The Most Spectacular Things To Do During An NYC Christmas Trip
My Favorite NYC Christmas Things
There’s no shortage of things to do in NYC at Christmas. No wonder New York features prominently in so many Christmas movies, pretty much everything we associate with modern Christmas originated in New York City. After hearing about NYC’s Christmas magic my entire life, we easily settled on New York City as our second annual “Christmas in the City” destination in December 2019. (We’ve cancelled this year’s trip, but watch out Savannah, GA – we’re coming for you next!)
We packed tons of NYC’s best Christmas activities into our long weekend visit. I can assure you a New York Christmas doesn’t disappoint. With festive decorations at every turn and twinkly lights sparkling on trees in every plaza from the most tourist-centric areas in Midtown all the way down to much quieter, historic streets of the Financial District, New York City’s holiday spirit charmed us all.
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The Best Christmas Things to do in New York City
Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Hall
As we planned the trip, we budgeted for a couple shows. When I realized we had ample opportunity to see the Christmas Spectacular starring the Radio City Rockettes, I knew we had to go. The Christmas Spectacular has been an absolute NYC Christmas institution since it debuted in 1933. Performances start in early November and run through early January with up to five (!!) daily performances. We snagged orchestra seats and started practicing our high kicks, natch.
Mom and I opted to do the Radio City Stage Door tour right before attending the Christmas Spectacular. I definitely recommend going on this tour beforehand. Our wonderful tour guide shared tons of Radio City lore that deepened our appreciation of the show and theatre. For example, did you know that the lobby carpet design features six different musical instruments?
While the tour touts meeting a Radio City Rockette (we did; she was lovely), as the highlight, my favorite part was peeking in on the in-progress Christmas Spectacular performance . . . twice. From the special viewing window, we watched the amazing mechanics of the hydraulic stage while our tour guide shared insight about the 6200-seat theatre and Rockettes. Without her insight, I wouldn’t have known that we had the distinct privilege of watching the first-ever disabled Rockette perform!
Just how Spectacular is it?
I certainly felt the 90-minute long Christmas Spectacular lives up to its name. It’s bright, loud, and unapologetically “extra.” I mean, at one point, an actual ice rink with two figure skaters appeared on stage. I instantly saw why so many New York area residents make attending the Christmas Spectacular an annual tradition.
The 2019 performance we watched started with a 3-D film. Other multimedia elements weave through the entire performance, which plays out in a series of vignettes. While the Spectacular embraces modern technology, it also celebrates its nearly 90-year history. Two of the routines – the infamous Parade of the Wooden Soldiers and the live nativity – date back to that very first performance in 1933. I especially enjoyed the symmetry of the dancers, careful detail of the costumes, and flawless execution of every scene.
Put the Christmas Spectacular on top of your NYC Christmas things to do list. I can’t imagine a more joyful way to kick off (see what I did there . . . ) the holiday season.
Shop windows on Fifth Avenue
I’m a sucker for window displays any time of year and I knew nothing compares with NYC Christmas windows. These elaborate displays are an art form in and of themselves. Planning for each year’s displays starts basically as soon as this year’s displays are installed. Fifth Avenue’s high-end shopping district takes its commitment to spreading Christmas cheer seriously. Once you come to the corner of 59 St and 5th Avenue at the southeast corner of Central Park, things start looking awfully festive.
You can easily take yourself on a self-guided tour of NYC Christmas decoration highlights by starting with the light display around the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel. From there, head south on 5th Avenue, stopping to take in Bergdorf Goodman’s exquisite window displays. Other highlights include the 3,300-pound UNICEF crystal snowflake hanging over the intersection of 57th Street and 5th Avenue and decorations and light projections on the Peninsula Hotel. Brave the extremely crowded 5th Avenue sidewalks at least as far 49th Street. There you can turn to take in the famous 50-feet-tall Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
>In recent years, many brands have given up their leases on expensive retail space in this section of NYC. Rather than leave the street-level windows empty and cheerless, the Fifth Avenue merchant association joined forces to fill these vacant shops’ windows with simple but joyful displays. Although decidedly more sedated than occupied stores’ all-out efforts, I think these collaborative window displays warmed my heart more. They’re just so gosh darn full of Christmas spirit.
Saks Fifth Avenue light show
While I knew about shop windows on Fifth Avenue, I didn’t realize that Saks Fifth Avenue does a full-out light show every Christmas season. (I guess it’s hard to feature in all those NYC Christmas movies I’ve watched, although the 2019 display does appear Anna Kendrick’s Love Life HBOMax series.) This five-minute light show with lights (duh) choreographed to music runs every 10 minutes from 4:35 – 11:35 p.m. every day from just before Thanksgiving right up to New Year.
In 2019, we saw their Frozen 2 themed light show. As fun and merry as the light show was, I especially enjoyed watching how the lights and music enchanted everyone on the busy sidewalk. Even if you opt to skip the very crowded Rockefeller Center plaza area, I think it’s worth taking in the light show. You only ever have to wait five minutes for it to play!
New York City’s Christmas Markets
I always feel like I’ve walked into a picture book whenever I visit a Christmas market. Happily, New York City sets up several Christmas markets every holiday season, most notably at Columbus Circle, Bryant Park, Grand Central Station, and Union Square.
In the NYC Christmas markets, you’ll find rows of wooden stalls, all festively decorated and reminiscent of Old World markets. With over 100 stalls in any NYC Christmas market, it can be difficult to process the vast assortment of housewares, toys, jewelry, accessories, decorations, and more for sale. If you’re prone to sensory overload (guilty!) maybe go on a weekday in the early afternoon? We visited on Sunday afternoon and oh man, the markets were packed. If the markets are so crowded that they cramp your shopping style, I’d suggest just hitting up the food stalls where you can get delicious seasonal treats like waffles and apple cider.
It’s my understanding that one company manages all NYC Christmas markets, so expect to see the many of the same vendors at each market. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t visit multiple Christmas markets while in New York. They all have their own vibe and each is worth a visit. However, from a shopping standpoint, you can probably do all your shopping in one market (maybe the last one you visit so you don’t have to carry your bags around all day, eh?) and not miss out on anything.
The tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
My entire childhood, we received the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift shop mail-order catalog. I don’t know why we started receiving this catalog, but I still look forward to its arrival in my mailbox every November. Over the years, my family ordered many items from the catalog but the item that left the most lasting impression was an Advent calendar that featured the Met’s famous Baroque blue spruce Christmas tree. As much as I wanted to see Rockefeller Center, the New York Christmas tree I most wanted to see during our visit was the one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Centrally located in the museum’s Medieval Sculpture Hall, the 20 ft-tall tree stands in front of a Spanish choir screen while soft choral Christmas music plays. An intricate Baroque creche surrounds the tree’s base while angels in delicately hued robes fly in the tree branches. The 140 creche figurines featured in the display date back to 18th century Naples.
Pictures really don’t do it justice. Trust me, you just need to see it for yourself.
Drinking cider and watching skaters at Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center
Hockey, figure skating, heck, even ice dancing, I love all things ice skating. Even when I’m not skating myself, I find skating rinks so joyful. Happily, New York City hosts several outdoor skating rinks. Whether you want to lace up skates yourself or just watch others whirl and wobble, you’re in luck.
With such a tight timeline during our NYC Christmas visit, we didn’t actually get on the ice, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching the skaters at Bryant Park, Wollman Rink in Central Park, and Rockefeller Center. At Bryant Park, I treated myself to hot cider from the rink-side stand and soaked up Christmas in Manhattan. The red, white, and blue lights of the Bryant Park Christmas tree sparkled in the background while Christmas music blared and the man in front of me accidentally dropped his $5 hot chocolate and splattered my shoes and pants . . . .
If you want to go skating yourself in NYC during Christmas, Bryant Park is the only Manhattan skating rink with free admission, so hit up this rink if you packed skates. Of course, free ice skating means long lines. For the least crowded skating options in Manhattan, try the Wollman Rink in the southeast corner of Central Park or the rink at The Standard, High Line.
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A couple NYC Christmas notes . . .
- We saw so many NYC Christmas highlights as part of Inside Out Tours New York Holiday Markets and Christmas Lights Tour. I definitely recommend it to learn more about the history of Christmas in NYC and see NYC’s Christmas best in a fast, fun way. Our guide, Catherine, was fantastic!
- If you’re leery of crowds (even when we reach the flip side of this pandemic) do your Christmas lights and window display viewing as late in the evening as possible. Be sure to check the Christmas attractions’ closing times though. For example, Bryant Park closes at 9 p.m. and the Christmas markets shutter their stalls at 8 p.m., so plan accordingly.
- There are so many things to do in NYC at Christmas that we just didn’t have time for. On my shortlist for my next New York City Christmas visit is seeing The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center, dining at Rolf’s, actually going ice skating, and doing some Christmas shopping.
Have you ever visited New York City at Christmas time? What were your favorite things to do?
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