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 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. Before I get to holiday specific ideas, you should definitely check out a few of my NYC guides for kid-friendly ideas with or without Christmas lights.
Here are a few posts I recommend:
If you are looking for that special NYC holiday magic that is only available once a year, here is a rundown, with as much insight as I can give you about when to go, what’s nearby and where to get the best photo.
A visit to Rockefeller Center is the most popular of NYC holiday locations and usually has the largest tree in all of Manhattan. Once the tree lighting takes place (usually a big event), the area 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. But keep in mind, that’s when everyone goes and the crowds can be a little out of control.
The photo above was taken on a random weekday morning. The photo below was taken on a Saturday at 4pm, 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.
Here’s what the same spot looks like at night:
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 is another reason to make sure you are there at night.
Saks also has some pretty decent holiday windows, which usually have a heavy emphasis on fashion as opposed to Santa.
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 to be aware of in Rockefeller Center is the toy stores. The new FAO Schwartz is right at the base of the tree, so if you are with kids, going inside is pretty unavoidable. It’s not as large as the old FAO Schwartz, but it’s got the real life toy soldiers out front, tons of huge plush stuffed animals, all the hot toys of the year, and of course, the piano (made famous in BIG) on the second floor. Just know there is always a line and a big window behind the piano so it’s not ideal for pictures.
The Lego Store in Rockefeller Center is pretty small, but my kids love LEGO and want to go in every time. It has a few impressive Lego structures inside like a scaled down replica of Rockefeller Center in the front window. But please note (and this is important!) 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 your kids like video games, the flagship Nintendo Store is at 1o Rockerfeller Plaza. If your kids like dolls, American Girl Place recently moved to 75 Rockefeller Plaza. American Girl Place is home to the American Girl Cafe, where your doll can get it’s very own booster seat and place setting. There is also an American Girl doll hair salon and if you get a personal shopping experience, you’ll be whisked away to a “decision room” where your child can lay out her options and decide between Blaire and Nanea once and for all.
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.
Across 6th Avenue, you will find the big red ornaments, which for some reason, has been my favorite NYC holiday decor since I was a kid. Yes, that building has been putting out those same big red ornaments for THAT LONG.
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.
Also worth noting that in January (but not until then), the ice skating rink is split up into two sections and the bumper cars return. Make sure to reserve tickets to the bumper cars ahead of time! Mazzy and I went last year and even with reservations, waited forever and froze our asses off. But it was still really fun and worth it, in my opinion.
There is an indoor food court that is perfect for warming up with a cup of hot chocolate after ice skating. Or, if you prefer, get yourself a brisket sandwich like Mazzy did last year.
The huge holiday market is one of the best in the city, with 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.
But my favorite part of Bryant Park is there year round. There’s an old school European carousel on the South side of the park. 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.
Next to the carousel, there is a little free-standing bookshelf in this area (courtesy of the NY Public Library which is located at the east end of Bryant Park), which is stocked with children’s books and games, free to read and play while you rest or eat.
In addition to Bryant Park, there are many other 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.
Where to Snap a Photo with Santa
One of the most popular holiday activities amongst tourists and residents alike is visiting Santa at Macy’s Santaland. We used to go every year and my kids knew it as the place where REAL SANTA visits for the holidays.
Until last year when we waited on an absolutely horrific line and our Santa was on the skinny side, had a very strong NY accent and told Mazzy she WOULD NOT be getting a unicorn for Christmas. If this warning does not deter you, you should know that Santa visits at Macy’s are by appointment only. Even if you have an appointment, you will have to wait on a deceptively long line. It looks short from the outside, but then when you think you are entering Santaland, the line takes a sharp left and you will disappear into the bowels of Macy’s for at least two hours before you even catch a glimpse of a Christmas light. When you finally wind your way back to the front, you will then walk through the Polar Express tunnel and wind up in Santaland, exhausted and way less happy than when you arrived. Santaland is really well done though. It’s filled with holiday lights, a huge electric train set and rows of Christmas trees along a winding path to Santa.
There are many Santas in Santaland (the back rooms are orchestrated with curtains to prevent kids from seeing more than one), so whether you get “a good one” is hit and miss. In previous years, we got a very convincing Santa, but last year, not so much.
Santa Two Years Ago:
Santa Last Year:
I feel like he looks better in that photo than he did in real life.
When you get in to 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. 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.
If you want a Macy’s alternative for a Santa visit, I suggest ABC Carpet. We haven’t been so I can’t give you a rundown, but everyone tells me that ABC has the best Santa. ABC Carpet is a beautiful furniture and home decor store, located just north of Union Square, so it makes for a fun, quintessentially NYC visit anyway.
A few more options with less crowds are Brookfield Place, Bloomingdale’s, and tea time at the Pierre. The Pierre is having a Nutcracker Tea with Santa on Dec 13th and Dec 20th. Obviously, the closer you get to Christmas, the more the crowds increase. And weekdays are always better than weekends.
More Holiday Window Displays
In my previous holiday guides, I listed “can’t miss” holiday windows like Barney’s and Lord & Taylor’s. Sadly, both stores are gone now. But, a walk up 5th Avenue, between Rockefeller Center and Central Park (that’s 50th to 59th), past all the high end stores like Tiffany’s and Louis Vuitton, will give you tons of holiday eye candy, even if you never go inside a store to purchase anything.
Make sure you pass by Bergdorf’s which always has my favorite windows and a different theme each year. A few years ago, they decked each window out in tribute to different iconic buildings in NYC, like the Public Library, the Natural History Museum and the Historical Society. Last year, each window was dedicated to an entirely different candy, like black licorice, pink cotton candy and peppermint.
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. You need to book months in advance to get a seat. So try again next year!)
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. The rooftop restaurant on top of Eataly called Serra Alpina is always decked out nicely for the holidays as well.
A great place for kids, and one with the appropriate amount of holiday lights, is Industry Kitchen. It’s right on the water, has some sparkly reindeer as you walk in and they serve candy pizza for dessert.
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.
If you want to head into the park, it’s pretty gorgeous when the lake is frozen over and there is snow on the trees. This photo was taken on top of Bow Bridge.
Other holiday happenings this year:
LuminoCity Festival: Thousands of light lawn ornaments have taken over Randall’s Island with everything from a frozen castle to a giant doughnut tunnel to explore. Just make sure to dress warm and wear the appropriate footwear. We went after it rained and it was pretty muddy. You can use code 5SHORTS to get 5% off your tickets.
Holiday Under the Stars: Over at the Shops at Columbus Circle (a high end mall), they hang huge light up stars for the holidays that change colors. There are also free Broadway performances on Monday nights all through November and December. Check their site for the schedule.
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. If you go, Brookfield is a high end mall, with a gourmet food court and an ice skating rink on the Hudson River. You are also just a few blocks away from One World Trade and 9/11 Memorial.
They’ve also got a pretty giant Christmas tree.
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 shows the transformation of NYC from the past to today, will have the addition of snowfall. If you go, make sure to check out the Oculus and the street art next door. There is a also nearby Eataly
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 14th, 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!