Ultimate Guide to Christmas in New York City

The Big Apple shines brightest during the holidays – & the accompanying crowds will certainly let you know that you’re not the only one who feels that way. In fact, we’re headed there later today for our sort-of-annual holiday trip to Manhattan. Here’s the ultimate guide on how to make the most out of your Christmas in New York City.

Traditional Holiday Sites

Manhattan’s center of holiday merriment & joy is Rockefeller Center. The giant 80’ tree lights up the plaza & keeps a watchful eye over the ice skaters enjoying the very famous rink below. Make sure & take in the view down the famous trumpeting angels on 5th Ave.

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Just around the corner from Rockefeller Plaza is 6th Ave. & the magnificent Radio City Music Hall. Even if you don’t have tickets to see the Radio City Rockettes (& their world famous kick line), it’s worth a stroll past this iconic landmark with its neon marquee & towering holiday tree. Many of the office buildings on this area of 6th also have wonderful holiday decorations: huge nutcrackers guard the UBS building & the Time Life building features oversized holiday ornaments & strands of lights.

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Over on 5th Ave., the high-end retailers aim to please with their tasteful, luxe displays. Some of my favorites always include Tiffany & Co., the always creative & usually funky windows in Bergdorf Goodman, the giant red bow wrapped around Cartier, &, of course, the famous Macy’s, Bloomingdales, & Lord & Taylor holiday windows.

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To avoid the crowds at all of these famous Midtown sites (expect to stand in line to see holiday windows most of the time), B & I like to carpe diem on the Sunday morning of our annual weekend visit & go for an early morning walk. The streets are nearly empty – something that never happens in New York – & you can take your time to enjoy the holiday windows, the Rockefeller Center tree, & the quietness of Central Park.

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this is what Rockefeller Center looks like at 4pm the Saturday before Christmas
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There are a number of other trees dotted around the island, which I love to check out every year. The large tree in Bryant Park accompanies their skating rink & small holiday market. The huge tree outside the New York Stock Exchange isn’t decorated with money, but with colorful lights. Even the fire stations down at Ground Zero have Christmas trees, usually decorated with ornaments honoring the FDNY’s fallen heroes.

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A Little Holiday Shopping

My favorite holiday market in the city is one of my favorite places to visit year-round: the Union Square Greenmarket. During the month of December, in addition to the awesome farmers market which sets up every Wednesday & Saturday year-round (& is home to the best apple cider donuts in the world), there’s a holiday market selling trees, wreaths, homemade arts & crafts, & holiday gifts you didn’t even know you wanted until you were standing right there. It’s always crowded, but always worth it. For a break from the action, stop by the Starbucks on the west side of the square & pop your head back by the bathroom: there’s a gorgeous, original mosaic tile floor!

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While you’re in the Flatiron District shopping at the holiday market, be sure & stop by two of my favorite stores: The Strand (so. many. books!) & Fishes Eddy (one day I’m going to drive to NYC instead of taking the train just so I can take an entire set of dishes home with me). If you need a shopping break, there’s nothing more New York than heading up to Madison Square Park & eating at the original Shake Shack (& nothing like eating a Shack burger in a winter coat at a little café table!).

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As mentioned above, there’s also a little holiday market in Bryant Park & if you find yourself on the other side of the river, the famous Brooklyn Flea turns into the Winter Flea holiday market. Oh, & if books are on your list but you’re not in the right part of town to swing by The Strand, stop by one of my favorite independent bookshops in the city at Grand Central Station: Posman Books (sadly, Posman closed this location, but if you find yourself in Chelsea, there’s still one in Chelsea Market!). Grand Central also looks, well, grand this time of year.

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A Holly, Jolly Show

New York City is the entertainment capital of the world & no time does that shine brighter than at the holidays. In addition to having the usual array of Broadway shows to choose from there are a number of shows that only come around on the holidays. This visit, we’re going to see something new (well, new to us): the New York Pops at Carnage Hall. We’ve never been to Carnage Hall before & we’re excited to go to this historic venue (it’s also right across the street from our favorite New York Italian restaurant, so that must be a good sign).

Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker has been charming audiences for decades & I can attest that, even as an adult, there is something absolutely magical about the New York City Ballet version of the holiday classic. In addition, Lincoln Center is one of the best performing arts spaces in the country. Also at Lincoln Center during the holidays is the New York Philharmonic’s annual Christmas concert (it’s always hosted by someone fabulous – this year it’s Whoppi Goldberg & Mo Rocca!) & Jazz at Lincoln Center at Christmas. If you’re headed there to see a show, swing by Bar Boulud for dinner beforehand.

Of course, the real stars of the New York City holiday show scene are those famous Rockettes at Radio City. B & I have seen the show twice &, while it’s definitely aimed at a younger audience, you can’t help get caught up in the amazing dancing & choreography (dancing Santas!) & the kooky songs. I always get a bit choked up at the end when they tell the Christmas Story & present a live nativity scene with real camels, donkeys & other animals honoring the birth of Jesus Christ.

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A Holiday Nosh – & Burning Off Those Holiday Calories

New York is home to thousands of restaurants, so it’s virtually impossible to highlight one over the other. This trip, we’re trying some new places: Locanda Verde & Union Square Café. We’ll grab lunch at one of my favorite pizza places, Co., & have dinner at Trattoria dell’Arte before the show at Carnage Hall Saturday night. Some of my other favorite places include the Grand Central Oyster Bar (you can just feel the history there), Gramercy Tavern (grab a seat at the bar if you can’t snag a reservation), & the Les Halles downtown in the Financial District (this is where Anthony Bourdain slaved away during his early years). I also love grabbing a drink on the roof of the Library Hotel (climate controlled with a roaring fireplace!).

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In addition to the skating rink in Rockefeller Center, there are several other (quieter, less hectic, less crowded) skating rinks to enjoy. The Wollman Rink in Central Park wins my award for best view: as you skate around, look up at the beautiful Manhattan skyline surrounding the park. There are also skating rinks at Bryant Park & Chelsea Piers.

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If the weather is mild during your visit, one of the best ways to burn calories & capture stunning views of the city is by walking the Brooklyn Bridge. Everything you need to know about traversing this landmark by foot is here.

P.S. Need a place to stay in the city? My favorite hotels include 70 Park Ave., the Library Hotel (which is always beautifully decorated for Christmas), & the Four Seasons. This trip we’re staying at a new Kimpton we haven’t stayed at before: the Eventi. I can’t wait to let you know how it is!

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Have you been to NYC during the holidays? Did I miss your favorite holiday activity?
Leave it in the comments section below!

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About christina

Christina is a 30-something D.I.N.K. travel writer & photographer who travels the world often wedged into the middle seat. Follow her on Twitter & Facebook.

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3 Responses to Ultimate Guide to Christmas in New York City

  1. Vanessa December 23, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

    I’ve been to Bryant park to see the ice skating but it was in November so I missed out on the main holiday attractions. It’s great to see the city get into the festive spirit and the decorations are so beautiful.

  2. April Yap January 11, 2016 at 11:49 pm #

    I remember my aunt with this holiday market, she loves to buy Christmas stuff there every year. Great post!

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