Best things to do in New York at Christmas - Times Travel (2023)

Hear those sleigh bells jingling? A ring-ting tingling too? Sure, it’s probably a cab driver leaning on the horn because you’re crossing the street too slowly, but there’s no more magical time of the year to be in the city. ‘Tis the season to wander through a wonderland of lights, avoid the Salvation Army Santas on every corner and bundle up as you peer into the bedecked Christmas windows. And you can’t help but get into the festive spirit when you catch the scent of honey-roasted nuts wafting down the sidewalks or gaze up at the famous tree at Rockefeller Center. New York really knows how to put on a show at this time of year, and if you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, there’s always a chance for a December snowfall. Watching the flakes swirl down from a high floor is a holiday mood all of its own.

Main photo: the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree (Alamy)

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1. Join the crowds at Rockefeller Center

All roads lead to the tree — the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree that is. Every year, a Norway spruce is selected from somewhere in the US and brought to midtown Manhattan for the tree-lighting ceremony. Decorated with 50,000 coloured lights, the evergreen is topped with a nine-foot Swarovski crystal star that was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind and is made up of three million crystals. The tree stands tall above the ice rink, heralded by the 12 spangled Clarebout angels, which debuted in 1955, in the Channel Gardens that lead down to the tree from Fifth Avenue. Some of the best views are from the ice rink — or just pick up a hot chocolate from a holiday stall and find your spot.

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2. Walk by the windows on Fifth Avenue

The tree and the crowds at Rockefeller Center are a great jumping-off point to look at the windows of the department stores and luxury shops on Fifth Avenue. Saks Fifth Avenue puts on the biggest light show, a veritable son-et-lumière spectacle across its block-long facade. Then head uptown to see the sparklers in Cartier, Harry Winston and Tiffany windows; and the snowflake that hangs suspended across the intersection of 57th Street and Fifth Ave. Carry on to Bergdorf Goodman, whose famously avant-garde decorations and design make a splash every year.

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3. Go ice skating at Wollman Rink

At the southern end of Central Park, Wollman Rink has great views across the park and up — way, way up — of the new super towers marching across 57th Street and of old friends like the Plaza Hotel. It’s easy to rent skates and glide around the ice (depending on your skill level, of course), part of a tradition of skating in the park that goes back to the mid-19th century. The rink was updated and upgraded in 2021 and has a renovated clubhouse, smart lockers and a gift shop.

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4 See The Nutcracker

If a performance of this classic ballet at Lincoln Center, New York’s premier cultural hub, can’t raise the holiday spirit, then nothing will. The music by Tchaikovsky, the classic choreography by George Balanchine, the glittering costumes, the falling crystalline snowflakes, the talented young dancers from the School of American Ballet, Herr Drosselmeier swirling his black cloak to reveal the shiny soldier Nutcracker, and of course, the magical Christmas tree that grows to a height of 12.5m (41ft) on stage: it’s simply a sheer delight whether it’s your first performance or your 50th. Be sure to book your tickets early.

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5. Enjoy Lightscape at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

One of the best light displays in the city can be found in Brooklyn at the new Lightscape at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Imagine cellophane flowers towering over your head, dazzling lights curving around trees in greens, pinks, and blues, an illuminated “winter cathedral”, graceful light sculptures mirrored in the black reflecting ponds and, at the end, a field of tiny lights, pulsing in colours across the lawn to rousing music — all site-specific works designed for each location. Along the way stop to read the lines from poets projected on the walks, and stay warm with a mug of hot apple cider or mulled wine.

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6 Kick it up with the Rockettes

It might be the most viewed of all the Christmas shows, but watching the kickline of the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall is still a thrilling New York tradition for a reason. The Rockettes have been performing here since 1932 and a version of the Spectacular has been performed since 1933. The venue seats over 6,000 people, and on weekends the Rockettes give up to five performances a day. Settle back and enjoy as they tap-dance, high-kick and salute their way across the stage as toy soldiers and dancing Santas — and feel the spirit of Christmas.

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7. Shop at the Union Square Holiday Market

If you’re looking for a unique souvenir or gift to bring home, the Christmas market in Union Square is the best place to shop during the holidays. The largest holiday market in the city, it has more than 160 vendors ringing the square, the booths set up in concentric curves, selling handicrafts, artisan goods, decorative objects and ornaments, and other one-of-a-kind items made by local artists and craftspeople. Open until late every day until Christmas Eve, except for Thanksgiving Day.

8. See a puppet show in Central Park

The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre in Central Park is a superb example of 19th-century Swedish craftsmanship. The wooden house was built in 1876 for the first World’s Fair in the US held in Philadelphia. It’s a mystery how or why it was brought to the park, but over the years it has been used as a tool house and headquarters for civil defence during the Second World War. Today it’s home to the NYC Parks’ Marionette Theatre, whose performance of Wake Up, Daisy, a modern take on Sleeping Beauty, runs through December.

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9. Celebrate at Bryant Park’s Winter Village

Just a block east of Times Square, Bryant Park is an oasis in the middle of Midtown, sitting behind New York’s grand main Public Library between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. From late October to early March, the park is transformed into a winter wonderland with festive lights, decorations, and 125 gift stalls selling everything from jewellery to toys. The great lawn turns into a 1,600 sq m ice rink and The Lodge pop-up houses food vendors, restaurants and bars, the perfect spot for a rinkside cocktail or hot chocolate with extra marshmallows, of course.

10. Sip a cocktail at Bemelmans Bar

Looking for a sophisticated Manhattan evening? Head to the Carlyle Hotel’s Bemelmans Bar and sip an ice cold martini Old Fashioned under the Madeline murals. The painted lampshades on the tables glow with a warm amber light (which seems even warmer after a couple of those Old Fashioneds). The dress code requires collared shirts for men after 5.30pm. That’s also when the live piano starts, so expect to pay an extra cover charge per person.

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11. Dine at Rolf’s German Restaurant

It truly is Christmas every day at Rolf’s near Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, which seems to have been decorated by a manic elf who’s escaped from the North Pole and hung every ornament, every sparkly icicle, every fairy light and every inch of tinsel in the city from the ceiling. It’s so far beyond over the top, it has come round the other side, to acceptable, adorable kitsch. But the holiday season is really the only time to dine there on sausages, sauerbraten and schnitzel, washed down with steins of beer.

12. Wow the kids at American Girl and FAO Schwarz

The American Girl doll phenomenon is real and millions of American girls own one. The flagship store off Fifth Avenue in Rockefeller Center also houses a spa (for the dolls and their owners) and a café, but it’s the dozens of tableaux of the many different dolls in their miniature house or school or stables that really charms. Just two blocks over, FAO Schwarz is the top toy store in the city, with its famous giant walk-on piano keyboard, where you can make your own stuffie at the Build a Bear station or design a remote-control race car.

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13. Ride on Jane’s Carousel

The 100-year-old Jane’s Carousel, 48 carved and gaily painted horses, has been painstakingly restored and given pride of place between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges in Brooklyn Bridge Park. For just $2 a ride, you’ll get sweeping views of Manhattan and East River from architect Jean Nouvel’s glass box, designed specially to house the carousel. Next door is Time Out Market food hall, which has over 20 vendors serving everything from tacos to Nashville hot chicken to samosas — the perfect spot for lunch after a rousing ride.

14. Take a coach tour of Dyker Heights

Travel deep into Brooklyn to the Dyker Heights neighbourhood — every year the homeowners put up the biggest, grandest, most over-the-top Christmas decorations in the city. The driving philosophy here is definitely “more is more”. The large houses and front gardens are decorated with thousands of Christmas lights, three-storey high Nutcracker soldiers, rows of glowing candy canes, blow-up Santas, snowmen on the lawns, angels on the roofs — in short, anything that lights up and says “Merry Christmas”. Join the throngs of New Yorkers who bring their kids to see the dazzling displays and gawk at the holiday excess.

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15. See the Holiday Train Show

The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx is a wonderful feat of imagination and engineering. Over 190 New York landmarks — the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Coney Island — are constructed from bark and berries, leaves and petals, pine cones, even cinnamon sticks, making an enchanting city in miniature. Running on half a mile of track through this fantastical landscape are 25 model trains, steam engines, and trolleys, all painted in exquisite detail.

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Where is the best place to go in Christmas in NYC? ›

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Nothing says New York City in December more than the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. This is a famous yearly tradition in the Big Apple, and both tourists and locals flock to the tree lighting ceremony, which can take place in early December or late November.

Is it worth visiting NYC at Christmas? ›

It's MAGICAL. That's what New York is like during Christmas. It's like everybody's dream place. The streets may be busy but around you, your eyes will be filled with nothing but amazing sights of lights, displays, and performances.

What should I wear in New York in December? ›

If you're traveling to New York City in December, dress in warm layers for the cold weather. Wear jeans, a sweater or hoodie over a light base layer, a winter hat such as a beanie, a winter coat, and comfortable, warm walking shoes like high-top sneakers or boots.

What date does the Rockefeller tree go up 2022? ›

The 2022 Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, an 82-foot Norway Spruce from the New York town of Queensbury, will be lit Nov. 30 in a live broadcast on NBC.


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