The smell of roasting chestnuts, sparkling Christmas lights, snowy walks through Central Park, lavish shop window displays – visiting New York in winter is like stepping into 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 here are nine of my favourite things to do in New York at Christmas. And there’s a chance to win your own fantastic New York trip with Lottoland’s Passport to Paradise – with free entry into the prize draw for On the Luce readers.
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What’s New York’s winter weather like?
In one word – chilly! The weather in New York in the winter months sees average high temperatures of 6°C (43°F) and low temperatures 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 towering 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 will cost you $20.
2. Visit a pop-up Christmas market
Bryant Park’s Winter Village is also home to the city’s biggest Christmas market, open from late October until early January. It has over 170 stalls selling food and gifts, with everything from jewellery to games. There’s also a pop-up eatery called ‘The Lodge’ with a food hall alongside the ice rink that has a beer garden, festive cocktail bar and food from 12 restaurants.
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 NY Holiday Handmade Cavalcade for unique fashion, beauty and craft gifts. Check details online for opening times and transport links.
3. Build a snowman in Central Park
Manhattan’s green oasis turns to white in winter when snowfall blankets Central Park. The park has 840 acres to explore, 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 out 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. Admire 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 2019 this takes places on 4 December, and it starts at 7pm with music performances before the lights are turned on at 9pm – you need to get there early though to grab a spot as it gets packed.
Otherwise you can see the tree until the start of January, with the lights on from 5.30pm every evening, except on Christmas Day when they’re lit for a full 24 hours. While you’re at the Rockefeller Centre, don’t miss the trip up to the Top of the Rock observation deck for views down on Central Park, and if you time it right just after a snowfall it’s extra magical.
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 Christmas Spectacular runs from November until early January, with nightly shows and stage door tours.
7. Check out the Christmas lights at Dyker Heights
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, which have visitors flocking to see them. The light displays are usually on from dusk until around 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, which is about 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 winter trip to New York to coincide with the Winter Jazzfest – on from 9–18 January in 2020. Warm up in a cosy jazz club while listening to music from over 100 musicians, with a mix of big names and up-and-coming new 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.
If you want to get a prime viewing 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 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.
Win your own trip!
If you fancy seeing New York in winter for yourself, you can win a trip with Lottoland’s Passport to Paradise. If you bet on one any of nine international lotteries, as well as the chance to win the jackpot, you’ll get an entry into free prize draw to win a holiday to the corresponding country.
So you could be heading to New York with flights, travel and accommodation for two, as well as a sightseeing bus tour, helicopter ride, cruise to the Statue of Liberty and a three-course dinner at The View revolving restaurant included. You can get one free entry to the lotto and prize draw using the code LUCE. There’s no limit to how many times you can enter – and if you collect all nine bets you’ll also have the chance to win a fabulous round-the-world trip.
Make your entry at Passport to Paradise (must be 18+ and a UK resident, terms and conditions apply – please see the Lottoland website for details).