By Adam Guy
New York City serves as the backdrop for LOADS of holiday movies. And no wonder: NYC during the winter holidays is just as magical and romantic in real life as it seems on screen. The crowds can be a little excessive and occasionally the temperatures get a wee chilly. BUT… there’s a zip in the air and a brewing sense of joy with everyone you meet. And boy does the city know how to set a scene. Decorated storefronts, ice skating rinks surrounded by skyscrapers, holiday markets, and the Rockettes! What’s a holiday without a kick line, right?
I’m here to give you a brief rundown of places and experiences that make New York City the BEST PLACE TO VISIT during the holidays… at least once (or twice) in your life.
There are many rinks in New York City these days. Everyone is trying to capitalize on that quintessential holiday experience. There are three classic rinks, though, which offer the most romantic, New York-y skating experience:
- Rockefeller Center – Iconic, lovely, and right beneath the Rockefeller Christmas Tree. Could it BE any more romantic?
- Central Park – There are two rinks in the park. Stick with Wollman Rink -- the one in the southeast corner that looks out toward the Plaza Hotel. It’s the one where John Cusack and Kate Beckinsdale finally meet up in the movie Serendipity.
- Bryant Park – You are surrounded by skyscrapers and in the middle of a holiday market. With all the lights and holiday music playing, it might be the most holiday-rific one of them all.
Do your research before you go and plan ahead. Some skating rinks require reservations; some are free if you bring your own ice skates.
There are four big department stores that go all out with holiday window decorations: Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdales. Unsurprisingly, these are some of the shops that set the tradition in motion decades ago. I suggest a “window walk.”
Here’s how I recommend you go:
1. Start at Macy’s at 34th Street (where the movie “Miracle” took place.)
2. Then head east to Fifth Avenue and walk north. You’ll go by Bryant Park’s Holiday market on your way.
3. Saks Fifth Avenue is across from Rockefeller Center on Fifth Ave. at 48th Street. Every night from 5pm to 11pm they run a spectacular light show set to music every 10 minutes on the side of their building. NOT TO BE MISSED.
4. Then continue north on Fifth Ave. to 58th Street where the most spectacular holidays windows (in my opinion) are at Bergdorf Goodman department store.
5. Need to be dazzled a bit more? Head east on 59th Street to Bloomingdale’s for one last splash of creative holiday window decor.
Rockefeller Center Tree
It’s the unofficial symbol of Christmas in the city. (Spoiler alert… this is where Kevin finally meets up with his mom at the end of Home Alone 2.) The official tree lighting ceremony takes place November 29 this year. The tree usually stays up about two weeks into January.
The closer it is to December 25, the bigger the crowds wanting to see the famed tree get. Just lean into it. Don’t get frustrated. Even in the swarm, people are usually in good spirits.
FUN FACT – The tree is donated to Habitat for Humanity for lumber to build homes after it’s taken down.
These seem to be popping up everywhere in the city, too. I suppose ‘tis the season to make a buck, huh? Even though they are similar and have some of the same vendors, I’ll highlight three holiday markets that are worth visiting - Union Square, Bryant Park, and Columbus Circle.
Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Performed annually for more than 100 years, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is a show everyone should see at least once. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, seeing the Rockettes perform their iconic synchronized kick line or wooden soldier fall is pure joy.
There is a part towards the end in which the show does offer a religious bent. It features camels. Yes, I said camels. But appreciate that part for what it is. The show’s other star is Radio City Music Hall itself. It is electric just to be in the grand space and the Christmas Spectacular shows it off wonderfully. (One of Santa's elves told me they offer a major ticket sale on Black Friday!)
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the unofficial kick off to the holiday season in New York City. Mostly because of shopping, of course. (That’s why it got started – to get people to buy holiday gifts at Macy’s!)
The parade is a joy to see in person.
At least a million people line the parade route to see a host of impressively large balloons being carried down New York’s concrete corridors, marching bands from across America, Tom Turkey, and Santa Claus himself. Be sure to bundle up, bring a thermos of hot coffee, and use the potty before you leave home. This year’s parade takes place on Thursday, November 23.
Hudson Yards and Shopping
I’m telling you about a mall… at the holidays. Yes, really. But the mall at Hudson Yards does it RIGHT! They decorate all four floors with over 1 million lights. The centerpiece at the entrance is a stunning hot-air balloon made of colorful twinkle lights.
You will see Instagrammers by the dozen posing all over for the perfect holiday selfie. There’s plenty of great shopping there to burn a hole in your wallet.
You may have never heard of Dyker Heights. It’s a neighborhood deep in Brooklyn, where the neighbors go complete gangbusters with Christmas lights and decorations. Seriously! It takes some of the homeowners months to set up their intricate scenes.
It’s a bit of a hike to get there, so I recommend planning ahead before you decide to venture there. I’ve been once, and I’m still not sure where or if there are bathrooms available. If you are only visiting New York a few days, you may want to skip this. But if here longer, do make the trip. It’s the definition of holiday decoration madness.
I’m going to lean on this very thorough blog to provide details by Free Tours By Foot (thank you) on how to get there and what to see.
New York Botanical Gardens
Each year, the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx offers a holiday train exhibit and light display. The train exhibit, set up in the Garden’s glassed-in conservatory, features model trains zipping through a miniature wonderland featuring nearly 200 famous New York landmarks.
You can stroll the grounds with a cup of hot chocolate (or wine) and enjoy this lovely and peaceful take on the holidays.
It’s a short ride either on the subway or Metro North via Grand Central to get to the Botanical Gardens. As with most exhibits and events, plan ahead for schedules and reservations.
Rolf’s German Restaurant
The most Christmas-y place in all of New York City. It’s Christmas all year round at Rolf’s German Restaurant, where nearly every inch of wall and ceiling are covered with lights, ornaments, and other decorations. The holiday season is its busiest time and reservations are hard to come by. (Call often and the moment they start taking them.) They also have strict rules about how much time you can spend there. But if you are looking for FESTIVE, there’s no better place than Rolf’s. Your Instagram photos here will be electric.
Consider the list above the highlights of the holiday season. There are plenty more places to visit, shows to see, themed restaurants and bars to enjoy, and special events around the holidays in the city.
Now turn off that Hallmark holiday movie and come see the magic of the holidays in person right here in New York City.
There’s a good chance we’ll see a glimpse of at least one of the above if you take a tour with me during the holidays. If you’d like my help to navigate through the crowds to many of the main spots safely and efficiently, I’m happy to take you on an evening holiday stroll. Just ask me! It’s not something I list on my website, but something I am happy to do for you, your family and friends.
Thanks for reading this blog! If you would like to chat about your upcoming trip and possible tour ideas, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm quite friendly!
© All photos by Adam Guy