Ahhhh Christmas in New York City. It doesn’t get much more iconic than that. From the lighting of the tree in Rockefeller Center to the appearance in so many Christmas movies to the dropping of the ball on New Year’s Eve in Times Square, there is something magical about New York that symbolizes the holiday season for so many people. For many years now I have gone to New York during the holiday season, so much so that our friends have learned it’s a key part of my husband and my traditions. We’ve already talked about how we celebrate Christmas in my little city of Syracuse. But now I’m here to recap a classic Christmas in New York City agenda for you.
Originally published December 20, 2017. Most recently updated December 3, 2019.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The holiday season in New York officially begins on Thanksgiving Day with the parade. Since 1924, Macy’s has been at the center of holiday celebrations for Thanksgiving and Christmas in New York City. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was idolized in the movie Miracle on 34th Street, but it’s an experience you should have for yourself at least once. I did it once with a friend several years ago and I’m here to share with you some of the best tips for viewing the parade front and center.
Tips for enjoying the parade
Unless you really care about seeing the performances, don’t try to go for the over-crowded spots in the middle of the route. Instead, get up extra early (we were out of the hotel by 5am) and claim your spots along Central Park West/8th Avenue just south of 77th Street. The parade starts on 77th Street, so from there you have the perfect spot for the parade route. I can’t emphasize just how important it is to be there early. Thousands and thousands of people come to New York to see this iconic parade, so you need to be prepared! Once the crowd gets to a certain size, the police will block off the streets so they don’t become overcrowded. When that happens, you miss the chance to see the parade front row!
Dress warmly! November in NYC can be quite chilly! It’s better to be overdressed with winter clothing than not, especially if you’re going to be sitting in one spot for several hours. Bring a camp chair so you’re not stuck standing or sitting on the cold sidewalk for ages. Enjoy the sunrise over Central Park. Honestly, that was one of my favorite moments of the parade. Take lots of photos; the floats and balloons are stunning. The performers and celebrities are so friendly. Enjoy every moment.
The parade doesn’t last very long; only about an hour and a half. We were lucky enough to get out of the city fairly quickly (before the crowds!) and we were home just in time for dinner with our families.
No trip to NYC is complete without a visit to Central Park, regardless of the time of year! With 843 acres, there is always something new to see there. And mostly for free! Some of my favorite spots to visit are Belvedere Castle and Bethesda Fountain. Belvedere Castle is a small castle built in 1869 that overlooks Turtle Pond. You can climb the tower and great some amazing views of the park and the city. Bethesda Fountain, which you may recognize as one of the places Kevin visits in Home Alone 2, is another gorgeous spot. And if you walk under the terrace, you’ll often find musical performers because the acoustics are wonderful! Several other films have famous scenes set in the park, so check them out as well! Plus, there is plenty of great artwork throughout the park to view.
Need help knowing what to pack for your trip to New York! No worries! Check out Kelly’s NYC packing list!
This one should be obvious – it is THE icon of Christmas in New York City. You can’t help but visit and just be in awe of the massive beauty. And even before you visit, you have to watch the lighting of the tree on TV – with some of the best Christmas songs sung by famous artists. That really kicks off the season.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when visiting Rockefeller Center:
It will be crowded. I’m not kidding here. It will be jam-packed with people like you’ve never seen before. Certain streets are blocked off – particularly if you are going near the beginning or end of a Rockettes performance. There are also several vendors all around the plaza selling whatever they can – photos being the most popular! If you’re lucky, you’ll even catch the Rescue Mission bell ringers singing and dancing around the plaza!
I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
No matter what you do, you’ll appear in hundreds of photos that other people are taking of themselves in front of the tree. Just a fact you have to accept! And as much as it hurts to admit, you’ll have to be okay with whatever photo you can get. With the chaos of the crowds, it’s hard to get that perfect picture. (Hint: the best photos have to do with getting the right angle!) It’s also sometimes hard to trust someone else in the crowd to use your phone or camera to take your photo. Not a risk I like to take.
Crossing off your bucket list takes time!
Plan ahead if you want to go ice skating. Like I said, the plaza is crowded – and the ice is no different! But I understand that ice skating in Rockefeller Center is on the top of every Christmas and NYC bucket list. Just be prepared! You’ll most likely have to wait in line. And because the lines are so long, part of the plaza will be blocked off from pedestrians so they ensure no one cuts in line.
Rockefeller Center Secrets
One of my favorite views of the Christmas tree is from inside Rockefeller Center. Go into the building closest to the tree and take the escalator to the second floor. There are a few tables and chairs spread along floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s the perfect spot to get off your feet, sip some coffee, and watch the magic outside. (Side note: I’m in love with The Shops at NBC Studios. They have the coolest gifts from all of your NBC favorite shows! Someday I promise I’m going to buy a Matt Saracen jersey. “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose!”
Both observation decks offer an upgrade option to visit during both day and night – to get both amazing views of the city. The Rock charges $15 for the add-on, Empire charges $16. Score two for The Rock.
The Rock is more centrally located (particularly if you’re looking at the Christmas decorations!) and yet less crowded than Empire. Score three and four for The Rock. Lastly, if you’re looking for that iconic NYC skyline, you won’t get it from the Empire State Building because you’re inside one of the most iconic buildings. But, if you go to Top of the Rock, you WILL see the Empire State Building. The Rock wins, hands down.
NBC Studio Tour
If you have some time to spare, do the NBC Studio Tour at Rockefeller Center. Yes, the tour is $33, but in my opinion it is worth it. It’s such a cool experience to see the history of the most-famous shows in NBC’s history. I remember seeing the face molds for the prosthetic masks that they make for the hosts of SNL; take the tour to find out who has the most! You’ll get to visit multiple TV show sets, learn about why Sinead O’Connor is no longer allowed on the premises, and see just how tiny the musical stage is for SNL. If you have the time and the budget, do the tour!
Empire State Building Secrets
Okay, okay, I know that it’s super iconic and on everyone’s bucket list to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I recently went again for the first time since I was a kid. And I’ll admit, it was amazing. Everything you think it will be. The whole experience is engaging because of it’s popularity – from photos, factoids, and interactive displays while you wait in line.
Did you know that the Empire State Building is open until 2am? Yes, some of you will think I’m crazy for suggesting this. But savvy readers will realize that this information is a gold mine. New York City is the city that never sleeps, BUT, tourist activity dies down significantly when it gets very late. So, after you’ve spent you’re day galavanting around town, return to the Empire State Building (say 11pm or so), and skip alllll the lines so you can get right to the top! The views are amazing and the crowds are gone. Boom. Best advice ever.
Giant Christmas Decorations
Another classic that seems to be in the opening credits to every Hallmark Christmas movie is the collection of giant Christmas ornaments in front of Radio City Music Hall. Seriously, I spent most of my weekend doing chores around my house with Hallmark on in the background; I saw those ornaments in SO MANY of the credits! Radio City has its own display of Christmas tree lights, but across the street you’ll find the giant red ornaments and the giant string of Christmas lights. Another super popular photo op spot! And another place for vendors selling their fares along the sidewalk. (Hint: check out the spray paint artists – their work is always incredible!)
There is nothing like Fifth Avenue when it’s decorated for Christmas. Because the shops there are the super elite (and make me feel poor and unworthy) companies, they have the budgets to go all out. And they sure do! You’ve got to check out the displays at Tiffany’s, Bvlgari, and Dooney & Burke. They are stunning. Whether or not you have the budget to shop in these stores, it’s free to look at their Christmas lights! And it’s definitely not to be missed.
Like a smaller version of Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park is another must-see for Christmas in New York City. Bryant Park has its own Christmas tree, which is still pretty large! Decorated with lights and large red, blue, and silver ornaments, it’s a beauty! And, if you can’t afford to go to the famous Christmas markets in Europe, Bryant Park has it’s own European inspired holiday shops. With over 150 shops and food stands, there’s plenty to keep you busy. And there is even a smaller ice rink if Rockefeller’s is too crowded!
The biggest department store and the unofficial star of Miracle on 34th Street, Macy’s is another icon of Christmas in New York City. I have a few traditions with Macy’s at Christmas: look at all the windows, photograph every single one, and then head inside and up to their Holiday Lane department to buy a Christmas ornament. Macy’s is known for their Christmas windows, and for good reason! Every year there is a theme to the windows and they are stunning. Be prepared for crowds in front of every one!
The past few years have seen some windows that are interactive; a sign of the times for sure. Even though the store is massive and overwhelming, another thing I love about Macy’s is the old escalators. Weird, I know. But I’ve never seen them anywhere else! If you make it to the top floors, you’ll find the old, skinny, wooden escalators. Something about them just seems pretty cool to me. At the top floor you’ll find Holiday Lane – the Christmas wonderland of Macy’s. Part of our traditions includes buying a Macy’s blown-glass ornament from the Herald Square Macy’s to take home, usually with the year painted on. It’s wonderful to reminisce as I put them on my tree every Christmas!
New Year’s Eve in Times Square
Okay, this is one I still haven’t gotten the courage to do. I find it hard to spend an ENTIRE day outside, in the cold, in the middle of thousands of people to see the ball drop. But, I would not be opposed to finding a nice hotel to watch from! Unfortunately they get booked pretty quickly with sky-high prices. If you do have the courage to go, just plan early and be prepared! If you don’t have the guts to go to Times Square on NYE, you can still visit during the holiday season and see the ball in all it’s glory, jsut waiting to fall as we turn into the next year.
While you’re in Times Square, be sure to check out the holiday decorations in all of the shops! They all have amazing window displays and holiday set-ups throughout the stores. Toys-R-Us is one of my favorites to check out! And while not in Times Square, be sure you also make a stop at FAO Schwarz, another NYC classic.
Ready to Celebrate Christmas in New York City?
Now that you have a list of ideas (and some great advice, of course!), you should be ready to head to New York. You have a variety of options for how to get there and how to get around, but I recommend a good pair of sneakers and a day pass for the subway. Every year my husband and I compete to see who logs more steps on our fitbits!
Have any tips that I missed? Let me know in the comments!