Christmas in New York: NYC’s Best Holiday Attractions

Christmas Rockefeller Center

The dazzling holiday tree and skating rink at Rockefeller Center. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

New York is one of the world’s great holiday destinations. From November to the New Year the city is decked out in dazzling decorations, its department stores, boutiques and markets are bursting with holiday shoppers, and special holiday performances abound. In fact, there are so many things to see, do and experience, it can be difficult to keep track…let alone make choices.

But, fear not: we’ve rounded up New York’s best holiday sights and experiences.

Lord & Taylor Christmas Window

One of the mesmerizing animated windows at Lord & Taylor. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Animated Store WindowsLord & Taylor was the first department store to display animated Christmas windows, and their windows remain a must-see for their spectacular holiday tableaux. Macy’s Herald Square offers fantastic yuletide scenes in its windows on Broadway, as well as along 34th Street. Further uptown, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales present animated window spectacles. And chic Barney’s on Madison Avenue is renowned for its colorful, creative, and often humorous windows that celebrate pop culture.

Rockefeller Center – this midtown commercial complex is the epicenter of New York’s holiday celebration. High-end stores and Christmas displays are found throughout the “center,” but the highlight is the Channel Gardens on Fifth Avenue between 49th & 50th Street. The passageway’s central fountains are lined with illuminated white angels leading to the towering holiday tree.

NYCB Nutcracker

A holiday classic: George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet. Photo: NYCB

Holiday PerformancesThe Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular lives up to its name. This much-loved revue, a New York tradition since 1932, is an opulent pageant with glittering sets and costumes, songs and dances by the world-famous Rockettes (included the classic March of the Wooden Soldiers) and the Living Nativity.

At Lincoln Center, the New York City Ballet’s staging of The Nutcracker is a cherished holiday tradition. Across the plaza, the Metropolitan Opera presents a special holiday production, including an abbreviated staging of The Magic Flute and the opera Hansel and Gretel.

Another high note of the season are performances of Handel’s oratorio, The Messiah, at Lincoln Center (including the fun sing-along Messiah), Carnegie Hall, and at several of the city’s churches. Many churches also offer first-rate classical Christmas concerts as well. Check the NY Times’ Arts & Entertainment Guide or Time Out New York’s music section for listings.

Christmas Eve Midnight MassSt. Patrick’s Cathedral is the spiritual heart of the city, and its midnight mass on Christmas Eve is the most important Christmas rite. Despite the cathedral’s enormous size, it can be tough to find a spot inside. However, for those who cannot attend, the service is televised live in New York and several other areas.

Bryant Park Winter Village

The rink at Bryant Park’s festive Winter Village. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Ice Skating – Ice skating has been a favorite winter pastime in New York since the mid 19th century, and the city offers several wonderful ice rinks amidst the holiday festivities. Undoubtedly, the most famous is the Rink at Rockefeller Center, where you can skate beneath the massive holiday tree. Another wonderful ice rink lies at the heart of Bryant Park’s Winter Village, surrounded by kiosks selling artisan gifts and food and overlooked by a glittering holiday tree. Skating Wollman Rink in Central Park is a magical experience, gliding across the ice with the dramatic backdrop of the midtown skyline. See our post on the Best Ice Skating in New York for a complete list and details.

Holiday Markets – Wonderful holiday gifts can be found at one of NYC’s Holiday Markets, where booths and kiosks offer artisan crafts and food. Bryant Park’s Winter Village is a festive marketplace, and there are holiday markets at Union Square, Columbus Circle and the Grand Central Holiday Fair.

Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden – another holiday tradition, the NY Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show features model trains that chug over bridges and past miniature replicas of NYC landmarks made of plant elements such as nuts, bark, and leaves.  Train show favorites include the original Yankee Stadium, the Statue of Liberty, Radio City Music Hall, and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Macy's Christmas

Glittering decorations on the main floor of Macy’s Herald Square. Photo: jeff Dobbins

Department Stores – New York’s famed department stores draw crowds of holiday shoppers with their special sales, longer holiday hours and dazzling decorations. The most popular include Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman, and Macy’s Herald Square – the world’s largest department store. While in Macy’s, be sure to head to the 8th floor to the enchanting Santaland to say hello to Santa.

Hanukkah – New York has two giant menorahs (both claiming to be the world’s largest) observing the Festival of Lights. Many of the city’s synagogues and Jewish organizations hold Hanukkah services, celebrations and concerts. Check Chabad.org for complete listings and details.

Metropolitan Museum Christmas Tree

The Met’s magnificent Christmas Tree. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Metropolitan Museum’s Christmas Tree and Baroque Crèche – set amongst medieval art treasures, this enormous tree is decorated with 50 antique Cherubs and Angels (clad in silk, no less).  Below is an authentic 18th century Neapolitan Crèche (figurines depicting a Nativity scene, along with traditional village characters). Recorded music and candlelight compliment the old-world setting. Free with admission to the Met.

Dickens’ Christmas Carol at the Morgan Library – Charles Dickens created a sensation when he read his classic story A Christmas Carol to New Yorkers in 1867. Financier J.P. Morgan was so enthralled he later purchased Dickens’ original manuscript for the story. That manuscript is on display every December at the stunning Morgan Library.

If you’d like to visit many of NYC’s holiday highlights, led by an expert guide who will share the fascinating stories behind the city’s sites and traditions, consider joining our New York Christmas Lights Walking Tour.

Christmas decorations, NYC

Spectacular holiday decorations on Ave. of the Americas. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

What’s your favorite NYC Holiday site or tradition? Tell us in the comments below.

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