If you are in New York City for the holiday season, the city's brimming with festive 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 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 markets, or partaking in the New Year's Eve countdown heard 'round the world, there are many great 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 the fantastical window displays at shops like Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman, and the shimmering UNICEF snowflake hanging just overhead on 57th Street. Bryant Park proposes another winter wonderland, with the bright lights of the glass-enclosed Holiday Shops, a glimmering Christmas tree, and a free ice-skating rink. Another highlight is the Shops at Columbus Circle's annual Holidays Under the Stars installation from November 11, 2019, through January 5, 2020, featuring 14-foot (4 meters) high stars hanging overhead, with changing colors.
Shopping for loved ones is a pillar of the holiday season. Check off that list while perusing the unique 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 purchasing wares can be paired with hot cocoa and seasonal nosh.
If you prefer to stay toasty, Grand Central Terminal offers an indoor market in its atmospheric Vanderbilt Hall, as well as a Holiday Fair from November 18 through December 24, 2019, with 40 vendors selling art, toys, clothes, and more.
Get into the spirit of the season at this beloved and time-honored 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, on-stage ice skaters, and more. The 90-minute shows run from November 20, 2019, through January 5, 2020 (except for November 21, 2019).
Catch More Iconic Holiday Shows
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular might be the best-known holiday show in the city, but there's an extensive calendar of festive productions unfolding across the city, including special theatrical performances and concerts. Other popular annual offerings: "The Nutcracker" from November 29, 2019, through January 5, 2020, and Handel's "Messiah" from December 17-21, 2019, at the Lincoln Center, The New York Pops Holiday Concert at Carnegie Hall December 20-21, 2019, 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 wait countless hours in the cold to secure your spot.
Happily, there are plenty of tree-lighting ceremonies around NYC each year touting much more navigable crowds, with Christmas card-cover-worthy trees perched in places like Bryant Park on December 5, 2019, as well as Lincoln Square and the South Street Seaport, both on December 2, 2019. Once the trees are lit they'll be on nightly through the season, so swing by anytime after that to enjoy their pleasant glows.
New Yorkers love their ice-skating rinks come wintertime, with several cropping up each season in Manhattan alone. Not only is skating on these rinks fun all winter long, but several of them offer a terrific holiday atmosphere. For instance, have a whirl under the towering tree at The Rink at Rockefeller Center, or follow up your skating with some holiday shopping at Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park (free, though you'll have to rent skates).
If you'd prefer to relax and let somebody else take the reindeer reins on all things holiday-related, that should be easy. In a city that offers visitors just about anything, 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 Grand Central Terminal is no ordinary station during the Christmas season. It's a veritable epicenter for winter fun, thanks to its annual Holiday Fair, taking place in 2019 from November 18 through December 24 and featuring dozens of pop-up stands. Also, don't miss the beloved holiday train exhibit at the New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex, right on-site, from November 21, 2019, through February 23, 2020.
The season wouldn't be complete without a visit with Old St. Nick. Happily, he manages to get around town quite a bit each year, with go-to stations for pictures with Santa at stores like Macy's. In 2019, check out Santaland at Macy's from November 29 through December 24, and find Santa Claus at Bloomingdale's from November 29 through December 23.
Undoubtedly one of the world's most famous parties, the ball drop is one of the most iconic ways to ring in the New Year. Many New Yorkers shy away from the event, citing gripes like cold temperatures, crazy crowds, and the lack of bathrooms. But it's a unique rush to experience that wild countdown beginning at 11:59 p.m. EST, with about 1 million fellow revelers gathered under the bright lights of Times Square, enjoying live music and pyrotechnics, along with an abundance of confetti, noisemakers, and balloons.
If the madness of seeing the ball drop in Times Square isn't your idea of a good time, New York City certainly isn't lacking alternatives for a New Year's Eve celebration. There are many exciting parties in Manhattan and typically a whole roster of fun New Year's Eve concerts too.
In 2019, the beloved Prospect Park's Grand Army Plaza will have a live performance by Brooklyn’s Quintessential Playlist, and the family-friendly event will feature fireworks at midnight. Coney Island is also a fun place for festivities as the year changes: Check out Luna Park's fireworks display and walk around the iconic Coney Island Boardwalk.
If parties, bars, and concerts aren't your speed, you're in luck: New York City offers plenty of other enjoyable types of New Year's Eve celebrations every year. From biking and running outings in Central Park 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—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. In case you need a little hair of the dog, a boozy brunch is a must, but the city has many only-in-New-York activities on January 1 as well, like the famous Polar Bear Club's annual New Year's Day Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge in the frigid Atlantic Ocean.
There may be nothing cozier on a cold winter night during the holidays than sitting by a crackling fireplace with a favorite drink in hand. High-end cocktail haunts like Employees Only in the West Village 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, finding delicious hot chocolate is easy. 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 ice skating rink, hot cocoa abounds. City Bakery's rich, creamy elixir is a perennial favorite; the business has a few locations around town.