Magical And Festive Things To Do In New York At Christmas With Kids

Celebrating Christmas in New York City has got to be on most people’s travel bucket list, right? Spending the most wonderful time of the year in one of the most iconic cities in the world is an unforgettable experience. Even more so if you have children because Christmas in New York with kids just takes the wonder and merriment of the holiday season to a whole other level.

Things To Do In New York At Christmas With Kids

There are so many festive and magical things to do in New York at Christmas with kids. There are plenty of free options, some that are reasonably priced and a few which are extravagant luxuries but if you’re only ever going to be in New York City at Christmas once in your life then they’re definitely worth it.

Free Things To Do In New York At Christmas With Kids

New York City has a reputation for being expensive, particularly during certain holidays. However, there are loads of things to do in New York at Christmas with kids that don’t need to cost you a penny.

See the giant Christmas Tree at the Rockefeller Center

The Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center is America’s tallest Christmas tree. The lighting ceremony, which takes place during the first week of December, draws crowds in their thousands. Paying it a visit and marvelling at the sheer scale and number of twinkling light is one of the best free things to do in New York City around Christmas.

Christmas Tree at the Rockefeller Center

Visit Santa at Macy’s

Christmas with kids just wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Santa. For the ultimate New York Christmas experience you can visit Santa at Santaland in Macy’s Department Store from the end of November through to 24th December.

Booking in advance is essential as visits are by reservation only. Best of all, the experience is completely free (and the smile it brings to your children’s faces will be priceless!)

Santaland is a huge indoor Christmas holiday ‘village’ full of fun exhibits that take you on an enchanting meandering pathway through twinkling lights, snow topped trees and Santa’s workshop, all the way to meet Santa himself.

Children can tell him their Christmas wishes and you can snap a photo of the moment yourself or allow a professional photographer to capture one for you (there is a fee to purchase the photo).

Santaland at Macy’s Department Store

Sledging In Central Park

If you are lucky enough that it snows whilst you’re in New York in December, going sledging in Central Park is a must. There are two main places in Central Park that are great for sledging and you can buy sledges from a variety of nearby shops.

Pilgrim Hill is the most popular location to go sledging in Central Park and the hill is steeper. Cedar Hill is better for beginners and those with younger children.

It has two sections comprising of a lower slope that is more gentle and then, once you’re feeling a little more confident, you can progress to the more adventurous slope.

Apart from the cost of the sledge (which you could then donate to someone else once you’ve finished with it) this is a completely free activity and you can guarantee you’ll make lots of fun family memories together.

Sledging in Central Park at Christmas

Christmas Markets

Christmas markets in New York City are becoming more and more popular each year. Free to visit, they’re one of the most budget-friendly things to do in New York at Christmas and are pretty much guaranteed to get you in the Christmas spirit.

What could be better than bundling up in warm clothes and wandering around stalls filled with Christmas gifts and tempting foods whilst sipping on delicious hot chocolate (the kids) or mulled wine (the grown ups) and enjoying the twinkling Christmas lights and festive atmosphere?

Winter Village in Bryant Park has over 100 food and shopping stalls, and in the week leading up to Christmas Eve children can visit Santa and pose for a photo with him at Santa’s Corner.

Columbus Circle Christmas Market, located at the south west corner of Central Park, is known to be one of the most picturesque Christmas markets in New York with it’s traditional German-style stalls.

The Grand Central Terminal Holiday Fair is indoors (a bonus if the weather isn’t on your side), situated in the historic Vanderbilt Hall and has a focus on American-crafted artisan gifts.

Finally, Union Square Holiday Market, just an 8 minute walk from the Flatiron Building, has live music, a kids art centre and even a warming station so you can defrost from the New York winter weather.

Grand Central Terminal, where the annual Holiday Fair (indoor Christmas Market) is held

Dyker Heights Christmas Lights

Every year the residents of a small neighbourhood in south west Brooklyn decorate their homes for Christmas. These aren’t just any ordinary decorations though. These are the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights – a jaw-droppingly spectacular display of colour and light and Christmas scenes outside each and every house.

The tradition began in the 1980’s with just two families and the unmissable extravaganza has been growing ever since. More and more houses have begun joining in over the years, with friendly competition meaning that each family is determined to out-do the one next door.

There is a unique guided coach tour available ($65) which lasts for four hours in total including luxury transport from Manhattan to Dyker Heights and back again. An experienced tour guide explains the detailed history of the Christmas lights tradition during the coach journey and then, on a walking tour of the lights, shares the story of the families who create it every year and what inspires them to do so.

In addition to this you get exclusive access to The Dyker Heights Lounge which is a cosy, holiday-themed space in a prime viewing area to see the best of the lights.

For a more adventurous option, you can visit the lights yourself for free by getting the subway. It takes about an hour in total from Times Square (including a 15-20 minute walk once you get to Brooklyn).

The best times to go are between 5pm and 9pm and the most dazzling light displays are from 11th Avenue to 13th Avenue and from 83rd to 86th Street.

Make sure you take some $1 and $5 bills with you as many of the families who put on the displays also collect money for deserving local charities (and you might want to buy a hot chocolate from a street vendor to warm youself up whilst you wander around).

Keep an eye out for the Spata house (which has Santa stationed outside) and the Polizzotto house (with impossible-to-miss 29-foot motorised wooden soldiers). They were the first families to begin the tradition.

It’s over the top but that’s what makes it so good – the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights really is one of the most different and fun things to do in New York City during Christmas.

The Spata house at Dyker Heights Christmas Lights

Christmas Window Displays

If you’re doing some shopping for gifts whilst in NYC at Christmas, make sure you take the time to check out the incredible window displays of all the major department stores.

A New York City Christmas tradition, each store has a different theme every year which usually gets unveiled in November. The displays are beautifully put together and will certainly spark the imagination of little ones when they see the creative winter scenes.

The best Christmas window displays to visit are: Macy’s (Midtown West); Saks 5th Avenue (Midtown East); Barneys (Madison Avenue); Bloomingdales (Upper East Side); and Bergdorf Goodman (Midtown West).

Admire the Christmas window displays in all the major department stores

Fun Things To Do In New York At Christmas With Kids

Christmastime in New York is magical, there’s no doubt about it. There are so many different Christmas events and activities going on in the city that the whole family can enjoy together, making memories to last a lifetime.

Ice Skating

One of the most quintessential Christmas activities in New York is to go ice skating. There are three main venues to choose from: Central Park; Bryant Park; and the Rockefeller Center. Rinks are usually open from late October to early April and prices vary.

Central Park has two ice rinks – Wollman Rink on the Eastern side of the park near Central Park Zoo and Lasker Rink in the middle of the park. At Wollman Rink it’s $12-$19 for adults depending on whether you go during the week, at a weekend or during the holiday season, and a flat $6 per child up to the age of 11. Skate rental is $10 extra and there is a $5 spectator fee, all cash only.

The Rink at Bryant Park has a $33 fee for skate hire throughout December, though if you have your own skates admission is free. It’s part of Winter Village (see ‘Christmas Markets’ below) which is home to a plethora of holiday shops, food stalls and, of course, a large Christmas tree.

The Rink at the Rockefeller Center, in it’s position beneath the famous Christmas tree, makes it a popular choice. General admission in December is $28-$33 per adult and $15 per child up to the age of 11, plus a $13 skate rental.

You get up to an hour and a half to skate but you’ll have to queue as there are only a certain amount of people allowed on the ice at same time. You can reserve a timeslot in advance for $75 to $175 including skate rental and VIP access directly onto the ice.

Ice skating in Central Park

‘Holiday Lights & Movie Sites’ Tour

New York City has become synonymous with a number of Christmas films. For young movie buffs, the ‘Holiday Lights and Movie Sites’ Tour could be a fun thing to do whilst in New York for Christmas.

The heated tour bus takes you round various different movie locations from Christmas films such as ‘Elf’, ‘Home Alone 2: Lost In New York’, ‘Mr. Popper’s Penguins’ and ‘Scrooged’, to name just a few. There are plenty of stops along the way for photo opportunities.

You’ll also see classic New York sights such as Central Park, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, Bryant Park ice skating rink, and the stunning Christmas window displays at famous department stores in Manhattan.

Adult tickets are $51 and child tickets are $40. The tour is available from the end of November to the beginning of January and lasts for 2 and a half hours.

The Plaza Hotel, where Kevin stayed during Home Alone 2: Lost In New York

Horse & Carriage Ride in Central Park

One of the most magical things to do in New York at Christmas with kids has got to be a horse & carriage ride in Central Park. Younger children could imagine that they’re riding in Santa’s sleigh!

Available from mid November to the 1st January, rides last for just under an hour and include a photo stop halfway through. You can get two adults and up to four children in each carriage so the $140.60 fee (per carriage ride) works out at just $23.43 per person, which is quite reasonable.

The ride will take you past classic sights to see in Central Park at Christmas, including: the Wollman Ice Rink; the Carousel; the Chess & Checker House; the Plaza Hotel; Upper East Side; the Loeb Boathouse; Bethesda Fountain; The Lake; Bow Bridge; the Tavern On The Green; Heckscher Playground; Columbus Circle and more. 

Horse and carriage ride in Central Park

Holiday Train Show at New York Botanical Gardens

The Holiday Train Show at New York Botanical Gardens is an absolute must-see whilst in New York at Christmas.

A much-loved New York Christmas tradition, the Holiday Train Show is an amazing indoor display of over 175 New York City landmarks made entirely out of natural materials like acorns, moss, seeds, twigs, cinnamon sticks and birch bark. Motorised trains zip around over half a mile of track and the detail is phenomenal.

Advance booking is recommended as it’s such a popular event and entrance is included in the ‘All Garden Pass’ for the Botanical Gardens.

There is plenty to see at the Botanical Gardens even during the winter – kids will love the Children’s Adventure Garden, an interactive area combining nature and science.

Weekday tickets are $23 adult / $10 child / Under 2s free. Weekend and holiday week tickets are $30 adult / $18 child / Under 2s free.

Luminocity Festival of Lights

In 2019 there is a brand new event coming to New York City for Christmas: LuminoCity Festival. Described as an ‘immersive wonderland of lights’ the LuminoCity Festival is set to be one of the best things to do in NYC at Christmas.

LuminoCity is a unique art installation on Randalls Island (north east of Manhattan) which is in place from late November to early January. There are three distinct light art experiences to explore: The Winter Fantasy; The Wild Adventure; and The Sweet Dream.

There are also themed fancy dress nights plus a variety of workshops for adults and children (such as lantern making, children’s printmaking and bracelet weaving) on selected dates.

Tickets for LuminoCity Festival, which is open from 4-11pm daily, are $38 per adult and $19 per child (aged 3-12). Under 3s are free. There is a shuttle bus available to take you to the venue – buy your tickets for this when booking your event tickets online. Advance booking is recommended.

One of the amazing light art installations at LuminoCity

Drink Hot Chocolate

Christmas in NYC can be cold. One of the best ways to warm up is to treat yourself and the kids to a deliciously decadent mug of festive hot chocolate. Thankfully, there are several places that specialise in serving up exactly what you need to give you that burst of extra energy for more Christmas sightseeing.

Serendipity 3 on East 60th Street is legendary as being a unique dining experience as well as having featured in several films. Try their Serendipitous Hot Chocolate for $7.95 or one of the Frrrozen Hot Chocolates for $12.95

Max Brenner Chocolate Bar in Union Square has an enormous selection of chocolate related foodie treats (including chocolate pizza). Try a hot chocolate in their signature ‘Hug Mug’, specially designed to be cupped with two hands (from $6). There’s a dedicated kids menu too that will have them drooling.

The City Bakery has two locations – one just off 5th Avenue and one just minutes away from Grand Central Terminal. The hot chocolate and marshmallow gets rave reviews. And if you still happen to be in New York in February be sure to visit as they host a famous hot chocolate festival with a different flavour on offer every single day.

The Chocolate Room has two venues in Brooklyn and with blended-to-order hot chocolates from just $5.50 (along with all the other sweet treats on the menu), it’s the perfect place to defrost and relax.

A decadent hot chocolate is the best way to warm up during Christmas in New York

Visit ‘Gingerbread Lane’

Every year the New York Hall Of Science hosts Gingerbread Lane which is officially the world’s largest gingerbread village as determined by Guinness World Records.

Gingerbread Lane has got to be one of the most magical things to do in New York at Christmas with kids. Imagine their faces when they realise that every single piece of the village is edible. It really is a feast for the eyes.

Gingerbread Lane is on display from the end of November right the way through to January. On the final day of the exhibition every single piece of the display is given away to museum visitors until it’s all gone.

Entry to Gingerbread Lane is free with admission to the New York Hall Of Science ($16-$30 per adult and $13-$25 per child depending on whether you opt for general admission, a combo ticket or all inclusive). There are tons of fun and interesting interactive exhibits for kids.

There are also workshops for children aged 4+ where they can build and decorate their own gingerbread house or train on selected dates and times between Christmas and New Year ($15 per project).

Gingerbread Lane
(Photo credit: Ann-Sophie Fjelloe-Jensen from the NYSci Flickr page)

Extra Special Things To Do In New York At Christmas With Kids

Eat Breakfast with Santa

For an even more special experience, you can also have breakfast with Santa at Macy’s ‘Stella 34 Trattoria’ restaurant from the end of November right up to 24th December.

It’s got to be one of the most festive things to do on Christmas Eve in New York City – just imagine sharing breakfast with Santa before he heads off to load up his sleigh with presents for the round-the-world trip ahead of him later that night.

There are sittings at 8am, 9am and 10am, and silver, gold and platinum pricing options which start at $55 per adult/$35 per child (aged 3-10) and go up to $80 per adult and $55 per child. Children aged 2 and under are free.

The hour-long package includes a delicious breakfast feast with treats to take home, stunning views of the Empire State Building, holiday activities for the children, a complimentary mimosa or bellini for the adults, Santa and his elves paying a visit to your table for a chat, and a photo opportunity (keepsake photo included).

For a special thing to do at Christmas you can have breakfast with Santa at Macy’s Department Store

Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular Show

The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular Show is a long-held Christmas tradition and one of the top things to do in New York for Christmas. It can also be one of the most expensive but it’s definitely worth it.

You’ll be transported to a wonderful world full of magical Christmas stories (told by Santa himself), spectacular dance moves performed by the fabulous Rockettes and treated to the famous ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers’. After the show, children can pose with Santa in the lobby.

The Christmas Spectacular Show runs from November through to January and lasts for 1 1/2 hours with no interval – something to take into account if you have fidgety toddlers.

There are 3 to 4 shows per day Monday to Thursday and five shows per day Friday through to Sunday. Under 2’s are free and are required to sit on an adult’s lap. Prices for tickets range from a reasonable $55 all the way up to $599 for the best seats in the house during a peak showtime.

Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular show starring The Rockettes

See ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘Frozen’ on Broadway

Seeing a Broadway show is a non-negotiable part of any trip to the Big Apple, regardless of the time of year. Seeing a Broadway show with a festive theme has to be top of the list of New York City holiday activities.

This year, Broadway’s oldest continually operating theatre, The Lyceum Theatre, is staging a heart-warming production of the classic Christmas tale ‘A Christmas Carol’ from November through to early January. Tickets are between $78 and $138.

For Disney fans, St James Theatre is staging the enchanting musical ‘Frozen’. Fans of the film will definitely enjoy this show, especially with the much-anticipated Frozen 2 out now!

All your favourite characters and songs are included so it’s the perfect way to spend a special couple of hours during your family Christmas in New York. Tickets are from $105 upwards.

Watch ‘The Nutcracker’ at the New York City Ballet

One of the most enchanting and traditional things to see in NYC at Christmas has to be The Nutcracker performed live on stage by the New York City Ballet. It’s one of the most iconic Christmas shows in NYC and, although it can be pricey, it’s really worth it..

Book in advance as shows do sell out quickly. The two hour show is on from the end of November through to the start of January and is recommended for children aged 5+. Tickets are from $60 to $300.

The visual effects are quite extraordinary; the dancing is, of course, absolutely incredible; and the whole experience is unforgettable. For little ballet fans in particular this truly is one of the most magical things to do in New York at Christmas with kids.

The Nutcracker at the NYC Ballet is a must-see show at Christmas in New York

Big Apple Circus

With the immense popularity & success of The Greatest Showman still going strong, and kids everywhere falling in love with the circus all over again, the Big Apple Circus is bound to be a hit with the whole family.

Trapeze artists, jugglers, clowns, acrobats and more this show will capture everyone’s imagination – it’s definitely one of the more quirky and different Christmas events in New York City.

Shows take place at The Lincoln Centre just off Broadway and run from October to January. Tickets are from $26 – $85+ depending on which seats you book. Under 2s are free and must sit on an adult’s lap during the performance.

There are multiple shows per day at various times (morning, lunchtime, afternoon and evening), which is great if you have younger ones and want to stick to their schedule rather than have lots of late nights. Shows last for 2 hours (including a 20 minute interval).

Big Apple Circus at The Lincoln Center

‘Cocoa & Carols’ Holiday Cruise

Finally, for a completely different view of Christmas in Manhattan, how about a holiday cruise? The ‘Cocoa & Carols’ holiday cruise allows you to see all the major sights of New York City from the water of the Hudson River aboard a 1920’s style yacht.

The ‘Yacht Manhattan’ is fully decorated with a Christmas theme and you’ll enjoy one and a half hours of live music and carolling from the Holiday Jazz Trio, a complimentary alcoholic drink (hot chocolate for the children), a selection of cookies and treats, plus unrivalled views of the Christmas lights and famous sights of the New York City skyline.

Tickets are $72 per adult and $48 child. Children aged 2 and under are free.

View of the New York City skyline at sunset from the Hudson River.
You could see this whilst drinking hot chocolate and listening to Christmas carols on the ‘Cocoa and Carols’ Holiday Cruise

More Things To Do In New York At Christmas With Kids

If all of these suggestions leave you wanting more ideas for family-friendly Christmas activities in New York City, read my post on the best things to do in New York City in December and right through Winter. For extra options (just in case you run out of things to do!), read this post all about visiting New York for a city break with kids.

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