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.
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
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.
- 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
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.
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.
- Plan to pack:
- If you’re not a hat person, bring earmuffs or a fleece ear band. I can’t tell you how many NYC visitors I see walking with bright red frozen ears!
- Use my complete packing guide for what to wear in New York in winter for more tips to stay warm.
The Best Things to Do for Christmas in New York City
1. See the Rockefeller Christmas Tree 2021.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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
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.
- Do some sightseeing.
- It is NYC, after all! The Empire State Building and the Top of the Rock are both open.
- If you’ve gotten your fill of the Christmas markets and festivities around midtown NYC, visit One World Observation deck. While you’re downtown, walk on the Brooklyn Bridge and eat Chinese food in Chinatown. Nom Wah Tea Parlor has been open since the 1920s and serves delicious dim sum.
- The 9/11 Memorial and Museum are also open on Christmas Day and would be convenient to get to from downtown, as well.
- Or maybe you’re spending Christmas in New York with kids. Visit Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, stroll Times Square for selfies and a visit to the M&M store, or hop on a New York City Bus Tour.
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.
- 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.
- 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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