Christmas in New York City is simply wonderful. The chill in the air is just enough for red noses. The city streets are decked out in shimmering lights and dazzling displays of ornaments, snowflakes, and tinsel. Not a trimming is missed. Even as a longtime local, Christmas in New York City still stirs my holiday spirit upon first seeing the season’s decorations. If you’ve dreamed of visiting during the holidays, this guide has all you need to know for a successful trip. After all, Christmas in New York City is a special time and your visit should always hold a special place in your memory.
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What to Know about Christmas in New York City
New York is magical during the Christmas holiday season. It’s on many travelers’ bucket lists with good reason. In order to have a successful trip, though, you need to be in the right mindset. For this reason, you should bring your best holiday cheer, as well as a dose of reality about what to expect.
- From Thanksgiving to New Years’, New York City is extremely crowded, especially the areas in and around Times’ Square and Rockefeller Center. Even if you’ve done crowds in other cities, channel your inner farm animal and be ready to move in a herd.
- Give yourself more time for everything. With so many people, everything takes longer. Whenever possible, go underground and travel by subway. Avoid taking a taxi at all, if you can, but especially in the area of midtown. Expect traffic gridlock.
- Do you have a special New York City restaurant you hope to visit? Whether you want to eat and drink at holiday favorites like Rolf’s or Serendipity 3 or any of New York City’s delicious restaurants, reservations are key. If the establishment doesn’t accept them and you still want to go, be prepared to wait, possibly for hours.
- New York City is expensive all the time, but during the holiday season, prices for hotels and other activities go up. Save money by bundling your expenses with a New York CityPass to visit famous NYC landmarks like the Empire State Building or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Search Groupon for NYC things to do. New York City hotels are pricey. You may want to consider hotels in Brooklyn or look for an Airbnb.
- If you’re hoping to take photos without the crowds, go early (crack of dawn early) in the morning or bring something to elevate your camera, like a selfie stick.
What to Pack for Christmas in New York City
Be prepared if you’re coming to New York City for the Christmas holiday season, especially if you’re not used to spending stretches of time outside in colder temperatures. Your light jacket might be perfect for walking from your house to your car and then from your car to someplace warm. But trust me, the icy winds that funnel through NYC will shred that jacket faster than you can run for cover.
I’ve have seen countless tourists walking through Times’ Square or Rockefeller Center completely ill-equipped for the elements and clearly not enjoying themselves the way they should. Most New Yorkers have gear. We know which boots to wear in order to jump over icy, slushy puddles and not fall onto the pavement. We seamlessly switch out coats and layers for 30-degree temperature differences from one day to the next.
Here are a few NYC December weather and packing tips to keep in mind.
- Check and recheck the weather before your trip to NYC. Early December can be relatively comfortable with temperatures in the 40s and 50s. The closer to Christmas and New Years’ it gets the more likely you’ll experience a deeper cold and possible snow and freezing rain.
- Wear multiple layers to keep yourself warm or cool depending on the weather and where you are.
- Plan to pack a couple heavy sweaters or fleeces, base layers (for frigid temps!), a warm coat, a hat, gloves, and warm, waterproof boots. Bring earmuffs or a fleece ear band if you’re not a hat person. I can’t tell you how many NYC visitors I see walking with bright red frozen ears!
The Best Things to Do for Christmas in New York City
Rockefeller Christmas Tree
Obvious, I know. Rockefeller Center and the tree will be unbelievably crowded. You might even momentarily wonder why you’re shuffling along with hoards of people just to see a Christmas tree. But, it’s truly spectacular and an absolute must. The decorations inside Rockefeller Center add to the display of lights and festivities. Would you go to Paris for the first time and not see the Eiffel Tower? Exactly.
The absolute best time to see the tree is at night when the crowds thin and the tree sparkles against the dark night sky. The lights stay on from 5:30 a.m. until midnight. If you’re in New York City on Christmas Day, the tree lights are on for 24 hours. Go late in the night and have the tree (almost) all to yourself! It is New York after all. There’s bound to be a least a couple of other people there, too. 😉
Department Store Windows
Touring the holiday-themed department store windows is a classic, Christmas in New York City tradition. Each year the stores decorate their windows in sparkles and glitz around a particular story or festive theme. Visitors line up to see the popular displays. The crowds will be massive but if you’re in NYC for the holidays, then you just have to do it. To see all the popular ones without backtracking along 5th Avenue go in this order starting at 58th Street, Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s. Reverse the order if it makes more sense for your plans, but remember Macy’s is the only one along 6th Avenue in Herald Square. Otherwise, it’s a straight route up or down Fifth Avenue.
New York has several holiday-themed markets. Local artists sell their goods once a year at these temporary kiosks. The artists and merchants sell food, clothes, spices, artwork, novelty crafts and gifts. While not quite the Christmas markets in Europe, the markets are festive and a ton of fun to stroll through looking for gifts and new foods to try. Here are my favorites.
- The Winter Village at Bryant Park located on 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. The rink in the park is also a great place to ice skate! More details on the rink below.
- Union Square Holiday Market located between 14th and 17th Streets along Broadway. This downtown market is likely to be a little less congested and has a bit more of an artsy feeling given its location.
- Grand Central Holiday Fair inside the iconic station on 42nd Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. This is a perfect way to see the iconic constellation ceiling with its lights and get a respite from the cold outside.
- Columbus Circle Holiday Market situated at 59th street and Broadway, right at the entrance of Central Park. Before or after you shop, head into the park to skate at Wollman Rink and take in the New York City views over the treetops.
- Brooklyn Flea Holiday Market located at Skylight One Hanson in the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn. Take the 2/3/4/5/D/N/R trains to Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center. This weekend market has vintage one-of-a-kind finds and a sampling of the food vendors from popular Smorgasburg.
Plenty of NYC guides urge visitors to get out of midtown and see lower Manhattan. This is all for good reason. You should absolutely save time for sights like the Brooklyn Bridge and Greenwich Village. But, this is the one time of the year that midtown steals the show. From the huge snowflake suspended over 57th and 5th to the displays of giant Christmas ornaments and lights, midtown Manhattan between 42nd and 57th streets shimmer and sparkle all holiday season long.
Spending Christmas in NYC?
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The setting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and the ice rink makes it seem like a perfect place to skate. But, I’d say skip the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. You’ll have a better experience elsewhere. The small rink is really expensive and comes with crowds and long lines. For the quintessential New York ice skating experience, skate at Wollman Rink in Central Park. The Winter Village in Bryant Park on 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues also has a rink. Skating is free if you have your own skates. If not, rent them there for $20. You can even make reservations to skip the line to ice skate during peak times. After skating, spend time in Bryant Park’s winter village. It’s spectacular with its lights and kiosks selling artisanal foods and one-of-a-kind gifts from the artists and vendors.
See a Show
New York City is overflowing with incredible theatrical productions. If you want to stick with the Christmas theme, head to Radio City for the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular or see a classic performance of the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. For discounted Broadway tickets, visit the TKTS booth on 47th Street or buy your tickets in advance at Broadway Box. The lights of the theater marquis and the chill in the air make for the perfect holiday night outing in New York City. If you’re traveling with young children, the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular’s daytime performances often buzz with audience noise and energy. The short show lengths and the loose, easy-to-follow storyline make it a super fun family experience.
Central Park in the Snow
Everyone loves the picture-perfect white of a freshly falling snow. New Yorkers know this white turns to brown and black quickly with the constant stampede of car and pedestrian traffic. One of the best NYC things to do when snow magic happens is to stroll through Central Park and admire the serene winter setting. If you enter at 59th Street in Columbus Circle, grab a hot cocoa from the holiday market. Your camera will thank you for the clean white wonderland landscapes and the tall city buildings rising all around.
Dyker Heights Holiday Lights
This Brooklyn neighborhood goes all out during the holidays, with every last roof shingle and inch of yard space covered in lights and decorations. Don’t be fooled. These are not your average residents displaying their holiday cheer. Expect displays done by the pros costing tens of thousands of dollars to pull off! You can book a guided bus tour, a guided walking tour, or set off on your own DIY Tour by taking the “D” train to 18th Avenue in Brooklyn. About a mile from the subway station, you’ll see the displays set up from 83rd to 86th Streets between 11th & 13th Avenues. The best times to visit are from the middle of December onward through the holiday season from dusk until 9pm.
Christmas in New York City is an unforgettable experience! When you’re prepared and know how to make the most of your trip, you’ll easily look back and remember your visit for the joyful holiday feelings it stirred inside you.
Have you done Christmas in New York City? What tips would you give to someone planning to visit NYC during the holiday season?
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