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NYC With Kids: Holiday Dos and Don’ts

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I’ve always just assumed the holiday song Silver Bells was written about New York City. New York is a vibrant—if somewhat crowded—place to get into the holiday spirit, which is why so many people do.  As a lifelong New Yorker there are things our family makes sure to do year after year after year, and other things we avoid at all costs.

Here are my Dos and Don’ts for a holiday season trip to the Big Apple

Do: Brave the crowds to see the Christmas Show at Radio City.

There is a plethora of shows you can see in the city for the holiday season but this is the only one for me. Radio CIty Music Hall is a city classic that’s worth a visit all by itself. The show and those Rockettes really are spectacular. You could see it in July and walk out ready to deck the halls. But if you go, brace yourself. The crowds around Rockefeller Center are thick when the shows let out.

Don’t: Wait in line at Serendipity.

I enjoyed many ice cream sundaes at Serendipity when I was in high school (and had a faster metabolism). They’re yummy. And the frozen hot cocoa is all it’s cracked up to be for chocolate lovers. And there was the John Cusack movie that was filmed at the café. But it’s expensive and hot fudge is hot fudge. Go for it it you happen by at an off-hour but don’t wait in line.  While it is good, it’s not wait-45-minutes-in-the-cold good.

Do see the decked-out department stores.

Start at 59th Street and 5th Avenue by admiring the glitter and dazzle of the Plaza Hotel (wave hello to Eloise), Tiffany, Cartier, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf’s.

Make your way down to Rockefeller Center to admire the giant tree. Saks 5th Avenue, across the way, has historically had one of the best windows in the city but it’s been disappointing the past few years. Take a peak at but don’t wait in line for a front row view.

Stroll down to 39thStreet to Lord & Taylor. It’s not Christmas for me until I’ve seen the holiday windows here. The details, the special effects and the creativity are awesome. If you’re cold and footsore back track one block and say hello the New York Public Library Lions. There is a new and comfy children’s section in the basement of the library that’s a nice place to warm up.

From here you can continue south to Macy’s at 34th Street and Broadway. The store has had really great, kid-centered windows the past few years. Santaland is worth a visit; it transports you to the North Pole and houses a very convincing Santa.  Book an Express Pass online as far ahead as you can to avoid excruciating lines.

Don’t: Underestimate NY winters.

Dress warmly and wear sturdy walking shoes for this 25-block holiday hike.

Do: Go ice skating

Nothing is as magical as skating in Wollman Rink in Central Park. You have the park’s hushed woods around you and the city skyline in the background. It’s handy to bring a lock but you can rent everything you’ll need at the rink.

Citi Pond at Bryant Park (42nd Street) is a fun and convenient place to skate as well. It’s free if you have your own skates, but renting them is $15 to $19. Checking a bag is at least $8 to $10, but lockers are free, so bring a lock if you can. The Childrens Center section of the big Library behind the rink is a cozy space to warm up and go to the bathroom. Sometimes you’ll find the original Winnie the Pooh and his stuffed friends hanging out here.

Don’t: Skate at Rockefeller Center.

One traveler noted that the location is convenient. But you will never catch a real New Yorker at the Rock Center rink. It’s small, the lines are long, the prices are high and the skate times are short.

Do: Catch the Nutcracker.

The most kid-friendly ballet. Ever. The New York City Ballet’s colorful full-scale rendition is a worthwhile splurge for kids 10 and up.

Don’t: Make smaller kids sit through the full ballet. 

There are many variations on it around town, some abridged, some narrated, some with and ethnic accent. Most will be more intimate and child-friendly. They’ll be easier on your wallet, too. Mommy Poppins has a good list.

Do: Visit a holiday market.

Union Square and Columbus circle have fun outdoor markets where you can buy quirky and cool gifts at prices that aren’t bad. Snack on waffles, hot cocoa, german wurst and Chinese bao in between trying on Tibetan hats and funky earrings.

Go on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday and you can also check out the city’s biggest outdoor farmer’s market. Nosh on yogurt shakes, pretzels, fruit, hot cider and baked goods from local purveyors.

Don’t: Leave Union Square without visiting the playground.

New, large and awesome, the playground is at the north end of the park. Preschoolers are happy with a winding jungle gym just for them. Bigger kids love scaling the giant silver globe and clambering over rocks to get to the tube slide.

Do: Visit the Bronx

The Holiday train show at the New York Botanical Garden is unique. Kids can’t get enough of the trains. Parents appreciate the surprisingly authentic renderings of city landmarks made from twigs and leaves.

Time it so you can have lunch or dinner in the Bronx’s old Italian enclave on Arthur Avenue afterward. It’s a five-minute drive or cab rider (or a one-mile walk). Dominick’s is famous, but you can’t go wrong with whatever restaurant looks good to you. Make sure to pick up some cannoli and pignoli cookies from a local bakery on your way home.

Don’t: Just show up.

Local families love the train show. Order tickets online before you leave town and show up in plenty of time.

(photo: ABC Home & Carpet)

Do: Visit Santa.

Our favorites are the vintage-styled Santa at ABC Home & Carpet (weekends only) and the Fire Department’s Santa rescue at the New York Fire Museum.  Last year, Santa showed at the shops next to the Bryant Park ice rink for the five days just before Christmas.

Don’t: Feel you have to see him at Macy’s.

The Macy’s experience is worthwhile. If you show up within an hour of the store opening or 90 minutes before it closes and the line isn’t too long (there will never not be a line) go for it. You’ll be rewarded with a memorable visit to the North Pole. But with all the great Santas to be had around the city, don’t make the kiddies endure a very long line?

Not when there are so many more city sights to see!

* Updated November 2015.

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  1. September 12, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    Great suggestions! The sights and sounds of NYC during the Holidays is pure magic!

  2. December 17, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    […] Read More… […]

  3. Tara Marlow
    December 15, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    I loved this article. I’m now wanting to convince my husband and daughter to visit NYC next year. It may be a bit late for us now, but it’s certainly made me look!