10 Kid-Friendly Things to Do in New York City During the Holidays

New York City is full of magic during the holiday season.
Rockefeller Center all decorated for Christmas (Photo: Shutterstock)
Rockefeller Center all decorated for Christmas (Photo: Shutterstock)

Even as the days grow shorter and the temperatures tumble, you can always count on New York City to be full of good cheer as the holidays approach. Office buildings sparkle with bright lights, shimmering decorations adorn shop windows and there are so many festive things to do in New York at Christmas that even the Grinchiest of Grinches is sure to have a good time. 

From skating under the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center to sipping hot cocoa in an igloo at Bryant Park, there’s no better place to get into the holiday spirit than New York City at Christmas.  

Pack your warm mittens and get ready to enjoy the Big Apple at its frosty finest. These are the best things to do in New York City during the holidays.

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1. Gaze at the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Christmas at Rockefeller Center (Photo: Tishman Speyer)
More than 50,000 lights adorn Rockefeller Center’s towering Christmas (Photo: Tishman Speyer)

As much a symbol of New York as the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is decorated with more than 50,000 multicolored LED lights displayed and topped with a Swarovski star encrusted with several million crystals. Gazing at it is one of the quintessential things to do in New York at Christmas—as is taking a Yuletide spin around the skating rink.

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The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree remains lit through early January. Once it comes down, it’s turned into mulch or lumber that is donated to not-for-profit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity. 

2. Get Toasty Inside an Igloo at Bryant Park Winter Village

Cozy Igloos at Bryant Park (Photo: Kevin Ornelas)
Celebrating in a cozy igloo dome at Bryant Park is one of my family’s favorite holiday traditions in NYC (Photo: Kevin Ornelas)

At the Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park, families can take a spin around New York City’s only admission-free skating rink during the holiday season, or try their luck at curling, an Olympic game of finesse that some liken to chess on ice. 

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For an unforgettable experience, reserve a private igloo. These cozy domes are surrounded by towering skyscrapers and come with kid-perfect nibbles like chicken fingers and popcorn, plus warm beverages like cider or cocoa. 

3. Smell the Flowers at the New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show

NYBG Holiday Train Show (Photo: Christopher Postlewaite / NYC & Company)
NYBG’s Holiday Train Show has been a treasured December tradition for decades (Photo: Christopher Postlewaite / NYC & Company)

The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden has been delighting families for decades. Head inside the Victorian-style glasshouse and marvel as model trains zip through an enchanting array of New York landmarks, each imaginatively re-created from natural materials such as birch bark, lotus pods, and cinnamon sticks.

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On select evenings, NYBG GLOW illuminates the landscape with an outdoor color and light experience. The garden is located in the Bronx, so hop on the subway or the Metro-North railroad to join the fun. 

4. Be Wowed by the Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall (Photo: MSG)
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is one of New York City’s most famous holiday traditions (Photo: MSG)

With sky-high kicks and legendary precision, the Rockettes make Radio City Music Hall’s annual Christmas Spectacular one of New York City’s most beloved holiday traditions. More than 1,100 costumes are worn during the show, with each glamorous Rockette changing costumes approximately eight times. It’s family fun all the way, with Santa making a star turn.

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Performances take place at Radio City Music Hall, a spectacular venue with sweeping arches and rich architectural details. The Rockettes start tapping up a storm in early November and continue into January.

5. Watch the New York City Ballet’s Performance of The Nutcracker

Nutcracker performed by the New York City Ballet (Photo: Erin Baiano)
Balanchine’s Nutcracker ballet is a Lincoln Center tradition for families young and old (Photo: Erin Baiano)

For many New Yorkers, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without watching The Nutcracker performed by the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. Tchaikovsky’s timeless score and Balanchine’s lighthearted choreography transport audiences to a land of delights, where snowflakes flutter, mischievous mice battle, and toys come to life. Dozens of pre-teen dancers dressed in sumptuous costumes should enthrall the children in the audience. 

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6. Catch Some Sparkle at the Bronx Zoo Holiday Lights

Holiday lights at the Bronx Zoo (Photo: Julie Larsen Maher)
Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo turns an evening stroll into an illuminated wonderland (Photo: Julie Larsen Maher)

If you’re an animal lover, the Bronx Zoo is catnip year-round. But it’s especially dazzling during Holiday Lights, an outdoor experience with an impressive display of hundreds of wildlife-themed lanterns scattered around the zoo, plus light shows with synchronized seasonal music.

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Holiday Lights takes place on select dates starting in mid-November, with stilt-walkers, ice-carving demos, and train rides adding to the merriment. It’s all just a subway ride from Manhattan.  

7. Linger Over Department Store Holiday Window Displays

Saks Fifth Avenue Holiday Windows (Photo: Matthew Penrod / NYC & Company)
Head to 5th Avenue to enjoy Christmas decorations in New York City, even if you’re only window shopping (Photo: Matthew Penrod / NYC & Company)

New York’s department stores strut their artistry by transforming their ground-floor windows into ornate seasonal fantasies during the holiday season. Some of the most captivating Christmas decor is clustered along 5th Avenue at Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, though Macy’s at Herald Square also tends to have knockout visuals. Large crowds gather around the most creative windows, so plan to come early or late for up-close views and photo-ops.

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8. Shop at an Outdoor Christmas Market 

Union Square Holiday Market (Photo: Molly Flores : NYC & Company)
Union Square’s charming holiday market is a great place to go for gifts and holiday decorations in NYC (Photo: Molly Flores : NYC & Company)

Find the perfect gift for everyone on your list at one of New York’s European-inspired holiday markets. One of the best is located at Union Square, selling artisan goods and an assortment of sweet and savory treats. Kids will enjoy browsing stalls overflowing with wooden toys, puzzles, one-of-a-kind ornaments, and hand-knit dolls. 

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9. Enjoy a Snow-Dusted Day in Central Park 

Wollman Rink in Central Park (Photo: Wollman Rink NYC)
With sledders, skaters, and sprinklings of snow, NYC’s Central Park looks like a fairy tale during the holidays (Photo: Wollman Rink NYC)

During the holiday season, Central Park looks as if it was lifted from the pages of a fairy tale, where children wait for a fresh coating of snow to sled and skaters flock to Wollman Rink to twirl across the ice. There are dozens of playgrounds scattered throughout this winter wonderland, presenting a multitude of ways for little visitors to let off steam.

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For a special meal, Tavern on the Green offers a bucolic setting with fabulous views of the park plus a lavish menu. There’s a sizable children’s selection and a lovely three-course weekend holiday brunch. 

10. Enjoy the Glow of Luminaries at Brookfield Place 

Luminaries at Brookfield Place (Photo: Luminaries at Brookfield Place)
At Brookfield Place, 640 twinkling custom lanterns create a magical glowing canopy (Photo: Luminaries at Brookfield Place)

The Winter Garden at Brookfield Place is home to Luminaries, a glowing canopy of 640 twinkling custom lanterns that change color and intensity. Classic carols accompany the light show at the top of every hour. When you crave fresh air, meander over to The Rink at Brookfield Place and savor the cityscape and Hudson River scenery as you glide across the ice. 

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Allison Tibaldi
Allison Tibaldi has written for publications including CNN, Business Insider, FamilyVacationist, HGTV, USA TODAY, and Travel Weekly. As a former early childhood educator, she is interested in the way kids experience the world, and thinks that travel is the best education for young minds. Tibaldi is based in New York City.