NYC With Kids: Holiday Season Dos & Don’ts
Everything you need about NYC is in our At a Glance section.
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
The Radio CIty Music Hall is a city classic for locals and tourist alike. 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, the lines can be insane at the holidays and hot fudge is hot fudge. Go for it it you happen by at an off-hour, or when you come back and visit another time. Don’t wait in line. While it is good, it’s not wait-45-minutes-in-the-cold good.
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
I have plenty of friends who buy tickets for kids as young as 4. Some of these youngsters do make it through and enjoy it. Others get fidgety and want to leave early (Which is painful give the cost and how amazing the second act is). One or two kids we know actually fell asleep when the show impeded on their nap time!
There are many variations on it around town, some abridged, some narrated, some with an 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: See the decked-out NYC department stores
If you’re near Bloomingdales or Barney’s in the East 60s, stroll by. Bloomingdales goes big some years and does next to nothing in others. Barney’s is always over-the-top amazing, but not at all traditional. One year they featured a video in which Minnie Mouse imagines erself and her pals as Paris runways models. It was funny and clever, but not exactly Currier & Ives.
Most likely you’ll 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. It’s been hit-and-miss the past few years, though I hear it’s worthwhile this year. Take a peak consider skipping the line.
Stroll down to 39th Street 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 always 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. Look for the case that features the original Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals from the Milne household.
From here you can continue south to Macy’s at 34th Street and Broadway. The store hasn’t historically had windows but has been doing some really fun kid-centered ones in the past few years. Last year the theme was Peanuts and kids could use a touch screen to create themselves as one of the gang.
Don’t: Underestimate NYC winters
Dress warmly for this holiday hike. Gloves, scarf, hat, layers and warm, sturdy shoes.
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 gleaming 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 here, too, if you can.
Do: visit the Macy’s Santa Claus
Santaland really is worth a visit; it transports you to the North Pole and houses a very convincing Santa. (Actually they have many Santas, but the way the get kids to believe they are visiting the one and only is pretty clever).
Don’t: Wait on line
Book an Express Pass online to avoid excruciating lines. you have to do it no more than 48 hours in advance. For peak days (like weekends or they days right before Christmas) you need to do it exactly 48 hours ahead. I tried booking on a thursday and while there were plenty of weekday slots, the Saturday morning ones I wanted were going fast.
If you can’t swing the online reservation consider another of the Santa’s around town. Local favorites include the vintage-styled Santa at ABC Home & Carpet (weekends only) and the Fire Department’s Santa rescue at the New York Fire Museum. Santa has shown up at the shops next to the Bryant Park ice rink for a few days just before Christmas, though I don’t see him on the calendar this year.
Don’t: Skate at Rockefeller Center
One traveler noted that the location is convenient. But you will never catch a New Yorker at the Rock Center rink. The rink is really small, the lines are long, the prices are high and the skate times are short. What else is there to say?
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 handmade earrings.
Go to Union Square on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday and you can also check out the city’s biggest outdoor farmer’s market. Nosh on yogurt shakes, hard pretzels, fruit, hot cider and baked goods from local purveyors.
Don’t: Leave Union Square without visiting the playground.
There is a large and awesome, the playground is at the north end of the park. Kids come from across NYC to use it. 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
NYC families love the train show. Order tickets online before you leave town and show up in plenty of time.
Pin it for later!