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 bucket list grows every year. In fact, for 2018 we found 15 must-do Christmas events for kids, and twelve picture-perfect holiday-themed day trips.
But there are a few holiday activities that are extra special, extra big, and extra over the top that can only be found in NYC, which we believe every kid ought to experience at least once in a 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 for a holiday visit, our list of 21 once-in-a-lifetime experiences for families represents the very best of a NYC Christmas. The best part? More than half are FREE.
1. 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. 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. Tie up your skates for a spin around the famous ice rink at Rockefeller Center while the dazzling Christmas tree twinkles in the background.
Feel the magic of Christmas at Macy's Santaland. Photo by Mike Coppola for Macy's
4. 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.
RELATED: Holiday Train Shows in NYC for Families and Kids
The magical and award-winning GingerBread Lane rises in Queens once again! Photo courtesy of The New York Hall of Science
5. Feast your eyes on the sweet surprises at GingerBread Lane at the New York Hall of Science.
6. Delight in a sumptuous show at impressive Lincoln Center. Choose from the famed New York City Ballet's Nutcracker or the Metropolitan Opera's annual family production, which this year is The Magic Flute.
Take a trip to Dyker Heights to see the decked out houses. Photo by Marley White for NYCGo
7. Gawk at the spectacularly decorated homes in Brooklyn's Dyker Heights neighborhood. FREE
8. 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: NYC Restaurant Guide for Families
Just once, brave those crowds to see the Rockefeller tree go up. Photo by Anthony Quintano via Flickr
9. While we caution against the packed crowds, brave them at least once to watch the Rockefeller Center tree being lit for the season. FREE
10. Get the kids dressed up to enjoy a holiday high tea at one of these swanky spots.
11. Pack a thermos of hot cocoa for the kids and a couple of candy canes and stroll north from Herald Square to Bloomie's, gazing at department store windows decked out for the holidays. FREE
12. Celebrate Chanukah 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.
The New York Botanical Garden's model train displays and miniature NYC landmarks are a hit with all ages. Photo by Talisman for NYBG
13. Marvel at the miniature trains and NYC landmarks made from botanical materials at the New York Botanical Garden's Holiday Train Show.
14. Salute the life-sized toy soldiers and play that famous dance-on piano at iconic toy store FAO Schwarz, which returns to Rockefeller Center just in time for holiday season shopping.
15. Join Unsilent Night, a NYC-born offbeat holiday procession of boom boxes (held by participants) that travels from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square Park on Sunday, December 16. FREE
16. Get into the holiday spirit at NYC's oldest Christmas tradition: Listen to Clement Clarke Moore’s 'Twas the Night Before Christmas read aloud before joining a lantern-lit procession to the poet's grave for caroling. FREE
This magical origami tree is back at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo courtesy of AMNH
17. Pose for a photo at one of the many magical-looking Christmas trees around the city. My son's favorite is the American Museum of Natural History's origami-festooned tree. FREE
18. Dine at Rolf's, the tiny German restaurant in Gramercy that goes all out with its Christmas decor.
19. Ring in the holiday by caroling around the Christmas tree near the historic Washington Square arch on Christmas Eve. FREE
20. Take in the breathtaking Luminaries, a shining interactive art installation at Brookfield Place. FREE
RELATED: 100 Things to Do with NYC Kids Before They Grow Up
Fireworks at Grand Army Plaza illuminate Brooklyn's night sky. Photo courtesy of the Prospect Park Alliance
21. Head to Brooklyn for a New Year's Eve fireworks display at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park. FREE
A version of this post published in 2017; it is updated annually. Katie Nave Freeman contributed additional reporting.