In New York City for the holiday season? Lucky you! The city's positively brimming with festive goings-on and timeless traditions for Christmas and New Year's (and also Thanksgiving, for the record). Make the most of your merrymaking with this essential guide to all that's good and jolly during the holidays in New York City. Whether it's ice-skating under the stars (and skyscrapers), watching dancing nutcrackers flit about the stage, being wowed by sparkling store windows and holiday light displays, shopping at vibrant holiday markets, or partaking in the New Year's Eve countdown heard 'round the world, here are 15 of our favorite ways to experience NYC's one-of-a-kind holiday spirit.
Manhattan can't be beaten for its wow-factor holiday light displays come Christmastime. Rockefeller Center ranks tops for its towering illuminated tree and picture-perfect plaza set aglow with twinkling angels, toy soldiers, wreaths, and more. A stroll down nearby Fifth Avenue in Midtown will have you stopping in your tracks at any of the fantastical window displays at shops like Lord & Taylor, Tiffany & Co., Bergdorf Goodman, and Henri Bendel (not to mention the shimmering UNICEF snowflake hanging just overhead on 57th Street). Bryant Park proposes another winter wonderland scene, with the bright lights of the glass-enclosed Holiday Shops, a glimmering Christmas tree, and a well-used (and free!) ice-skating rink. We also love the Shops at Columbus Circle for its annual "Holidays Under the Stars" installation, featuring massive 14-feet-high stars hanging overhead, with changing color and musical scheme.
Love it or hate it, shopping for loved ones is a pillar of the holiday season. Make the most of checking off that list while perusing the unique and fun finds at one of New York City's cheery pop-up holiday markets. Make way for scenic outdoor locales like Bryant Park, Union Square, and Columbus Circle, where some of the city's best markets unfold and shopping for wares can be paired with hot cocoa and seasonal nosh. Tip: If you prefer to stay nice and toasty, Grand Central Terminal offers an indoor market, too, in its atmospheric Vanderbilt Hall.
Get into the spirit of the season at this beloved and time-honored holiday show. The annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular is a joy to watch for kids of all ages, with plenty of classic acts anchored on those wonderfully entertaining, high-kicking Rockettes. Count on fun special effects, great choreography, and wow-factor segments like the "Living Nativity" (featuring live camels, sheep, and donkeys), on-stage ice skaters, and more. The 90-minute shows typically run through January 1.
Catch More Iconic Holiday Shows
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular might be the best-known holiday show in the city, but there's a whole extensive calendar of festive holiday productions unfolding across the city, including special theatrical performances and concerts. Other popular annual offerings: The Nutcracker and Handel's Messiah at Lincoln Center, the New York Pops Holiday Concert at Carnegie Hall, and more.
Everybody's heard of the famous Rockefeller Center tree-lighting ceremony for a good reason, but truth be told: You'll get nowhere near the tree when they flip the switch if you don't have countless hours to spare to wait around in the cold to secure your spot. Happily, there are plenty of tree-lighting ceremonies scheduled around NYC each year touting much more navigable crowds, with Christmas card-cover-worthy trees perched in places like Bryant Park, Lincoln Square, and the South Street Seaport. Of course, once the trees are lit they'll be on nightly through the season, so do swing by anytime after that to enjoy their pleasant glows.
New Yorkers love their ice-skating rinks come wintertime, with more than a half-dozen of them cropping up each season in Manhattan alone. Not only is skating on these rinks good fun all winter long, but several of them offer a terrific holiday atmosphere to boot. For instance, have a whirl under the towering Rockefeller Center tree at The Rink at Rockefeller Center, or follow up your skating with some holiday shopping at Bryant Park's Winter Village. Bonus: It's a free rink, though you'll have to pay for skate rentals.
Prefer to sit back, relax, and let somebody else take the reindeer reins on all things holiday-related in NYC? No problem. In a city that offers visitors just about anything, rest assured that there's a good selection of holiday-themed tours from which to choose. From a bus tour that focuses on on-location movie scenes where famous Christmas-in-NYC films were shot, to a behind-the-scenes tour at Rockefeller Center, there are plenty of festive holiday tours to make the whole family happy.
Hanging out at a train station might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the holiday season in New York City, but rest assured that Grand Central Terminal is no ordinary station come Christmastime. In fact, it's a veritable epicenter for holiday fun each year, thanks to its annual holiday market featuring dozens of pop-up stands, as well as its beloved holiday train exhibit at the New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex, right on-site.
The season just wouldn't be complete without a visit with Old St. Nick! Happily, he manages to get around town quite a bit each year, with annual go-to stations for pictures with Santa at stores like Macy's, ABC Carpet & Home, Bloomingdale's, and more.
Undoubtedly one of the world's most famous parties, the ball drop in New Year's Eve is pretty much the most iconic way to ring in the New Year. While many New Yorkers shy away from the event, citing gripes like cold temperatures, crazy crowds, and the lack of bathrooms, it's a unique rush nevertheless to experience that wild countdown with about a million fellow revelers gathered under the bright lights of Times Square.
If the madness of seeing the ball drop in Times Square just isn't your idea of a good time, New York City certainly isn't lacking alternatives for a proper New Year's Eve celebration. There are plenty of exciting New Year's Eve parties in Manhattan and typically a whole roster of fun New Year's Eve concerts too.
If parties, bars, and concerts aren't quite your speed this year, you're in luck: New York City offers plenty of fun alternative New Year's Eve celebrations every year. From biking and running outings to mindful meditations and yoga classes to harbor cruises, an alternative New Year's Eve celebration is sure to start your new year off right.
Don't waste a minute of your precious time in Manhattan—there's never a dull moment in the Big Apple, and there's way more to do on New Year's Day in NYC than sit around and nurse your hangover. Yeah, a boozy brunch, in case you need a little hair of the dog, is a must, but the city has plenty of only-in-New-York activities on January 1 as well, like the famous Polar Bear Club's annual swim in the frigid Atlantic Ocean.
There may be nothing cozier on a cold winter night during the holidays than sitting by a crackling fireplace, a favorite drink in hand. High-end cocktail haunts like Employees Only, and Tribeca's Brandy Library are saving a seat for you. Bonus: Most of these bars put up festive holiday decor to keep you in the spirit.
In the culinary paradise of New York City, rest assured that delicious hot chocolate is no exception. Whether you're looking for a sugar rush to help fuel your holiday shopping spree, or are wanting to warm up after a whirl on the rink, hot cocoa abounds. City Bakery's rich, creamy elixir is a perennial favorite.