As if it were a fairytale, the city that never sleeps begins its transformation in mid-November to become a setting worthy of the sweetest stories. New York gets dressed up to the nines for Christmas with its streets, plazas and buildings decorated to celebrate the festive season with New Yorkers and visitors.
Besides the snow and the massive fir trees along the huge avenues, ice skating rinks and markets pop up everywhere to give the city a magical touch.
If you’re planning on heading to New York, here’s a short guide to make sure you don’t miss out on a thing. Ready, here we go!
You’ll need to keep the dates and opening hours in mind to organise your visits properly. Important dates to remember in New York:
- Christmas Day, 25th of December.
Christmas Day is a holiday and a family day of celebration. Many restaurants open on this day but others may close, so it’s best to check when booking a table.
Spaces that offer a tourist attraction open during reduced hours. However, the Statue of Liberty is closed on this day. You could choose to go for a walk around Manhattan and go skating at one of the ice skating rinks.
- New Year’s Eve, 31st of December. New Year’s Eve is not a holiday in New York, but as usual, many shops close early so you should make the most of the morning and early afternoon.
There are many private parties organised in different restaurants and halls all over the city. You could join some of these to enjoy a good start to the new year, but the place that definitely gathers the most visitors to ring in the new year is Times Square. The streets in and around the square are closed on this day, and there are long waiting times to get a good spot and see the different performances and the traditional ball drop and the fireworks that mark the beginning of the year.
- New Year’s Day, 1st of January. This is a holiday in New York and a day to recover from the celebrations the night before. For the more adventurous, there’s the tradition of going for a swim on the first day of the year in the traditional Polar Bear Plunge in the cold waters of Coney Island. A walk around the city to enjoy the main attractions is also a good choice.
Ice skating in New York
If there’s one place where ice skating at Christmas is almost considered a must-do activity, it’s New York. Many of the rinks are set up in squares and in between skyscrapers. Wrap up well, bring your leg warmers and take note of the main ones we suggest!
- The Rink at Rockefeller Center. This is the most popular rink in the city. The rink at Rockefeller Center is open from October to April every day until midnight. The price increases the closer you get to Christmas.
- The Rink at Bryant Park. You can skate for free here and rent skates if you don’t have your own. The lawn in Bryant Park is turned into an ice skating rink each year from October until the start of March.
- Wollman Rink in Central Park. Wollman Rink is another large rink at the southeast entrance to Central Park (at 59th street and 5th Avenue), where you can enjoy a more natural, purely winter landscape. A true delight!
- You can also find other rinks at the Brookfield Place Mall, overlooking the Hudson River, on the southeast corner of the enormous Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and Sky Rink, an indoor rink that’s open all year round at Chelsea Piers.
Turning on the Christmas lights.
Christmas doesn’t officially begin in New York until the lights on the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center are switched on. Although other shopping areas organise their own celebrations, this is the one the whole city is guided by, it’s the most traditional and also attracts the biggest crowds.
The tradition is to turn on the lights on the tree the Wednesday of the week after Thanksgiving. There’s a huge celebration on this day with tens of thousands of spectators and several live performances. The tree remains on display until January 7th.
In addition to this, turning on the lights on the tree in Bryant Park is also hugely popular. After the skating and music performances, the rink and the New York Public Library are lit up that evening and for the rest of Christmas.
New York’s Christmas markets.
New York’s Christmas markets are much more than someplace to look for gifts. You can observe, eat, drink and enjoy many great family experiences, although they’re also perfect for picking up decorations and original toys.
You can visit them from November until the start of January, and you’ll also find plenty of other small markets, but these are the main ones:
- Winter Village in Bryant Park. There are many small wooden stands around the ice skating rink in Bryant Park, where you can find all type of products, including Christmas decorations and food.
- Grand Central Holiday Fair. This is a flea market located inside Grand Central Station, which makes it perfect to escape from the cold outside. You can find all types of crafts and decorations in the Vanderbilt Hall to take back home with you as beautiful souvenirs.
- Union Square Holiday Market. Numerous stalls cover Union Square during the Christmas season. This is one of the best places to find original gifts and enjoy the search.
- Columbus Circle Holiday Market. Central Park is always full of surprises, and one of them is this Christmas market. Make sure to pass by the southwest corner for a look as you’ll always find something interesting there.
The Rockettes and other Christmas shows
One of the big family attractions at Christmas are musicals and theatre shows, and if you’re in New York, even more so. However, getting tickets can be complicated as many shows sell out weeks or even months in advance. Here are some suggestions and recommendations to help you make the right choice:
- The Rockettes Radio City Christmas Spectacularis the most traditional Christmas show in New York and has been running each Christmas at the Radio City Music Hall since 1933. A troupe of dancers perform exciting choreographies on stage that are constantly changing while they tell us a story that occurred in New York and travel around the city. Tickets are not cheap, but you can sometimes find interesting promotions and offers.
- The Nutcracker at the Lincoln Center. The Nutcracker is another Christmas classic, but in New York, the fairy-tale takes on a whole new meaning with the New York City Ballet and their interpretation of the Tchaikovsky ballet at the Lincoln Center. Don’t miss it!
- Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show. And for the little ones, enchanting model trains zip through some of New York’s landmark sites, each recreated with natural materials. It’s set up in the city’s Botanical Garden in the middle of the Bronx, and it’s a good idea to book in advance as it can be very crowded.
Christmas shopping and shop fronts.
One of the most beautiful things that grabs your attention when visiting Manhattan and strolling around is the magic of its shop windows. Every single shop gets in on the act and decorates their shop windows for Christmas from mid-November.
In some shopping malls and fashion outlets, it’s more of a creation than a change. You could call it a full on “spectacle”, given the investment and resources put into dressing up the shop fronts and the wonderful results.
You can enjoy them until the start of January when the legendary sales begin! Some of the most emblematic are:
- Macy’s (6th Avenue and 34th Street)
- Barneys (660 Madison Avenue between 60th and 61st Street)
- Bloomingdale’s (Lexington Avenue and 59th Street)
- Bergdorf Goodman (5th Avenue and 58th Street)
- Tiffany & Co (5th Avenue and 52nd Street)
- Saks Fifth Avenue (5th Avenue between 49th and 50th Street)
Christmas decoration in New York
As you stroll through New York, you’ll find that one of its greatest attractions during the Christmas season is the beautiful decorations in the city’s public spaces. The Big Apple’s streets, squares and avenues take on a different colour… and even sound, as you can constantly hear Christmas carols as you walk around. It’s all part of the show!
In general, each building chooses a date to put up their decorations, but they’re all usually in place between the middle and the end of November. If you have to decide which ones to check out, we recommend these:
- Buildings on 6th Avenue. The buildings on 6th Avenue decorate their facades with large and surprising features. The buildings closest to the Rockefeller Center are extraordinarily impressive, especially those between 45th and 55th Street.
- New York Public Library. The huge Christmas tree is majestic, as are the beautiful Jewish menorahs inside the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue with Bryant Park.
- Chelsea Market. A market that always keeps up with the latest, and at Christmas couldn’t be less. Warmly decorated and with countless shops to find those special gifts.
- Model trains at Grand Central Terminal. The Holiday Train Show is a model train inside Grand Central that runs through a miniature version of NYC. You can find it inside the New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex shop. Entrance is free.
In addition to public spaces and buildings, private homes also contribute to bringing magic to the streets. The neighbours in some residential neighbourhoods decorate the facades of their buildings with hundreds of lights and Christmas figures. But this is not just in New York, Brooklyn also joins in the festivities in areas like Dyker Heights that are well known, and although it’s a bit off the beaten track, it’s definitely worth a visit as it’s quite a sight!
Letter to Santa Claus
Whether you travel with little ones or not, it’s impossible to leave New York without seeing Santa Claus and leaving him your Christmas wish list – Macy’s is definitely a great place to meet New York’s most authentic Santa.
They create a surprising “Santaland” on one of the floors of the department store with a recreation of Santa’s village full of beautiful decorations and his magical elves in the North Pole. Children can also sit with Santa and tell him face-to-face what they’ve asked for – making it quite an experience for them!