There will still be skaters and a Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center for the 2020 holiday season. Photo by the author
There will still be skaters and a Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center for the 2020 holiday season. Photo by the author

Must-Do Holiday and Christmas Events for New York City Kids in 2020

There may be a week of Kwanzaa, eight nights of Hanukkah, and 12 days of Christmas, but New Yorkers know the holiday season really lasts from early November through New Year's Eve. That's almost two months of only-in-NY holiday experiences. While 2020 may be the season to celebrate outdoors, New Yorkers are unlikely to let the current state of affairs dampen our holiday spirit much. Even though annual holiday events like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade are making big changes, there's still plenty of ways to celebrate, from holiday lights to stunning department store windows and more.

Of course, not all Christmas events are created equal. That's why we've rounded up the absolute best ways to get into the spirit of the season. Here is our 2020 New York City holiday bucket list, detailing 10 holiday experiences sure to give your family the best gift of all: happy memories. Find more family-friendly ways to celebrate in our Holiday Guide and Event Calendar, and keep checking back to find out what other cool happenings make their way onto this list by the new year.

Editor's note: While we are trying to promote safer activities that occur outdoors or with social distancing guidelines in place, please keep your family and others safe by always wearing a mask and maintaining an appropriate distance. If you arrive at an event that appears too crowded, try using the “nearby” search feature on our Event Calendar to find something else to do. Keep in mind, reservations are required for many of these events, so plan your outings in advance, and be sure to click through to our listing for all the details, including address, time, and pricing.

Spectacular holiday lights will shine again at the Bronx Zoo. Photo by the author

1. Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo — Bronx Park, the Bronx

Thursday, November 19, 2020, through Sunday, January 10, 2021
Following its successful 2019 revival, the Holiday Lights return to the Bronx Zoo for a 2020 encore. Dazzling light displays are spread across several acres of the zoo. This walk-through experience includes wildlife-themed LED displays, custom Asian lanterns, and animated light shows. Festive tunes, ice-carving demonstrations, costumed characters, wildlife theater performances, and more await. Timed-entry tickets must be purchased online in advance.

2. NYBG Glow – Bronx Park, the Bronx

Select evenings from Friday, November 27, 2020, through Saturday, January 9, 2021
The holidays aren't complete for many families without a visit to the annual Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden. Capacity limits and safety precautions have forced the Garden to limit train show attendance to members, patrons, and Bronx Community partners only. It is instead inviting the rest of its visitors to enjoy an interactive, outdoor light show. With the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory as its canvas, NYBG Glow illuminates the night sky and building's exterior in brilliant colors and a dazzling, twinkling display. While you're there, be sure to check out more lighting installations in the Reflecting Pool, near the visitor center, and throughout the garden. Roving entertainers greet visitors, and live music fills the air.

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If seeing the holiday window displays in NYC is part of your family's holiday traditions, 2020 may mean less crowded views. Photo by the author

3. Holiday Windows Walk – Midtown

Late November 2020 through early January 2021
One of the most quintessential holiday sights in New York is the unveiling of the holiday windows at Midtown's flagship department stores. We've set an annual tradition of trekking all over town to bring their beauty to you. A bonus: The streets are likely to be much less jammed with tourists in 2020, meaning you'll get a better view and a bit more elbow room. Macy's is set to debut its windows on Thursday, November 19, and plans to honor essential workers with its display. Bloomingdale's debuts its display on Monday, November 23. We're still working to confirm other store's holiday plans but hope to bring them to you soon.

4. Bank of America Winter Village – Bryant Park

The holiday market now open through Monday, January 3, 2021
It's hard not to find the holiday spirit when you wander through Bryant Park, one of our favorite Midtown places to play no matter the season. Between the ice skating rink (the only FREE one in all of NYC) and the smell of hot chocolate wafting through the air, it paints a festive atmosphere. Add to it the holiday shops selling unique wares, cozy igloos for dining, and a dazzling Christmas tree, its a day-trip worthy slice of Christmas heaven that won't cost you any more than a MetroCard swipe.

RELATED: 25 Must-Do Holiday Events and Activities in New England With Kids in 2020

The LuminoCity Festival on Randall's Island is an immersive wonderland of lights. Photo courtesy of LuminoCity Festival

5. LuminoCity Festival – Randall's Island

Select evenings from Friday, November 27, 2020, through Sunday, January 10, 2021
If you visited this brand new light show in 2019, fear not: There are enough new attractions that it's worth a return visit. Taking over 10 acres of wide-open spaces on Randall's Island, visitors are guided on a 30-45 minute narrative journey by Lumi, a magical light bulb who brings the spectacular scene to life. Expect to encounter "dreamlike worlds" of brilliantly lit lantern displays in the Mysterious Forest, Mystical Moon Land, and more. An over-the-top Christmas tree offers a picture-perfect backdrop to snap a holiday photo before you head home. Take note: There will be no shuttle bus in 2020, but visitors can walk, drive, or take a taxi to the show.

6. Jewish Children's Museum Chanukah Family Fest – Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Sunday, December 13 through Thursday, December 17, 2020
Celebrate the festival of lights with the Jewish Children's Museum, which hosts twice-daily sessions of its Chanukah Family Fest. Visitors can explore the museum's exhibitions and enjoy some traditional holiday fun. Decorate a donut, explore the art of olive oil making, and craft a dreidel pillow to take home with you.

RELATED: How to Find Free Toys This Christmas and Holiday Season

At Christmastime in NYC, nothing beats the extravagant holiday displays in Dyker Heights. Photo by the author

7. Dyker Lights – Dyker Heights, Brooklyn

Friday, November 27, 2020, through Sunday, January 3, 2021
If you want a slice of small-town Christmas in the big city, Dyker Heights has got to be your go-to destination. This South Brooklyn neighborhood mounts block after block of over-the-top holiday decorations annually. What started as one festive display has grown over the years to encompass an entire neighborhood of one-upmanship. The lights generally go on the weekend after Thanksgiving and run through New Years and are turned on from 5pm-9pm nightly. In the past, weekends tend to draw huge crowds, so try to visit on a weeknight if you can. And remember, you're trekking through an NYC neighborhood, so be respectful of the homeowners, their properties, and fellow New Yorkers as you enjoy the sites.

8. North Pole Express by TopView – Midtown West

Saturday, November 14, 2020, through Sunday, January 3, 2021
Who needs a suburban holiday drive-thru when you can hop aboard a double-decker bus and see NYC's most spectacular seasonal sights in the open air above the city streets. This special, only-in-New-York holiday experience crosses 6 to 8 miles of city streets, depending on the ticket purchased, and lets you share a special moment with Jolly Old St. Nick, where you'll announce your holiday wishes and get a special take-home gift. Enjoy cookies and hot chocolate, and belt out Christmas carols as you roll by Instagrammable holiday sights at Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, Central Park, and more. Bonus: PJs are encouraged for this excursion, so no need to remove your comfy pandemic clothes for this adventure.

RELATED: Macy's Santaland Goes Virtual for Socially Distant Visits in 2020

Brighten up the holidays with Brookfield Place's annual interactive installation, Luminaries. Photo courtesy pf BFP

9. Luminaries – Battery Park City

Friday, November 27, 2020, through Friday, January 8, 2021
Brookfield Place's popular annual lighting show returns for another run in 2020, bringing a canopy of colorful lights to illuminate the Winter Garden. More than a sight to behold, though, Luminaries allows visitors to send touch-free wishes daily between 10am-8pm, and each wish prompts a donation from Brookfield Place to Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants, up to $25,000. Hourly light shows are not-to-be-missed as the lighting patterns are choreographed to popular holiday carols. More seasonal fun at Brookfield Place includes a very cool Reindeer Roundup, an augmented reality experience that sends visitors on a wild goose—or reindeer—chase, looking for magical snowflakes to tip you off to the location of each of Santa's missing helpers; find them all and pick up a gift from the concierge. Of course, there's plenty of shopping, dining, and even an outdoor skating rink to enjoy.

10. Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree – Midtown West

Wednesday, December 2, 2020, through early January 2021
Nothing is more quintessential NYC holiday than a visit to the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, and while many things have changed in 2020, one thing that hasn't is the presence of the iconic tree. The 88th annual tree arrives on the Plaza on Saturday, November 14, and it's lit for the season on Wednesday, December 2. Contrary to years past, the big tree lighting is closed to the public and only viewable on NBC. Still, you have a month to pull your family together and pose for a seasonal photo at its base. Make sure to mask up for safety and a time capsule-worthy picture of a very strange year. One plus: You'll likely encounter far fewer tourists than in seasons past.

A version of this post was first published in 2015; it is updated annually.

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