This post is part of the “Mommy Shorts Guide to Manhattan,” a series where I share all our favorite family-friendly spots in NYC.
The holiday season (officially from Thanksgiving through New Years Day) is a really special time in New York City. The whole city comes alive with festive holiday markets, colorful lights and Christmas trees which pop up in every iconic place imaginable, like between the arch in Washington Square Park.
There are also Christmas tree vendors around every corner, lining sidewalks with freshly cut trees for purchase and filling the city air with the overwhelmingly fresh scent of pine.
More than a few readers told me that they’ll be visiting New York City in the month of December and asked for the best places to get the full holiday experience. There are some non-holiday-related ideas in my “Guide to the East Village” and my “Guide to the Meatpacking District,” both of which you should definitely check out, but if you’re looking for things to do that you can’t do any other time of year, here are my recommendations:
A visit to Rockefeller Center is the most popular of NYC holiday locations and usually has the largest tree in all of Manhattan. The tree lighting took place just last night so it is prepped and ready for visitors. Be forewarned, the space is crowded and large areas are gated off to ensure that the crowd mostly moves in one direction. I recommend coming just before it gets dark so that you can get some good daytime pictures and then see it at night as well, when all the lights, angels and toy soldiers really come to life.
The picture below was taken last year, directly in front of 30 Rock.
This picture was taken in the same place at night, right after the tree lighting ceremony.
The best place to take a photo is actually farther back from the tree on 5th ave between 49th and 50th Streets. There you can stand in the middle of the block and have a view looking West, with their signature angel and snowflake decorations lining a path to the tree with 30 Rock directly behind it. That’s also a great place for a group shot and a large crowd will be gathered there taking photos. Just wait your turn and make sure to get your shot directly in the middle.
From there, if you pivot around 180 degrees, you will be looking directly at Saks Fifth Avenue, where there is a light show set to music every ten minutes on the side of the building. It’s actually my favorite part of the experience and your kids will love it. This another reason to make sure you are there at night to see it.
Saks also has some pretty decent holiday windows, although they are more about fashion and not geared to kids as much as some of the other department stores.
At busy times, the only way to get a really good view of the ice skating rink is to actually stand on the line and wait to go ice skating.
I spent years convincing my children and myself that this was a bad idea, but you know what? Mazzy convinced me to give it a shot one year and I was wrong. The line moves relatively quickly and skating in the rink is such an iconic thing to do, I think it’s worth it. Renting skates is obscenely expensive, but there is no better view of Rockefeller Center than from the rink. You can also make reservations ahead of time.
Another thing in Rockefeller Center that you should be aware of is the Lego Store. It’s small and not really anything that special in my opinion, but my kids want to go in every time. It does have a few impressive Lego structures inside like a scaled down replica of Rockefeller Center in the front window. Please note that the entrance to the Lego Store is in the middle of Rockefeller Center, while the exit spits you out on the outside of Rockefeller Center, so you can’t walk in, check it out quickly and then come right back out. You will have to go all the way around, fighting the crowds once again. My suggestion is to always leave the Lego Store for last.
If you are looking for food, I do not recommend doing that in or near Rockefeller Center, although it is an excellent time and place to buy a NYC pretzel if you run into a cart on any one of the four corners.
Radio City Music Hall
If you walk west one block from Rockefeller Center to 6th Avenue, you will bump right into Radio City Music Hall, which at Christmas time shows The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes.
For those parents who aren’t really into the more religious aspects of Christmas, be forewarned— while the first half of the show is all about Santa, presents and toy soldiers, the second half is very much about Jesus with a Nativity scene. Not that that’s a bad thing; I just wasn’t expecting it when I took the two Super Jews.
Bryant Park Winter Village
Bryant Park is always significantly less crowded than Rockefeller Center, but arguably has more to do there. It’s a beautiful oasis set between office high rises on 42nd Street and 6th Ave, right behind the NY Public Library. During most of the year, it is covered with grass and chairs for people to eat outside on their lunch breaks.
For the holidays, the park is completely transformed. The grass is covered with an ice skating rink, way larger than the one found in Rockefeller Center.
There is also a huge holiday market and tons of local artisans and food stalls in temporary glass houses that line the entire circumference of the park. It’s fun to go during the day and beautifully lit up at night.
My favorite part is the old school European carousel on the South side of the park, which is there year-round. It has an old school ticket booth, plays Parisian music and is situated next to a section of tables and chairs sized perfectly for kids.
There is also a little free-standing bookshelf in this area, which is stocked with children’s books from the library, free to read while you rest or eat.
In addition to Bryant Park, there are lots of festive holiday markets throughout the city, all conveniently located at big subway hubs. There is one on the Upper West Side at Columbus Circle, one in Grand Central and one in Union Square, which is the one we frequent every holiday season looking for gifts.
At all of these “holiday villages,” you will find tons of small outdoor booths selling artwork, toys, jewelry, candles, ornaments, clothes and other fun gifts from local shop owners and artisans.
There is also lots of food stalls, with everything from risotto balls to empanadas to miniature doughnuts.
One of the most popular holiday activities amongst tourists and residents alike is visiting Santa at Macy’s Santaland. We go every year and my kids know it as the place where REAL SANTA visits for the holidays.
This year, Santa visits are by appointment only, which sounds obnoxious but is actually really helpful. Appointments were optional last year and we felt like kings of the world once we got there and got to bypass the whole line. The lead-up to Santa is also pretty wonderful with holiday decorations, a huge electric train set and rows of Christmas trees winding around and lighting your path.
When you get into see Santa, you have limited time, so I recommend relying on the official photographer to grab your shot, instead of trying and failing to capture it yourself.
Evidence #1: Taken Myself
Evidence #2: Official Photographer
After everyone has had their turn sitting on Santa’s lap, come back outside and do a lap around Macy’s to see all of the holiday window displays. There is usually an original display in the front on 6th ave and then Macy’s traditional holiday windows which depict scenes from Miracle on 34th Street around the corner.
FYI, I am taking the girls to Santaland next week to film a video for 20th Century Fox in celebration of Miracle on 34th Street’s 70th Anniversary. Look out for it!
More Holiday Window Displays
Speaking of holiday windows, there are a few more that you should not miss. Barney’s always has some amazingly over-the-top windows that will speak more to adults (they’re high fashion and abstract) but are usually colorful and fun for kids too. Bergdorf’s currently has beautiful holiday windows, each decked out in tribute to different iconic buildings in NYC, like the Public Library, the Natural History Museum and the Historical Society.
Lord and Taylor’s has more traditional windows that always do an excellent job of combining an artful execution with a holiday theme kids can appreciate. There are usually working mechanics to the windows too, which make them even more magical for kids. Plus, since it’s in a random area, there usually isn’t much of a crowd.
Rolf’s is a restaurant you would probably never go any other time of year, but during the holidays, it is known for it’s totally over-the-top usage of Christmas lights, ornaments and tinsel. Not a square inch left undecorated. I’m not going to vouch for the food, but if you want to feel like you are drowning in holiday cheer, this is your place. (UPDATE: This place is totally booked through Christmas.)
If you want something a little more low key, head over to Pete’s Tavern. It’s really more of a bar than a restaurant but for the holidays, they have a really cute miniature electronic carnival scene in the front windows. They also serve an excellent burger. I’d just go early if you are bringing your kids.
You can find Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack all over the city but the best location is the original in the middle of Madison Square Park. Other locations look like regular restaurants (serving fries, shakes and their signature burgers) while this location is a stand in the middle of the park with outdoor seating only. It has a massive line when the weather is nice but during the winter months, you should fly through pretty quickly. For the holidays, the whole place is decked out in white lights and looks pretty spectacular. Just come bundled.
After you are done with your burgers, you can usually find some public art installations in the park and a playground in the Northeast corner. Plus, Madison Square Park offers the best view of the Flat Iron Building and Eataly is right across the street.
Central Park and the Plaza
Another great place that feels super festive during the holidays is the area right at the foot of Central Park on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. That’s where all the horse carriages are lined up to take tourists for rides in the park.
There is both a Christmas tree and a big menorah displayed in the square. The menorah is nothing that special, but whenever my mom would take us around to see the Christmas decorations when we were kids, she always made a point of passing it so that we could see Hanukah represented too.
The Plaza is across the street which always has a tastefully decorated lobby for the holidays. This is your quintessential Upper East Side Christmas scene.
The Plaza is also home to the famous and fictional Eloise, so if you are with kids, I recommend heading to the Palm Court (the restaurant at the back of the lobby) to get the Eloise tea, which consists of hot chocolate, kid-friendly finger sandwiches and sweets on a very fancy three-tiered serving tray.
Other holiday happenings on my list for this year:
The Luminaries at Brookfield Place: a holiday light installation from 8pm-10pm that hangs a canopy of LED lights, changing colors over the Brookfield Winter Garden.
Winter ONEderland at One World Observatory: The line to the high speed elevators will be transformed to a Glacier Grotto and the floor to ceiling video that plays in the elevators as they rise to the top, which normally shows the transformation of NYC from the past to today, will have the addition of snowfall.
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Gardens: Worth the trip to the Bronx, this toy train runs through 150 miniature New York landmarks, each re-created with bark, leaves, and other natural materials.
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights: Dyker Heights is a residential neighborhood in Brooklyn that gets DECKED OUT for Christmas with multiple homes participating. You can either take a guided tour or just stroll around the neighborhood on your own.
Last but not least (scratch that, definitely least) is SantaCon, a city-wide bar crawl (with a heavy concentration in the East Village) where everyone dresses up in Santa outfits. There is no set path for this bar crawl but people start drinking pretty heavily as early as possible with the “holiday fun” getting increasingly more unavoidable and unruly as the day progresses. This is not a family friendly event, but if you happen to be in New York City on December 9th, be prepared to explain to your kids why Santa is staggering down the street while his friend Rudolph is throwing up on the sidewalk.
Take that as an invite or a warning.
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!