Celebrate the festive season in one of the world’s most magical cities – discover New York in winter with its ice rinks, sparkling Christmas light displays, festive markets and iconic stage shows.
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The smell of roasting chestnuts, the sparkle of Christmas lights, snowy carriage rides through Central Park, lavish shop window displays and ice skating at the Rockefeller Center – visiting New York in winter is like stepping onto the set of a real-life Christmas movie.
The Big Apple knows how to celebrate, with the festive season starting after Thanksgiving at the end of November and lasting into the New Year. So if you’re looking for a great winter break, here are nine of the best things to do in New York at Christmas.
What’s New York’s winter weather like?
In one word – cold! The weather in New York in winter sees average high temperatures of 6°C (43°F) and lows of -3°C (27°F), with January being the coldest month. But the wind chill can make it seem colder, and icy spells can cause temperatures to plummet to -15°C (14°F). There are also frequent snow showers, with 66cm falling a year. So wear plenty of warm layers, a hat and gloves, and don’t plan to spend all day outside.
Things to do in New York in winter
1. Go ice skating
Strapping on your ice skates and wobbling around the rink is a must-do if you’re visiting New York in winter. From Central Park to the tip of Manhattan, the city has plenty of skating options. One of the most famous spots is the Wollman Rink – a festive rom-com favourite at the south of Central Park with a backdrop of Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
You can also ice skate next to the giant Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Centre. It’s one of the city’s most popular skating spots so book in advance, with early slots and weekdays less busy. There are more ice rinks in Bryant Park’s Winter Village, the Rink at Brookfield Place in Battery Park and the indoor Sky Rink on Pier 61 at Chelsea Piers.
If you want to test out your skills without the crowds, there are also smaller and less well-known rinks around the city, including the Riverbank State Park Ice Skating Rink in Harlem and LeFrak Center at Lakeside Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Most rinks charge both entry and skate hire fees. Entry’s free at Bryant Park, but skate hire costs $15–45.
2. Visit a pop-up Christmas market
Bryant Park’s Winter Village is also home to New York’s biggest Christmas market, open from 29 October 2021–2 January 2022. Over 170 over stalls sell food and gifts, from jewellery and candles to artworks and homewares. There’s also an open-air pop-up eatery called the ‘Lodge Deck’ by the ice rink which serves food and festive cocktails.
You can also find Christmas markets in the spectacular (and indoor so it’s warm) setting of New York’s Grand Central Station and at Union Square and Columbus Circle. There are also special events like the Renegade Craft Fair and Brooklyn Flea Dumbo for unique fashion, beauty and craft gifts. Check latest details for locations and opening times.
3. Build a snowman in Central Park
Manhattan’s green oasis turns to white in winter when snowfall blankets Central Park. The park covers 840 acres so you’ve got plenty of space for snowman-building, snowball-fighting and making snow angels. Explore the Arthur Ross Pinetum in the centre of the park for a real winter wonderland feel with its pine trees draped in snow.
And when snow depths hit six inches you can go sledding in Central Park. Pilgrim Hill is the park’s most popular sledging spot (near 72nd and Fifth) but there’s also the gentler Cedar Hill (near 79th and Fifth) or the quieter Great Hill (near 102nd and Central Park West). You can also try snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing in the park.
4. Shop Fifth Avenue
With its elegant buildings and luxury stores, Fifth Avenue is one of the world’s most famous shopping streets at any time of year. But come winter it sparkles even more brightly with Christmas lights and elaborate festive window displays at the city’s top department stores.
It’s well worth paying Fifth Avenue a visit in winter even if you’re not a fan of shopping. The stretch from 34th Street to 59th Street has some of the most impressive window decorations, which are normally on display from Thanksgiving until early January.
Don’t miss the window displays at Bloomingdale’s, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, where there’s a light projection onto the building’s facade. But the store with the top festive credentials is Macy’s, which featured in the Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street and previously created a window display inspired by the film.
5. See the Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree
Visiting the tree at the Rockefeller Centre is an annual New York Christmas tradition that started in the 1930s. Today’s tree is a 23-metre-high giant topped with a Swarovski star and draped with lights, which are lit for the first time at the annual tree lighting ceremony. In 2021 this takes places on 1 December, and starts at 7pm with music performances before the lights are turned on at 9pm – get there early if you want to grab a spot.
Otherwise you can see the tree until early January, with the lights on from 6am to 12am daily. While you’re at the Rockefeller Centre, don’t miss the trip to the Top of the Rock observation deck for views of Central Park – it’s extra magical after a snowfall.
6. Watch the Radio City Christmas Spectacular
The Radio City Music Hall is a New York landmark with its beautiful Art Deco interiors. Its most famous show is the Christmas Spectacular*, featuring the Radio City Rockettes dance troupe, who are known for their high kicks and perfect formation moves.
And as well as festive dance numbers, the show also includes a nativity scene which features live farm animals. This year’s Christmas Spectacular runs from 5 November 2021 until 2 January 2022, with 90-minute shows taking place several times a day.
7. Check out the Dyker Heights Christmas lights
The residents of Dyker Heights in Brooklyn go all-out for Christmas with some of the most over-the-top light displays you’ll see anywhere. It all started in the 1980s as a bit of festive neighbourhood rivalry and has grown into a seriously competitive spectacle.
Some homeowners now fork out up to $20,000 on professional lighting designers to decorate their houses with life-size Santas, sleighs and reindeer. Visitors flock to see the light displays from dusk until 9pm from mid-December until New Year’s Eve.
If you want to visit Dyker Heights independently, you can get there on the D train to 79th St and New Utrecht Ave, Brooklyn, a 45-minute subway ride from Manhattan. Then it’s a 15-minute walk to the biggest concentration of lights from 11th to 13th Avenues from 83rd to 86th Streets. Or you can take a 3.5-hour bus tour* of the neighbourhood.
8. Catch a concert at the Winter Jazzfest
If you fancy a change from Christmas carols, time your trip to New York to coincide with the Winter Jazzfest – from 13–22 January in 2022. Warm up in a cosy jazz club while listening to music from over 100 acts from around the world, from big names to up-and-coming talent. The festival’s biggest event is the Friday and Saturday night jazz marathon, where one ticket gets you access to gigs at 12 venues across Lower Manhattan.
9. See in the New Year in Times Square
Join in the celebrations at one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties around when the ball drops at midnight in Times Square. People have been gathering in the square to mark the New Year since 1904, and the event now attracts over a million people. As the clock strikes 12, a 5386kg Waterford crystal ball drops from a flagpole on top of One Times Square.
If you want to get a prime spot you need need to be prepared – arrive by early afternoon, bring warm clothes, snacks and non-alcoholic drinks (though not too many as you’ll lose your spot if you need the bathroom). If that sounds like hard work you can also book a table in a restaurant or bar in Times Square – at a price – and watch from there.