Few places rival New York City for winter holiday activities, and the school break offers families plenty of free time to sample them all.
There's no need to leave town: we’ve rounded up 35 of our favorite seasonal activities, most of which can be accessed with the swipe of a MetroCard. Fill your vacation schedule with awesome museum outings, live stage shows, fancy meals, and magical holiday experiences. Our family even braves the crowds at popular tourist attractions such as the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, the Rockefeller Center tree and rink, and department store holiday windows. Be sure to click through the links for details, including locations, dates, and prices.
Don't forget to sign up for our FREE newsletters to get posts like this delivered to your inbox. Remember, the kids don't go back to school until Tuesday, January 3, so if you need more fun things to do over break, check out our December GoList and our daily Event Calendar.
1. See Santa at Macy's Santaland (or elsewhere) before he sails away in his sleigh. He'll even be leading a reindeer puppet-making workshop and a parade in Bryant Park. FREE
2. Go Christmas caroling on Christmas Eve in Washington Square Park. FREE
3. Spend Christmas Day at one of NYC's favorite Jewish institutions: the Jewish Museum, the Museum at Eldridge Street, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage are all open and throw festive parties.
4. Stroll through the New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show to see model trains and a miniature NYC! Or check out the more modest train shows at the New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex in Grand Central Terminal or at the New-York Historical Society's Holiday Express, which comes with hands-on activities for the kids.
5. Marvel at stunning department store holiday windows and other awesome seasonal sights in midtown Manhattan. FREE
6. Take a trip to the outer boroughs to check out over-the-top holiday light displays, such as Brooklyn's famously decked-out houses in Dyker Heights. FREE
7. Stand beneath a giant illuminated Christmas tree and snap a keepsake holiday photo. Rockefeller Center isn't the only go-to spot. You can find lovely Christmas trees in Bryant Park and at South Street Seaport, plus a flotilla of illuminated firs on Central Park's Harlem Meer. FREE
8. Enjoy Hanukkah parties (and menorah lightings) throughout the first weekend and week of break.
9. Visit the Museum of the City of New York to check out its just-opened historical exhibit, New York at Its Core, and take advantage of its awesome seasonal family programs, which include a Kwanzaa celebration and craft workshops on stained-glass windows, and snow globes. (Note: Score a FREE ice cream during break week with a secret discount code.) FREE with admission
Take the whole family to the movies like Rouge One: A Star Wars Story. Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Entertainment Company Ltd.
10. Catch one of the big Hollywood holiday movie releases, such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Sing, or Moana.
11. Warm up with a cup of frothy, chocolatey goodness at one of Manhattan's best hot chocolate spots.
12. Or head to Astoria's Museum of the Moving Image for daily screenings of the sweet all-ages Kubo and the Two Strings, an acclaimed animation adventure tale. Use the film for inspiration at the museum's Winter Warrior Workshop. FREE with admission
13. An antidote to the excess of the season, craft with recycled goods at ReMake the Holidays at the New York Hall of Science.
Celebrate Kwanzaa beneath the blue whale at ANMH. Photo by R.Mickens/courtesy of the museum.
14. Celebrate Kwanzaa at the American Museum of Natural History's 38th annual festival on Friday, December 30.
15. While you're there, check out the brand-new exhibit dedicated to Cuban culture, gawk at the ever-popular Origami Holiday Tree, and feel the flutters of springtime at the recently reopened Butterfly Conservatory.
16. Indulge in a fancy afternoon tea at the Russian Tea Room, the Plaza, or another high-end eatery.
17. Splurge on high holiday culture at Lincoln Center with George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker and the Metropolitan Opera's family-friendly presentation (in English) of The Magic Flute.
18. Or opt for a less-highfalutin holiday show, such as Fancy Nancy Splendiferous Christmas, or one-of-a-kind immersive theater adventure at Pip's Island.
19. Run away and see the circus, Mother Africa: My Home, or the quirky and always fun Amazing Max magician.
20. Explore Brooklyn's underground with hands-on activities at the New York Transit Museum.
Take a stroll down GingerBread Lane. Photo courtesy of New York Hall of Science.
21. Gawk at gingerbread houses at the massive GingerBread Lane exhibit at the New York Hall of Science in Queens—and try building your own at the museum's GingerBread Lane House-Building Workshop on December 28 and 29.
22. Let the kids burn off energy at a new-to-you indoor playground or sports center.
23. See handcrafted marionettes in action at Puppetworks's The Steadfast Tin Solider and Nutcracker Sweets and The Three Bears Holiday Bash at Central Park's Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre.
24. Visit the New Museum's soon-to-close Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest exhibit, which immerses visitors in a dreamlike, kaleidoscopic visual experience.
25. Head over to the Children's Museum of Manhattan for a full-slate of holiday and winter programming, including the new block-building exhibit Building Wonderlands and America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far, closing January 31.
Hit the ice at LeFrak in Prospect Park. Photo courtesy of LeFrak Center.
26. Hit the ice at one of NYC's outdoor skating spots.
27. Toes getting numb? Indoor rinks have public skating hours through the holidays.
28. Watch your chatty kids turn speechless with awe during the Vegas-style magic revue The Illusionists on Broadway.
29. Now's the time for a quick snow tubing, snowboarding, skiing, or other winter sports adventure.
30. Escape the city—and the holiday hubbub—on a winter day trip; our guide includes everything from indoor water parks to wolf-watching and art exhibits.
31. Even better? Plot that mid-winter weekendlong escape from NYC's black slush with these inexpensive family destinations.
32. Enjoy a mini kids' camp in NYC, on everything from sports to coding to arts.
33. Take your little ones to the Children's Museum of Manhattan for a tot-friendly New Year's Eve.
34. Ring in the New Year with a bang without spending a buck with midnight fireworks in Prospect Park and Central Park. FREE
35. If you've checked all the items off this list and still have a few days of vacation to fill, start working on our roundup of 100 (mostly year-round) Things to do in NYC with Kids before They Grow Up.
This article, originally published in December 2012, is updated annually.
Top photo: New Museum's Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest exhibit. Photo courtesy of the museum.