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Christmas in New York City Bucket List — 2023

It’s Christmastime in the city — and by city, I mean none other than New York City. By early November, Christmas trees are going up in every park and square, store windows are getting drenched in sparkle, and the bustle of shoppers on crowded sidewalks suddenly feels more charming than usual. There’s so much to do in New York City during Christmastime, so I made myself a list — a bucket list if you will!

When I originally made this list, I was new to New York City and these were all things I’d never done before. Going into my second holiday season, I’ve happily experienced most things on this list. (I’m hoping to check off the final few this year!)

So now it’s your turn! Let’s explore New York at Christmastime together. Let me know in the comments how many of these you have done. And if have you have even more Christmas tips, share those as well!

1. Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo

I’ve spent many years celebrating Christmas in Chicago, and one of my favorite things to do there was always ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo. As a recent NYC transplant, the first thing I looked for was a similar Christmas zoo event. I quickly discovered Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo.

Holiday Lights at Bronx Zoo features light-up holiday decor around the entire zoo. There are over 350 life-size lanterns shaped like animals and plants, as well as animal-inspired light shows, synchronized musical Christmas trees and festive light displays. Other holiday offerings include train rides, ice carving demonstrations, stilt performers and of course holiday treats and warm beverages.

  • Ticketing: Timed tickets are required and are separate from regular zoo admission.
  • Price: Tickets for adults 13+ cost $41.95. Tickets for children 3 – 12 are $26.95 and seniors 65+ are $36.95.
  • Location: Bronx Zoo, 2300 Southern Blvd, The Bronx, NY 10460
  • Dates: Select dates between November 17, 2023 — January 7, 2024
  • Hours: 3 PM to 9 PM (Sunday – Thursday) or 10 PM (Friday & Saturday)

Tip: If you’re local to NYC, consider a WCS membership. It will get you access to the four main zoos in NYC throughout the year, plus you’ll save 40% on Holiday Lights tickets.

2. Ice Skating at Bryant Park Winter Village

Bryant Park transforms into a winter wonderland at Christmastime and on until nearly spring. The Bryant Park Winter Village features a holiday market, ice skating rink, and a festive indoor bar and food hall. For a special night out when the weather gets cold, you can even rent a cozy igloo or reserve a private curling lane.

There are a few different ice rinks in NYC. I chose Bryant Park over the more famous Rockefeller Center because it’s more reasonably priced and appeared to be less crowded. It’s also bigger. I also really loved that it combined ice skating with a holiday market in one location for a complete fun-filled afternoon.

If you’re debating ice skating at Rockefeller Center versus Bryant Park, be sure to check out our post that breaks down the 10 biggest differences between them.

  • Ticketing: Timed reservations are required for ice skating, curling and igloos. The rest of the market, food hall and bar do not require tickets.
  • Price: Entry to the market is free. There are additional fees for ice skating ($18-$55), curling (packages starting at $300) and igloos (packages start at $215).
  • Location: Bryant Park, 41st Street and, 6th Ave, New York, NY 10018
  • Dates: October 27, 2023 – March 3, 2024
  • Hours: Ice Skating is open from 8 AM to 10 PM. The food hall and bar is open from 10 AM – 10 PM. The shops are open from 10 AM (weekends) or 11 (weekdays) till 8 PM.

Tip: We suggest snagging a 9:40 AM ice skating reservation. That way you can skate before the crowds and most of the shops and dining will be open when you’re done.

3. Gift of Fifth

There is nothing I love more than a pedestrian street. When we were in Medellin, we loved that they closed the main street to cars every Sunday for what they called ciclovia. NYC actually has a pretty robust open street program, which grew substantially during the pandemic in 2020.

In December 2022, they unveiled a new event called Fifth Avenue For All. It was a seasonal event where they closed down Fifth Avenue to cars on select Sundays in December. This initiative is returning in 2023 under a new name: Gift of Fifth. This year, Fifth Avenue will close to vehicle traffic between 48th to 59th streets on December 3, 10 and 17 from 12 PM to 6 PM.

While the open street itself is not exclusively “Christmas,” it is a perfect time to see the holiday window displays along Fifth Avenue. Many of the city’s iconic department stores, jewelry stores and even hotels decorate their storefronts and interiors with elaborate holiday displays. I’m excited to see the decorations at Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany & Co, Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue and the Peninsula hotel.

  • Ticketing: No tickets required.
  • Price: Free
  • Location: Fifth Avenue between 49th Street and 57th Street
  • Dates: December 3, 10 & 17, 2023
  • Hours: 12 PM to 6 PM

Tip: The open street portion of Fifth Avenue ends close to Radio City Music Hall. This is your sign to get tickets for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for the perfect end to your Christmasy, New York-y day. I’ve been once and it truly blew my mind!

4. Christmas Tree Lighting

Many of the iconic Christmas trees in NYC have tree lighting ceremonies. There is usually caroling or other performances, warm drinks and festive cheer as the tree is lit for the first time each season. I’ve been to a few and plan to see a few more this year.

We live in Queens, so we decided to prioritize tree lighting ceremonies in Astoria last year. The Athens Square tree is just a few blocks from, and last year it was the second tallest Christmas tree in all of New York! I’m hoping it’s just as impressive this year.

I love Astoria, but I wouldn’t necessarily tell someone to plan around these specific lightings. Instead, keep an eye out for any other tree lightning ceremonies that coordinate with your specific visit dates and location. Maybe it’ll work out for an extra dose of Christmas cheer.

  • Ticketing: No tickets required
  • Price: Free
  • Location: Athens Square, 30th St & 30th Ave, Astoria, NY 11102
  • Dates: November 30, 2023
  • Hours: 6 – 7 PM

5. Union Square Holiday Market

Before moving to New York City, I spent one Christmas here visiting family. What I remember most about that visit was the Union Square Christmas Market, and specifically a life-changing Earl Grey tea macaron. I also snagged a really cool train map t-shirt that was probably the best Christmas gift I ever gave my husband.

The Union Square Holiday Market features almost 200 vendors selling artisan crafts, gifts, specialty food items and more. The market has European Christmas market vibes, though the vendors themselves are selling more modern goods and trendy foods. The market is huge, so I’m excited to spend a nice long afternoon shopping and eating my way through it. (I’ll let you know if I find that macaron again!)

Photo titled Union Square Holiday Market by Oliver Rich under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  • Ticketing: No tickets required
  • Price: Entry to the market is free.
  • Location: Union Square Park, 201 Park Ave S, New York, NY 10003
  • Dates: November 16 — December 24, 2023
  • Hours: Monday through Friday 11 AM – 8 PM / Saturday 10 AM – 8 PM / Sunday 11 AM – 7 PM

6. See the New York City Ballet’s Rendition of The Nutcracker

My parents took me to see The Nutcracker in Springfield, IL when I was little. At maybe 12 years old, I was young enough to still dream of becoming a ballerina, but old enough to know I was far too clumsy to ever stand a chance. I sat there in awe watching the elaborate Christmas party scene unfold. I was dazzled by the snowflakes waltzing, the coffee dance and of course the Sugar Plum Fairy. I’ve been chasing that high every Christmas since.

If you haven’t seen it before, The Nutcracker is a ballet that tells the tale of a whimsical Christmas Eve for a young girl named Clara. She receives a nutcracker as a gift from her Godfather, and it comes to life in her dreams to save her from the Mouse King. She is whisked away to the Land of Sweets where she’s treated as royalty. Candies and sweets from around the land dance and perform for her before she returns home. I promise the real story is better than my summary, and the sets, dances and music are truly exquisite.

I’ve seen The Nutcracker performed by a handful of different ballet troupes, but nothing is quite like the New York City Ballet’s version. I know there are a ton of Christmas shows in New York, ranging from stage shows to concerts, but for my first Christmas in New York City, The Nutcracker was the only real choice.

  • Ticketing: Tickets are required for a specific show date and time, which can be purchased here.
  • Price: $45 – $305
  • Location: David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, NY 10023
  • Dates: November 24 – December 31, 2023
  • Hours: Times vary by day. There are evening and afternoon show times available

Tip: Make a reservation at Tavern on the Green before or after the show for a meal and/or cocktails. The restaurant is exquisitely decorated and is sure to get you into the holiday spirit.

7. Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden

The Holiday Train Show is an appealing option for indoor fun. More than 25 model trains traverse a half mile of track. The trains pass through tiny New York City scenes including miniature versions of the Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty and Rockefeller Center.

Last year, we brought our toddler (1.25 years old at the time) to the Museum of Science at Industry in Chicago and their favorite part was the model trains. A few years later, our toddler still loves trains and so we’re going to try to squeeze this one in this year!

Copyright Robert Benson Photography. Original image from The New York Botanical Garden here.
  • Ticketing: Timed tickets are required.
  • Price: $35 for adults 13 and up. $31 for students and seniors over 65. $20 for children 2 through 12.
  • Location: New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Blvd, The Bronx, NY 10458
  • Dates: November 18, 2023 — January 15, 2024
  • Hours: 10 AM – 6 PM Tuesday through Sunday

Tip: For even more fun, get a combo ticket and see the outdoor light show, GLOW. This is the outdoor portion that only takes place at night. A separate combo ticket is required.

8. Saks Fifth Avenue Light Show

Read Our Full Guide to seeing the Saks Fifth Avenue Light Show!

Holiday windows aren’t enough for the flagship Saks Fifth Avenue on its namesake street. They had to add a synchronized light display. This dancing light show takes over the entire building facade and lasts about 3.5 minutes.

The show is delightful but can be very crowded. I’d recommend getting there right around dusk and watching from the plaza across the street (between Saks and Rockefeller Center.)

  • Ticketing: No tickets required
  • Price: Free
  • Location: Sakes Fifth Avenue, 611 5th Ave, New York, NY 10022
  • Dates: November 21, 2023 through early January (exact date not released)
  • Hours: Show repeats every 10 minutes between 5 PM and 11 PM, but sometimes it starts earlier

9. Holiday Cruise

When I was researching Christmas things to do in New York City, I quickly came across the holiday cruise offerings by Classic Harbor Line. I hesitated initially thinking it was a tourist trap, but one glimpse of that cozy interior and I was sold.

My toddler loves the Statue of Liberty so much that it was their Halloween costume. As soon as I saw that they had a daytime offering complete with cookies, cocoa and a spin around my toddler’s favorite statue, I immediately booked our tickets. (Be sure to check out our review of our NYC Christmas Cruise.)

There is a variety of holiday harbor cruise options. Some cruises are short and just cruise around the southern end of Manhattan, while others include full meals and sail around the whole island. There are also special events which include jazz, carolers or Champagne tastings. All of the cruises take place in a festively decorated, temperature controlled vessel.

  • Ticketing: Advance tickets are required for a specific date and time.
  • Price: Adult tickets start at $48 for select cruises and go up to $398 for more elaborate offerings
  • Location: Cruises depart from Chelsea Piers (Pier 62) at W. 22nd and Hudson River (Manhattan, NY)
  • Dates: Holiday cruises start in early November (dates vary by cruise type) and run through January 1.
  • Hours: Afternoon and evening cruises are available, times vary by offering

10. Central Park & Columbus Circle Holiday Market

The third and final holiday market on my Christmas in New York City bucket list is the Columbus Circle Holiday Market. This market also has a European Christmas Market aesthetic and features over 100 vendors selling a variety of gifts, goodies and treats.

I love that the Columbus Circle Holiday Market is located right at the entrance to Central Park on the southwest corner. It is a great way to start a festive afternoon in Central Park, which might also include cinnamon roasted nuts, ice skating at Wollman Rink, happy hour at the Tavern On The Green and/or searching for Christmas trees scattered throughout the park.

Photo titled Columbus Circle Holiday Market by Charley Lhasa under CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Ticketing: No tickets required
  • Price: Entry to the market is free
  • Location: Columbus Circle & Central Park South, New York, NY 10019
  • Dates: November 28 — December 31, 2023
  • Hours: Monday through Saturday 11 AM – 8 PM. Sundays 11 AM to 7 PM. (The market closes at 4PM on Christmas Eve).

Tip: If you need a place to warm up, pop into The Shops at Columbus Circle. It’s an indoor shopping mall just across the traffic circle that has it’s own delightful holiday decor.