New York City at Christmas: the most festive things to do
Full of shimmering lights, magical performances and incredible decorations, New York City is a Christmas wonderland just waiting to be explored.
From the moment you step off the plane at JFK airport and out into the snow-lined streets of New York City, you’ll feel like you’ve entered a festive-filled dream. The hardest part will be deciding which festive experiences to add to your must-do list. Here are 8 New York City Christmas highlights worth considering.
1. Make your way up the Empire State Building
During the Christmas season, the Empire State Building has a line that stretches around the block, but you can jump the queue by purchasing a skip the line ticket online before you go. Throughout December the lobby is filled with the merry sounds of a pianist performing several holiday and seasonal classics while a small local student choir sings for guests.
The 102nd floor has undergone a renovation with a closed-in observation deck that shields guests from the freezing cold temperatures. Another addition to the iconic building is the installation of heat lamps on the popular 86th Floor Observatory to help keep visitors warm while they take in the 360-degree uninterrupted view of the city skyline.
The Second Floor Galleries have nine interactive exhibits that are guaranteed to get you in the holiday spirit. Learn about the construction of the building, watch short-feature versions of your favourite Christmas movies on the panoramic display. And last but not least, step in line to get your picture taken inside King Kong’s giant hand.
2. Window shop on Fifth Avenue
Join in on a New York City 150-year-old tradition and stroll down Fifth Avenue to see the elaborate Christmas window displays. Every year it attracts crowds from all over the world who remain undeterred by the freezing cold temperatures. You’ll find some of the most decadent displays in the windows of Saks Fifth Ave, Tiffany & Co, Barneys New York, Bergdorf and Lord and Taylor Fifth Ave. For those with good self-control, you’ll find it is just as Christmassy on the inside. Just don’t expect to find a bargain inside these high-end stores.
3. Ice Skate at the Wollman Rink in Central Park
Wollman Rink is located at Central Park’s south end (only a six-minute walk from 5th Avenue Station) and is a New York City Christmas activity staple. You’ll recognise it from films such as Home Alone 2 and Serendipity. Tie up your ice skates and glide around the outdoor rink surrounded by snow-covered trees and take in the views of the city. It will make for the perfect photo opportunity. Once the sun goes down the rink is lit up under a blanket of twinkling lights. Could there be anything more magical?
4. High-kick with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall
The Rockettes have been high-kicking their way onto the stage and filling Radio City Music hall with Christmas cheer since 1933. Running from early November to the first week of January, these world-famous New York City dancers do between two to five shows per day. They average roughly 300 kicks per show without losing an ounce of energy or enthusiasm.
Purchase a Stage Door Tour along with your Christmas Spectacular ticket to experience a guided tour through Radio City Music Hall. Wander through the halls and aisles to get a behind-the-scene views of the auditorium – and the secret apartment inside, The Roxy Suite. If you’re still unconvinced, you’ll also be greeted by a Radio City Rockette at the end of your tour for a photo.
5. Watch the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
The Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting ceremony is another New York City Christmas tradition that tops the list of things to do this time of year. The free event is open to all members of the public and is also broadcasted live on TV. It is estimated that throughout winter more than half a million people pass by the Christmas tree every day that is lit up with around 30,000 twinkling lights.
The tree is normally set up at the beginning of November and then lit on the first week of December. For the full festive experience you can also book in an ice skating session on The Rink at Rockefeller Center underneath the tree, or head to the Top of the Rock for unobstructed views of the festivities happening below.
6. Attend George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the Lincoln Center
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is performed by over 120 students from the School of American Ballet every year at the David H. Koch Theater and is considered an iconic New York City Christmas pastime.
Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the ballet tells the tale of a Nutcracker who leads his army of toy soldiers into battle against the Mouse King and his mice followers, but it is Marie who helps the Nutcracker win the war and breaks an ancient spell in the process.
The ballet has been performed in New York City at Christmas annually since 1954, when George Balanchine, a male ballet dancer from Russia, first choreographed his own version to Tschaikovsky’s original score. The season starts the day after Thanksgiving and runs until early January.
7. Sled through the snow at Prospect Park
For the best snow-sledding in the city, you need to make your way over to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The park is located on the outskirts of New York City (a 40-minute train ride from Central Park) and is full of prime sledding hills. There are a few standout hills you should know about, including Long Meadow, Lookout Hill, Drummer’s Grove and Endale Arch. Each hill offers different heights for varying sledding speeds.
Once you’re all sledded-out for the day, head up the road to Tom’s Restaurant (not the Seinfeld one, sorry) for a decent feed. This old school All-American diner is located on Washington Avenue and is where Brooklynites commonly go to get their fill after a day of sledding. Order up a plate of Tom’s famous chocolate chip pancakes with butter and maple syrup.
8. Stroll through the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
If you’re in search of the best Christmas light displays in New York City, you’ll want to make your way downtown to Brooklyn to see the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights. Every house on 11th to 13th Avenue and 83rd to 86th Street has been decked out in just enough Christmas paraphernalia to rival Chevy Chase’s efforts in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
The prime time to see these displays is from dusk until 9 pm (when the lights turn off) and if you’re looking for a fuss-free way to see the lights there are numerous guided tours available to book.