There may be a week of Kwanzaa, eight nights of Hanukkah, and 12 days of Christmas, but as the festive displays popping up all over town attest, the holiday season really lasts from mid-November through New Year's Eve. That's almost two months jam-packed with a certain Thanksgiving parade, tree and candle lightings, train shows, department store windows, eye-popping spectacles, and Nutcrackers.
Of course, not all holiday activities are created equal. That's why we've rounded up the absolute best ways to get into the spirit of the season, regardless of what you celebrate. From splurge-worthy, once-in-a-lifetime experiences to annual favorites worth revisiting to a few fabulous FREE options, here are 12 super-outstanding events where you can give your kid the best gift of all: happy family memories.
If an event piques your interest, be sure to click through to our listing for all the details, including address, time, and pricing. And keep in mind: In NYC, really cool seasonal happenings often get booked up quickly. So buy your tickets ASAP, or, in the case of FREE events, arrive as early as possible to try to beat the crowds.
More than 25 model choo choos chug through an NYC landscape at the New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show. Photo courtesy of NYBG.
New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show — the Bronx
Wednesday, November 22–Monday, January 15, 2018
While there are other holiday train displays in and near NYC, none compare to the NYBG's annual show, which celebrates its 26th anniversary this year. More than 25 model trains (yes, including Thomas the Tank Engine) go whizzing by approximately 150 NYC landmarks meticulously made out of acorns, twigs, bark, berries, and leaves. This year's edition shines a spotlight on Midtown Manhattan, with new additions from the nabe including the General Electric Building and St. Bartholomew’s Church as well as fresh replicas of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Afterward, kids can hit the Evergreen Express in the Everett Children's Adventure Garden to make train puppets, sing along to train songs, and march in musical parades. Beginning December 30, tots can see one of their favorite TV characters up close and personal in the All Aboard with Thomas & Friends stage show. Be sure to check the calendar before you go as there are special events throughout the season, including holiday movie screenings. Warning: Even though timed advance tickets are required, it gets super crowded. If at all possible, go early or late in the season on a weekday.
RELATED: Thanksgiving in NYC Guide: Parade, Restaurants, Volunteering
Catch the Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day Parade for an extra special holiday treat. Photo by Anthony Quintano via Flickr.
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade & Balloon Inflation — Upper West Side to Midtown West
Balloon Inflation: Wednesday, November 22; Parade: Thursday, November 23
We definitely don't need to sell you on this world-famous NYC tradition, which turns 91 this year! The only thing that isn't family-friendly about this procession of pop-culture inspired floats and giant balloons is the fact that you need to arrive around 6am to stake out your spot. Unfortunately, there is no secret to snagging a good viewing location unless you're willing to splurge on a hotel room overlooking the route. There is, however, a great trick for beating the lines at the annual balloon inflation the night before: spend the day at the American Museum of Natural History! As for the parade itself, arrive early or watch from way in the back. You'll still see something. Or find a friend (or a friend of a friend) who lives on the route. Wherever you watch from, expect a thrilling lineup of celebrities, marching bands, colorful floats, kooky clowns, and massive balloons, from old favorites such as Hello Kitty and the Pillsbury Doughboy to new additions like Olaf the irrepressible snowman from Disney's Frozen, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, Paw Patrol, and Jett from Super Wings, plus a recreation of Harold the baseball player, which was prominently featured in the classic holiday film Miracle on 34th Street. FREE
Macy’s Santaland is a holiday tradition for tourists and natives alike. Photos by John Minchillo/courtesy of Macy's.
Santaland at Macy's Herald Square — Midtown West
Friday, November 24–Sunday, December 24
Yes, there are lots of places to hang with Kris Kringle in the Big Apple. But for an immersive seasonal spectacle, you can't beat Macy's Santaland. And there's a huge change this year which ensures you won't have to wait in line for hours! The famed store mounts a 13,000-square-foot North Pole Christmas village complete with live elves, an enchanted forest featuring animatronic toys, and a train display, and at the end, you get to visit with the one true Santa. New this year, visits with the big red guy are by reservation only! Just go online to choose a time slot between 30 minutes and five days in advance of your visit. The hope is this will eradicate (or at least minimize) wait time. Fingers Kris Kringle crossed! FREE unless you buy a photo package
Winter's Eve at Lincoln Square — Lincoln Square
Monday, November 27
Skip the crazy and cramped Rockefeller Center tree lighting (which you can watch much more comfortably on TV) in favor of this illumination in Dante Park, which kicks off one of the best seasonal celebrations in Manhattan. From the Time Warner Center to 68th Street, enjoy tons of free entertainment and reasonably priced ($1-$4) food tastings from the area's many restaurants. This year, kid-centric attractions include live music from Grammy-winning kindie rocker Tim Kubart; a performance by the cast of Wicked; face time with beloved PBS Kids' characters; seasonal craft stations; strolling circus performers; Big Apple Circus clown Joel Jeske in his solo show Jack Frost: The Original Freezemeister; and cool (literally!) ice sculptures by the Okamoto Studio. Visit the website for a complete schedule of events. Plan your night out in advance as it's always mobbed. FREE
Light Up Luminaries — Financial District
Tuesday, November 28
With its picturesque plaza on the Hudson River, high-end Hudson Eats food court, frequent art installations, special events, and proximity to neighborhood playgrounds and other play spots, Brookfield Place is a great destination for families year-round. But it's particularly magical around the holidays due to its festive programming. On November 28, help kick off the season as the atrium's annual Luminaries installation goes live with free performances, no-cost ice-skating at its outdoor rink, and complimentary treats. FREE
Holiday Tea with American Girl Doll — Midtown West
Fridays, December 1–22
Be among the first to experience the brand-new American Girl Doll Store, which opens on November 11. In addition to a slew of interactive features, a salon, and, of course, lots of stuff to buy, it will house its signature American Girl Doll Cafe, which hosts special seasonal teatimes on Fridays throughout December. AG aficionados can enjoy a holiday-themed repast while crafting cards and fleece headbands for their doll BFFs, who will undoubtedly be present. Advance reservations are a must!
Winter Family Fair — Murray Hill
Sunday, December 3
Enjoy an old-fashioned celebration at the Morgan's Victorian era-style holiday fete for families in conjunction with its annual display of Charles Dickens' original A Christmas Carol manuscript. Meet Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, the famous ghosts, and the author himself as portrayed by members of the Grand Falloons troupe. Kids also can enjoy screenings of The Muppet Christmas Carol, reenacted excerpts from Dickens' masterpiece, themed crafts, and dressing up in period costumes for retro photo shoots. The afternoon closes with a festive concert of Christmas carols. Free with museum admission.
Elf the Musical — Midtown West
Wednesday, December 13–Sunday, December 29
Cheers' George Wendt stars as Santa in this holiday musical based on the 2003 Will Ferrell comedy of the same name. The show debuted on Broadway in 2010 and returns to the Theater at Madison Square this December. Like the film, the tuner follows the journey of Buddy, a young human boy raised as one of Santa's elves. Once grown, he realizes he doesn't fit in, so he leaves the North Pole to find his birth father—and himself. I saw it with my daughter a few years back and we both found it charming with funny songs and great dancing. Best for school-age children, the show really captures the joyful spirit of the season.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker — Washington Heights and Flatbush, Brooklyn
Thursday, December 14 and Saturday, December 16
Want to introduce the brood to The Nutcracker but worried they won't stay awake for the big one at Lincoln Center? Well start dancing like a Sugar Plum Fairy because we've got a great alternative for you. Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet is given a modern urban makeover in this high-energy show, which performs at Manhattan's United Palace Theatre on December 14 and Brooklyn's Kings Theatre on December 16. Set on New Year's Eve in Washington Heights, this Nutcracker features a dozen hip-hop dancers, digital scenery, a deejay, and the legendary Kurtis Blow as special MC doing an opening set of old-school classics. What Hamilton did for musicals, this Nutcracker is doing for ballet.
December 25 at Eldridge Street — Lower East Side
Monday, December 25
Growing up Jewish in NYC, December 25 always meant Chinese food and a movie for my family. But these days there are other options if you don't celebrate Christmas. While many Jewish cultural institutions are hosting family activities on the holiday, the bash at the Museum at Eldridge Street is the most jam-packed. Enjoy self-guided scavenger hunts, seasonal crafts, a menorah lighting, and a concert of Yiddish music. Afterward, be sure to hit the nearby Katz's Delicatessen to cap off your festivities with pastrami on rye.
RELATED: Ride a Polar Express or Santa Train Near NYC
Celebrate Kwanzaa at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by R. Mickens/courtesy of AMNH.
Kwanzaa 2017 — Upper West Side
Saturday, December 30
Celebrate the seven guiding principles of Kwanzaa at this vibrant annual festival at the American Museum of Natural History. The famed, 55-year-old a cappella troupe The Persuasions will perform, and there will be an international marketplace stocked with traditional gifts and holiday treats. Free with suggested museum admission.
New Year's Eve in Coney Island — Coney Island
Steeplechase Pavilion, West 16th Street and the Boardwalk
Sunday, December 31
Sure, there are lovely fireworks in Central Park and Prospect Park. But since 2014, Coney Island's beachfront fete has been the most colorful place to ring in the new year for FREE. We're still trying to confirm whether you'll be able to welcome 2018 beachside with a fireworks display at midnight. We'll update this post as soon as we hear. FREE
A version of this article was first published in November 2015, but it has since been updated.
Top image: Snowflake ice carving at Winter's Eve. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Square Business Improvement District.