15 Magical Things to Do in NYC at Christmas with Kids (or without kids)

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The holiday bells are ringing and it’s time to start planning a Christmas vacation in New York City. Spending Christmas in NYC is one of the most magical experiences we’ve had in the USA.

Christmas in New York City is like no other. It is the most wonderful and magical time of the year, which is why we’ve spent Christmas in NYC twice now. Once pre-kids and once with kids.

But what are some of the most magical things to do in New York City with kids at Christmas?

If you’ve been dreaming of ice skating outside the Rockefeller Center and admiring the largest Christmas Tree in the city, then be sure to add these top Christmas attractions in New York City to your list.

woman and two girls smiling at camera with lights of Times Square
Enjoying Times Square in NYC

Is New York Worth Visiting at Christmas?

To be honest, I never really get excited about Christmas, nor have found it too magical, until I visited New York for Christmas and New Year’s Eve in 2004.

We enjoyed a two-week trip to New York City with the girls in 2017 and were wrapped up in the magic of the Christmas spirit again.

Experiencing Christmas in NYC with kids is like having whipped cream on your hot chocolate! It just makes the experience so much more enjoyable.

From the tree lighting ceremony to magical shop window displays, to ice skating to Christmas tunes and roaming around Santaland, there are endless magical things to do in NYC at Christmas with kids.

family  ice skating in Bryant Park
Ice skating in Central Park

Best Time to Visit New York City for Christmas Celebrations

If you want to experience the magic of Christmas in New York, but not actually spend Christmas there, then the best time to visit for the magical season is from Mid-November through to early January.

We traveled a little earlier in the season at the end of November and beginning of December to experience the lead-up to Christmas in New York with kids.

Although visiting just after Thanksgiving brings big crowds, it’s also a wonderful time to visit NYC.

This time of year is when the tree lighting ceremonies start, the Christmas holiday lights and holiday decorations are turned on, and the crazy Thanksgiving sales are still lingering.

This is the most wonderful time of the year!

Things to Do in New York City at Christmas

The best thing about visiting this time of year is that all major New York City attractions at Christmas will be decorated in the festive spirit.

So it brings a new experience to the likes of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Top of the Rock, and One World Observatory. Don’t forget to check out their observation decks!

We all know that things will be very different for Christmas in New York, and this includes the times. Be sure to check all attractions and shows for current times, conditions, and important information.

Below are our top things to do in New York City at Christmas with kids!

1. The Ride’s Christmas Experience

people looking out bus windown in NYC on the The Ride Experience

Just when you think you’ve seen everything there is in travel, along comes something that is so unique and entertaining – only in the Big Apple.

We finished our Christmas vacation in New York with the super fun The Ride Experience.

You can do The Ride at any time of the year, but from November to early January, The Ride is a Christmas holiday experience.

The Ride is a motor coach decked out with theater seats, floor-to-ceiling windows and flashing lights that takes you around the city so you can witness New York City’s holiday festivities and cheer and live street performers.

It’s hosted by two New York City experts and entertainers and is a high energy fun experience.

We loved it, especially the rapper who was ad libbing with random strangers passing him on the street. Super cool.

It’s one of the most unique things to do in NYC at Christmas.

Good news – The Ride is one of the experiences offered on the Sightseeing Pass.

2. Ice skating at Bryant Park, New York

tree covered Bryant Park Winter Village

All of us at yTravel agree that ice skating in Bryant Park was the most magical Christmas experience in New York.

I think even outside of Christmas and winter, Bryant Park would be one of my favorite places in New York to visit.

It was the most recommended activity from our community as well.

Bryant Park is this delightful square surrounded by New York skyscrapers, including an eye-catching American Radiator Building, and the New York Public Library.

The American Radiator building’s black and gold facade is striking and makes it one of my favorite buildings in New York. It is now The Bryant Park Hotel.

During Christmas in NYC, Bryant Park also has the Bank of America Winter Village, which has the ice skating rink, a giant Christmas tree, and food kiosks.

You can sit on the edge of the rink and watch the kids (after you’ve had fun skating with them) and sip on a hot chocolate or glass of wine and enjoy the Christmas music.

In the evening they have a live band playing the tunes.

I loved the experience with the girls as they tried ice skating for the first time. It was wonderful to watch Kalyra step out and get it straight away, and for me to spend time with the more cautious Savannah guiding her on the ice and helping her gain the confidence to let go.

It was such a treat to see it when she finally did.

She was scared of falling over but once she did it once and realized it was part of the ice skating experience, and no one else laughing at her, she was happy to fall over and over again.

woman and two girls holding hands ice skating at Bryant Park

Kalyra and Savannah were happy to stay on the ice while we watched them from the deck of the Public Fare while meeting up with old friends and getting to know new ones.

They stayed on the ice for three hours and every day after asked if they could go ice skating at Bryant Park again. They did it one more time!

If you have your own skates, it is free to skate at Bryant Park, otherwise, it’s a $20 fee to rent the skates, which you can have as long as you like.

I recommend getting to the rink mid-afternoon as it does get very busy after 6pm.

In between the skating, you can also check out the artisan Bryant Park Christmas markets in the open-air village selling jewellery, decor, homewares, Christmas gifts, and local food and drinks.

I would also have a drink by the fires at Southwest Porch, a spot we didn’t discover until after our meet up! It looks gorgeous and apparently is open year-round.

Bryant Park is only a short walk from Times Square so we recommend skipping the flashing neon light madness there and relaxing amongst the charm of this NYC holiday oasis.

Hot tip: If you want GREAT coffee, around the corner from Bryant Park you have Culture Espresso (best coffee I tried in NYC) and Bluestone Lane – an Aussie café. Pick up some Vegemite toast and a lamington while there.

Click here for more great coffee spots the locals love.

3. Ice Skating at Central Park, NYC

people Ice skating Wollman Rink Central Park

At the Wollman Ice Skating Rink in Central Park, you’ll have a stunning backdrop of the New York Skyline, Christmas music, and possibly the presence of Santa Claus.

It is the larger skating rink out of Bryant Park and Rockefeller.

Although that backdrop is pretty, and you’re in Central Park, it does not have the same magical and warm spirit that Bryant Park has.

The cost of skating at the Wollman Rink:

  • $12 skating fee for adults + $9 skate rental
  • $6 for kids skating + $9 rental
  • And they only take CASH (but there is an ATM on site)

Prices for adults increase to $19 on the weekend AND there is a $5 spectator fee. (Another reason why Bryant Park is better). (BE aware prices fluctuate. Please check for updated admission prices)

Depending on how many kids you have, it could be cheaper or more expensive than Bryant. For us, it was around the same price.

girl smiling at camera hanging over edge of Wollman Rink CEntral Park

You can go above to the viewing platform to avoid this, however. Probably not a good idea if you have young kids.

Ice skating in Central Park is quite the iconic thing to do in New York City at Christmas.

Video: Central Park, New York in the winter

4. Santaland at Macy’s, New York

two girls on santas lap at Santaland Macy's

Thanks to our community for this tip to experience Santaland at Macy’s Herald Square, which has been an NYC Christmas tradition since 1902.

As lines to see Santa are so long at Macy’s, you can only experience Santaland now through an online reservation.

We booked ours for 3:30pm on a Wednesday and we had a very small line.

Santa’s elves are good at moving it quickly. We returned to Macy’s on the weekend, and the line was ridiculously long. So try to go midweek if you can.

Christmas wreaths and lights inside Macy's Santaland Herald Square

Santaland is a winter wonderland path to Santa Claus’s lap.

You’ll feel like you’ve entered the North Pole as you pass by twinkling lights, Santa’s workshop, and a forest of pine trees to arrive at the throne of the most Santa-looking Santa I’ve seen.

He was immaculately groomed and had a warm melodic voice and laugh. I almost believed he was the real deal.

He did request cookies and milk, although I suggested to the girls he might get so sick of it that we best get him something different like a beetroot chocolate cake and red wine.

They weren’t so sure.

Definitely one of the most classic things to do in NYC at Christmas to help kids believe in the miracle!

The 13,000-square-foot holiday display and indoor wonderland is located inside the Herald Square Macy’s at 151 West 34th Street.

5. Christmas Markets in New York City

woman and girls walking through Bryant Park Winter Village Christmas markets
Bryant Park Markets

There are many popular Christmas markets in New York City.

I saw the same stalls at some of them so you may not necessarily have to visit all of them to discover what is so unique to them.

But the Christmas Markets do also differ in some regards, especially in Holiday Cheer.

My favorite ambiance was definitely the Winter Village at Bryant Park. But, I found better shopping at the Columbus Circle Holiday Market at the edge of Central Park, including free hot cocoa, yummy mushroom empanadas, and hot apple cider!

Grand Central Station also has a popular Holiday fair as does Union Square Holiday Market.

Visiting the Christmas Markets is a popular attraction for Christmas in New York. It’s a great place for you to buy a few gifts for those you love. Just leave room in your bags for your flight home.

List of markets:

6. Christmas Shopping in New York

holiday decorations on ceiling at Macy's New York

It’s not just the Christmas markets where you can do your Christmas shopping in New York.

New York is the place for shopping at any time of the year, but at the time we visited – just after Thanksgiving – there were killer deals still happening, especially at Macy’s.

We picked up some cheap winter coats for us all saving nearly $200 and the pretty dresses that the girls wore to The Lion King Broadway.

They also picked up an American Girl Doll each for Christmas from their Nan and Pop. I don’t think there will ever be specials on those things though as they are always in high demand.

two girls holding American Girl Doll bags

If you are an AMEX card user, be sure to check your offers before you go shopping.

I managed to collect triple points AND another $15 off at Macy’s with an offer.

And our helpful Macy’s attendant told us that if you check Macy’s online for their current promo codes, you can actually use them in-store.

Just tell the cashier. Saved another $50 doing that!!

Leave room in your suitcase if you want to do some Christmas shopping in New York. Thankfully, we were road-tripping so had plenty of space.

Video: American Girl Doll Store NYC

7. Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and Displays

christmas display of angels and Christmas tree lights at Rockefeller Plaza

One of the most popular things to do in NYC at Christmas is to see the Christmas tree and holiday displays at the Rockefeller Center.

We did not spend much time in this area as the crowds were freaking nuts, especially on weekends!

We attempted to visit for the lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, but could not get close, only making it to a few streets back from Rockefeller before we were turned away.

They had a million people show up. How they fitted in with that many people I will never know?

The crowds were so crazy that we lined up for 15 minutes (in a shoulder-to-shoulder mob) just to cross the street.

Rockefeller Plaza tree

It was the same when we returned on the weekend to see the tree and the Christmas lights display at Saks 5th avenue. Abort Mission.

Craig returned mid-week when me and the girls were at The Lion King. The crowds weren’t as bad and he did get to see the Christmas tree and displays.

The Rockefeller Christmas tree remains lit through the first week of January.

You can also ice skate at Rockefeller Center, but you could have a long wait and it’s the most expensive of the ice skating rinks in New York City. It is also timed.

Seriously, the crowds here are insane, I don’t recommend it. Look at the Rockefeller holiday lights and Christmas tree and then leave.

8. Holiday Window Displays – Fifth Avenue

girl looking at the Saks 5th avenue Christmas  window displays

No trip to New York during Christmas is complete without a little bit of window shopping and enjoying the Christmas window displays.

The retail stores, particularly along 5th Avenue (the best shopping street in New York if you have plenty of money), go all out with their Christmas displays.

Saks Fifth Avenue is the most famous and they knocked it out of the park this Christmas (2017).

Their window displays were all inspired by Snow White in celebration of its 80th anniversary.

On the sides of the building, the window displays feature Snow White interpretations from some of the world’s most famous designers. The front windows showed scenes from Snow White.

Saks 5th Avenue christmas light display
Saks 5th Avenue light display

On the front of the building is an extravagant timed light display which is what everyone attempts to see in the evening. The light display is on every 10 minutes and runs for about 4-5 minutes.

Bergdorf Goodman is another popular one for NYC Christmas displays.

As is the iconic Macy’s, which had interactive things like looking through binoculars for close-ups of the minute dolls on display, and playing the piano on the window which made music and the bears move in the window display.

kids looking at Macys Christmas window display

Super magical way for the kids to spend Christmas in New York.

It may change each year, but typically you’ll find the best holiday window displays at:

  • Macy’s (Midtown West)
  • Saks 5th Avenue (Midtown East)
  • Barneys (Madison Avenue)
  • Bloomingdales (Upper East Side)
  • Bergdorf Goodman (Midtown West).

9. Experience the Snow in New York City

snow covered Central Park

Okay, so this one you have no control over.

It snowed when we visited in 2004 and it snowed on our last day of this visit to New York City with the girls.

They were delighted and wanted to spend the entire day gathering snow from the ground to throw at us.

It was their first time experiencing snow (well that Kalyra can remember) and it made New York even more magical for them.

If it snows, we recommend getting out to Central Park to witness its ethereal beauty.

girl playing in the snow in New York City

We had a full day of tours booked so couldn’t get to Central Park, but we thought the 911 Memorial was really beautiful dusted in snow.

And we also had lunch with friends in Murray Hill and loved watching the snow fall out the window.

And then walking around it with snowflakes falling everywhere was really cool until it melted and you ended up really cold and wet.

10. Radio City Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes

Christmas tree outside Radio City Hall

The Rockettes is a famous show in New York featuring high kicking dancers in the iconic Radio City Music Hall.

The Rockettes Christmas Spectacular is a New York City musical tradition.

You may also find cheaper tickets once in New York. I saw dancers handing out coupons on the street.

This is likely to sell out so get your tickets online here.

11. Dyker Heights Christmas lights

Dkyker Heights Christmas Lights covering a house

Take a trip out to Brooklyn to visit the famous Christmas lights of Dyker Heights.

It’s a great opportunity to see how the locals dress up their homes for Christmas.

It’s meant to be over the top with inflatable Santas, Christmas carols and mind glowing light displays. Over 100,000 people flock to the Brooklyn neighborhood to witness some of the most over-the-top Christmas lights we’ve ever seen­—think huge inflatable Santas and snowmen, and houses that blast Christmas carols from loudspeakers.

There is a lot of ground to cover, as many houses in the area participate over multiple blocks and avenues.

If you’re traveling by subway, take the D Train to 71st St, Brooklyn.

You’ll then have a 15 minute walk to the homes which are spread over multiple blocks and avenues. (take your coat!!)

You can join a Dyker Heights Christmas lights tour. Check out our partner, Get Your Guide for tickets.

Here are more holiday and seasonal tours in NYC from Get York Guide

12. Rolf’s Bar and Restaurant

Many people recommended Rolf’s Bar and Restaurant on 22nd and 3rd as a place to eat at Christmas due to its elaborate Christmas decoration and light display.

It’s meant to be a New York institution with great German food and schnapps to match! That’s the kind of Christmas spirit we love.

13. New York Botanical Gardens Train Show

During the NYC Christmas holiday season the New York Botanical Garden’ Holiday Train Show lights up with its collection of enchanting model trains that chug along a nearly half-mile track by 150 miniature NYC landmarks like the Empire State Building and Radio City Music Hall, all made of natural materials such as leaves, twigs, bark and berries.

You can also see a train show at the iconic Grand Central Terminal, but it’s a lot busier there.

14. Take A Look at Plaza Hotel

outside of plaza hotel

The Plaza Hotel is one of the most popular hotels in New York City and is well known for its grandeur and style. At Christmas, this hotel comes into its own. It’s the hotel where Home Alone II was set, the famous Christmas movie set in New York.

Each year, the hotel lobby is decorated with garlands and grand Christmas trees, which anyone can visit to take photos of.

While staying at the Plaza Hotel might put most of us out of house and home (and it’s near impossible to get a reservation this time of year), the famous Oak Room and the Palm Court are opening for dining to the public.

15. Visit Winter Wonderland at Bronx Zoo

lemur on tree

It may be winter time, but the Bronx Zoo is far from hybernation this time of year. The bears can be seen playing in the snow and the sea lions love to swim in the water.

And of course, if it gets too cold, head indoors to see the world of reptiles and African animals from Madigascar.

How to Spend Christmas Eve in New York

If you’re wondering how to spend Christmas Eve in New York City, then we highly recommend catching a performance of The Nutcracker at the Lincoln Center performed by the New York City Ballet.

The company perform the show every year and it’s a incredibly popular evening activity in New York City on Christmas Eve.

If you find tickets sell out too quick, you can also wander around the Christmas markets on Christmas Eve – these are guaranteed.

What to Do on Christmas Day in New York

outside of WAll Street with Christmas tree

We spent Christmas Day in New York in 2004 with friends in Chinatown! I think that is where a lot of New Yorkers go as not much else is open for lunch, unless you pay $$$$. The streets were very quiet.

There were other things on in the city, but on our limited budget, we couldn’t afford to splash out on a fancy lunch celebration.

Where to Spend New Years Eve in New York City

peopel standin gon stairs looking at Times square

I do not recommend experiencing New Years Eve at Times Square to see the ball drop, especially if you are traveling with kids.

Watch it on TV instead from the warm comfort of a bar, restaurant or your accommodation. Or find some friends having a party. Seriously.

This is Time Square for New Years Eve – 6 hours crammed into a small space with a million or more people with no food, drink or access to toilets in the freezing cold.

I couldn’t think of a worse travel experience, and in my opinion, would result in an uncomfortable, regretful memory.

Thankfully, we had a friend of a friend having a party we were invited to in 2004. Now that was an amazing memory.

We had other friends who went to Times Square and hated it.

Where to Stay in New York City at Christmas

INNSIDE New York Nomad

woman with suitcase outside Innside by Melia New York Nomad

We LOVED the INNSIDE New York Nomad by Melia. I had never heard of this chain before (and we did stay at the hotel sponsored by them) but I was super impressed with it for New York accommodation.

It had the best location in Chelsea – outside of the crazy tourist Times Square Area, yet central enough to walk there (15 minutes) or jump on the subway (at the corner) or walk to Penn Station.

Chelsea is a fabulous neighborhood worth exploring, which also gives you easy access to the Chelsea Highline and downtown Manhattan.

woman on laptop sitting on hotel bed
Finding a spare moment to attend to work

The INNSIDE is only 8 months old so the furnishings are very modern and stylish.

It had such funky, crisp and clean décor. The most exciting feature, especially for families, were the spacious rooms.

It’s hard to find space in New York, but the INNSIDE does it well.

We had the family suite which was adjoining rooms. So the girls had their own space to chill out and watch Disney channel on the rare downtime moments we had.

two girls watching TV in hotel room
Love that they had their own space

And although we didn’t have skyline views, I actually quite liked the local living views from our room.

I love traveling like a local so this helped me get that feel.

We also stayed with friends in Brooklyn, which is a good option for vacation rentals. Just make sure you find one close to a subway into NYC.

New York accommodation is going to be expensive wherever you go so be prepared and try to find the best value you can.

Getting Around New York City

woman and girls under NYC subway sign
Going down!

We recommend getting a subway pass. You can get a 7 day unlimited ride pass for $33.

We definitely got our values worth. You can also add a certain amount on to the card if you don’t think you will stay that long,

One trip on the subway costs $2.75.

If you are going to use the subway a lot, and are only staying a few days, the unlimited pass still might be worth it.

Savannah (6yrs old) didn’t need one, apparently it goes my size not age. If they can fit under the turnstile they won’t need one.

You can also use the unlimited pass on the buses.

The best way to get around New York, if you can, is to walk. The grid system makes it super easy to find your way around and there’s always something to look at in New York.

Kalyra and I would never have witnessed the man rollerblading through the chaotic New York traffic while lifting hand weights if we didn’t.

Just don’t drive!

I had the unfortunate pleasure of being the driver when we first arrived in New York. Driving is freaking madness. I was totally stressed.

There is a hundred things happening in rapid fire motion. Join the locals and beep as loud as you can and force your way in everywhere.

Catch an Uber or yellow taxis if you need to, but usually you won’t. It’s way faster on the subway.

New York City Sightseeing Pass

Many attractions are open on Christmas Day so it might be the best day to visit to avoid long queues. Make sure you do it with NYC attractions pass. Three you can choose from are:

We had the Sightseeing Pass and got a lot of value from that. It has the One World Observatory entry (New York Pass doesn’t) but it doesn’t have the 911 Museum entry, which The New York Pass does.

It just depends on what you want to see and do on the pass, so evaluate both carefully to find the best one for you.

Final Word on Christmas in New York City with Kids

Experiencing the Christmas season in New York is the best way to get in the mood for Christmas.

After a trip to New York City in the holiday season, we return home and purchased Christmas decorations, a live tree, and have the carols on as we decorate and make Gingerbread homes.

We hope this guide helps you to plan the best Christmas trip to New York City with the kids and map out your itinerary.

Thanks NYC. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!

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