If you are in need of a heavy dose of some Christmas magic, then there is no better city in the world than New York in which to experience it.
We visited New York over the Thanksgiving period, which marks the start of the Christmas Holiday season in the USA. We think this is one of the best times of year to visit the NYC – even though it’s at its busiest.
In this article we are sharing some of the top things to do in New York with children (and without) over the Christmas holiday season.
See the Famous Tree at the Rockefeller Centre
You can’t visit New York in the run up to Christmas without seeing the most famous tree in the city at the Rockefeller Centre. It is simply stunning and so magical to look at – this Norway Spruce is 100 feet tall and covered with thousands of lights.
With its ice skating rink situated below, where you can admire the skating skills on display, along with some iconic Christmas decorations, this spot will provide so many great photo opportunities (especially if you arrive early in the day.)
Or Visit – Origami Tree at the American Museum of Natural History
For a more unique Christmas tree, take a visit to the American Museum of Natural History to see their Origami Christmas Tree. The tree has an annual theme – this year its “Oceans of Origami” featuring more than 800 hand-folded paper models.
Or Visit – The Tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Another amazing tree to check out is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which has a daily lighting ceremony.
Watch the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes
Watch the Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes If you are in New York for the holiday season then a must visit is the Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes at the iconic Radio City Music Hall which dates back to 1932.
Everyone visiting should try to experience this show, which will amaze and entertain the whole family.
My husband thought that it would be 90 minutes of women doing nothing but high kicks (and if I’m honest, I really didn’t know what to expect before the show began) but I can now see why it was recommended to us, as it’s one of the best shows we have seen with so much to take in and experience.
If it doesn’t get you in the Christmas spirit as you watch this amazing spectacle, then nothing will.
There was a 3D journey with Santa, ice skaters, the “Living Nativity” (featuring live camels, sheep and donkeys) along with a clever mix of large scale chorus dances featuring high kicks, stunning special effects and stage sets .
Our favourite scenes were the Rockettes toy soldiers and their tour through New York on the Gray Line sightseeing bus.
Or Try – George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the Lincoln Centre.
Another recommended Christmas show is the Nutcracker performed by the New York City Ballet at the Lincoln Centre.
Go Christmas Shopping
New York is a dream shopping destination with every store imaginable, so it’s perfect for Christmas shopping even with the weaker pound to dollar exchange rate!
Part of our trip was over Black Friday weekend which was an experience but there were some amazing deals to be had especially at Macy’s and my favourite Bath and Body Works.
Tip – If you are visiting from overseas remember to collect your international visitors pass for Macy’s which provides a 10-20% discount in store.
We love picking Christmas decorations for our tree back home and had great fun picking decorations from the Holiday Lane section of Macys.
Visit FAO Schwarz – the world’s most famous toy shop
Play the giant piano during a visit to FAO Schwarz The world’s most famous toy shop FAO Schwarz has just reopened at Rockefeller Plaza and yes it has the infamous giant piano like in the Tom Hanks movie Big.
As soon as you enter FAO Schwarz you quickly realise it’s much more than just a toy shop – it’s an experience with live science shows, a Melissa and Doug supermarket and a 24ft rocket ship to explore. For UK visitors there are also lots of toys that you can’t buy in the UK.
Experience American Girl
Along with FAO Schwarz, American Girl was the best store the girls had ever been to (according to Chloe and Holly). I could see why!
If I was a little girl, this would be my dream store – set over 2 huge floors there are so many dolls and accessories, you can even design a doll that looks like you.
That’s not all, once you have chosen your doll, you can even take it to lunch at their café, followed by a manicure or hair styling at the salon.
Tip – Book a free personal shopping experience before you visit for the best American Girl experience
Have lunch at Lillies Victorian
If you want a Christmas dining experience try Lillies Victorian, which is a hidden gem in the city just a short walk from Times Square.
Between the food and the hundreds of amazing Christmas decorations (the girls loved counting how many Nutcracker soldiers they could find) this will be one of your favourite Christmas places to dine at.
Watch the iconic Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade starts the holiday season in New York and it’s a spectacular show that cannot be missed if you are visiting over Thanksgiving. Watching the parade felt like being in the movie “Miracle on 34th Street” – it was such a memorable moment.
During the parade you will see incredible floats with celebs (we spotted Diana Ross, Ashley Tidsdale and Leona Lewis), live performers marching past and huge balloons towering through the streets in the shapes of classic characters including some of the girl’s favourites Elf on the Shelf, The Grinch and not forgetting waving to Santa Claus as he glides past you on his sleigh.
To get the best views it is recommended to get up early, many people wait out on the streets hours before the parade starts, but we had a great spot by Radio City Music Hall when we arrived just after the parade started.
Tip – You can also watch the parade from the comfort and warmth of certain hotel rooms on the route – take a look at the Hilton Midtown, One Hotel Central Park, The Refinery, Mandarin Oriental, the Quin, Warwick, Ritz Carlton Central Park and Essex House
Have a Thanksgiving Dinner
If you are planning a Thanksgiving meal at a restaurant, then reservations need to be made in advance as getting a walk-in at the better restaurants in the city is near impossible. The Landmarc at the Time Warner Centre was recommended to us .
This restaurant is run by one of New York’s most celebrated chefs Marc Murphy and we enjoyed a delicious Thanksgiving turkey dinner overlooking Central Park.
Try Ice Skating
Although you can ice skate at cities across the world, very few can rival the New York skating experience. Where else could you ice skate at rinks that are so recognisable from so many movies from Home Alone 2 at the Wollman Rink in Central Park to the rink at Rockefeller Plaza as seen in Elf.
Bryant Park is transformed into the Bank of America Winter Village and boasts a 17,000 square foot ice skating rink and was our favourite rink in the city.
Best of all it’s free but you have to bring your own skates, so if you are visiting like us you can hire them at $20 each for 60 minutes.
This is also the only skating rink in Manhattan that offers hire of penguin or snowmen skate aids $22 per hour which is essential to help less experienced skaters around any ice skating rink.
You can also skate at the Wollman Rink at Central Park which is the largest ice skating rink in Manhattan. Framed by the New York skyline, which provides such a memorable setting, it’s much quieter than the rink at Rockefeller.
However if your children cannot skate, then this rink and the one at the Rockefeller centre are not really suitable as no skating aids are provided.
Marvel at the Window Displays
New York provides the ultimate festive shopping trip but the magnificent window displays of the stores are equally as impressive. The displays as you stroll down Fifth Avenue between 59th and 34th streets are truly a sight to see.
Our favourites were at Bloomingdales where the windows are Grinch themed. Better still they were interactive allowing Chloe and Holly to sing along to ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Mr Grinch’ on one of the main shopping streets of New York, watched by hundreds of shoppers.
It’s not just Bloomingdales – Saks, Tiffany’s, Bergdorf Goodman and more on Fifth Avenue are so impressive.
After checking out the windows I recommend calling in the food hall in the Plaza Hotel for a hot chocolate and cake. We were so glad of this recommendation – food halls are huge with locals in New York and I can see why.
Not forgetting the amazing window displays at Macy’s which was another of our favourites. Their stunning display told the story of the adventures of the astronaut Sunny as she travels with her friends, through space, to save Christmas.
Here we had to interact with the windows by pressing buttons to help the snowman avoid the asteroids and then helping Santa fix his sleigh.
Visit Santa in Santaland at the home of Miracle on 34th Street
Macy’s Santaland has been a tradition in this famous store in New York since 1902 with 13,000 square-feet of the 8th floor transformed into Santaland.
We love the movie Miracle on 34th Street and this is the store that this iconic movie was based on.
At the magical Christmas Village we got to chat with his elves walk through the Christmas forest, saw giant toy soldiers and a train display spotting the signs for the North Pole until we reached a wooden cabin where we got to meet Santa himself.
Reservations are essential and I would recommend booking a slot (which is free) as soon as they are released on the Macy’s website.
If you can’t get into Santaland, then dotted around the store are “Believe Stations’ with a letter writing area and a Believe Meter which tracks Christmas magic.
Here children can write their Christmas wish lists and post them to Santa in the official R.H. Macy Santa mailbox and for each letter posted Macy’s donates $1 to the Make-A-Wish foundation.
Have breakfast with Santa at Stella 34 Trattoria
For the best Santa experience I would recommend the Breakfast with Santa at the beautiful Stella 34 Trattoria restaurant on the 6th floor of Macy’s Herald Square – the home of Miracle on 34th Street. Here we had an Italian breakfast (which was a little disappointing given the cost) but we didn’t come for the food, we came to see Santa.
The look on the girls’ faces as they chatted over breakfast to the most authentic looking Santa we had ever seen was worth the entrance fee alone, and offers a far more unique and personal experience compared to Santaland.
After finishing breakfast we visited Santa and his elves where the girls had a great chat with him. Not at any time did it feel rushed as they chatted about where they had travelled from, sharing their Christmas wish lists and what I thought was so touching was when he told them above all the most important thing is to love your family.
A keepsake photo and a lovely bag of takeaway treats were also provided in this fantastic Santa package. I would recommend that you book this in advance as it sells out quickly especially on weekends.
There are three seating categories available – silver (from $50 adult $35 child), gold ($55 adult $40 child) and platinum ($65 adult and $45 child).
We paid for the gold seating but it’s the same experience that you receive and there are no bad tables in the restaurant so if I was booking again I would opt for the silver seating.
Also Try – High Tea with Santa at the Plaza Hotel
Other places recommended to us to enjoy dining with Santa include at the high tea with Santa at the Plaza Hotel (yes the one from the Home Alone movie) in their fabulous Eloise room.
Here children can write a letter to Eloise, spend time with Santa and hear him read a story. There is also a menu that children will love –chicken tenders, fries and mini treats such as mini s’mores and holiday cookies.
Also Try – Breakfast with Santa at the Rockefeller Centre
Another recommendation was at the Rockefeller Centre and the breakfast with Santa packages at the Sea Grill restaurant or Rock Centre Cafe. Under the twinkling lights of the amazing Rockefeller Christmas tree and watching the ice skaters on the most famous rink in the city whilst enjoying breakfast with Santa and his elves.
Best of all the cost of skating at the rink is included and families can bypass the lines which can be long with VIP entry.
Prices start at $110 adults and $70 for children at the Sea Grill and $65 adults and $45 children at the Rock Centre Café.
Both venues offer slightly different experiences – so check out the following link to find out how to book and how the packages differ.
Simply walking around the city and seeing the enormous Christmas decorations is an amazing sight.
From the huge red tree baubles on the pavement close to Radio City, to the major attractions such as the Empire State Building or the One World Observatory having a festive makeover, there is something to look at everywhere you turn.
I know Times Square is hectic, dirty and crowded but I loved walking through this part of New York – in many ways this is the best Christmas light show especially when lots of the adverts were Christmas related.
Tip – Use the jetlag to your advantage and arrive first thing in the morning – Times Square will be virtually deserted
Don’t miss the light show at Saks Fifth Avenue which comes alive after dark with the most amazing light show playing along to dramatic Christmas music.
Across the city you will find several Christmas markets selling special food gifts and souvenirs in many iconic locations ranging from the Grand Central Holiday Fair in the Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Station (this is indoor so it’s great to visit in bad weather), Union Square to the other indoor holiday market at the Oculus at World Trade Center.
The winter village at Bryant Park was our favourite winter village, with lots of beautiful and unique seasonal gifts and food items for sale from its quaint kiosks. The setting is amazing, surrounding the ice rink and amongst the sprawling skyscrapers of Manhattan.
Another favourite was at the shops at Columbus Circle especially with the ‘Holiday under the stars’ light show featuring twelve 14ft stars overlooking the iconic Central Park.
Bryant Park – http://bryantpark.org/shop-eat/holiday-shops
Grand Central Holiday Fair – https://www.grandcentralterminal.com/event/grand-central-holiday-fair
Holiday market at the Oculus – https://www.westfield.com/westfieldworldtradecenter/holiday/experiences
Union Square holiday market – https://www.urbanspacenyc.com/union-square-holiday-market
Columbus Circle Holiday Market – https://www.urbanspacenyc.com/columbus-circle-holiday-market
Even though we spent nearly a week in New York, we didn’t get the chance to see and do everything – so it’s always a great excuse for another visit.
Here are some other tips and recommendations we received to experience Christmas in New York with kids.
New York Botanical Gardens Holiday train show
During the holiday season the New York Botanical Gardens features an enchanting model railway. The half-mile long track which the trains use pass over 175 miniature New York landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Rockefeller Center – it’s supposed to be really impressive.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas The Musical
Here the magic of the Grinch comes alive on stage featuring the classic Grinch songs such as “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas,”
This show at Madison Square Garden would have been a definite on our to-do list but unfortunately the show didn’t start until the 13th December. If you are in New York from the 13th – 30th December then your kids will love this.
The Ride Holiday Bus Tour
This is a bus tour with a difference as it features a unique mix of bus tour and live street performers and was included in our Sightseeing passes.
We had lots of recommendations to try this out especially as it’s a holiday themed experience through the floor to ceiling windows of the bus – but the gridlocked traffic of New York put us off slightly but it’s something that we would do next time.
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
You can take a guided bus tour ($55 adults $45 children) to Brooklyn to see the famous Christmas lights of Dyker Heights made famous after being featured on TV for the streets most over the top decorations especially between 11th to 13th Avenues between 83rd and 86th streets.
Over 100,000 people flock to see the lights each year because of the overwhelming number of Christmas displays in a single area – expect to see houses covered from top to bottom in Christmas lights, 30ft tall toy soldiers huge inflatable Santas and Snowmen etc.
The New York Hall of Science hosts a gingerbread event which holds the Guinness book of records for the largest gingerbread village. You can even sign up for a gingerbread house workshop to make your own masterpiece.