It’s the most wonderful time of the year! At least, as a Christmas enthusiast, I think it is! I love Christmas and while I will always be home in Canada for the holidays, I do enjoy visiting other places during the festive season to see how they celebrate. Places like London, Paris, and Vienna. However, much closer to home is another winter wonderland that is absolutely magical at this time of year: New York City. Christmas in New York City is pretty amazing. From European inspired Christmas markets to lights, decorations, and window displays. Not to mention the décor in the hotels, bars, and restaurants. It really is a must see.
So if NYC during the holiday season is on your radar, then this post is for you. Here are my top suggestions for the best ways to experience the magic of Christmas in New York City.
Tip: Looking for cheap flight to NYC? Try Skyscanner; it’s my go-to.
New York City Christmas Markets
While New York City Christmas Market’s aren’t quite on the same level as my beloved European Christmas markets, they have certainly come a long way since my first visit to New York at Christmas in 2011. What used to be a few random stalls of knick-knacks and hot chocolate have turned into decent size markets featuring quality goods from local artisans. Oh, and some really yummy food too.
If you still have some holiday shopping to do, then the New York City Christmas markets are a great place to pick up some thoughtful gifts. From adorable travel themed jewellery to NYC photography, hand-drawn images, metal sculptures, clothing, knitwear, leatherwork, and more. You’re bound to find something fun and unique for everyone on your list.
As for the food and drink, well don’t go expecting gluhwein and sausages, but do go hungry. You’ll find things like raclette, pierogis, apple cider donuts, bao, waffles, and decadent coffees and hot chocolates. Prices are high (after all, this is New York City we are talking about) but it’s worth it to try a couple of things!
There are several New York City Christmas Markets, but if you only have time for a couple then these are my favourites:
Bryant Park Winter Village
This New York City Christmas market is located in Bryant’s Park, just a ten-minute walk from Time’s Square, and is my favourite NYC Christmas market. The stalls, which are more like little shops that you can actually enter, are spread around the park with plenty of room to move between them and shop. There’s a good variety of quality wares for sale from local artisans and companies and lots of opportunities for food as well. Part of what makes this New York Christmas market so special is the atmosphere. There’s a large Christmas tree all done up with lights and a skating rink where people of all ages and skill level can skate and play. When it comes to New York City Christmas markets, Bryant Park’s Winter Village is an absolute must!
Closest subway station: 42ndStreet-Bryant Park
Union Square Christmas Market
I smelled this New York Christmas market before I saw it upon exiting the subway. The smell of fresh cut Christmas trees greeted me as I climbed up the stairs directly into the market and that, along with the stands of lights, was enough to have me feeling festive before I even got to looking around. The Union Square Christmas Market is another gem that is worth poking around. There aren’t as many food options here as in Bryant Park, but the goods for sale are just as interesting and creative. Think homemade fudge, quality candles and bath products, hand carved and painted wooden ornaments, fine jewellery, and more. Perhaps just my timing as well, but the Union Square Christmas Market also seemed to be a bit quieter and less crowded which is an obvious perk!
Closest Subway Station: 14thStreet-Union Square
Columbus Circle Christmas Market
Another classic when it comes to New York Christmas markets is the Columbus Circle Christmas Market. It’s pretty small, but it packs a lot of charm and, of course, is perfectly located at the corner of Central Park. Expect to find lots of cute Christmas decorations and ornaments here along with leather goods, home and kitchenware, and of course some yummy treats including French macarons, flavoured chocolate bars, and teas.
Closest Subway Station: 29thStreet-Columbus Circle
New York City Christmas Window Displays
What is Christmas in New York without checking out the New York City Christmas window displays? For many, both locals and tourists, the yearly Christmas window displays are the highlight of the holiday season and everyone wants to see what they have in store.
The most popular New York City Christmas window displays tend to be along 5thavenue with Saks and Bergdorf Goodman getting most of the attention. Bergdorf Goodman always has whimsical fashion-inspired windows. I loved the 2018 Gingerbread window and ice cream/robot one.
You never know what you will get in Saks. During my first visit to New York for Christmas their theme was the Yeti Story which told the tale of an adorable abominable snowman trying to make his way in the world. I LOVED it. I was a bit disappointed with the windows for 2018 which were a bunch of well-dressed mannequins in dreamy landscapes. However, the front of the building was done up to look like a fairytale castle and I was all for that.
Other notable storefronts along 5thavenue include Tiffany’s and, probably my favourite, Cartier which is done up in a big red bow and glittering white leopards crawling down the building.
Of course, when it comes to New York City Christmas window displays, you can’t forget Macy’s! They do both sides in fun, winter-wonderland themed décor that is usually animatronic and a hit with kids of all ages (especially this one). For 2018, Macy’s definitely had the most ‘Christmassy’ window displays making it pick for the year. Be sure to go inside as well, because Macy’s ‘Santaland’ is pretty darn magical (and much warmer!).
The Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center
Did you even go to New York City at Christmas if you didn’t see the Christmas tree and decorations at Rockefeller Center? The answer is no (not that I know why you would come to NYC during the holiday season and want to skip it).
The tradition of having a live Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center started in 1933 and has been broadcast live since 1997. It is one of the most beloved sites in New York City during the holiday season, and it’s estimated that about 125 million people visit it each year.
So, yes, it can be pretty crowded. But, you can work around it. Around sunset, when it just starts to get dark, is when I found it to be the busiest. Come during the day or later in the evening to see it all lit up to avoid the biggest crowds.
Of course, while the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is the highlight, there are other beautiful decorations including smaller trees and silver angels. And you can’t forget the famous Rockefeller Center skating rink. It’s not cheap (prices vary depending on date + there is an additional fee for skate rental) but, it’s a bucket list opportunity for many.
New York City Christmas Lights and Decorations
While the New York City Christmas window displays are a huge draw, they aren’t the only decorations you can find around the city. There are plenty more New York City Christmas lights and decorations to be found if you are willing to look for them!
Aside from the obvious: the lights and decorations on the shops down 5th avenue, around the New York City Christmas Markets, and of course surrounding Rockefeller centre, there are two more big stand-out spots in Manhattan that are definitely worth a visit for those looking to see the best of New York City’s Christmas lights and decorations.
Along 6thavenue, close to Radio City Music Hall, you can find two of my favourite NYC decorations. The first is a display of oversize Christmas tree lights in all bright colours and then, just down the street, you can find the second: a stack of big, red Christmas balls.
Finally, if you are up for a walk, then take a stroll down Park Avenue. Between 54thand 97thstreet you will find tons of trees all dressed up in beautiful twinkling lights. Not only is it beautiful to see, but it also has a really nice story behind it too. The tradition started in 1945 when local families decorated the trees to honour those who lost their lives in WWII. The tradition has stayed alive all of these years in remembrance of all of those who have died while serving their country.
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights Bus Tour
So far, I’ve been talking about the Christmas highlights in Manhattan since that’s where most tourists come to experience New York City at Christmas. However, if you are a real Christmas enthusiast then you have to see the Dyker Heights Christmas lights.
Dyker Heights is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn and some of these homes go all out for the holiday season. Think thousands of lights, huge toy soldiers, an animatronic Santa, reindeer, snowmen, inflatable Christmas characters and more. It’s like nothing you have ever seen before but trust me, you do really want to see it.
It is possible to use public transit to do this tour on your own, however, for those staying in Manhattan I definitely recommend taking a tour. I went with a Slice of Brooklyn Tours and it was perfect. Learn more about my experience here. Just remember, this is definitely a tour that you will need to book in advance!
Christmas Shows in NYC
When it comes to visiting New York City, a Broadway show or stage play is normally a must on every visitor’s list. Of course, you always have a huge selection to choose from but if you really want to get in the holiday spirit, then consider one of these Christmas shows in NYC.
- The Radio City Christmas Spectacular
- A Christmas Carol
- The Nutcracker
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas
If you have your heart set on seeing something specific, it’s best to book in advance. If you are game for anything, you can always visit the TKTS Booth in Times Square and see what is available. Go first thing in the morning for the best selection.
New York City Christmas Themed Bars
New York City has no shortage of bars and some of them really go all out for the holiday season. So if you are looking to grab a festive drink, then these are the best of New York City’s Christmas themed bars.
When it comes to Christmas themed bars in NYC, then Rolf’s takes the top spot. This German restaurant is famous for its over-the-top Christmas decorations. While it does get pretty crowded, it’s worth a visit for a quick drink just to see what all the fuss is about. A drink here is a definite must when experiencing Christmas in New York.
Grab a drink or two or a meal at Serra Alpina by Birreria. It’s a glass-enclosed beer garden that has been transformed into a beautiful winter escape, making it one of the top Christmas themed bars in NYC. Be sure to try the vin brulé which is the Italian version of mulled wine.
There are two Arlo Hotels in NYC and both have created a winter-wonderland for patrons to enjoy while sipping a cocktail or two. Expect real snow on the hour, ice sculptures, and bubble-type ‘ice huts’ and these Christmas themed bars.
Ice Skating in NYC
There’s something special about ice skating during the holiday season and New York City is the perfect place to do it. There are several places to go Ice Skating in NYC. From city parks to Christmas markets and more, these are the best spots to go Ice Skating in NYC.
- The rink at Rockefeller Center
- The rink at Bryant Park Winter Village
- The Wollman Rink in Central Park
- The Rink at Brookfield Place
- The Rink at the Standard, High Line
Remember, there is a fee to skate at all of the above rinks as well as an additional fee for skate rental if required.
Christmas Themed Holiday Tea in New York City
Afternoon tea is one of my favourite things to do when travelling, and a must in my Girls getaway guide to NYC. Of course, you can find afternoon tea in New York City year-round, but during the holidays most of the big venues offer a special, festive afternoon tea menu that makes it a little more special.
We indulged (and I do mean indulged) in the Christmas tea at The Palm Court in the Plaza Hotel which included a selection of fresh finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, jam, and lemon curd, and a large array of Christmassy looking desserts along with tea and we added pink champagne (because, why not?). Afternoon tea in the Plaza is served in the Palm Court which was also beautifully decorated Christmas.
The Best New York City Christmas Hotels
New York City has no shortage of hotels, but I figure that if you are coming to experience New York City at Christmas, then you may as well stay in one that decorates.
Granted, most of the NYC hotels get at least a little bit festive during the holiday season, but some definitely go above and beyond when it comes to decorations. From twinkling lights to towering Christmas trees, garlands, wreaths, and more; these are the best New York City Christmas Hotels.
Unsurprisingly, New York hotels at Christmas can be pretty pricey, especially those that really get decked out for the holidays. For the best prices, plan on coming midweek and, if you can’t quite afford a stay at these hotels, you can always pop into the lobby to see the decorations.
What to Pack for Christmas in New York City
When it comes to experiencing Christmas in New York City, you want to make sure you pack properly. For many, especially the women, this means looking nice. But it also means wearing comfortable shoes or boots since you’ll explore a lot on foot, and proper clothing to stay warm. Especially if you plan on being out in the evening.
When it comes to coats, I recommend bringing a pea coat or a nice wool coat rather than a parka. Not only will you blend in better, but parka-type coats tend to be heavier which may be cumbersome and uncomfortable as you go in and out of shops and restaurants. Try this coat for women or this coat for men.
That being said, there are a few accessories I recommend bringing along including the following:
- This super soft blanket scarf. It’s cozy, it’s classy, and it will keep you warm and looking good as you wander through Manhattan.
- A cute leather backpack is perfect for carrying around what you need for the day and for holding anything you buy along the way (let’s be honest, you know you’ll end up with something from the NYC Christmas markets!). Word of advice: take it off and hold it in front of you when on the subway to help avoid any sticky fingers.
- This travel size umbrella. I’ve been rained on both times I visited New York City at Christmas. Better to come prepared then get drenched or have to fork out a small fortune for a crappy one!
- A travel size power bank. Chances are you will be using your phone quite a lot as you explore New York City at Christmas. From taking photos to checking directions. Since the cold kills your battery faster, it’s best to have a power bank as a backup to stay charged.
Final Tips for New York at Christmas
I love New York City at Christmas, but I will admit that it can get pretty expensive and pretty crowded. But, there are a few tips to help avoid the worst of it.
Firstly, if possible, plan on visiting mid-week rather than on a weekend. This reduces the crowds significantly which may be hard to believe at the time but having done both, just trust me on this one. Not only is this best for avoiding crowds, but it also means cheaper prices on shows, tours, and on accommodation.
If you can’t do a mid-week escape, then save the Christmas sight-seeing until late at night when most of the crowds have disappeared. Right at sundown, when it first gets dark, seems to be the busiest time around the Rockefeller Center. But if you go later in the evening, you’ll be able to bypass the busiest crowds.
Booking in advance is essential when visiting New York City at Christmas. NYC is always busy and the holiday season is incredibly popular. Make sure to get your hotel room booked early as well as any tours or shows you want to check out. It’s also a good idea to make dinner reservations in advance as well, especially if you want to grab a bite to eat before a show.
Despite the crowds and sometimes hefty price tags, Christmas in New York City is absolutely magical and should be a must on any Christmas enthusiast’s list!