Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - See the Iconic Tree at Rockefeller Center
Each December, millions flock to Midtown Manhattan for a glimpse of one of America's most beloved and enduring holiday traditions: the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. For over eight decades, the iconic evergreen has towered over the plaza, spreading yuletide cheer across the Big Apple.
The tree's origin traces back to 1931, when construction workers erected a small, undecorated tree to boost morale as they built the Rockefeller Center complex. The following year, a tradition was born as the first official Rockefeller tree was illuminated. In the decades since, the tree has grown to dizzying proportions, soaring over 70 feet into the Manhattan skyline draped in over 25,000 multi-colored LED lights.
Beyond the impressive statistics, it's the intangible magic that makes a visit to the Rockefeller tree truly special. Descending into the Channel Gardens on a crisp December evening with the scent of roasted chestnuts in the air, you can feel the infectious holiday spirit taking hold. Kids gaze upward in wonder at the twinkling lights while carolers serenade passersby with melodies like "Joy to the World." It's a scene ripped straight from a Christmas card.
Die-hard NYC locals may shrug it off as an over-commercialized tourist trap, but even the biggest Scrooges can't resist getting swept up in the enchantment. There's something special about sharing this simple pleasure with the masses that embodies the democratic spirit of the city. Wave after wave, generation after generation have made the pilgrimage here to participate in a beloved urban ritual.
What else is in this post?
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - See the Iconic Tree at Rockefeller Center
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Experience a Radio City Christmas Spectacular
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Go Ice Skating in Central Park
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Take in the Holiday Lights in Dyker Heights
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Sip Hot Chocolate from City Bakery
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Enjoy the Sights on a Holiday Bus Tour
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Indulge in Festive Treats from Eataly
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Catch a Show or Concert
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Experience a Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Each holiday season, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular transports audiences back to a bygone era of showbiz glamour. As the most established holiday tradition in America, the show has wowed over 65 million people since its inception in 1933. For many, it just wouldn't feel like Christmas in New York without a trip to Radio City Music Hall to soak in the nostalgia and whimsy.
Aside from the iconic "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and "New York at Christmas" numbers, the 90-minute extravaganza features over 140 performers and the legendary Rockettes. Clad in their signature red and white Santa suits with candy cane accents, the Rockettes' precision dance is always a showstopper. Their gravity-defying kicks and flawless synchronicity demand rapt attention. It's no wonder this leggy chorus line has become synonymous with the glitz and glamour of Manhattan.
Beyond the stage spectacle, the art deco opulence of Radio City Music Hall itself is a star attraction. The sumptuous interiors transport you back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. From the shimmering Swarovski crystal curtain to the expansive proscenium arch flanked by sentinel-like golden plaques, every architectural detail dazzles. Ascending the grand staircase, you can imagine yourself walking in the footsteps of legends like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald who graced this stage.
For the full Radio City experience, opt for seats in the front mezzanine or orchestra sections to get an up-close glimpse of the lavish costumes and sets. Sitting nearer to the back of the upper mezzanine allows you to appreciate the scale and symmetry of the auditorium itself. If your budget allows, privates boxes on the side offer prime views. Regardless of seating, you're guaranteed a healthy dose of nostalgia and Christmas cheer.
While beloved by tourists, Radio City also holds a special place in the hearts of native New Yorkers. Many have fond childhood memories of seeing the Christmas Spectacular on school trips. Taking in the Rockettes as an adult reconnects them to that youthful excitement. Beyond being a way to create new family traditions, Radio City conjures a comforting sense of continuity year after year.
Despite enduring for nearly a century, the Christmas Spectacular continues to feel fresh with new numbers incorporated over time. In recent years, 3D projection mapping and augmented reality elements have enhanced the magic. Classics like the "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" have been given modern revamps with contemporary costumes and choreography. Staying current and innovative has allowed this legacy show to carry on decade after decade.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Go Ice Skating in Central Park
Each winter, The Rink at Wollman Rink in Central Park provides an idyllic setting to embrace the season and channel your inner Olympian. Skating alongside skyscrapers and trees dappled with snow, you’ll feel a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of Midtown. This iconic rink has been a beloved local tradition since it first opened in 1949.
As a lifelong New Yorker, I have fond memories of learning to skate on this very ice as a kid. Wollman Rink was always my favorite winter hangout spot to meet up with school friends. Gliding hand-in-hand around the rink, our cheeks flushed from the cold, I’d feel absolutely carefree. To this day, skating here instantly transports me back to the joys of youth.
Now as an adult, I appreciate Wollman Rink on a whole different level. In contrast to crowded indoor rinks with bad music, skating al fresco in Central Park is an unparalleled experience. Gazing up at the snow-capped skyscrapers towering above the treetops makes you feel happily insignificant. The urban backdrop makes this one of the most unique skating destinations in the world.
Over the decades, Wollman Rink has also cemented itself as a celebrity hotspot. It's not uncommon to skate alongside boldface names like Sarah Jessica Parker and Anderson Cooper. During the Rockefeller Center tree lighting, A-listers often bring their kids here the day after to escape the paparazzi. Don't be surprised if you cross paths with Vogue's Anna Wintour gliding gracefully about the ice.
The rink measures approximately 150 x 300 feet with a skating path of about .8 miles. It's large enough to avoid collisions but not overwhelmingly huge. Natural light pours in during afternoon sessions for superb visibility. Night skates under the lights take on a magical quality.
Solo skaters can get lost in their own world, while couples gravitate here for romantic date nights. Families often let kids loop around independently once they gain confidence. Split into three sections, the rink accommodates all abilities levels. Opportunities for people watching are also prime.
Beyond exercising, skating outdoors has proven mental health benefits. The fresh air, views of nature and physical activity release feel-good endorphins. An hour spent gliding around Wollman Rink will lift your mood for the rest of the day.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Take in the Holiday Lights in Dyker Heights
Each December, Dyker Heights in southwest Brooklyn transforms into a twinkling winter wonderland. For over thirty years, residents along several blocks between 11th and 13th Avenues have gone all out decorating their homes with over-the-top light displays and inflatable Santas. Dubbed "Dyker Lights", this spectacular neighborhood celebration has become a quintessential New York Christmas tradition.
Wandering these residential streets lined with twinkling houses, you'll feel like you stepped through a magic portal into the North Pole. We're talking Griswold-levels of decor here - think life-size Nutcrackers, reindeer grazing on front lawns, and entire homes wrapped in Christmas lights. House proud Dyker Heights locals compete year after year to see who can create the most ostentatious holiday light display.
While Dyker Heights has always embraced the Christmas spirit, the mega-wattage light displays kicked off in 1986 when resident Lucy Spata proudly showed off her handiwork to neighbors. Word spread quickly, and soon tourists began flocking in from all five boroughs and beyond.
What started as a few houses has ballooned into a huge production encompassing eleven blocks. Locals good-naturedly tolerate the hordes of sightseers that descend on their neighborhood each night. Treat yourself to the full experience by booking a tour with an expert guide. They'll highlight stand-out displays and share fascinating tidbits about various homes. You can marvel at the 50 foot Christmas trees without worrying about navigation.
If joining a tour doesn't fit your budget, not to worry! Head to Dyker Heights on your own around dusk when the lights start flickering on. Grab a cup of hot chocolate and casually stroll the streets on foot. Just be respectful not to linger too long or block driveways.
For prime viewing, target the weeks leading up to December 25th. Christmas Eve draws the largest crowds. If you hit Dyker Heights early in December, you risk not seeing homes fully decked out yet. Better to wait until they are photo-ready.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Sip Hot Chocolate from City Bakery
For many New Yorkers, a steaming cup of hot chocolate from City Bakery is as much a holiday tradition as seeing the Rockefeller Center tree. This cozy bakery tucked away on West 18th Street has been warming hearts and hands since 1990 with its legendary hot chocolate - affectionately dubbed “Liquid Heaven” by devotees.
Owner Maury Rubin’s thick, sweet concoction is crafted using the finest French dark chocolate melted with milk. The high cocoa content gives each cup a rich, silky texture akin to liquid chocolate pudding. It coats your mouth in luxurious velvet. One anonymous reviewer raved “It was like a chocolate fountain in a cup.”
Yet it’s the generous homemade marshmallows that really take this hot chocolate over the top. They’re soft and fluffy with just the right amount of chew - the ideal complement to the intense chocolaty base. The marshmallows melt slowly into the hot milk, adding pockets of sweetness in every sip.
Part of the fun is sampling all the seasonal flavors on offer beyond classic vanilla. During December, bakery cases brim with candy cane, rum raisin eggnog, gingerbread, and snickerdoodle marshmallows. Other months feature flavors like maple bacon for a touch of saltiness. Kids especially get a kick out of the colorful marshmallow selection.
The location right off the High Line makes it easy to warm up between holiday shopping excursions. Order your hot chocolate “to go” and take it with you as you explore the elevated park’s winter wonderland. On frigid days, clutch it with both hands to thaw your frozen fingers.
Prefer to avoid the bustling takeaway line? Walk a little further to City Bakery’s vintage dining room for a more leisurely experience. Sip slowly and watch huge snowflakes drift past the window. The swooping birch tree murals and wooden furniture exude hygge vibes.
Those with a serious sweet tooth can opt to add homemade melted marshmallow or thick whipped cream to their hot chocolate. Just don’t overdo it - the drink itself already borders on dessert. A small cup clocks in around 300 calories.
Beyond December, hot chocolate from City Bakery remains a perennial crowd-pleaser for its quality and generous proportions. Visiting celebrities like Anne Hathaway and former president Obama have made pitstops. On my last visit, I even spotted actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson picking up cups for his family.
Just don’t expect a budget-friendly indulgence. A small 10 oz cup runs $6.25 while the large 20 oz version costs $9. For maximum value, split one with a friend. The large easily serves two.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Enjoy the Sights on a Holiday Bus Tour
A sightseeing bus is an underrated way to knock out NYC’s holiday bucket list in one fell swoop. Cozy up inside to see the best seasonal attractions while a guide handles navigation. Plus, unlimited hot cocoa and cookies will put you in a festive mood.
Hopping on an open-top double-decker bus, you’ll feel like a giddy tourist again marveling at all the merry sights whizzing past. Seeing lavish department store displays like Saks Fifth Avenue’s snowy light show from the top deck makes you remember it’s all about childlike wonder this time of year.
While you could DIY a bus tour by buying separate tickets for attractions, that fragments the experience. Pre-paying for an all-inclusive tour allows you to seamlessly check off your NYC Christmas must-dos in logical order. The buses run continuous loops so you can hop on and off to explore different areas. Guides share fun facts and historical insights over the mic throughout.
For the best overview of iconic Manhattan holiday happenings, Big Bus Tours offers a 1-day or 2-day Christmas Lights tour. You'll drive down Fifth Avenue alongside the festive shop windows before stopping at Rockefeller Center to glimpse the towering tree. Afterward, check out the light displays at Saks and NBC Studios before heading downtown.
Make sure to disembark at Dyker Heights in Brooklyn to marvel at the dazzling residential light displays. Your ticket also includes admission to the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Gardens - a mini winter wonderland featuring model trains chugging past holiday landmarks painstakingly recreated in plant materials.
Gray Line New York's Christmas Lights and Movie Sites Tour spotlights beloved holiday flicks like Elf and Home Alone 2 filmed around the city. You'll also venture up to Central Park's whimsical Charles Dickens village with its old-timey scenes. Unlimited hot cocoa keeps you cozy en route.
For budget travelers, CitySights NY's Holiday Lights Tour provides an affordable alternative at just $49 per adult. The classic red buses hit top attractions on their loops around Manhattan and Brooklyn synchronized to music. Knowledgeable guides add historical context to increase your appreciation.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Indulge in Festive Treats from Eataly
Each December, Italian food emporium Eataly draws shoppers in droves with its mouthwatering array of Christmas cookies, panettone, and torrone. This Italian marketplace and restaurant is a sensory overload for foodies even during off-peak seasons. But the sheer abundance of dolci on display around the holidays is staggering - think overflowing trays of hand-decorated sugar cookies, jewel-toned panettone towering on shelves, and lavish gift baskets brimming with treats. Allow some time to leisurely browse their drool-worthy selection during your NYC holiday shopping spree.
Stopping at the panettone tasting station, you can sample flaky slices from a parade of artisanal producers across Italy. Distinct from the denser, fruitcake-like panettone commonly found stateside, these airy Italian versions are downright ethereal. Studded with candied orange peel or chocolate chips, the tender crumb simply melts on your tongue. Pick up a whole panettone as the ultimate hostess gift or edible holiday centerpiece for your own table. Just be sure to call ahead and preorder as the most coveted flavors from cult producers sell out fast.
Beyond panettone, Eataly's glass cases display hundreds of delicate Italian Christmas cookies tempting you to take home a sampling. Traditional regional specialties includeanzaette lace cookies, ricciarelli almond paste, and pignoli nut macaroons. The buttery, pine nut-studded pignoli cookies pair perfectly with after dinner espresso. Keep an eye out for unique variants like saffron-infused cantucci, pistachio cranberry biscotti, and chocolate dipped pizzelle. Boxes of assorted cookies make great gifts, or mix your own selection. Just budget extra time for the checkout line - you won't be the only one stocking up on sweets.
No Italian Christmas would be complete without torrone nougat. At Eataly, slabs of artisanal torrone come in flavors like chocolate hazelnut, lemon pistachio, and classic honey almond. The shelf life is relatively short, lending torrone a special, seasonal ephemeral quality. Bringing this tender nougat to share at your family’s holiday gathering is sure to spark joy and curiosity.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 Jolly Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in NYC - Catch a Show or Concert
Beyond sightseeing, the performing arts come alive in New York City during the holidays. From Broadway shows to Christmas concerts, December is the most wonderful time of the year to catch a spectacular live performance.
Seeing a Broadway musical decked out in full holiday splendor creates memories that will last a lifetime. Many shows such as A Christmas Carol and Irving Berlin's White Christmas transform into complete Christmas card productions for their limited holiday runs. Full choirs appear on stage belting out carols while fake snowflakes drift down from the rafters. The cheerful seasonal sets and costumes make even the grumpiest Scrooge crack a smile.
For a touch of royalty, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is not to be missed. Beyond the Rockettes' signature eye-high kicks, the show transports you back to an era of old-fashioned glamour and whimsy. Ascending the grand staircase of the art deco music hall feels like stepping back in time. This legacy production has been dazzling audiences since 1933 with larger-than-life sets and festive dance numbers.
Not every holiday show is so campy and sentimental, however. For an edgier adult-oriented production, check out the long-running Blue Man Group's Christmas show or a bawdy Christmas Burlesque revue. The explosion of creative off-Broadway productions in recent years means you can find a show tailored to almost any taste - including Grinch spoofs for young audiences.
Beyond Broadway, New York's concert halls host spectacular holiday performances to ring in the season. The unparalleled acoustics of grand concert venues like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center are guaranteed to give you chills during rousing sing-a-longs of classics like "Hallelujah" and "O Holy Night." Enormous Christmas trees flank the stages and musicians don old-fashioned attire, inviting you to join in the revelry.
For the full New York experience, nothing beats seeing the New York Philharmonic perform on New Year's Eve. As the live concert broadcasts around the world, you'll count down to midnight alongside music-loving locals of all stripes. Wave your light sticks and party hats in the air as the final notes reverberate through the concert hall welcoming 2024. Beginning a new year with glorious music is the perfect way to fill up your soul with joy and optimism.