I’ve always just assumed the Christmas 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 between Thanksgiving and New Years Eve, and other things we avoid at all costs.
Here are my Dos and Don’ts for a Christmas family vacation the Big Apple.
Table of contents
- Top NYC Christmastime Do and Don’ts With Kids
- Do: Brave the crowds to see the Christmas Show at Radio City
- Do: Catch the Nutcracker
- Do: See the decked-out NYC department stores
- Do: Go ice skating
- Do: visit the Macy’s Santa Claus
- Do: Visit a holiday market
- Do: Visit the Bronx
- Pin it for later!
Top NYC Christmastime Do and Don’ts With Kids
Do: Brave the crowds to see the Christmas Show at Radio City
Radio City Music Hall is a city classic for locals and tourist alike. The Christmas Spectcular 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 a few minutes into the second act (the best part!).
There are many variations on it around town, some abridged, some narrated, some with an ethnic or pop-culture 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 in the East 60s, stroll by. Bloomies goes big some years and does next to nothing in others.
But for New York City in its holiday best, take a stroll that starts at 59th Street and 5th Avenue. Admire the glitter and dazzle of the Plaza Hotel (wave hello to Eloise), Tiffany, Cartier 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 has has the an off year now and again, though. Take a peak and decide whether you want to wait in line for a closer look.
Stroll down to 42nd Street and say hello the New York Public Library Lions. There is a large, comfortable children’s section in the basement of the library that’s a nice place to warm up, pee and take a break. Look for the case that features the original Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals from the Milne household.
Bryant Park is just behind the library (see ice skating, below).
From here you can continue south to Macy’s at 34th Street and Broadway. The store has some really fun interactive windows in the past few years.
When they had a Peanuts theme a few years ago, for example, kids could use a touch screen to create themselves as a Charles Schultz character. My daughter loved it.
Don’t: Underestimate NYC winters
The skyscrapers create wind tunnels that bring the temperature down a few degrees. Dress warmly for this holiday hike. Gloves, scarf, hat, layers and warm, comfortable boots.
Do: Go ice skating
Nothing is as magical as skating around 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.
Winter Village at Bryant Park (42nd Street) has been a fun and convenient place to skate in years past. It’s free if you have your own skates, but renting them is exorbitant, as is checking a bag.
In the past there have been free lockers (BYO lock) but they don’t have them this year. You also have to make reservations to skate and there aren’t many slots available for people who bring their own skates, perhaps not a problem for tourists.
Even if you don’t skate, stop by the winter village, there are cute shops and fun food vendors. The new thing this year is elaborate, Instagram-worthy cups of hot cocoa.
Don’t: Skate at Rockefeller Center
The rink is tiny, the line is long even when we aren’t in a pandemic, the fees are sky high and your skate time is short. Just take a photo in front of the famous rink and move on.
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 Claus.
Actually they have many Santas, but the way they lay things out, kids get to believe they are visiting the one and only. It’s pretty clever.
Even going on 10YO my daughter still loved this ritual and got caught up in it. No matter your age it’s hard to not believe this isn’t the real Santa.
Tip: If your family would prefer a black Santa or one that speaks Spanish, just ask an elf!
You have to make a reservation online these days. You can do so starting in Mid-November, usually no less than 30 minutes and no more than 5 days ahead.
A “regular line” passes through the North Pole. It’s well done and my daughter loves it, probably more than meeting Santa. But even with a reservation you’ll face a good 30-to-45-minute wait.
You can grab one a few slots on the express line, which bypasses most of the North Pole. It’s not as fun, but if you have a child under 4 and really want good photos, this option will increase your odds of getting to Santa without a melt down.
Don’t: Wait on line
If you can’t swing the Macy’s reservation consider another of the many Santas around town.
At the fire museum, firemen rescue Santa, who’s gotten himself stuck on a NYC roof. After he’s safe and sound he greets kids and takes photos inside the museum. Tickets go on sale in early November and disappear quickly.
Santa also shows up at the shops next to the Bryant Park ice rink for a few days just before Christmas, too.
Do: Visit a holiday market
Union Square and Columbus Circle have fun outdoor markets where you can buy quirky, creative and unique gifts at prices that are pretty good.
Snack on warm waffles, hot cocoa, German wurst and Chinese bao in between trying on Tibetan hats and handmade earrings. Last Year there was a stand at Union Market making Swiss Raclette cheese sandwiches to order. If you like strong cheese, don’t miss them.
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 fresh bread and hot cider and sample beer, wine and spirits from local purveyors.
Don’t: Leave Union Square without visiting the playground
There is a large and awesome 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. Grab a warm beverage and a seat on the steps while your kids get their ya-yas out.
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 usually has quite a wait. 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.