The Dyker Heights Christmas Lights are typically on display from the weekend after Thanksgiving (November 26, 2021) to Little Christmas (January 6th, 2022). Most homeowners keep their lights on from dusk (5 – 6 pm) to 9 pm.

7 | Visit Bryant Park Winter Village

I mentioned the Holiday Shops at Bryant Park above, but there’s so much more to do at the Bryant Park Winter Village than just the market!

At the center of the holiday market is The Rink and Skating Pavilion – another favorite place in NYC to put on your ice skates and go for a spin. This 17,000 square foot rink is absolutely free (though you’ll have to pay for rental skates or storage if you need it). Reservations are required as well, whether bringing your own skates or not, and open up 2 weeks in advance. Free pop-up skating shows also take place often (check the Ice Theater of New York’s pop-up schedule for times).

Other festive Christmas activities at Bryant Park include the Curling Cafe and Bar (reservations include a heated dining dome, food and drink, and a dedicated curling lane for 90 minutes of play) as well as the Cozy Igloo Domes that can be reserved in 2 hour increments. Or more warm comfort food and festive drinks can be found at The Lodge next door.

2021 Visitor Information

Bryant Park Holiday Shops: October 29, 2021 – January 2, 2022; Monday – Friday, 11 am – 8 pm, Saturday – Sunday, 10 am – 8 pm

The Rink Holiday Hours: November 19 – December 2, Monday – Thursday 8 am – 10 pm, Friday – Sunday 8 am – 11:30 pm; Thanksgiving Day and December 27 – January 2, 8 am – 11:30 pm

*Skate reservations open 2 weeks in advance of the selected date.

Curling Cafe and Cozy Igloos: Reservations available through December 31, 11 am – 9 pm

8 | Enjoy the Saks Fifth Avenue Light Show

On Tuesday, November 23rd, Saks Fifth Avenue’s Christmas Lights will be unveiled – the most extravagant display you’ll find in all of Manhattan!

But Saks takes it one step further with their amazing light show! The magical display set to music takes place every 10 minutes and runs just under 5 minutes long. (check out this video to get a peek at last year’s show).

2021 Visitor Information

Light Show Hours: Starting November 23, 2021; 4:35-11:35 PM daily with shows every 10 minutes

9 | Sip Hot Chocolate at Max Brenner

With all that chilly walking you’ve been doing, take a break and cozy up at Max Brenner. This Manhattan chocolatier offers an expansive holiday menu of winter desserts and cocktails, in addition to their usual indulgent treats. They also serve 9, yes 9!, different varieties of hot chocolate, so there’s something to please every tastebud!

And if you’re just looking for a tasty meal, the restaurant serves traditional American food and drink as well.

Located just south of Union Square, it’s an ideal add-on to your holiday itinerary. Reservations are recommended, but not required, during the busy holiday season.

2021 Visitor Information

Restaurant Hours: Monday – Wednesday 10 am – 11 pm; Thursday 12 pm – 12 am; Friday 11 am – 12 am; Saturday 10 am – 12 am; Sunday 10 am – 11 pm

10 | Experience Winter in Central Park

A picture-perfect ice skating rink, snow covered bridges, and carriage rides through the park. There’s nothing quite as enchanting as Central Park during the holidays!

Of course you already know about the Columbus Circle Holiday Market, which should be your first stop before entering the park. If the weather allows, let the kids explore one of Central Park’s many amazing playgrounds, like Heckscher, Adventure, or Billy Johnson Playground.

Then head over to the newly reopened Wollman Rink. From October to April, visitors can skate under the city skyline for a truly New York experience. Make a pit stop at the Wollman Cafe for their signature hot chocolate and grab-and-go snacks.

Read Next: 9 Free (or Cheap) Things to Do in NYC

For a full introduction to the park, and for those with more time, consider embarking on this self-guided audio tour of the park’s south end and most beloved landmarks.

Or, take a carriage ride through the park! I realize carriage rides can be controversial, so it’s important to research companies ahead of time to make sure they are reputable. NYC Horse Carriage Rides is one such company that is family-owned and operated and shares a commitment to good working conditions for their horses. Reservations are required, and you can pre-book your carriage ride here.

2021 Visitor Information

Columbus Circle Holiday Market: November 29 – December 24, 2021; 11 am – 8 pm (7 pm on Sundays); closed at 4 pm on Christmas Eve

Wollman Rink: Monday – Tuesday 10 am – 2:30 pm; Wednesday – Thursday 10 am – 10 pm; Friday – Saturday 10 am – 11 pm; Sunday 10 am – 9 pm

Central Park Holiday Tour Carriage Rides: November 15, 2021 – January 9, 2022; 8 am – 11:30 pm daily

11 | Go Toy Shopping at FAO Schwarz

After a brief time away, the iconic FAO Schwarz (and oldest toy store in the United States) reopened at 30 Rockefeller Center, with its famous walking piano, toy soldiers and all!

The new 20,000 square foot store features specialized experiences (like ‘Barbie Styled by You’ or the ‘Elmo Monster Factory’) as well as tons of opportunities for hands-on play in a place that’s simply like no other. Or better yet, book a VIP private shopping experience and store tour, led by a real toy soldier!

The only trouble you’ll have is getting your kids out of the store without breaking your wallet.

2021 Visitor Information

Store Hours: 11 am – 8 pm, daily

12 | Indulge at The Lavaux Swiss Wine & Fondue Bar

Nestled on a cozy street in the West Village, The Lavaux offers a selection of some of the finest charcuteries, cheeses, and fondue pairings in the most quaint of settings.

And if you are so lucky, snag a reservation in the gondola. Yes, The Lavaux has brought a real life gondola into thier restaurant to give you a truly Swiss experience while you enjoy your dinner.

PS. Reservations for the gondola table book up 2 months in advance, so this is one experience you won’t be able to enjoy on a whim – be sure to plan ahead!

2021 Visitor Information

Restaurant Hours: Monday – Thursday 4 pm – 11 pm; Friday – Sunday 12 pm – 11 pm

13 | Attend The Nutcracker Ballet

The New York City Ballet returns this year to the David H. Koch theater for its spectacular performance of The Nutcracker. One of the most famous ballet shows in the world, the production of The Nutcracker brings together over 300 performers to put on the elaborate show that dazzles children and adults alike.

Book your tickets online for this one-in-a-lifetime experience.

2021 Visitor Information

Performance Dates: November 26, 2021 – January 2, 2022

Showtimes: varies by day, ranging from 1 pm to 8 pm

Have you been to NYC at Christmastime? Share your favorite experiences in the comments!

xo laura

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