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What You Need to Know for a Successful Christmas in New York City

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, a New York Christmas still stirs my holiday spirit as soon as the season’s first decorations are up. You’re in luck, too! If you visit in December, it’s always Christmas in New York.

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, undoubtedly, your visit will always hold a special place in your memory.

How to Plan a Successful Christmas in New York City

If it’s your first time in New York City, check out my complete New York City Guide with itinerary ideas, things to do, how to get around, where to stay, and more.

The info in this post will be updated as 2021 NYC Christmas information is available.

What to Know About Christmas in New York City 2021

Rockefeller Center Christmas in New York City

New York at Christmas is magical! 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. 

Absolutely bring your best holiday cheer, but include a dose of reality about what to expect.

  • IMPORTANT: New York City has vaccination rules in place. Everyone 12+ MUST show their vaccination card or proof of vaccination via the NYC COVID Safe App or the New York State Excelsior App to dine indoors or enter entertainment and performing arts venues. This includes places like Broadway Theaters, Radio City Music Hall, museums and galleries, sporting events, concerts, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, convention centers, and movie theaters. Masks are also required in many of the above venues, as well, and on public transportation like trains, subways, and buses.
  • From Thanksgiving to New Years’, New York City can be 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.
New York City traffic
  • 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, go at off-peak times to avoid long waits.
  • NYC is expensive all the time, but New York City at Christmas means even higher prices. Save money by bundling your sightseeing expenses with a New York CityPass. 
  • 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, to capture city sights with as little of the crowds as possible.

What to Pack for Christmas in New York City

City walkers in the winter snow

Be prepared for Christmas in NYC, 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, the icy winds that funnel through NYC will shred that jacket faster than you can run for cover.

Don’t be one of the 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 know the NYC mistakes to avoid at Christmas, especially when it comes to winter 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.

city winter snow

Here are a few New York at Christmas time weather and packing tips to keep in mind.

  • Check and recheck the weather before your Christmas holiday in New York. 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 could 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.
down-jackets NYC Christmas

The Best Things to Do for Christmas in New York City

 

1. See the Rockefeller Christmas Tree 2021.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City

Obvious, I know. But, would you go to Paris for the first time and not see the Eiffel Tower? Exactly.

In 2021, the Rockefeller tree lighting ceremony is on Wednesday, December 1st from 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. Once it’s lit, you can see the tree through early January 2022.

To attend the tree lighting ceremony, you’ll need to arrive by 3 p.m. in order to have the best chance to see the tree when the lights switch on.

If you can’t get to Rockefeller Plaza immediately surrounding the tree and ice rink between 48th & 51st streets from 5th or 6th Avenues, try to get a spot in the Channel Gardens between 49th & 50th Streets along 5th Avenue. Otherwise, head to 5th Avenue and stand just at the entrance of the Channel Gardens, with Saks Fifth Avenue Department Store at your back.

To see the musical performances before the tree lighting, you must be within the first few rows of people around the ice rink. If this is your goal, arrive by midday to claim a spot.

Even after the lighting ceremony, Rockefeller Center and the tree is unbelievably crowded during the holiday season. 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 a New York Christmas holiday must! The decorations inside Rockefeller Center add to the display of lights and festivities. It just wouldn’t be a very New York Christmas if you didn’t see the Rockefeller tree!

Christmas in New York City Rockefeller Center Tree

The absolute best times to see the most famous Christmas tree in Manhattan are at night when the crowds thin and the tree sparkles against the dark night sky. Or if you’re an early bird like me, go just as the lights turn on.

The lights are on from 5:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. 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. 

2. Admire the Christmas Windows at the Department Stores in NYC.

Christmas in NYC Department Store Windows

Touring the holiday-themed department store windows is a classic, New York City Christmas 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 most popular displays, especially in the early evening hours and on the weekend.

To see all the popular store windows without backtracking along 5th Avenue go in this order.

Start at 58th Street with Bergdorf Goodman and continue on to Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and Macy’s.

Reverse the order if it makes more sense for your plans, but remember Macy’s Christmas decorations are the only ones along 6th Avenue in Herald Square. Otherwise, it’s a straight route up or down Fifth Avenue.

ProTip: Saks Fifth Avenue also has a beautiful light show that illuminates the entire building facade with holiday lights and sparkles choreographed to festive music. The light show runs every 10 minutes once it’s dark, typically around 4:30 pm until 11:35 pm every day. The show is just 5 minutes long so it’s easy to watch as you explore the Rockefeller Center area.

3. Visit a Christmas Market NYC Location.

NYC Christmas Market

New York has several holiday-themed markets. The artists and merchants sell food, clothes, spices, artwork, novelty crafts, and gifts in temporary kiosks once a year. While not quite as expansive as 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. As you plan which places to visit in New York during Christmas, add these markets to your list.

  • The Bryant Park Holiday Market is 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 ice rink are below. The Holiday Market opens on October 29, 2021.
  • Union Square Holiday Market is located between 14th and 17th Streets along Broadway. This downtown market is likely to be a little less congested but still full of vendors. Typically, there are more than 150 booths selling foods and one-of-a-kind gifts. This Holiday Market is open from November 18th-December 24th.
  • Grand Central Holiday Market 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. The market is in Vanderbilt Hall, just off the main concourse in the terminal. It’s open from November 18th-December 24th.
  • Columbus Circle Holiday Market is 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. The market is open from November 29th-December 24th.

4. Get Festive with New York City Christmas Ornaments.

New York City Christmas Decorations

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 snowflake suspended over 57th and 5th to the displays of decorations and lights, New York City Christmas ornaments are big and beautiful! Midtown Manhattan (particularly between 42nd and 57th streets from Broadway to 5th Avenue) shimmers and sparkles all holiday season long.

5. Enjoy Ice Skating NYC Style.

Christmas in New York City - Ice Skating at Bryant Park

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.

But, skating at the Winter Village in Bryant Park on 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues is also a great experience! 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.

6. See Christmas shows in NYC.

Christmas in New York Radio City Music Hall

After being shut down for a year and a half, there’s never been a better time to see a live theater performance. New York City is overflowing with incredible Broadway shows. The lights of the theater marquees and the chill in the air make for the perfect holiday night outing in New York City.

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 on the Upper West Side.

For discounted “day of “Broadway tickets, visit the TKTS booth in Times Square on 47th Street just below the famous red steps. You can even download the TKTS app for free to see what tickets are available for performances that day.

If you’re spending Christmas in NYC with kids, 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.

7. Enjoy Central Park in December. (Maybe in the snow!)

New York City Central Park in the snow

Everyone loves the picture-perfect white of freshly falling snow. 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.

8. Book New York City Christmas Tours.

Christmas in NYC Dyker Heights Brooklyn Holiday Lights

The Dyker Heights Christmas lights tour is one of the most popular. 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. The Dyker Heights holiday lights displays are done by the pros, costing tens of thousands of dollars to pull off! The best times to visit are from the middle of December onward through the holiday season from dusk until 9 pm.

Best Things to Do in New York on Christmas Day

NYC Christmas Skyline

New York City is still an active place on Christmas Day. While some sights and restaurants close, there’s still plenty to do. All of the things to do in New York in December for the holiday season listed above will be available on Christmas Day, with the exception of specific tours.

You’ll just have to choose between traditional Christmas activities or making your own NYC Christmas Day memories.

Here are a few ideas to help you plan.

Pro Tip: If your NYC itinerary includes a lot of sightseeing, there’s no cheaper way to see the main sights than with New York CityPASS.

NYC Christmas
  • Mark the Religious occasion.
    • St. John the Divine uptown and St. Patrick’s in midtown are open for Mass and visitors throughout the day. If you were hoping to attend Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s, you’ll have to fill out a request for tickets form online.
    • Continue on with the soulful theme and get tickets to sway along with a Harlem Gospel celebration in Harlem.
times-square NYC
  • Spend the holiday actually(!) relaxing.
    • If you’re looking for things to do on Christmas Day in NYC that don’t involve moving from place to place, reserve a table at one of NYC’s fabulous restaurants.
    • Get tickets for a show. Broadway shows like Wicked and Miss Saigon will have performances, as do the Rockettes at Radio City.
    • See a movie. This is a classic NYC Christmas Day activity. Some theaters will even show holiday favorites like It’s a Wonderful Life.
    • Or, get sporty at Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center and catch a New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets game.

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.

What questions do you have about Christmas in New York City?

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56 thoughts on “What You Need to Know for a Successful Christmas in New York City”

  1. “Christmas in New York” This magical words instantly evoke memories from my childhood. Probably because of “Home alone 2”, which used to air around Christmas time. One day I certainly have to visit New York covered in white powder! Damn you Television. You did a pretty good job influencing my behavior!
    Thanks for sharing, Jackie. 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      It does make you think of a lot of movies, Robert! Movies love to show Christmas in New York. 🙂 Hope you can make it someday soon!

  2. Central Park in the snow…that would certainly be my favorite pick for Christmas time in NY. How lovely, colorful and joyous the city looks. I suppose the crowds are part of the deal.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      The crowds are part of the deal, Punita. But, it’s really worth it. Fingers crossed you can make it someday. 🙂

  3. Wow it looks like such a festive place to spend the season, despite the crowds. I didn’t think there would be Christmas markets in NYC but they look co cute! The Rockefeller tree looks amazing. Great tips for staying safe and warm too. Merry Christmas!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      The markets started several years back, Skye, and have been a huge hit! Merry Christmas to you, too!

  4. NYC at Christmas looks magical! Just like the movies! I’d love to skate at the Rockefeller Centre and see central park covered in snow. I’ll have make it over there in winter one year 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Definitely, Vicki! Even the most hardcore NYers warm up with the magical holiday vibe. 😉 Hope you can make it soon!

  5. Some great tips for visiting New York during Christmas. We have never been that close to Christmas but the last time we went was just after New Year. It was the coldest we have been for a long time but Central Park looked amazing in the snow.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Everyone comes right before Christmas and NYE, but timing a visit right after New Years’ is brilliant! It’s cold, but the crowds thin and you can still see the tree, ice skate, and see the department store windows. Snow in Central Park was probably icing on the cake! 🙂

  6. Fantastic tips – especially on giving yourself more time. We loved spending Christmas in NYC, it was indeed a truly magical destination for it. But yes, it was totally crowded and everything took a lot longer, so best not to pack the itinerary too tightly and let yourself get swept up in the atmosphere and go with the flow 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Meg! So glad you’ve had a chance to visit NYC during the holidays. Perfectly said..Rushing and getting frustrated is contrary to the reason for visiting which is enjoying the festive vibe!

  7. Hii Jackie,

    Thanks for giving such a vivid view of NYC. It looks so vibrant during x-mas.
    Hope to be there someday!

    Regards,
    Himanshu

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Hi Himanshu,

      Thanks for reading and I hope you can make it to NYC during the holiday season someday! 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      It really is fantastic, Ryazan! Keeping my fingers crossed you make it soon! 🙂

  8. Lots of great tips–thanks for sharing! I’ve always wanted to visit NYC over the holidays. I’d love to check out all the displays, holiday lights and Christmas markets! The skating rink looks fun too! 🙂

  9. New York looks resplendent during Christmas. but yes it must be crowded . Great tips to ensure a great time. Last year we were in Hong Kong during the Christmas and the crowds were huge. But of course if one wants to seed the beautiful sights, the crowds need to be borne with a smile.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Absolutely, Vyjay. The crowds come with the territory but the point is to still enjoy the holiday atmosphere. 🙂

  10. Hi Jackie,

    You just managed to instill a sense of excitement with the approaching festivities.
    Yes, the pictorial presentation is enough to create hidden desire to welcome the ongoing festive season with 2017 as well.

  11. Hello,

    Someone know’s the start and finish date of christmas festivites in nyc?? Specially the last day of festivities on january.

    Thanks

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Ricardo. I’ve updated the NYC Christmas post with the information you need. Hope it helps. 🙂

  12. A highlight of one of our trips to NYC was the “Cocoa and Carols” cruise on the Hudson. It set the mood for the holiday season and you get an awesome view of the statue of liberty! It was full of holiday cheer!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Acrowe. Appreciate you sharing your Christmas in NYC memory! 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Jen! So glad to hear it and I hope you have a fantastic trip to NYC!

  13. Jackie,
    Sitting in ATL just left NYC 12/25/18. The only thing I would add for us people from the south is that every store/restaurant/exhibit has the thermostat set at 80 plus. Had to buy a few T’s for base layer

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for the tip, Jim. Yes, it’s a huge temperature swing in between the indoors and outdoors. T-shirt layers are certainly useful. I hope otherwise it was a fantastic trip and you had a great Christmas. 🙂

  14. Hi Jackie
    It was a wonderful blog .. Every picture you have posted in your blog that Tells a story.
    Looking forward to read your other wonderful travel experience. [LINK EDITED OUT]
    Thanks
    Ruma

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks so much for reading, Ruma. Hope you had a great NYC visit during the Christmas season. 🙂

  15. Hi Jackie
    Thank you for your wonderful posts.My sister and I are traveliing with our families to New York for Christmas this year. Jaci is comming from Australia and I will be comming from South Africa and your posts have been of great value to us both.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading and taking a moment to share, Jenny. I’m thrilled the NYC guides have been helpful. Be sure to bookmark the Christmas guide. I update it every year when the season gets closer with any updates and all the correct dates. 🙂

  16. What a wonderful and inspirational description of NYC at Christmas. I plan to take my Granddaughter in 2019. I hope you will update info on any new offerings or things that might have closed since 2018.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Sylvia! I will absolutely be updating this article as it gets closer to the Holiday season.

  17. Dear Jackie; greetings from Norway! thank you so much for this wonderful article on Christmas in New York! I will bring my 16 year old daughter to the city this Christmas, to celebrate a very special year for us. Would you have any recommendations for restaurants that have a warm and welcoming atmosphere and are open on Christmas Eve?

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Randi. NYC for Christmas is so special! I’m still compiling info about restaurants that will be open on Christmas Eve 2019. However, check out The Dutch, Gemma at The Bowery Hotel, Tavern on the Green, and The Lamb’s Club. They typically are Christmas dinner favorites.

  18. Tanya Millward

    Thank you for the tips, we booked Christmas this year in NYC and we cannot wait. still not sure about the winter clothes as we from Cape Town , South Africa and we do not have snow boots. but thank you… the excitement is creeping in every single day 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Hi Tanya!

      Thank you for reading and your comment.

      Christmas in NYC is very special! You will have a great time!

      As for the clothes, think warm BUT comfortable generally speaking. Get your feet comfy to do all that strolling!

      See my post what to wear in NYC in Winter!

  19. I´m travelling this December, it´s my firt time, and in Xmas! It´s a family trip with my nephew that´s 16, my mum and my aunt. Can´t wait!

  20. Hi Jackie, I love your tips, they’re so helpful and informative! I even added a ton more stuff on my itinerary, and I’m honestly so thrilled to be there soon! It really sounds like you’re a local there! Just wondering, are Winter snows thick during Christmas days? Going on the 22nd Dec – 2nd January.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Josh. You’ll love NYC during the holidays! It’s so festive. Honestly, we don’t usually get a lot of snow in December. But it’s possible. If anything, prepare for a couple of inches at snow because that’s the most likely. Otherwise, it’ll probably just be chilly. And if it does snow, NYC does a great job of clearing sidewalks and streets as quick as can be. Enjoy your trip! 🙂

  21. Our family, with 4 boys ages 15-21, will all be there Christmas night and would love a suggestion of a place to eat once we arrive, A place with less elegance and more atmosphere, would love a more local suggestion than tourist suggestion. This article is very helpful.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Melanie. I would suggest looking at Pappardella, Lexington Brass, and L’Amico for Christmas dinner. If these don’t work, look for restaurants on the Upper West Side or in Greenwich Village. These tend to be more residential areas and so there are more local favorites rather than touristy hot spots. Enjoy your holiday in NYC!

  22. Our family, 6 year old boy and 14 year old girl, were trying to come and do a day trip (train from CT) to do some of the standard NYC Christmas things. I 100% understand that there will be a lot of people no matter what, but do you think that there may be slightly less people on a weekend or a weekday (December 21st/22nd/23rd). Thanks for your thoughts in advance, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks so much for reading the blog, Nick. If you can choose, I’d choose a weekday over a weekend. It will certainly be crowded no matter what, but in my opinion, weekends are a bit more crowded. Merry Christmas and Happy 2020 to you, as well! 🙂

  23. WE are hoping to come to NYC for Christmas 2021. There would be 4 of us, 2 adults and 2 teenagers (16& 14). We are coming from Australia so would love some suggestions on the best type of accommodation for us to stay approximately one week so we can walk or easily get to all the major things to see that you have described above. Much appreciated for your advice and any tips you can provide. Lisa

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks for reading, Lisa. NYC at Christmas is great. Given how far in advance you are searching, I don’t feel comfortable recommending a specific hotel. Things can change and what might be well-reviewed now, may not be for Christmas 2021. That being said, you’ll likely want to look for hotels in the midtown west and midtown east areas for walkable access to many sights. My Where to Stay in New York guide also lists some hotel recommendations in these neighborhoods. Hope this helps get the planning started!

  24. Hi. We are wanting to visit NYC for the Christmas holidays 2021. What is the earliest time to arrive in late November/early December where we won’t miss out on the festivities of the holidays…i.e., Rockefeller tree, window displays, etc. I know the earlier we go without missing out, the better the hotel rates may be. Any advice is welcome.

    Thank you!
    Maria

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks so much for reading the blog, Maria. I realize I may have answered this by email but just in case I’m mistaken. The tree gets lit the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. So in 2021, that will be on December 1st, 2021. Other lights, decorations, and even the Bryant Park Winter Village with its holiday markets will be up and open before the tree lighting. Hope that helps your planning. Check back on this article because it will be updated for the 2021 holiday season.

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