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My 15+ Absolute Favorite NYC Christmas Things To Do With Kids

My 15+ Absolute Favorite NYC Christmas Things To Do With Kids

I’ve always assumed the Christmas song “Silver Bells” was written about New York City. The Big Apple glows, literally and figuratively, at Christmastime. It’s easy to get into the holiday spirit here, especially with kids, which is why so many families come here between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As lifelong New Yorkers, there are things my family makes sure to do in December year, after year, after year. And there are things we avoid at all costs. We also have our favorite only-in-NYC stores and favorite cafés and bakeries to pop into when we need to warm up.

Here are my best tips for what to see and do, where to find fun holiday food, what to avoid, and which hotels deck the halls. So you can start planning your own jolly Christmas weekend in NYC with kids.

Get in the holiday season mood:
13 Classic Movies About Holiday Travel
The Best Seasonal Activities Across the U.S.
How To Save On Christmas-Season Airfare

Choose a NYC Hotel with Extra Holiday Cheer

New York City hotels put their best foot forward between Thanksgiving and New Year with long-coated doormen, festooned lobbies and seasonal dishes and drinks at their bars and restaurants. The more stars a hotel has, the more elaborate the decorations are likely to be.

Here are a few hotels that really dazzle. They’ll make any family’s holiday-season visit especially magical.

the courtyard of the lotte new york palace hotel glows with a white lights on birch trees, a huge christmas tree ad its stone arches.

The Lotte New York Palace, steps from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, always tops the lists of best decked out NYC hotels at Christmastime. The festive decorations start with a giant tree and fairy lights outside and continue inside with more lights and greenery and the occasional gingerbread house.

Kids who check in to the Lotte NY with you during the season receive postcards they can write to Santa Claus and mail via a special box in the lobby. Santa will send a reply directly to your room during your stay.

Tip: If you’re a Marvel Comics fan, you might recognize the hotel’s festive courtyard from the fundraiser scenes in the first episode of Hawkeye.

new york's peninsula hotel offers a special afternoon tea for the holidays with pastries that look like candy canes and stars and decorated with santa and snowflakes.

The luxurious Peninsula Hotel has a 5th Avenue location and roomy rooms all year long.

Stay during the holiday season to enjoy nutcrackers guarding its towering Christmas trees, Victorian carolers, a seasonal sweet shop and a holiday-themed afternoon tea for guests to enjoy.

For extra luxury, it also offer packages that include extra holiday treats in your room, gifts from F.A.O Schwarz and help with booking your holiday activities.

Splurge on a park-view suite at the Mandarin Oriental and enjoy some of its Festive Seasonal fun, including holiday decorations for your room, carolers and a holiday-season tea.

Find the best hotel rates and packages on TripAdvisor.
Live like a New Yorker with a vacation rental in an iconic NYC neighborhood from VRBO.

My 15+ Best NYC Christmas-Season Do and Don’ts With Kids

Do See the Macy’s Balloons

For New Yorkers, the Christmas season officially starts when we see Santa Claus head down Central Park West in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The night before the parade, an army of employees and volunteers inflate the giant balloons and assemble the floats at the start of the parade route on Central Park West. And you can watch them do it.

It’s a neat event. You can see the giant balloons up close and sometimes even grab a volunteer to answer questions.

It’s a very busy and carefully managed event. You have to file through NYPD security and bag checks on 72nd street, then walk north to the staging area around the Museum of Natural History.

Once you’re “inside” you need to snake around to the end before you can exit the staging area, either via the subway on 81st or walking a few blocks north to head west away from the park.

a giant balloon of snoopy and woodstock waits overnight for the thanksgiving day parade in nyc

Little kids seem like the natural audience for this because many of the balloons are characters they know. But the waiting, walking and crowds are a lot for them to deal with. I think at least 6 or 7YO and up is ideal.

Teens can actually appreciate the balloons and floats in a way young kids can’t because they understand what goes into all the inflating and assembling. They can still get a kick out seeing characters like Snoopy and the Sesame Street float. And they certainly cope better with the waiting and walking.

In 2023 the event was several times more crowded than it was the year before. At 4:00 it took us an hour to get to and through the bag check and up to 77th street where things begin. Once you get to the balloons the crowd thins out a little.

It usually happens from noon and 6:00 PM. Aim to be where the action is between 1:00 and 3:30 to beat the worst crowds and see the balloons take shape. They were all inflated by the time we were there.

bluey is a balloon popular with little kids at the macy's thanksgiving day parade in nyc

If you want to take little kids, know that everything you read will advise you to leave your stroller home. Take this advice. It’s tedious and stressful to steer through the most crowded bits. Plus, the kids can’t see much from the strollers and you’ll want to take photos of them in front of the floats. Your shoulders are the best bet for toddlers and preschoolers, and babies will be happiest in carriers.

Bring snacks and drinks for little ones and dress very warmly. If you plan to have dinner after, head several blocks west or north of where you exit. Restaurants on Columbus and Amsterdam avenues in 70s and low 80s will have long waits for tables. And definitely travel to and from the event by subway. Taxis will spend a lot of time sitting in traffic.

Do See the Thanksgiving Day Parade

I admit I’ve always been afraid to drag my kid to the Macy’s Parade. The cold, the crowds, the wait; there are so many ways it could be an epic fail. But it is one of the most iconic parades in the U.S. and she does hold it against me that we’ve never gone. For tourist in town for the holiday t’s a unique experience.

santa's sleigh is the end and the high point of the macy's thanksgiving day parade. here, the sleigh waits overnight for santa on central park west.

The ideal way to see it is from the windows or balcony of an apartment or hotel along the route.

From Central Park West it turns left at Columbus Circle onto Central Park South, then right on the Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) and ends in Herald Square at 34th street.

For indoor viewing, start looking at VRBOs well in advance. And secure your hotel by late summer. Options include the famous Essex House on CPS, or the Warwick New York, Hilton Midtown or 1 Hotel Central Park.

Sometimes the hotels offer packages or a brunch around the parade, but they often don’t announce them until October. It’s probably smart to secure a reservation and then follow up to make sure you’ll have a good parade view.

To get a spot in the bleachers along Central Park you have to show up around 6:00 AM. The parade starts at 8:30. Keep in mind, once you’re there, you aren’t leaving until Santa has passed by at around 11:00. Bundle up in layers, bring snacks and thermoses of hot cocoa and coffee. And make everyone goes to the bathroom before you get there.

You can also try to find a spot along the upper part of 6th Avenue, ideally on a block with a Starbucks or other café. You can pop in to warm up, buy hot cocoa and use the restrooms.

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

the rockettes kickline is the star attraction of the radio city christmas spectacular

The show at Radio City Music Hall is a city classic for locals and tourists alike. The Christmas Spectacular earns its name with music, actors, 3D effects, live animals and the Rockettes, who really are impressive when they do that kickline.

it’s probably the most all-ages show ever created. I’ve seen it as a kid, a college student and a grown-up and each time I walked out feeling ready for Christmas.

Check Out
• My List of The Best Broadway Shows for Teens

Don’t Overlook Other Holiday Shows

You’ll always find a handful of off-Broadway Christmas-themed shows around town. They can be traditional, quirky, fun and sometimes a bit irreverent. But most are kid-friendly and well-done and the ticket prices are easy on the wallet.

In any given year you might see a live rendition of a holiday season Cirque du Soleil show, any number of interpretations of A Christmas Carol or live-action renditions of your favorite Christmas cartoons. The Irish Repertory in the Flatiron district often does a holiday-themed play in December, such as Meet Me in St. Louis.

Playbill always has an extensive list of the bigger off-Broadway shows. Mommy Poppins will have the most kid-friendly shows and Time Out NY can lead you to the quirky, offbeat ones.

Do See the Nutcracker

The most kid-friendly ballet. Ever. The New York City Ballet’s colorful full-scale rendition is the Nutcracker for many people. The Christmas tree grows before your eyes. The level of dance and production quality are a worthwhile splurge for kids 10 and up.

the nutcracker at the nyc's nutcracker ballet has a splendid costume and is a can't miss in nyc at christmastime.

Kids younger than 8 will enjoy parts of it, but it is long and the most fun and colorful scenes are in the second act. Some kids sit through the whole thing completely enthralled. Others get bored before then and want to leave. Some fall asleep. You just never know.

 Do: See the decked-out NYC shop windows & Christmas lights

For the absolute best of Christmas in NYC, take a stroll that starts at 59th Street and 5th Avenue. Admire the glitter and dazzle of the Plaza Hotel (wave hello to Eloise). Then take a look at Bergdorf Goodman’s, which is usually very creative and a little outrageous, and admire the bling in the windows at Harry Winston, Cartier, Tiffany and Bulgari.

While it may sound fairly obvious, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree really is a sight to behold. The best view of this iconic NYC tree is from 5th avenue, looking down the line of trumpeting angels.

rockefeller center tree

Saks 5th Avenue, across the way, has historically had one of the best windows in the city and has lately added a music-and-light show. Lego fans must stop by the Lego Store above the rink for its Rockefeller Center mosaics and NYC icons recreated in Lego bricks. The NBC Studios Shop on the opposite side of the rink is the place to shop for fans of the network’s hit shows.

If you need a sugar break, detour to Magnolia Bakery on 6th Avenue at 49th Street. Sex & the City made its cupcakes famous and many people love its banana pudding. I prefer the cookies and lemon bars.

If it’s getting dark out, consider heading to Top of the Rock to see the city lights from above.

Have a sweet tooth?
Here are my favorite NYC spots for dessert and sweet snacks.
Try a cupcake walking tour of Greenwich Village, one of several tempting NYC food tours on Viator.

Otherwise, stroll down to 42nd Street and say hello to the New York Public Library Lions, named Patience & Fortitude by Mayor Laguardia during the Great Depression.

There is a large, comfortable children’s reading room in the basement of the library that’s a nice place to warm up, use the restrooms and take a break. Look for the case that features the original Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals that belonged to author A.A. Milne’s son.

visit the real winnie the pooh and friends at the new york public library

Bryant Park sits behind the library and has a lot going on at the holidays, including a large ice rink and its Winter Village Christmas market with lots of unique items and food stalls. Buy elaborate, Instagram-worthy cups of hot cocoa at the Lodge Deck. Or indulge in Belgian fries, Italian doughnuts, Philly cheese steaks or Brazilian chicken croquettes, among many other tempting things to eat.

From here, you can continue south to Macy’s at 34th Street and Broadway. The store has the most kid-friendly holiday windows and they’ve had fun interactive elements in the past few years.

Do Visit Macy’s Santa Claus

Santaland really is worth a visit. The line winds through an imaginative and fun North Pole and leads to a cabin with a very convincing Santa Claus.

santaland at macy's has some of the most convincing santas anywhere.

They actually have many Santas, but the way they lay things out, kids believe they are visiting the one and only. When she was going on 10YO tween traveler still loved this ritual and got caught up in it. Even for this adult it was easy to believe this is 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, no less than 30 minutes and no more than 5 days ahead.

Even with reservations and the diversions of the magical North Pole, kids can get bored, tired or increasingly nervous or over-excited while waiting to meet Santa. Meltdowns happen to even the best kids. Try not to have this be your make-or-break holiday photo moment; it puts a lot of pressure on you and your kids.

Santa’s last day in the store is December 24th. Then it’s back to the North Pole for the big night.

If you want to make sure you don’t miss anything and you want help navigating the crowds you can book walking tours of the holiday windows and of the windows and holiday markets.

Don’t: Try to dine at Macy’s

Macy’s does have in-house dining options, but they aren’t very interesting and during the holidays they’re mobbed. If you exit from the 6th Avenue side of the store, there is a Waffles & Dinges cart in Herald Square, which is great for an afternoon snack.

the wafels and dinges stand in herald square is a good place for warm waffles and hot cocoa after seeing santa at macy's.

The Shake Shack at 36th street will be busy, but its shakes, burgers and fries are far more worth waiting for than anything Macy’s has. And mom and dad can have a beer if they like.

Keen’s Steakhouse on 36th Street is a genuinely old New York restaurant, and one of my favorite steakhouses. It’s known for the many customers’ tobacco pipes that hang from the ceiling. It’s a festive way to end a day of holiday sightseeing, but you absolutely need a reservation.

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. You can buy tickets in advance for specific session and I highly recommend this.

the ice skating rink and winter village shops in bryant park, next to the ny public library.

Winter Village at Bryant Park (42nd Street) has become a popular place to skate in recent years. Admission is free but skate rental fees are exorbitant, as is checking a bag. You have to make reservations here, too. Even if you don’t skate, walk through the winter village around the rink.

Don’t Skate at Rockefeller Center

The rink is tiny, the line is long, the fees are sky-high and your skating time is very short. Take a photo in front of the famous rink and do your actual skating at the rinks above.

Do Visit a Christmas Market

There are a handful of outdoor and indoor holiday markets around Manhattan where you can buy quirky, creative and unique gifts at prices that are pretty good. The biggest ones are in Bryant Park and Union Square Park, but you’ll find others at Columbus Circle (Central Park) and Grand Central Station. Generally they are open from 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM, though some close at 7:00 PM on Sundays.

I go to these markets for the food vendors as much as for the shopping. Snack on gourmet hot cocoa and French macarons between trying on Tibetan wool 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 fresh bread and hot cider; sample beer, wine and spirits from New York state purveyors and buy a bag of hard pretzels for later.

Don’t Leave Union Square Without Some More Shopping

If you have book-lovers in your family, don’t miss the famous Strand Books, on Broadway and 12th street. It has 18 miles of new, used and rare books spread across several floors. Teen Traveler can easily spend an hour browsing here. Teens and Tweens who are fans of the Dash & Lily books will know it well.

strand book store with its bright red awnings, is one of the biggest used book stores in the u.s.

Stop by Forbidden Planet, right next store if you or your kids are into comics, manga, graphic novels or role-playing and other fantasy-based games. You’ll find all this, plus apparel, action figures and more at this legendary store.

Don’t: Miss NYC’s Many Small Stores

For all the flagship stores the city offers, it’s the small independent shops that make New York a unique place to shop.

Try Kidding Around in Chelsea, Boomerang Toys in TriBeCa for better-than-your-usual toy selections. And hit stylish Babesta in Tribeca for baby clothes goods.

For teens who love games don’t miss the Compleat Strategist, a legendary shop full of popular, cutting edge and hard-to-find board games. It’s on 33rd Street, near the Empire State Building. If your family really likes games you can spend a long time browsing here.

Buy unique Christmas gifts with a personalized guided shopping tour on Viator.
• My Teen LOVES the city’s vintage clothing shops. Have a local take you to the hippest ones.

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.

nybg train show

They’ve expanded it beyond the conservatory to add outdoor train displays. And there’s a light display around the garden as well, making your trek north well worth it. Get timed tickets ahead and show up at least 15 minutes early.

Time your visit 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 ride.

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 save room for some cannoli, cookies and marzipan rainbow cake from any one of the handful of bakeries on the Avenue.

Do Visit Brooklyn, Too

When we want to show visitors the city’s best twinkling lights, we head to Dyker Heights in Brooklyn.

This neighborhood is enormously popular in December because the homes are large and residents compete energetically to outdo each other with lights, decorations, music, moving figures and even fake snow.

people take photos in front of one of the most popular and most lavishly decorated homes in dyker heights brooklyn at christmastime.

Some of the houses are over-the-top even without holiday decorations. And observing the random mish-mash of conflicting architectural styles and features is half the fun for my family.

Dyker Heights has become popular enough that you can hop a bus tour or take a walking tour. These folks can tell you a bit about the owners of some of the homes and how the decor has evolved over time. But it’s pretty easy to take the subway (45 minutes from Times Square) and wander on your own.

You’ll see trucks selling hot cocoa and cotton candy, and local people set up stands in their driveways to sell hot cocoa and Italian or Greek homemade pastries. They are tempting and inexpensive.

But we usually hold out for one of the wonderful Italian bakeries in the neighborhood. Our usual stop is the Tasty Pastry Shoppe (on 13th Avenue at 83rd Street) to pick up some cannoli and sfogliatelle (flakey pastry horns with filling similar to cannoli cream).

There is also Mona Lisa and Grandma’s Bakery as you head along 13th Avenue to the N/Q/W trains back to Manhattan. Nothing like a few rainbow cookies to make the subway ride shorter.

Don’t Underestimate NYC Winters

The skyscrapers create wind tunnels that can bring cold temperatures down a few degrees and if you’re near the rivers, cold winds come off the water. Dress warmly for your skating and sightseeing. Gloves, scarf, hat, thick socks, layers and warm, comfortable boots.

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christmas in nyc is amazingly fun. here are 15+ holiday attractions that my family never misses. plus, tips on what to skip during a december visit with kids.

Photos: Rockefeller Center tree, Library’s Milne animals, Macy’s windows, Santaland, wafel stand, NYBG trains, Thanksgiving parade balloons and sleigh, Christmas markets and Harry Potter store by FamiliesGo!©. Rockettes (MSG Entertainment), Nutcracker and the Strand (NYCGo).