14 NYC Christmas Dos & Don’ts With Kids
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.
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 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 herself 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 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 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 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 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) 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.
Don’t: Skate at Rockefeller Center
The rink is tiny, the line is long, 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. No matter your age it’s hard to not believe once you meet the guy in red.
Note: If your family would prefer a black Santa or one that speaks Spanish, just ask an elf!
You have to make a reservation online to asee Santa. You can do so starting in Mid-November, usually no less than 30 minutes and no more than 5 days ahead. You can also grab a slot on the express line, which bypasses the North Pole. It’s the option I’d pick with under-3s, whose patience for this exercise is pretty darn short. (Read more tips for visiting Santa at Macy’s Herald Square.)
Don’t: Wait on line
If you can’t swing the Macy’s reservation consider another of the many Santas around town.
Santa has shown 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 and cool gifts at prices that aren’t bad.
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 yogurt drinks, 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 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.