New York City at Christmas: A Guide for Kids and Families
There is simply nothing more magical than New York City at Christmastime. If it’s not on your bucket list, it needs to be- and you need to check it off as soon as you can! While many parents with young children find NYC to be overwhelming, there simply isn’t anything quite like New York City at Christmastime with kids. NYC at Christmas will bring out the holiday cheer in anyone, but it’s simply enchanting for little ones who believe in the magic of Christmas!
I had always dreamed of visiting NYC at Christmas, but I’m truly grateful that I never got the opportunity until I was a mother. Our first trip to the city for a holiday adventure was just after our boys turned four years old. Seeing the looks on their little faces when we rounded the corner and they first caught a glimpse of the Rockefeller Christmas tree is a moment I will never, ever forget. At four years old our boys were the perfect age for Christmas in NYC. They believed in Santa with their whole hearts and to see the twinkle in their eyes made my heart swell with happiness. From the window displays to the larger than life ornaments and ice skating beneath the tree, it was non-stop wonder and awe from the moment we arrived!
Because the city can be a bit overwhelming around Christmastime, we’re here to share our favorite holiday activities with tips and tricks for kids and families. We actually find that the hustle and bustle of the crows adds to the holiday cheer, but the crowds do require a bit more planning as well as leaving yourself plenty of time so you’re not rushed. You’ll want to find a balance between seeing some of the sights during the day to avoid the crowds with braving the crowds at night time to see certain things twinkle under the night sky. Strollers will help you navigate the busy streets more safely (and we strongly recommend strollers in NYC even if your kids have ditched them elsewhere), but be sure that everyone gets a shoulder ride or two for better views!
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
There’s nothing more quintessentially New York City at Christmastime than the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The tree at Rockefeller Center has been a national tradition since 1933. Usually a Norway Spruce, the tree stands between 70 and 100 feet tall. Each year the perfect tree is scouted by Erik Pauzé the head gardener at Rockefeller Center. The lighting ceremony takes place in late November and the tree continues to shine holiday cheer over Midtown Manhattan though early January. While the tree is obviously the highlight, all of Rockefeller Center twinkles with tens of thousands of lights, holiday angels, and other beautiful decorations.
My favorite tip for parents when visiting the tree is actually to have one parent hold the kids (with their eyes covered- no peeking!) while the other stands with their back to the tree and the camera ready. On the count of three, everyone uncovers their eyes! Trust me- capturing that very first moment your little ones spot the tree makes for the perfect photo!
Go Ice Skating
The most iconic place to ice skate in NYC at Christmastime is Rockefeller Center. You skate directly under the Christmas tree surrounded by the twinkling lights, giant Prometheus statue, and the throngs of people dreamily watching you! You can rent skates, but renting and skating is not cheap and the line can be hours long on weekend evenings. When it’s at maximum capacity, the Rockefeller Skating rink is not a wonderful place for kids unless they are excellent skaters. For novice skaters, try visiting in the morning or early afternoon on a weekday.
There are also other fantastic ice skating rinks in NYC that give you the same cozy feeling of experiencing a holiday tradition in the city at Christmas time. Wolman Ice Rink is located in Central Park on the east side between 62nd and 63rd streets. You can rent skates here too and while it’s still not cheap, the price is a bit easier to swallow than Rockefeller Center.
Winter Village at Bryant Park also has a fantastic holiday ice rink and it’s the only outdoor ice rink in the city with free admission! You can rent skates here as well but the free admission really keeps the cost down and makes this a great family-friendly spot. Bryant Park turns into a beautiful open-air market at Christmas time so it also gets crowded in the evenings, especially on the weekends. It’s a great place to skate in the afternoon because you can also spend time walking through the market while sipping hot cocoa. But if you really want to skate under the night sky- the lines here should be shorter than at Rockefeller Center so strap those skates on and enjoy!
Radio City Christmas Spectacular
I know that going to New York City at Christmastime is a splurge in and of itself, but if you’re going to splurge on one thing while you are in the city, it absolutely needs to be on tickets to see the Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. A lot of people use the word spectacular to describe things that are, well, less than spectacular- but this show is the exact definition of spectacular! Tickets aren’t cheap but I promise they are entirely worth it.
If you’ve got young kids, look for tickets in the first row of the balcony. They are a bit cheaper, the view is still incredible, and the kids have a bit of room to move around which helps them handle the length of the show. The show is made for all ages and there’s an intermission so the kids can take a short break. Our boys spent the entire show standing at edge of the balcony because they were too excited to sit down! They were four at the time and had no trouble at all making it through- there was just so much to hold their attention. The show is perfect for all ages and even the adults will be bursting with Christmas spirit by the second number!
If you want to truly experience Christmastime in NYC, you won’t want to miss the Radio City Christmas Spectacular!
5th Avenue Window Shopping
I’ll be the first to tell you that kids and window shopping don’t mix well. We’ve got two boys and unless we’re at the Lego Store, they don’t care one single bit about shopping. They care even less about looking at things in windows that we’re not going to buy!
But oh the window shopping on 5th Avenue at Christmastime! Even our four year olds were mesmerized! Fifth Avenue is incredibly crowded so give yourself plenty of time to meander about. You’ll have to work your way up to the window displays so your little ones have an unobstructed view… but once they get to a window, they won’t want to leave! The window displays on 5th Avenue are true works of art that perfectly capture the holiday spirit!
At 1251 Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue), not far from Rockefeller Center, you’ll find larger than life ornaments! They are just simple displays, but something about them really brings out the Christmas spirit! They are so bright and cheery, it’s hard not to be full of cheer yourself! This is a great place to stop for a family photo- especially during the day when the ornaments sparkle in the sunlight.
Union Square Holiday Market
Union Square Holiday Market is an adorable little pop up market in, you guessed it- Union Square! You’ll find all sorts of holiday gifts, plus delicious treats like hot cocoa, hot apple cider, crepes and donuts! You can walk through in less than an hour and there’s enough exciting things to keep the kids entertained as you stroll through the market. There’s a vendor that sells little Christmas ornaments and our boys were more than happy to each buy an affordable little yellow NYC taxi cab ornament. They clutched them to their chests as if they were treasure and enjoyed the rest of the market without asking for another thing! Besides hot cocoa of course!
New York City Public Library
This one is just a quick “walk by it” spot- but the majestic lions standing guard outside the main library get all dressed up for the holidays and our kids get a big kick out of it! The lions are each adorned with a giant wreath and bow and they make for a great photo op.
Empire State Building
This is another location you don’t have to do more than walk by, but do be sure you get a good view of the Empire State Building while you are in the city. The top is light up with red and green for the month of December and it’s a beautiful sight!
Hotel Lobby Visits
Stop in various hotels to see their lobby displays. I know this sounds a little weird, but trust me- it’s worth it! Each hotel decorates its lobby with gorgeous Christmas trees and full displays of decorations. Walking the streets of NYC at Christmastime is cold, especially with little ones so when you pass a hotel- drop in to check out the lobby. The kids can warm their hands and fill their hearts with enough Christmas spirit to get their little walking feet to the next location!
Holiday Movie Locations
This one might be more exciting for older kids who are familiar with the movies. There are various locations throughout the city that appear in some of our favorite classic Christmas movies. Home Alone fans (seriously, who isn’t a Home Alone fan?!) will love visiting the Plaza Hotel where Kevin lived the life of luxury in Home Alone 2. You can also check out the Inscope Arch, the spot where Kevin met the Bird Lady- located in Central Park near the Gapstow Bridge at East 62nd Street near the Central Park Zoo. The southwest corner of Central Park is home to the bridge where Buddy the Elf teamed up with Michael in the infamous snowball fight scene!
Visit with Santa
Last but not least- what better place to visit Santa than in New York City? Santa Land at Macy’s is a truly magical place to visit Santa. Admission is free but you do need to make reservations here. Santa Land is over 13,000 square feet of pure holiday cheer! There are lights, trees, carolers and plenty of photo ops for mom and dad! There is a professional photographer for when your kids get their visit with Santa, but they also let you snap your own photos. Santa Land feels like visiting the North Pole and will have your little ones beaming with excitement!
Looking for more info in visiting NYC with kids? Check out A Guide to Visiting New York City with Kids that we wrote for The Daily Struggle, our our 10 Free or Cheap Activities in NYC for Kids and Families post!