35 NYC Holiday Activities Every Kid Should Try Once
From train shows to Christmas-season theater, New York City serves up so many festive offerings there's no way one family can see and do it all in a single holiday season. Our holiday activities bucket list grows every year. While we've already shared our 2021 list of must-do Christmas events for kids, there are a few holiday activities that are extra special, extra big, and extra over the top or ones that can only be found in NYC, which we believe every kid ought to experience at least once in childhood. These include ice skating under the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and walking the illuminated streets of Dyker Heights in Brooklyn, among other holiday delights.
Whether you call NYC home or you're in town for a magical holiday visit, our list of 35 bucket list holiday activities for families represents the very best of Christmas in New York. Find more picks in our Guide to Holiday and Christmas Activities.
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1. Macy's Balloon Inflation
Catch a sneak preview of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade's giant balloons as they're inflated outside the American Museum of Natural History. FREE
See Tom Turkey at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo courtesy of Macy's
2. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
3. Ice Skate at the Rockefeller Center Rink
Tie up your skates for a spin around the famous ice rink at Rockefeller Center, while the dazzling Christmas tree twinkles in the background.
4. Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Splurge to see the high-stepping Rockettes do that famous kick line, and enjoy the live nativity finale during a production of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
Feel the magic of Christmas at Macy's Santaland. Photo by Diana Kim
Sit on the "real" Santa's lap at Macy's magical, elf-filled Santaland. Note that reservations are now required. FREE minus the photo package.
6. Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park
This outdoor winter wonderland is filled with holiday magic. Where else can you hit the ice for FREE, sip on hot chocolate, and peruse a charming selection of open-air shops?
7. Have High Tea
Get the kids dressed up to enjoy a holiday high tea at one of these swanky spots.
A trip to Lincoln Center for The Nutcracker is pure holiday magic. Photo by author
8. Lincoln Center
Delight in a sumptuous show at the impressive Lincoln Center. Choose from the famed New York City Ballet's Nutcracker or the Metropolitan Opera's annual family production, which offers The Magic Flute and Cinderella this season.
9. NYBG Holiday Train Show
Marvel at the miniature trains and NYC landmarks made from botanical materials at the New York Botanical Garden's Holiday Train Show.
10. FAO Schwarz
Salute the life-sized toy soldiers and play that famous dance-on piano at iconic toy store FAO Schwarz, which has returned to Rockefeller Center and makes for a unique tree photo-op!
Take a trip to Dyker Heights to see the decked-out houses. Photo by Marley White for NYCGo
11. Dyker Lights
Gawk at the spectacularly decorated homes in Brooklyn's Dyker Heights neighborhood. FREE
12. Unsilent Night
Join Unsilent Night, an NYC-born offbeat holiday procession of boom boxes (held by participants) that travels from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square Park on Sunday, December 19. FREE
13. Twas the Night Before Christmas
Get into the holiday spirit at NYC's oldest Christmas tradition: Listen to Clement Clarke Moore’s 'Twas the Night Before Christmas read aloud at the Church of the Intercession on Sunday, December 19. The writer is buried nearby. FREE
RELATED: NYC Restaurant Guide for Families
Just once, brave those crowds to see the Rockefeller tree go up. Photo courtesy of Rockefeller Center
14. Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting
15. Rolf's Restaurant
Dine at Rolf's, the tiny German restaurant in Gramercy that goes all out with its Christmas decor.
16. Go Caroling in Washington Square Park
The Macy's holiday windows are a must-see sight each season. Photo by author
17. Holiday Windows Walk
Pack a thermos of hot cocoa for the kids and a couple of candy canes and stroll the Midtown streets looking at the spectacular holiday windows and streetside decorations. FREE
Take in the breathtaking Luminaries, a shining interactive art installation at Brookfield Place.
19. See a Menorah Lighting
Hanukkah on Ice offers a fun take on the Festival of Lights. Photo courtesy Chabad Lubavitch
20. Hanukkah on Ice
Celebrate Hanukkah on Ice at Wollman Rink. Skate to live Jewish music, nosh on kosher food, and watch as the giant, hand-carved, ice menorah is illuminated.
21. Broadway Under the Stars
See the glittering light show at The Shops of Columbus Circle and catch some Broadway stars crooning on select seasonal evenings.
22. Big Apple Circus
The big top sets up shop for the season annually in Damrosch Park. In 2021, catch Nik Wallenda's gravity-defying act—and more—in Making the Impossible, Possible.
This magical origami tree is back at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo courtesy of AMNH
23. See the Origami Tree
Pose for a photo at one of the many magical-looking Christmas trees around the city. We love the American Museum of Natural History's origami-festooned tree. FREE
24. Or the Angel Tree
25. Holiday Express
Head to the New-York Historical Society to see its Holiday Express display, featuring toys and trains from its Jerni Collection dating back to the early 1900s.
The Bronx Zoo Holiday Lights are a new annual tradition for many families. Photo by author
26. See a Lantern Show
The Bronx Zoo takes visitors on an after-dark safari, while the NYC Winter Lantern Festival lights up Snug Harbor and Illuminates the Farm at the Queens County Farm Museum, giving you a trio of ways to indulge in this new winter tradition.
27. Or a Light Show
28. Dine With Santa
When a short visit isn't quite enough to get your requests in, consider booking one of these brunches, cruises, or Santa teas for yummy eats and plenty of face time with jolly old St. Nick.
29. The Hip Hop Nutcracker
For an out-of-the-ordinary holiday experience, consider tickets to The Hip Hop Nutcracker, which makes an annual stop at the Kings Theatre, with hip hop legend Kurtis Blow acting as MC.
Staten Island's Lights for Life is worth an outer-borough trip. Photo courtesy of the venue
30. See Spectacular Holiday Houses
While Dyker Lights offers a concentration of spectacularly lit holiday houses we've found a few more over-the-top homes worth visiting at least once. Many of these stunning displays give back to the local community, too.
31. New Victory Holiday Show
If your kids aren't quite ready for a big-time production at Lincoln Center or Radio City, consider booking tickets to this kid-friendly spot, which stages the endearing Jim Henson's Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas this season.
32. Harlem Meer Christmas Tree Flotilla
Why go to one Christmas tree lighting when you can see a whole flotilla come to life on the Harlem Meer? If you missed the community-minded lighting, it's still worth stopping by to snap a picture of the sparkling trees during the season.
Hudson Yards is a glittering, golden sight during the holiday season. Photo by author
33. Hudson Yards Holiday Lights
This sky-high micro nabe shines bright during the holiday season when more than 2 million twinkling lights and glittering hot air balloons fill the multi-level mall and public square with sparkling seasonal cheer.
34. Shop Small
We love the holiday markets that pop up during the Christmas season. Visit them to support some small businesses while you shop for the perfect gift.
35. Hit Times Square
If you've crossed off everything else on this list, it's time for the true test of holiday fortitude: Can you bear the crowds at Times Square on New Year's Eve? We did it once and can report that was (more than) enough.
A version of this post was published in 2017; it is updated annually. Stephanie Ogozalek contributed additional reporting.