Let me just start by saying, spending Christmas in New York City is as magical as it seems in all the movies and on TV. This amazing city…that I love all year, just outdoes itself at Christmastime. Macy’s Santaland, ice skating in Central Park, twinkle lights and music everywhere you look…it’s hard to not feel the magic. You might remember this post about our first Christmas in New York City a few years ago, well, we decided to return and spend Christmas in New York this past Christmas since the kids are a bit older and could enjoy new and different holiday events in NYC. You guys…it is WAY too incredible and if you ever have the chance to visit the New York City in December…DO IT! Here is a look at everything we did in NYC this Christmas from Dyker Heights Holiday Lights, a Christmas concert in New York, New York City Christmas markets, dragging a Christmas tree home on the Subway, Macy’s Santaland experience and more. Affiliate links are included in this post.
CHRISTMAS IN NEW YORK CITY
If you are thinking about spending Christmas in New York City, or visiting around the holidays, then you are probably wondering “When do Christmas decorations go up in New York?” The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade ushers Christmas into the city with the arrival of Santa, but to really see all of the decorations you want to make sure to time your visit after the Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting. The date of the tree lighting varies by year, and because Thanksgiving is later this year, the Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting isn’t until December 4, 2019. Be sure to check and make sure that you will be in town when the tree is lit, as that is a major tourist attraction and highlight to see in the city at Christmastime.
WHERE TO STAY IN NEW YORK CITY WITH A FAMILY
We have traveled for Christmas just about every year…but mostly it’s to grandma’s house a couple of hours away to spend time with family. That is always fun, and while it’s been a headache to get all the gifts there in secret and keep everything from prying eyes, it was easy to because I knew I was going somewhere with a Christmas tree, traditional Christmas dinner, traditional Christmas activities etc. While it wasn’t in our own home, it was “Christmas at Home” if that makes sense.
large bedroom in the one bedroom terrace suite
When we decided to do something wild and actually spend Christmas IN New York City, in a hotel, on vacation with no family and no traditional Christmas stuff of any kind….I was excited and a bit nervous to be honest. This was Ashley’s first Christmas knowing the truth about the man in the big red suit. 😉 She was a bit apprehensive about what her first Christmas would be like knowing…would it still be magical and just as fun? And I desperately wanted to make sure it was…to show her that Christmas magic is always real and wonderful. But how was I going to do that without any of my traditional decorations, food, easy ways to get presents to/from vacation etc.?
I’m sure you’ve heard me mention it here before, but The Benjamin Hotel is one of our favorite places to stay in New York City with a family. Sure, John and I like to stay in other places when we visit ourselves, and we did stay in The Plaza as a family last time we were in town for Christmas for a few nights, but when it comes to overall comfort, location, and value, a suite at The Benjamin is our first choice. We knew that for our visit to spend Christmas in New York City we needed to return to The Benjamin so that we could have a little room to spread out and set up for our festivities.
large living room that has plenty of room for a queen sleeper sofa and rollaway
The apartment style one bedroom suites are complete with a kitchenette, living room with a desk and chair, console with a TV, coffee table, and large sofa that converts into a queen size bed.
Kitchenette in The Benjamin Hotel Terrace Suite (there is a fridge on the opposite wall)
They also have enough room…and allow you, to bring in a rollaway bed into the living room. It makes it SUPER comfortable for our family because both Andy and Ashley get their own bed, and then John and I have a bedroom. If you had smaller kids you could easily fit 5 people in one of these rooms because 2 kids could share the sofa bed.
View from the terrace on to Lexington Ave
The windows in both the living room and bedroom looked out over Lexington Ave which gave us great natural light and fun views of the city down below. There are other suites that don’t have great windows, so I highly recommend requesting a room that faces that direction when booking reservations if you are interested in having natural light or any views from your room.
Since we were spending Christmas in a hotel room, I brought a few things from home to dress it up…stockings (and command hangers to hang them from the windows), a “Merry Christmas garland”, and a few other easy to pack things from the house. I also brought some indestructible Christmas ornaments that I wouldn’t be sad about leaving behind…because I had a plan. 😉 Our larger hotel room gave us some additional space for our very own Christmas tree.
One of the things that seems so magical to me in the city are all of the darling Christmas tree lots that pop up on the sidewalks. I envisioned wandering around Little Italy, picking out a tree at a little tree lot, carrying it home on the subway and decorating it with handmade ornaments and decorations…so that’s just what we did. We ran in to people who looked at us like we were crazy on the subway and people who thought we were a local family, bringing our tree home. It was a truly unique experience and we loved it!
There is a drug store on practically every corner in town, so we popped in to pick up a few necessities when we arrived. We found string lights, and then got creative with our other decor. We bought popcorn to make a garland, candy canes, and in the office supply section of the store, we bought neon poster board. I had packed tape and scissors for wrapping gifts when we were there, but we also picked up a travel size sewing kit and used the needles and thread to string together our popcorn garland and make hangers for our ornaments that we cut out of the poster board.
We couldn’t have loved our perfect little handmade New York City Christmas tree any more. We reconfigured the furniture a bit in our hotel room and made a cozy little Christmas corner for all of our Christmas morning festivities. I was even prepared with fabric from home for a tree skirt…remember…I wanted this to be magical so I came prepared! 😉 Ash still talks about how it was her favorite Christmas tree ever.
THINGS TO DO IN NEW YORK CITY AT CHRISTMAS TIME
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of holiday events in NYC. When spending Christmas in New York City the question is more about how to allocate your time, rather than wondering how you will fill your time. Along with the usual fun New York vacation ideas and just wandering the streets and soaking it all up, we wanted to make sure that we hit some of the top things to do in NYC in December.
DYKER HEIGHTS CHRISTMAS LIGHTS
The Dyker Heights Holiday Lights are a long running tradition in the cute neighborhood of Dyker Heights which is a residential neighborhood in the southwest corner of Brooklyn. If you are a fan of shows like “the great Christmas Light Fight” than a Dyker Heights Tour might be just what you want to do when you spend Christmas in NYC. There are lots of different Dyker Heights Christmas Lights Tours available, but I settled on the Tour America bus tour for our family. The tour is about 3.5 hours long, depending on traffic. We met the bus on the west side of Times Square, which was a little chaotic. TONS of busses were picking up there, trying to find parking spots on the crazy busy streets, while tour organizers were attempted to wrangle the travelers assigned to the tour from amongst the throngs of other people all over the streets. New York City near Times Square is just chaotic…so go with it. 😉
Once we were on the bus we had a fun time driving along the west side highway getting a chance to see some things by car that we wouldn’t normally see. Our tour guide wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about the different things we were seeing along the way (which in all fairness he was there to tell us about Dyker Heights) but I definitely think the tour could be improved by being narrated along the way. Our first stop was in Bay Ridge which is a gorgeous, extremely affluent part of Brooklyn. It reminded me a bit of Beverly Hills with big custom homes all right next to each other on a regular looking residential street. They were all gorgeous and totally decked out for the holidays. It wasn’t crowded at all there…we were the only people wandering that neighborhood which was nice. The bus dropped us off for about 20 minutes to wander the neighborhood and take pictures.
After Bay Ridge we hopped back on the bus and continued on to Dyker Heights. Talk about chaotic!! The traffic and tour buses were insane! Police were directing traffic on the streets and pedestrian traffic was off the charts. Food trucks and vendors were parked along the residential streets and it was chaos…but oh so fun! It truly felt like a New York City Christmas. Many of the visitors were locals and it was fun to see so many of the residents of the homes hanging around outside to chat up the visitors. It was a crazy, but fun thing to do.
What an awesome place to see Christmas lights. I appreciate it even more now looking at these pictures again. After we left Dyker Heights the bus made a stop on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge in case people wanted to get a drink or snack. The bus would have continued to take us back to Times Square, but it was at this point that we decided to hop off and walk back across the bridge.
CHRISTMAS MARKETS IN NEW YORK CITY
Christmas Markets in New York City are hard to miss. They pop up on street corners and train terminals and in just about every park in the city. Cute little booths full of trinkets and treasures…a perfect place for picking up last minute Christmas gifts or unique souvenirs to take home. These Christmas markets are bustling and fun. There are often food stalls and gathering places to eat and enjoy the sights and sounds. Each Christmas Village in NY has it’s own flair.
The Grand Central Holiday Fair is a smaller market with roughly 70 vendors offering everything from art and accessories to bath and body items and toys. It’s indoors which can be a great option on an unusually chilly winter day and Grand Central Terminal is one of my favorite places in the city because the architecture is so stunning. You can grab something to eat in the food court in the basement too.
The Union Square Christmas Market (my personal favorite) is a more Etsy-type market with fun sections like Little Brooklyn where everything is 100% handmade locally in Brooklyn. There’s a warming station and lounge in case you get a bit cold while shopping, a Kid’s Arts Studio, live music and yummy treats.
Columbus Circle Market – Located on West 59th Street and Broadway, this market is a great place to grab some hot chocolate and a cookie and browse after ice skating in Central Park.
The Bryant Park Winter Village – This is the king of Christmas Markets in New York City. It opens on or before Halloween and sticks around until after New Year’s Day…unlike all the other markets which are only open from early December until Christmas Eve. With nearly 200 vendors, food, activities and shopping…this winter village will definitely get you in the holiday spirit as you watch the hustle and bustle around you. Ice Skating at Bryant Park is magical and this is the only FREE rink in the city. If you own skates…bring them! If not, there are rentals available.
The rink is super crowded the closer you get to Christmas…but if you want to do something straight out of a Christmas movie, then grab some skates and hit the ice! There is a great pop up lodge next to the rink full of dining options from some of your favorite NYC restaurants, it’s a great place to stay warm and watch the kids skate. The ice skating in Bryant Park and Lodge are open from October thru early March.
ROCKEFELLER CENTER CHRISTMAS TREE
Every year in our house we watch the Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting, so to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in real life is definitely a thrill. Each Christmas they locate and haul in a HUGE pine tree from somewhere around the country and decorate it with twinkling lights and a beautiful star. This towering tree is a sight to see! There are shops and restaurants surrounding the Rockefeller Plaza, and you can go ice skating in Rockefeller center too, but with the immense crowds here I suggest grabbing a picture of the tree from the best vantage point you can find, and then shopping, eating and skating elsewhere. This picture is a little blurry because I was literally in a sea of people getting pushed from behind. Can you say crowded?!
ICE SKATING IN CENTRAL PARK
Out of all the ice skating rinks in New York City, we opted to go ice skating in Central Park. While crowded, it wasn’t quite as crazy as Bryant Park, so we decided to fork over the hefty fee, wait in the long line and let the kids skate. What a fun afternoon! Yes it’s expensive, so just prep yourself now for the shock of it all…but it is truly an experience and SO much fun! I would do it again in a heartbeat. There is nothing like being in the park, surrounded by the gorgeous city skyline and skating.
Last Christmas Macy’s announced that for the first time ever Santa would only be available by reservation. A break from 155 years of tradition. The new system is designed to cut down the long lines and wait times to make it a more pleasant experience for everyone. Our first visit to Macy’s Santaland a few years ago was a series of Disneyland style lines…this year, with reservations, things went super smoothly. Getting reservation though, was a bit stressful for me because I was worried that only having a short window of time to visit, I was going to miss out on getting one. The reservation system opened in the early morning east coast time, so I set my alarm for 4am on the west coast so that I could jump on the system and secure a reservation. You are only able to make reservations 5 days in advance, so if you want a specific day, be sure to watch the calendar so you can get it. Times do fill quickly and once they are filled, that’s it. They don’t make more available. Check out the Macy’s Santaland website to stay up to date with all the latest Santaland reservation information.
Santaland is located on the 8th floor of Macy’s Flagship Store at Herald Square.
You can enter Macy’s on 34th Street at either Broadway or 7th Avenue, though the 7th Avenue entrance tends to be less chaotic.
Many subways offer convenient service to Macy’s Herald Square:
- A, C, E to 34th Street/Penn Station: Walk one block east on 34th Street to 7th Avenue
- 1, 2, 3 to 34th Street: Exit on 7th Avenue and 34th Street
- B, D, F, V and N, Q, R, W to 34th Street/Herald Square: Exit on Broadway for Macy’s main entrance
BEST CHRISTMAS HOTELS IN NEW YORK
Hotels in New York City really get into the spirit of things and totally deck themselves out for the holidays. Some hotels have restricted areas that are only for guests, but most will allow you to wander in and check out the displays. Here are some of the best Christmas hotels in New York to check out. If you can book a stay in one of them, that’s even more fun!
THE LOTTE NEW YORK PALACE – This pretty hotel situated just steps from all the Christmas action in Rockefeller Center takes the cake for the best Christmas hotel in New York. There is a stunning 30 foot tree easily accessible outside the hotel in it’s courtyard, and more beautiful trees in the lobby on the grand staircase. The Lotte New York Palace partners with the Radio City Rockette’s Christmas Spectacular, and offers special packages for the holidays.
The St. Regis New York- The giant Nutcrackers flanking the entrance to the hotel are a good sign that these guys like to dress up for the holidays too. Pretty decorations throughout the hotel are only part of the fun. The St. Regis offers all kinds of holiday activities like gingerbread making classes for kids during the season. Be sure to check out their calendar of events for more details.
THE PLAZA HOTEL – Beautiful wreaths and garlands dress up the windows and exterior of this iconic hotel on the exterior of the building, while the main entrance houses a large tree full of ornaments and twinkle lights. The lobby is also decorated beautifully, but is for guests only, so if you want to see it, make a reservation! Remember our fun filled afternoon of tea and gingerbread house decorating with Santa at the Plaza? If you are a Home Alone or Eloise at Christmastime fan, there is no place like the Plaza at Christmas!
THE PENINSULA NEW YORK – Big security guards at the entrance will let you pass to check out the pretty decor on the inside of the hotel, but the outside might be even more fun! Red and green lights, trees, statues, flowers and garlands dress up the exterior. Carolers regularly perform in the lobby as well.
THE FOUR SEASONS NEW YORK MIDTOWN – Aside from the beautiful tree, poinsettias and lights decorating the stunning lobby of this hotel, the gingerbread village created by the hotels executive pastry chef and his team of additional chefs and carpenters is a sight to see! The village takes weeks to construct and can be found in the Garden restaurant.
CHRISTMAS CONCERT NY
Last time we visited New York City in December, I made the mistake of taking little kids to a performance of the Messiah at Trinity Church. Don’t get me wrong…it was an awesome Christmas experience, but sitting on those old, hard pews for hours listening to classical music probably wasn’t the best activity choice for little kids. Oops! 😉 This time I knew I wanted to try something different, but still go to a Christmas concert in NY. I always like to try and find different experiences, in different places than we have already seen every time we’re in the city. This year we decided to try the Holiday Pops concert at Carnegie Hall. It was SO much fun!
The symphony invited a special guest (the original Mary Poppins from Broadway) to come and sing along with them for the evening. They played fun, recognizable songs for the kids and even had a sing-a-long at the end with a special appearance by Santa himself. It was a great way to spend the evening and gave us a chance to see something at Carnegie Hall, which we had never done before. It felt like the crowd was all locals too, which made it even more fun for us as we really like to try and get away from feeling like tourists when we go places. I highly recommend checking out what Christmas performances are available at Carnegie Hall when you visit.
CHRISTMAS WINDOWS in NYC
(these windows at Bergdorfs are made entirely of candy and other edibles)
If you are spending Christmas in New York City, be sure not to miss seeing the beautiful Christmas windows all over NYC. All along 5th Avenue the fancy stores dress up their windows for the holidays. The Saks 5th Avenue across the street from Rockefeller Center puts on a great light show all over the front of the building, along with great window displays.
For me, the Bergdorf Goodman window displays are always a highlight. They are incredibly detailed and creative. When you visit Macy’s Santaland down at Herald Square be sure to check out the Macy’s windows while you’re there too. This is a great free activity!
CHRISTMAS EVE IN NEW YORK CITY
When planning our trip I wasn’t super worried about the days leading up to Christmas Eve and Christmas, but I was a bit concerned about what to do on Christmas Eve in NYC. Christmas Eve at home is typically spent making last minute preparations for dinner and gift giving and enjoying family and friends. I’m one of those crazy people that likes to actually go out on Christmas Eve and go shopping. I enjoy having most everything ready to go under the tree, but being out with people scurrying around trying to buy that last minute item is exciting. I know…I’m nuts. 😉
Christmas Eve in New York City is the perfect place to get caught up in the hustle and bustle. Our day was spent shopping at Herald Square, wandering and looking at pretty store windows, eating treats and visiting the Christmas markets one last time before they closed for the season.
As stores and places in the city started to quiet down in the later afternoon as shoppers headed home to prepare dinner and gather around their trees, we headed back to our hotel, changed and headed to dinner at one of our favorite spots…Mastros. I booked Christmas Eve reservations there a month in advance, if you are looking for restaurants in New York for Christmas dinner, be sure to plan well in advance to get a spot when and where you want one. We ate a delicious dinner surrounded by other New Yorkers and enjoyed live music while we ate.
After dinner we walked along Avenue of the Americas and checked out Radio City all dressed up for Christmas as well as all the other fun light and ornament displays along 6th Avenue. We decided on a whim to attend Christmas Midnight Mass at the gorgeous St. Bart’s cathedral near our hotel. While we are not Episcopalian, it was a great way to end our day reading the story of the Savior’s birth from the Bible, listening to and singing Christmas music with a talented choir and remembering the real reason for the season in a beautiful cathedral.
CHRISTMAS CAROLS IN NEW YORK ON CHRISTMAS EVE
One of the things holiday events that I didn’t learn about until I had already made our reservations for dinner, is that there is a super fun “Christmas Carols in New York” activity at Washington Square Park on Christmas Eve. According to the Washington Square Park Association “Christmas Eve, at 5 pm is the traditional time to celebrate the holiday with carols at the Washington Square Arch. The Rob Susman Brass Quartet, song leader and the revelers from all over the city will lustily sing out the familiar tunes. The words are in the songbooks distributed compliments of the Washington Square Association, but many will know them by heart. “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men” will ring out to remind us all of the true meaning of the holidays.” You can keep tabs on the updated event details here. I am definitely going back to do this. Singing Christmas carols in the heart of the city seems like a dream.
WHAT’S OPEN CHRISTMAS DAY IN NEW YORK
If you’re asking yourself this question…the answer is..surprisingly not much. 😉 It is kind of awesome to see New York City SO empty! There are plenty of great restaurants open so you won’t starve. Late morning or early afternoon is also a great time to go see things like the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller center because the streets are WAY less crowded…the crowds do start to pick up in the later afternoon though. Because I knew it was going to be a quieter day, we planned a lazy morning at the hotel opening presents and relaxing.
We picked up pastries and drinks the day before to have in the hotel room for Christmas morning. I made reservations for a late brunch at Balthazar so we had time to enjoy our morning and early afternoon and then head to brunch.
A funny story about not much being open in NYC on Christmas Day. We were walking to brunch and approached the Uniqlo store in SoHo. Nothing and I mean NOTHING was open, so it seemed strange to us as we approached it that the store was full of people, all the lights were on and there were several police cars outside. We noticed the police emptying the store, but there weren’t any signs of panic or distress, so we asked someone on the street what was going on. Apparently, an employee the night before, in their haste to get home for Christmas Eve, had left all the lights on and the front door of the store unlocked. People looking for places to shop on Christmas morning saw the lights on, and went inside and started trying to shop. Since it was the only place in town that appeared to be open, it attracted lots of shoppers. When no one could find an employee anywhere in the store, someone had called the cops to let them know what was going on. Oops! 😉
Christmas Day is a great day to see a show. Many are dark, but select shows have showings on Christmas night. I found My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center and bought tickets a month before our trip.
It was a fun, family friendly show and rounded out our day perfectly. After dinner we headed to our late dinner reservations at Max Brenner which was one of the few spots open late in the city that night. I I also made reservations there well in advance because there aren’t very many restaurants open late on Christmas Day.
I guess what I’m saying about Christmas Day in New York, is that there are still plenty of things to eat, do and see, just make sure to plan in advance. 🙂
We spent a few more wonderful days in the city after Christmas and then headed home before the craziness of New Year’s Eve. It was such an awesome Christmas and I hope these ideas for spending Christmas in New York City are helpful and have you excited to visit!
Don’t miss this post for more unique ideas of things to do in New York City at Christmastime with kids and find out why you NEED to go see the Radio City Rockettes when you visit!
No matter what time of year you are thinking about visiting be sure to check out my favorite recommendations for places to stay in Midtown NYC with or without kids, one of the best locations in the city…especially if you are a first time visitor. If you’re hoping to. stay closer to downtown, check out this post about the cutest little boutique hotel in Chelsea and the fun secret it has.
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