11 best things to do in New York at Christmas and New Year

Close-up of the clock at Grand Central Station in New York at Christmas time with decorations in the background.

It may be a little chilly, but New York at Christmas is a magical place to be.

Guest post by Sophia Wu, travel blogger

As the temperature drops and the days start to get shorter, I find that the fall and winter months in NYC are some of the best times to visit the Big Apple! 

With all the upcoming festivities and the holiday season quickly approaching, the city turns into a winter wonderland with plenty of things to do. 

It’s the perfect way to start getting into that holiday spirit! Here are 11 things to do in NYC during the Christmas holiday season that you’ll want to add to your list:

1. Visit Rockefeller Center

The Rockefeller Center sits in the heart of the city and is the perfect place to start a holiday trip to NYC! You’ll find the middle of the plaza is home to the 80-foot tall Christmas tree that shines bright with 50,000 LED lights.

The Rockefeller Center, New York at Christmas time with trees and decorative lights

While you’re here, immerse yourself in some of the most quintessentially New York City attractions like live tapings of Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show by Jimmy Fallon. For aerial views of the city, head to Top of the Rock, the observatory at the top of the Rockefeller Center featuring three levels of indoor and outdoor observation decks.

And if you’re into ice skating, be sure to also go for a spin in The Rink at the Rockefeller Center. This rink has appeared in so many movies and TV shows, like Marvel’s Hawkeye, that you could say it might just be one of the most iconic rinks in the nation!

2. Go Ice Skating in the Parks

Speaking of ice skating, I had to give it its own place on this list because it’s one of my favorite winter activities! New York City at Christmas is the perfect time and place to lace up a pair of skates and hit the ice. With many parks hosting ice rinks, there are plenty of places to go skating in the city. 

Open air ice skating at night during holiday season in New York at Christmas time with decorated tree in the background.

From the Wollman Rink in Central Park and Glide at Brooklyn Bridge Park, ice skating with a view of some of the most iconic New York City attractions in the background is a must, in my book!

And if you’re looking to save a few dollars, I would check out the rink at Bryant Park. The cherry on top is that if you bring your own skates, admission to the ice rink at Bryant Park is free, so it’s a great free thing to do in the city! I know I’ll be using those dollars saved to spend more on Christmas gifts for friends and family!

Oh, and I know this one might not be in a park but I would also check out Sky Skate. It’s the highest ice rink in the city and it’s located on the 100th floor of the Edge in Hudson Yards! What a perfect way to skate and visit a rooftop! 

3. Wander through the Holiday Markets

Speaking of Christmas gifts, holiday markets are a great place to get your holiday shopping done while also supporting local businesses and artists.

Crowds of people in Times Square, New York

Throughout the city, you’ll find plenty of holiday markets including the Union Square Holiday Market and the Winter Village at Bryant Park.

Each holiday market has its unique points, featuring local artisans and vendors. Take a few hours to wander amongst the stalls and you’ll find local crafts and seasonal specialities perfect for gifting this holiday season. 

Be sure to complete your trip with a steaming cup of apple cider or hot cocoa to warm up!

4. Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Times Square

This might be one of the most iconic things to do in New York City!

Times Square, New York

Now, most New Yorkers will probably tell you to avoid Times Square completely. But I can’t deny that being there, in person, to watch the ball-drop – counting down with the crowd – is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences to check off the bucket list.

Musical performances from major artists are also held in the middle of Times Square as you wait for the countdown and the ball-drop. In past years, artists like J-Hope, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus have all performed on the New Year stage.

If you plan on ringing in the New Year in Times Square, make sure to dress in warm layers and arrive early to secure a good spot.

5. Welcome the New Year on a New Year’s Eve Fireworks Cruise

Now, if you would rather skip the crowds in Times Square, you can also welcome the new year aboard a cruise overlooking the fireworks that go off over the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor.

Night time cruise boat going under a New York bridge with fireworks in the sky above

Depending on which cruise you book, you may have access to an open-bar, hors d’oeuvres, a glass of champagne to toast the night, and other fun goodies for ringing in the new year. 

Toasting to the new year and new beginnings on a cruise while watching the fireworks illuminate the Statue of Liberty from behind is truly a unique way to welcome the new year!

6. Attend Holiday Concerts and Performances

As home to Broadway, late-night shows, concert halls, and so much more, NYC has no shortage of performances and shows to catch, especially during the holiday season.

If you’re looking for some of the most iconic shows, be sure to see the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular at the Radio City Music Hall or The Nutcracker at the Lincoln Center.

Male and female ballet dancers performing in Swan Lake on stage in New York

The holidays are also a great time to catch a show in the city since many places will hold limited edition shows that have a holiday spin to them. If you plan to catch a show, I would highly recommend booking ahead of time to get good seats at a reasonable price. If you’re not as picky about the seats, the TKTS tickets booth in Times Square also offers same day Broadway tickets for a reduced price on a first-come first-serve basis.

7. Dress up as Santa for Santacon

Come to the city during mid-December and you’ll Santa roaming the streets. In fact, you’ll find thousands of Santas roaming the streets.

Crowds of people in New York at Christmas  dressed as Santa, at SantaCon

Taking place in December, SantaCon returns to the city with participants dressing as Santa Claus himself for a self-proclaimed “non-sensical Santa Claus convention that happens once a year for absolutely no reason”.

Dressed as Santas, elves, and other holiday figures, SantaCon is a loosely, organized pub crawl event where all the Santas and elves spend the day hopping between bars.

A gingerbread iced house with cute figures and a Christmas scene around it at Gingerbread Village in New York at Christmas

8. See the World’s Largest Gingerbread Village at Essex Market

Seven hundred gingerbread houses, four thousand lbs. of candy, and one thousand lbs. of gingerbread. That’s what you’ll find at the world’s largest gingerbread village!

Hosted in the Lower East Side’s Essex Market, this is one of the most historic public markets in New York City. During the holiday season, it’s taken over by a sprawling gingerbread village. It has even earned the Guinness World Record for being the world’s largest gingerbread village several years in a row now.

9. Indulge in Holiday Afternoon Tea

A posh afternoon tea - china teapot, plate and cup with a dainty selection of cakes and savouries set on a table

If you visit New York at Christmas time, you’ll find the city’s hotels full of charm and warmth. Many are beautifully decorated to offer a festive welcome to guests.

Go for a holiday afternoon tea in New York’s most elegant and iconic hotels like The Plaza and The Ritz-Carlton. What better way to treat yourself and reflect on the past year, than with bite-sized pastries and cakes topped off with rich flavor-infused teas served on the finest platterware?

For me, nothing beats The Palm Court at The Plaza Hotel! Walking past the lobby and into the court is an absolutely elegant experience. 

10. Catch the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden

The annual train show exhibit returns to the New York Botanical Garden!

Watch as the little model trains speed past miniature replicas of iconic NYC landmarks surrounded by thousands of shining lights. The exhibit is also hosted inside the Conservatory so it’s a great activity if you’re looking to get out of the cold.

Model steam train and station at a model railway display

And if you’re looking for more of a night out, be sure to come during Bar-Car Nights. It’s a 21+ evening that features a Holiday Train Show and curated cocktails.

11. Take in the Lights at the Winter Lantern Festival

Make your way over to Queens for this whimsical wonderland of lights at the Winter Lantern Festival!

With over 1000 Chinese lanterns, each thoughtfully crafted by artisans, walking through this exhibit is a spectacle to behold! 

These intricately-designed lanterns help symbolize the festival’s celebration of cultural diversity as each one covers the park in an enchanting tapestry of displays from around the world.

Thousands of sparkling lights in a tunnel, part of a lantern festival in New York

Conclusion

In the city that never sleeps, the endless amount of festivities and celebrations truly show that New York at Christmas is one of the best places to be when it comes to spending a holiday season. 

From visiting the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center to the Guinness World Record-holding gingerbread village at Essex Market, there’s a little holiday cheer for everyone in the Big Apple. I hope that this list of 11 things to do in New York City at Christmas gives you some inspiration for your own travels this holiday season!

Sophia Wu is a travel blogger and content creator based in Washington D.C. Check out her excellent blog By Sophia Wu for more great posts and travel recommendations!

More on the USA from Coconut Lands: Boston – a city of great brains and independent spirit and A guide to historic Williamsburg, VA – birthplace of America.

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4 Comments

  1. I would absolutely love to visit NYC over Christmas and Hogmanay! I have only visited at Easter and that was fantastic, but Christmas looks magical. I would be in that crowd watching the ball drop too! This is a great list and I think I shall have to work towards organising a trip. Someone else can cook the turkey for once!

  2. What a great list! In the cold months, I tend to choose tropical destinations for my travels, to escape the unpleasant temperatures in Germany, but these suggestions really made me consider a trip to NYC in the winter. I especially like the Santa Con – I love silly traditions and eccentric festivals. Thanks for sharing!

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