The smell of roasting chestnuts, the sparkle of Christmas lights, snowy carriage rides through Central Park and lavish shop window displays – 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 and lasting into the New Year. So if you’re looking for a winter break, here are nine of the best things to do in New York at Christmas.
Local restrictions mean events and opening hours are subject to change – please check attraction websites for most up-to-date information.
What’s New York’s winter weather like?
In one word – chilly! The weather in New York in the 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, pack 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 in the south of Central Park with a backdrop of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. Or you can skate next to Rockefeller Centre’s giant Christmas tree and in Bryant Park’s Winter Village.
If you want to test out your skills without the crowds, there are also some smaller and less well-known rinks across the city, including the Rink at Brookfield Place in Battery Park and the Riverbank State Park Ice Skating Rink in Harlem. Most rinks charge fees for both entry and skate hire. Entry is free for the rink in Bryant Park, but skate hire costs $21.
2. Visit a pop-up Christmas market
Bryant Park’s Winter Village is also home to the city’s biggest Christmas market, open from 30 October 2020–3 January 2021. It has over stalls selling food and gifts, with everything from jewellery to games. There’s also a pop-up eatery called the ‘Lodge Deck’, an outdoor venue alongside the ice rink which serves food and festive cocktails.
There are also specialised and local events like the Brooklyn Navy Yard Holiday Market, The Makers Show at City Point and the Brooklyn and Chelsea Flea markets – as well as an online Grand Central Virtual Holiday Fair. Check details online 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 for a real winter wonderland feel with its pine trees draped in snow. And when snow depths hit six inches you can go sledding on Pilgrim Hill and Cedar Hill, or try snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing.
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 shopping fan.
The stretch from 34th Street to 59th Street has some of the most impressive decorations, which are normally up from Thanksgiving until early January. Don’t miss the window displays at Bloomingdale’s, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks, where there’s a light projection onto the building’s facade. But the store with the top festive credentials is Macy’s, featured in the Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street and with a window 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 2020 this takes places on 2 December, and it starts with music performances before the lights are turned on at 9pm – this year numbers are limited to allow for social distancing.
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 down on Central Park – it’s extra magical just 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, known for their high kicks and perfect formation moves. And as well as festive dance numbers, the show includes a nativity scene which features live farm animals. The 2020 event has unfortunately been cancelled but the Christmas Spectacular generally runs between November and early January, with nightly shows and stage door tours.
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 which are usually on 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, around 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 guided 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 in winter to coincide with the Winter Jazzfest (2021 details to be confirmed). Warm up in a cosy jazz club and listen to over 100 musicians, with a mix of big names and up-and-coming talent from around the world. The festival’s biggest event is the jazz marathon on the Friday and Saturday nights, 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 as you watch the ball drop 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. And as the clock strikes 12, a 5386kg Waterford crystal ball drops from a flagpole on top of One Times Square.
Numbers will be limited for 2020 numbers but the event will be transmitted around the world. Normally visitors need to arrive by early afternoon to bag a prime viewing spot and 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 too much like hard work you can also book a table in a restaurant or bar in Times Square – at a price – and watch from there.
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