Christmas in New York: Ultimate 3-Day Itinerary for a Magical Holiday with Kids

During Christmas in NYC, Midtown Manhattan is chock-full of glittery eye candy. Photo by Ally Noel
During Christmas in NYC, Midtown Manhattan is chock-full of glittery eye candy. Photo by Ally Noel
12/9/23 - By Jody Mercier

Christmas in NYC is the most magical time of the year. It's no accident the Big Apple takes the top spot on our list of the best Christmas towns and Santa Villages in the US. During the holidays, New York City absolutely sparkles.

Whether you're a lifelong New Yorker, you live nearby and are planning a holiday day trip, or you're coming from afar to cross a few items off our NYC holiday bucket list, read on for all the best things to do during Christmas in NYC. We've pulled our can't-miss Christmas and holiday must-do's into a holiday magic-filled three-day itinerary, and if this tinsel and cheer-filled plan leaves you craving more Christmas in NYC, be sure to check out our Guide to Holiday and Christmas Events in NYC for Families.


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Christmas in NYC: Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
Sure it's crowded, but you can't do Christmas in NYC without posting for a photo with the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.

Christmas in NYC Day 1: Rockefeller Center

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Arguably the biggest symbol of the holidays in New York City, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree gets lit annually the Wednesday after Thanksgiving and lords over the holiday festivities all season long. There's no secret, uncrowded time to visit, but take note: The best view is really from Fifth Avenue. Stand at the edge of Rockefeller Center's Channel Gardens looking toward the tree for a postcard-perfect view. The lights are on daily from 5am-midnight, and the crowds will be smaller early in the day or late at night, so try to hit this one during off hours if you have to have that close-up Christmas tree selfie!

RELATEDRockefeller Center Tree in 2023: Insider Tips for Visiting with Kids

Christmas in NYC: Candy canes decorating Sixth Avenue
After you see the Rockettes at Radio City, save time to explore the decorations along Sixth Avenue.

The Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes

New York City doesn't lack for spectacular, family-friendly holiday shows that dazzle on stages all over town, but for pure Christmas magic and holiday confection, a trip to see the Radio City Rockettes is a must. With a roughly 90-minute runtime, glittering costumes, soaring musical numbers, and plenty of surprises—from Santa bursting down the aisle to confetti shooting toward the rafters and fireworks on stage—it keeps the attention of even the youngest visitors. Be sure to arrive early to take in the grand space and the glittering, Christmas tree-shaped Swarovski chandelier in the lobby and to allow time for a potty break (lines can be long).

FAO Schwarz

Once you've seen the toy soldiers on stage, head over to this iconic toy shop and get a salute from one of the soldiers who guards the door. FAO Schwarz is an eye-popping extravaganza. There are toy-packed shelves, fun in-store experiences, and you can't miss dancing on the grand piano. Even better: It's situated in a second-floor window overlooking the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, so it offers a view while you dance. Parents, don't be shy—kick off your shoes and do a little jig, too!

If you haven't had enough of the gimmes at FAO Schwarz, know that there are some other kid-pleasing stores in Rockefeller Center, too, including Nintendo NYC, American Girl New York, and The Lego Store. You can also check out our list of even more fun things to do at Rockefeller Center.

RELATEDWhere to See The Nutcracker Ballet in NYC in 2023

Christmas in NYC: Light show at Saks
Saks Fifth Avenue puts on a stunning light show every night during the holiday season in NYC. 

Saks Light Show and Fifth Avenue

When the sun sets, the lights go on at Saks Fifth Avenue—and all the other glittering stores lining Fifth Avenue, too. Catch the sparkling light show on the store's facade, which runs every 10 minutes from 5-10pm. Once you've seen the lights dance, head across the street to see the incredible holiday windows, an NYC tradition at the big department stores including Bloomingdale's (59th and Lexington), Bergdorf Goodman (58th and Fifth), and Macy's Herald Square (34th and Broadway).

Next, take an evening stroll north along Fifth Avenue. While the department stores are a big draw, many of the boutiques mount dazzling displays of their own. You'll also pass the towering St. Patrick's Cathedral, which glows in holiday grandeur and has a beautiful nativity scene inside.

For an indulgent holiday treat, consider booking an afternoon tea at The Plaza Hotel. One of our favorite spots for high tea in New York City, the famed hotel gets decked out for the holiday. Santa joins the fun on select dates, making the rounds as you dine on sumptuous treats.

RELATED: The Most-Insane, Must-Try Desserts in NYC

Christmas in NYC: Bank of America Bryant Park Winter Village.
Bryant Park gets a seasonal makeover that includes a Winter Village, ice skating rink, and a beautiful Christmas tree. Photo courtesy of Bryant Park

Christmas in NYC Day 2: Bryant Park, Macy's, and More Midtown Holiday Fun

Bryant Park Winter Village

What's Christmas in NYC without gliding on the ice under a glowing Christmas tree? While Rockefeller Center is an option, we recommend starting your second day on fresh legs with a visit to NYC's only ice skating rink with FREE admission, and one of our top picks for outdoor ice skating rinks in the city. The ice skating rink at Bryant Park is the centerpiece of the park's Winter Village, surrounded by charming shops, delicious eats, and plenty of hot chocolate options to warm up with when you're done on the ice. The setting, with a backdrop of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree and the main branch of the New York Public Library, is absolutely perfect.

Be sure to book your ice skating tickets in advance. Ice time is at a premium during the holiday season!

When you've had your fill of eating and shopping, treat the kids to a turn on the enchanting Le Carrousel, a French-inspired merry-go-round that's one of our favorite local carousels.

RELATED: Free Holiday Events and Christmas Activities in NYC

Christmas in NYC: Holiday Train Show at the New York Transit Museum's Grand Central Gallery
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Transit Museum's Grand Central Gallery is a fun, free, diversion amid Midtown's holiday hubbub. Photo by Filip Wolak

Grand Central Terminal

If you've had enough fresh air and cold weather, head due east on 42nd Street and duck inside Grand Central Terminal. The commuter hub actually houses tons of things to do, and the fun is only elevated come the holiday season. After you've gawked at the towering ceiling and posed in front of the iconic clock in the Main Concourse, explore the holiday fair, then check out the Holiday Train Show at the New York Transit Museum's Grand Central Gallery. The O-gauge display is NYC in miniature, and sure to thrill little ones.

Macy's Santaland

Those in the know can confirm that the one, true Santa Claus lives at Macy's Santaland, where he takes up residence after riding in at the end of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade! A visit to see jolly old St. Nick here calls for a little planning—reservations are required and can only be booked five days in advance—but your persistence is rewarded with a Candy Land-like wonderland of holiday fun.

As you wait in line to meet Santa, you'll encounter cheeky elves, wind past a holiday train display, and see tons of fun decorations. Multiple Santas await at the end, each cleverly hidden inside their own little hut, where kids can pile on presents to pose for a picture, and, of course, share their wish lists. Whether you opt to buy a photo package—starting at $39—or not, everyone walks away with a small trinket and plenty of memories. Parents can snap their own pics throughout the experience, too, including with Santa!

While you're there, be sure to check out the window displays on Broadway, which get a refresh annually, and take a moment to gaze up at the Empire State Building bedecked in red and green in honor of Christmas in NYC.

RELATEDBest Neighborhood Christmas Lights Displays in NYC

Christmas in NYC: Dyker Heights Lights
The Dyker Heights Lights are an exercise in holiday excess and an only-in-NYC experience.

Christmas in NYC Day 3: Explore a New Neighborhood

While days 1 and 2 on our itinerary focused on Midtown Manhattan—and really, there's still plenty more Christmas and holiday fun to be seen there—we suggest spending your last Christmas in NYC day exploring a new neighborhood. Here are some of our favorite spots to find the holiday spirit beyond Midtown's sweet sights.

Dyker Heights, Brooklyn

If you can't get enough of Christmas lights or fancy yourself a Clark Griswold-level decorating aficionado, the Dyker Lights displays are a splendid exercise in holiday excess. It's block after block of over-the-top decorated houses that started in the '80s when one neighbor, Lucy Spata, mounted an insane display. First, the neighbors complained; then they joined the fun, and the whole neighborhood now goes all in. You can get there by train, taxi, or opt for a guided bus tour.

Bronx Park, the Bronx

Home to both the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden—and close to the real Little Italy on Arthur Avenue—it's easy to while away a day here.

We suggest starting your outing with a trip to the enchanting Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden. It's the largest and most spectacular of all the holiday train shows in NYC. See more than 200 NYC landmarks recreated in miniature form from botanical material including pine cones, acorns, cinnamon sticks, and seeds. All the while, miniature trains glide by, including tot-favorite Thomas and his trusty sidekicks, Annie and Clarabell.

Follow the train show up with a visit to the Bronx Zoo for its Holiday Lights. Embark on an after-dark safari across nine different lantern trails with nearly 400 lanterns representing more than 100 animal and plant species. Save time for roasting s'mores over the firepit, a holiday train ride around the Fountain Circle, and a stunning, animated LED Christmas tree. Animal lovers take note: You're unlikely to see many live creatures during this after-hours experience, though you can get a glimpse of the beloved sea lions adjacent to the Christmas tree display.

RELATEDGuide to Holiday Train Shows in NYC

Christmas in NYC: George Balanchine's Nutcracker at Lincoln Center.
George Balanchine's Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center, Upper West Side

It's hard to talk about Christmas in New York without mentioning the spectacular New York City Ballet production of The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. The famous production features George Balanchine's choreography, a Christmas tree that grows from 12 to 40 feet before your very eyes, an onstage snowstorm, spectacular costuming, and more. See our list of more family-friendly Nutcracker performances.

If ballet isn't your cup of tea, or your kids are too little to endure the two-act performance, Lincoln Center offers more family-friendly holiday shows. We're huge fans of the Big Apple Circus: NYC's homegrown circus troupe pitches its tent in nearby Damrosch Park each holiday season, mounting a spectacle that's pure joy in an intimate setting where you're never far from the action and everyone has a good seat.

Another great kid-friendly option is the Met Opera's The Magic Flute. The Mozart masterpiece is directed by Julie Taymor (of Broadway's The Lion King), cut down to less than two hours, and performed in English. The costumes are icing on the cake!

Where to Eat During Christmas and the Holidays in NYC

Many of our itinerary picks are peppered with family-friendly dining options, and there are loads of kid-friendly restaurants near Rockefeller Center. If you're looking for an only-in-New-York option, try one of these must-visit cafes, sweet shops, and iconic NYC restaurants, and be sure to save time for a slice at these top pizza spots. No matter where in the city your travels take you, we've got tons of kid-approved eats in our Kid-Friendly Restaurant Guide to NYC.

Of course, there are a few over-the-top decorated restaurants that go all-out for the holidays. If you're willing to pack a little patience, try to nab a table at Rolf's Restaurant, which sparkles with more than 200,000 lights during the holiday season. Another top pick for its holiday ambiance is Lillie's Victorian Restaurant, which has a pair of locations in Times Square and Union Square and takes reservations.

For kid-friendly appeal, head to the South Street Seaport, where a pair of Santa-themed outdoor dining destinations await. Little ones will have a blast at Santa's Winter Wonderland by Watermark, which includes a kid-sized carousel, while older kids will love gliding on Manhattan's only rooftop ice skating rink and screaming down the fast slide at The Santa Clauses Experience on the Pier 17 rooftop. Both spots offer fun, seasonal eats, hot cocoa, and a chance to visit Santa if you time it right.

RELATED: Where to Have Breakfast with Santa in NYC

Christmas in NYC: Omni Berkshire Place FAO Hotel Suite
The Omni Berkshire Place's FAO Suite is the stuff of a toy-lovers dream. 

NYC Hotels for a Holiday Stay

Omni Berkshire Place

You'll be hard-pressed to get your kids to leave the dreamy FAO Suite at this swanky Midtown hotel. Personal shoppers curate a selection of toys for kids to enjoy during their stay in this 1,300+-square-foot, 2-bedroom suite. Little guests are given a FAO plush as a welcome gift to get the visit started on a sweet note.

Lotte New York Palace

Located just a block away from Rockefeller Center, the Lotte New York Palace offers spacious two-room suites, soaking tubs for bubble baths, and turndown treats fit for a king. Come Christmastime, it really turns on the charm with a stunning courtyard Christmas tree and plenty of other holiday perks to make you feel right at home, including a holiday suite decorated for the occasion and a stunning gingerbread display in the lobby that is guaranteed to put you in the holiday spirit.

The Peninsula New York 

Walking up the grandly decorated staircase at this Midtown hotel is like stepping into a fairytale, and that's just what awaits with its Night Before Christmas package, in addition to fun take-home toys and beautiful in-room decor, kids can enjoy a fun in-room candy cane scavenger hunt and get to work on a gingerbread decorating kit 

Find all of our top picks for family-friendly NYC hotels here

Unless noted, photos by the author

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