Christmas in New York: 49 Holiday Activities To Do in NYC Before Your Kids Grow Up

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 the NYBG Holiday Train Show to a date with the Radio City Rockettes, New York City serves up so many holiday activities, 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 2022 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 49 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. Ice Skate at the Rockefeller Center Ice 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.

2. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade 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: See the Stunning Christmas Window Displays in NYC: Bloomingdales, Macy's, and More

Holiday Activities in NYC: Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Santa ushers in the start of the holiday season when he arrives at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo by the author

3. 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)!

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 Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes.

5. 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?

6. Have High Tea

Get the kids dressed up to enjoy a holiday high tea at one of these swanky spots.

RELATED: Amaze Light Festival Brings Sprawling Holiday Lights Display to Citi Field

Holiday Activities in NYC: Macy's Santaland
You're never too old to feel the magic of Christmas at Macy's Santaland. Photo by the author

7. Macy's Santaland

Visit with the "real" Santa at Macy's magical, elf-filled Santaland. Reservations are required. FREE if you can resist the photo package.

8. The Nutcracker

Delight in a sumptuous show at the impressive Lincoln Center and see the famed New York City Ballet's Nutcracker.

9. The Metropolitan Opera

Catch the annual holiday production from the Met Opera, which offers The Magic Flute this season.

10. Alvin Ailey Family Matinees

Enjoy a modern dance performance courtesy of the famed African American dance company, and stick around after the performance for a special Q&A with performers.

RELATED: Christmas Cookie Crawl: Best Bakeries in NYC for Seasonal Sweets

Holiday Activities in NYC: NYBG Train Show
See NYC in miniature at the NYBG Holiday Train Show. Photo by the author

11. 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.

12. NYBG Glow

Time your visit to the New York Botanical Garden for after dark and catch NYBG Glow on select nights to start a new, favorite holiday tradition.

13. Make Music New York

Make a joyful noise in honor of the winter solstice at the annual Make Music New York lineup of events, which bring music to the streets in a communal celebration.

14. 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 in NYC with Kids Before They Grow Up

Holiday activities in NYC: Dyker Lights
Take a trip to Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, to see the decked-out houses. Photo by Marley White for NYCGo

15. Dyker Lights

Gawk at the spectacularly decorated homes in Brooklyn's Dyker Heights neighborhood. FREE

16. 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 18. FREE

17. 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 18. The writer is buried nearby. FREE

18. Rolf's Restaurant

Dine at Rolf's, the tiny German restaurant in Gramercy that goes all out with its Christmas decor.

RELATED: NYC Restaurant Guide for Families

Holiday Activities in NYC: Rockefeller Center Tree
The Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting is a must-do at least once! Photo courtesy of Tishman Speyer

19. 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

20. 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. FREE

21. Luminaries

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

22. 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: Where to Take Pictures With Santa in NYC in 2022

Holiday Activities in NYC: Macy's holiday windows
The Macy's holiday windows are a must-see sight each season. Photo by author

23. 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

24. Christmas in Historic Richmond Town

Take a step back in time at Historic Richmond Town as it celebrates the season with a Dickens-style village complete with historical interpreters, old-school crafts, yummy treats, and horse-and-carriage rides.

25. Holiday Nostalgia Rides

Christmas shopping is even more fun when you catch one of these old-fashioned subway trains parading through the underground.

26. Broadway Under the Stars

See the glittering light show at The Shops at Columbus Circle and catch some Broadway stars crooning on select seasonal evenings.

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

Holiday activities in NYC: Hanukkah on Ice
Hanukkah on Ice offers a fun take on the Festival of Lights. Photo courtesy Chabad Lubavitch

27. 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.

28. Big Apple Circus

The big top sets up shop for the season annually in Damrosch Park. In 2022, catch Nik Wallenda's gravity-defying act—and more—in Dream Big.

29. See a Holiday Show

NYC's kid-theater scene never lacks variety, and we've found a ton of awesome, all-ages family shows playing at theaters all across town this season.

30. 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: Toys for Tots Donation Spots in NYC and More Places to Donate Toys

Holiday activities in NYC: AMNH Origami Tree
This magical origami tree is back at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author

31. 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

32. 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.

33. All Aboard the Polar Express

Some things are worth leaving the city for, and these Christmas trains near NYC are cool enough to get us into the 'burbs for a seasonal excursion.

34. North Pole Express

If you're car-free and can't get away, the double-decker bus tour dubbed the North Pole Express is an excellent substitute within city limits! You'll be wined and dined by energetic elves, enjoy an above-the-crowds peek at Midtown's fabulous displays, and enjoy a meet-and-greet with Santa aboard a festively decorated TopView Sightseeing bus as you sing carols all the way.

RELATED: Where to See The Nutcracker in NYC in 2022

Holiday Activities in NYC: Winter Lantern Festival
SIUH Park hosts the NYC Winter Lantern Festival. Photo courtesy of the festival

35. See a Lantern Show

The Bronx Zoo takes visitors on an after-dark safari, while the NYC Winter Lantern Festival lights up SIUH park and Illuminate the Farm takes over the Queens County Farm Museum, giving you a trio of ways to indulge in this new winter tradition.

36. Santa Rescue

New York's strongest are on the case when Santa gets stranded up on the rooftop of the New York City Fire Museum. Watch the FDNY rescue Santa—and cement their status on the nice list—from street level.

37. 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.

38. Celebrate Kwanzaa

The Brooklyn Children's Museum celebrates the seven principles of this holiday with an action-packed week of programming that includes vibrant performances, art, workshops, and more.

RELATED: Best Holiday Lights Drive-Thrus and Christmas Light Shows near NYC in 2022

Brooklyn Botanical Garden's Lightscape. holiday activities
Enjoy the glow of the Fire Garden at Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Lightscape. Photo by Rosalind Muggeridge

39. Lightscape

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden shines brightly with its twinkling display and the cathedral of lights is a jaw-dropping backdrop for a photo!

40. See Spectacular Holiday Houses

While the 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.

41. 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 athletic Circus Abyssinia for a high-energy performance this season.

42. 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: Rockefeller Center at the Holidays: 17 Fun Things To Do This Season

Holiday Activities in NYC: Hudson Yards Holiday Lights
Hudson Yards goes all out with its Holiday Lights display. Photo by the author

43. Hudson Yards Holiday Lights

This sky-high micro nabe shines brightly 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.

44. Gingerbread Lane

This world-record-holding gingerbread display has found a new home at the Essex Market. Gawk at the display or register for a gingerbread house class.

45. 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.

46. Enjoy a Cathedral Service

Celebrate the holiday with a religious service at the Catholic St. Patrick's Cathedral or the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

47. 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.

48. Prospect Park Fireworks

For a more low-key New Year's Eve experience, consider heading out to Brooklyn's Prospect Park to see the sky light up with a brilliant fireworks display as the clock strikes midnight.

RELATED: 27 Best Holiday Events and Christmas Activities for Preschoolers in NYC

Holiday Activities in NYC: El Museo del Barrio's Three King's Day
Line up with live camels, colorful puppets, parrandas, music, and dancing at El Museo del Barrio's Three King's Day. Photo courtesy of the museum

49. Three Kings Day Parade

Embrace the tradition of celebrating this post-Christmas holiday with a parade through East Harlem, complete with live camels and larger-than-life puppets of Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

A version of this post was published in 2017; it is updated annually. Stephanie Ogozalek contributed additional reporting.

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