35 NYC Holiday Activities Every Kid Should Try Once

It might be pure holiday madness inside FAO Schwarz, but you'll forget the chaos when it's your turn to twirl on the giant piano with the glittering Rockefeller Center tree in the background. Photo by author
It might be pure holiday madness inside FAO Schwarz, but you'll forget the chaos when it's your turn to twirl on the giant piano with the glittering Rockefeller Center tree in the background. Photo by author

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

RELATED: Santa in the City: 25 Awesome Santa Activities for NYC Kids

Tom Turkey kicks off the holiday season in NYC
See Tom Turkey at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo courtesy of Macy's

2. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Get up at the crack of dawn to stake your spot along the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade route, or splurge on a hotel room overlooking the parade (book now for next year)! FREE

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.

RELATED: Holiday Train Shows in NYC for Families and Kids

Every kid has to visit Santaland at least once
Feel the magic of Christmas at Macy's Santaland. Photo by Diana Kim

5. Santaland

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.

RELATED: Holiday Windows Walk: See Midtown Manhattan's Iconic 2021 Christmas Displays

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!

RELATED: 100 Things to Do with NYC Kids Before They Grow Up

The Dyker Lights are an only-in-NYC holiday activity
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

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree
Just once, brave those crowds to see the Rockefeller tree go up. Photo courtesy of Rockefeller Center

14. Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting

While we caution against the packed crowds, brave them at least once to watch the Rockefeller Center tree being lit for the season. FREE

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

Ring in the holiday by caroling around the Christmas tree near the historic Washington Square Arch on Christmas Eve. We've found more caroling and concerts, too. FREE

RELATED: Where to Take Pictures With Santa in NYC in 2021

A holiday windows walk is a quintessential holiday activity in NYC
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

18. Luminaries

Take in the breathtaking Luminaries, a shining interactive art installation at Brookfield Place.

19. See a Menorah Lighting

Make plans to see larger-than-life menorahs get lit during the Festival of Lights. You can catch World's Largest Menorah lighting in Manhattan, or Brooklyn's Largest Menorah at Grand Army Plaza.

RELATED: 35 Free Holiday and Christmas Events in NYC for Kids

Hanukkah on Ice
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.

RELATED: Brooklyn Botanic Garden Shines Brightly With Lightscape

Origami tree at AMNH must-do holiday activities in NYC
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

The Met's ode to the season is a towering tree bedecked in angels with an 18th-century Neopolitan nativity scene at its base.

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.

RELATED: Where to See The Nutcracker in NYC in 2021

Bronx Zoo Holiday Lights are a must-do holiday activity
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

The New York Botanical Garden and Brooklyn Botanic Garden shine bright with twinkling light displays of their own.

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.

RELATED: Holiday Light Shows: Drive-Thru Christmas Lights Near NYC for 2021

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.

RELATED: Christmas Towns and Festivals to Explore Near NYC

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.

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