Here’s a little secret that New Yorkers don’t want you to know about them. Around the holiday season, even inhabitants of the greatest city in the world get FOMO when they see photos of people taking in touristy holiday sights. It’s why locals contribute to traffic on Fifth Avenue by asking the cab driver to slow down so they can catch a glimpse of the windows at Bergdorf’s and the tree in Rockefeller Center.
There is no place on Earth that captures the excitement of the holidays quite like New York. From the step-off time at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to the famous Times Square ball drop on New Year’s Eve–and the six weeks in between–The Big Apple is a sparkling treasure chest of attractions and activities that capture the imagination with the spirit of the season. It’s what attracts over 6.5 million visitors each year to pack Gotham’s streets, theaters, restaurants, and shops and warms the hearts of the city’s famously curmudgeonly residents.
This year, the holiday season lasts roughly 40 days. That means if you want to capture all that New York has to offer, you only have 640 hours to accomplish it–even less if you haven’t finished your holiday gift shopping! We’ve put together a list of 10 must-see New York City holiday activities for both first-timers and repeat attendees alike. So whether you’re a lifelong New Yorker who wants to feel like a kid, or if you’re coming in for the holidays for the first time, this list of attractions will make you feel merry and bright. Now put on your scarves and gloves and hit those city streets!
A New York City tradition for 90 years, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center draws an estimated 125 million visitors each year. This year’s tree will be an 80-year-old 80-foot-tall Norway Spruce from Vestal, New York. The 12-ton tree will be wrapped in over five miles of 50,000 LED lights, and topped with a Swarovski star that weighs a reported 900 pounds. Visiting time to see the tree starts at 6 a.m. and goes to midnight.
Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular
Also, celebrating 90 years in midtown is New York’s most famous holiday show. This 90-minute extravaganza features snow, ice skating, breathtaking 3-D effects, a massive LED screen, a double-decker tour bus, live animals, a living nativity, and a flying Santa. But the real stars of the show are the 70 high-kicking Rockettes who, while split into two casts, perform up to five times a day. Tickets for all performances between November 17 and January 1 are on sale now.
Saks Fifth Avenue
For nearly two decades, New York’s famed luxury department store has been presenting one of the city’s most fabulous events for free to the public. Each year, weeks of overnight labor through the month of October magically transforms the seven-floor facade of the landmarked store into a spectacular holiday-themed light show that runs every ten minutes from 5 p.m. until midnight.
Every department store and mall has a Santa, but if you want the OG Santa experience, there is only Macy’s Herald Square. With 13,000 square feet of lights, snow, animatronics, and trainsets, Macy’s Santaland on the eighth floor of the 34th Street flagship store is a bucket list must for children of all ages. You may wonder how the busiest man in December sees over a quarter million people every year in the world’s largest store. Christmas magic, of course! But you’ll need a reservation.
There is only one place in the Big Apple where audiences can see: a Christmas tree magically grow from 12 to 40 feet, a giant toy nutcracker do battle with rat king, 50 pounds of snowfall, and a host of children emerge from a giant hoop skirt. A cultural staple of the season, the New York City Ballet Company’s annual production of “George Ballanchine’s The Nutcracker” has been delighting audiences to Thaichovky’s crowd pleaser since 1954. It’s a terrific excuse to dress up the little ones for their first trip to Lincoln Center. Tickets go fast, so reserve now.
For those looking for more naughty and less nice, take a trip out to Bushwick Brooklyn for a performance of “Nutcracker Rouge”– a 21-and-over treatment of the holiday classic. Now in its 13th year, this unique blend of burlesque, cirque, classical dance, and yuletide debauchery is the perfect date night activity for when the children are nestled all snug in their beds.
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Brooklynites have never liked being outdone by Manhattan. So, in the 1980s a resident of the southwestern Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights set out to create a spectacular display on her house and front lawn. Neighbors followed suit, and now an estimated 100,000 people flock to the historic streets to see one home outdo the other with enough ornaments and lights to earn this otherwise quiet enclave the nickname “Con Edison’s Warmest Heartthrob.” Looking to visit? Here’s a caveat. Traffic is crazy; parking is next to impossible. The subway is the only way to go. Take the D train to 79th Street and New Utrecht Ave in Brooklyn. Wear comfortable shoes because it’s a 15-minute walk to 13th Avenue where the fun starts.
No matter what the weather, if you want to get on the ice during the holidays, you’ve got options in New York. From the pricey but iconic Rink at Rockefeller Center to the Bank of America Winter Village in Bryant Park (where it’s free if you bring your own skates), Gotham has no shortage of ice skating opportunities for all budgets. The best thing is most rinks in New York have backdrops worthy of Instagrammable moments. Skate in Central Park’s Wollman Rink with the skyline overhead, or skate under the iconic Brooklyn Bridge with unmatched views of downtown. Or travel to the 100th floor of Hudson Yards for New York City’s highest skating rink and take in the best views of the city!
Holiday Train Show
Every year for two months starting in November, the conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, with its iconic enormous glass dome plays host to one of the city’s most creative and beloved holiday traditions. See scale models of over 200 New York City Landmarks made out of organic materials while 25 model trains zip by on over a half-mile of G-scale tracks. The fun continues outdoors at the NYBG’s stunning outdoor light show. Fans of adult beverages can reserve tickets for special Bar Car Nights.
What’s more fun than shopping al fresco during the holidays? Each year ,three of New York’s most beloved green spaces are turned into festive destinations with hundreds of stalls operated by artisans selling everything from hand puppets to handbags, high-end dog sweaters to hand-knit scarves, and everything in between. Stop by locations in Columbus Circle, Bryant Park, and Union Square to shop or just enjoy the brisk air and some hot chocolate.
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a 32-feet-high Hanukkah menorah lit by a giant broom. A New York City tradition since 1985, the 4,000-pound steel structure has been drawing thousands nightly to Grand Army Plaza for eight nights of gifts, live music, hot latkes, and fun - all free of charge!