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Three NYC Christmas Markets in One Day

Like many people, I went into the holiday season with high hopes. I had a laundry list of festive activities and three weeks in which to do them. Next thing I knew, it was the Monday before Christmas and I hadn’t been to a single Christmas market. So I did what any self-respecting Christmas elf would do: I decided to visit three of New York City’s biggest and best Christmas markets in a single afternoon.

I put on my coziest winter hat, slung an empty tote over my shoulder and headed out in search of holiday cheer. Follow along as we canvas Manhattan in search of mulled wine, twinkle lights and the macaron I’ve been talking about for over 10 years now.

1: Union Square Holiday Market

I hoped on the N train from Queens and took it all the way to 14 Street – Union Square. I stepped out of the Subway station and was in the middle of the holiday market.

The Union Square Holiday Market has over 150 vendors. Each of the booths had matching green roofs, and were decorated with matching twinkle-lit garland. I particularly loved how the booths were set up. It was loopy-swoopy enough to feel like you can wonder and get lost in it, but organized enough that you can be sure you hit all the booths.

The shops are the main attraction at Union Square. There is a wide variety of shops, but I found this market to focus primarily on art and handmade items. There was a lot of jewelry, prints, and custom clothing, most of which was made by local New York artisans and artists. It also had a good selection of useful and practical gifts. I specifically noted an interesting fresh spice grinder/crusher and beautiful foldable fruit baskets.

The food selection at Union Square was solid, but relatively small. There were booths selling empanadas, cheese wheel pasta, truffle fries (that looked amazing), and of course sweet treats like crepes, waffles, and designer (read: expensive) hot chocolate. There was space to eat, but the food portion was not the centerpiece of this market.

It’s also worth noting that (to the best of my knowledge) Union Square Holiday Market does not serve alcohol.

As far as the vibes and crowds go, it was pretty perfect. It was lively and very festive, but not overwhelming during my visit. There were some lines for things — most notably the hot cocoa stand — but the waits were not very long. It was very pleasant and enjoyable.

It’s important to note that I was visiting on a weekday when most jobs and schools were not yet on break. I also got to Union Square shortly after the holiday market opened. If you’re looking for a festive energy but still low crowds, this was the perfect time to go!

The Perfect Macaron Saga

I enjoyed my walk through the market, but I really came to the Union Square Holiday Market on a mission. I was cautiously but optimistically searching for an earl grey and chocolate ganache macaron. The very first macaron that I recall ever tasting was this specific flavor at this specific market almost 10 years ago.

I didn’t expect to find it, but I really hoped I would. After walking through the entire market macaron-free, I was about to give up. I headed toward the train station and turned around to give the market one last look.

BOOM! Macarons!

I had actually looked at the front of that same booth earlier, but didn’t see that the macarons were on the side! I scanned for the bright blue macaron of my dreams and there it was: earl grey.

While I usually buy a variety of macaron flavors, this time I bought three of my favorite flavor. It wasn’t as chewy as I remembered (I blame the cold weather), but the flavor was still spot on. If you like macarons and/or earl grey, these macarons are not to be missed!

2: Bryant Park Winter Village

With my macarons secured, I jumped back on the N train and headed uptown to 42nd Street. From there, it was just a short walk to Bryant Park. (I could have walked the whole way, but it was 30 minutes and I was cold.)

I’ve been to Bryant Park Winter Village several times since moving to NYC. Most recently, we came for our annual ice skating trip. Unfortunately, that day got cut short thanks to our 3-year-old throwing their first-but-impressively-epic tantrum. I was excited to come back, sans screaming toddler, to do some more serious shopping.

Bryant Park Winter Village is huge, and the largest of the three markets I visited. They have 170+ vendors, 17,000-square-foot skating rink, food hall and bar, outdoor curling and more. It’s also probably the most popular of the NYC Christmas markets, which means as many people hate it as love it.

Let’s start with the shops. I thought that Bryant Park had the widest variety of shops, which makes sense because they also have the most. It seemed really good for actual Christmas shopping. There were lots of appealing and interesting items that you might actually want to gift. I noticed a lot of unique apparel (including souvenir-but-cool NYC shirts and sweatshirts), specialty foods (like maple syrup and hot sauce), and lots of cozy items (like hats and mittens).

The food selection at Bryant Park Winter Village is also impressive. The largest concentration of food vendors is behind the rink near the carousel, but there’s also a long strip on the other side of the rink, too. They have everything from dumplings to bratwurst, pickles to s’mores, Raclette to crepes. We personally can vouch for the Bomboloni, which was amazing.

Another food option is The Lodge. It is a temperature controlled space overlooking the ice rink with food vendors, a bar, seating and bathrooms (with long lines). This is the main stop for alcohol, as the booths in the main market cannot serve it. It’s a nice place to cozy up if you find a good seat. You can also purchase alcohol at the curling bar and L’OR Porch at Bryant Park (a restaurant that’s in the park all year.)

Overall, I really like Bryant Park Winter Village. I love that you can make a whole morning out of it and combine ice skating with lunch and Christmas shopping. I look forward to dragging my family curling one day, too.

The biggest downside to this market is that it does get very crowded. Luckily, the crowds during this particular visit in the afternoon on a weekday were pretty tolerable. Even with the low crowds, every bathroom I passed had extremely long lines, so watch out for that.

3: Columbus Circle Holiday Market

I took a short detour to Grand Central Terminal to check out their Holiday Fair, but it was a total bust. (So much so that it’s not even worth covering in this post.) I took the S train to Times Square then transferred to the 1 uptown to Columbus Circle. Again, I could have walked, but I was just excited to take the S for the first time.

Columbus Circle was the smallest Christmas market of the three, and honestly the one I was least excited about. The other two markets get so much fan fare, and this one sort of just seemed like a backup plan. I was wrong though, and actually really loved this market!

This market was way more chill than the other two. By the time I got there, it was close to 4 PM and still wasn’t very crowded. This surprised me a bit, given its prime location at the southwest corner of Central Park.

This market looked a lot like the Union Square Holiday Market, with the same green roofs and garland. As it turns out, they’re both run by Urbanspace, so that makes sense. It had a nice, windy layout which made it feel bigger than it was.

The shops at Columbus Circle were very similar to the other two markets. I saw several booths that were also at the other two markets. However, this market seemed to skew more toward accessories, candles and decor. There was also quite a bit of jewelry here.

At the front of the market were a few sweets shops, but most of the food vendors were located in the back, with a line of picnic tables in the middle. Columbus Circle had a pretty small selection of foods, but they covered the essential market fare. The most popular food item at the Columbus Circle Holiday Market was definitely the cheese wheel pasta. I tried it, and it was delicious.

What stood out the most about Columbus Circle Holiday Market was that they served alcohol at the food stalls. Many vendors had hot mulled wine, and a few others served beer and regular wine. There were no designated areas for drinking it either. Columbus Circle was the only holiday market of the three where you could carry your mulled wine around through the market! I loved that!

NYC Christmas Market Recap

Okay, so that was a lot of words about Christmas markets! I tried to distill all of that into a table for quick reference, if that’s your thing.

This is how I’d summarize each of these three main NYC Christmas markets.

Union Square Holiday Market Bryant Park Winter Village Columbus Circle Holiday Market
Size Medium (150+ vendors) Biggest (170+ vendors) Smallest (100+ vendors)
Shops* Handmade goods, jewelry, art, useful gifts Ornaments, cozy knits, apparel, unique NYC souvenirs Accessories, candles, decor, jewerly
Food Small selection of food vendors, park bench seating nearby Wide variety of food vendors, indoor dining/bar, lots of varied seating Small selection of food vendors, picnic table seating
Alcohol None sold Sold only at designated bar areas Sold and could be carried around the market
Onsite Entertainment None Ice skating, cozy igloos, curling (reservations required) None
What I bought Macarons NYC printed T Mulled Wine
Main draw Great for actual Christmas shopping Variety of activities in addition to shops, which can fill more of your day Convenient location near Central Park and lower crowds
Downsides No Alochol (or is that just a me problem?) Long bathroom lines Bikes from Central Park often cutting through the market

*There was a variety of vendors at all the shops, but this is the type of shop that stood out the most to me.

What I Learned from this Holiday Experiment

Sometimes it pays to procrastinate. Tackling three of the most popular holiday markets in NYC in a single day turned out to be really fun! (I mean, that’s not actually surprising it all. It always sounded like a pretty good time.) It was easy to take the subway between each of the markets, there was something to love about each one, and it was overall just a festive way to spend an afternoon in Manhattan.

I did come away from this experiment with a few hot takes.

My biggest takeaway was how similar the shops were at each of these markets. Sure, each market had a category of goods that was more heavily featured and they varied in size, but there was also a lot of parody. There were several popular shops, like The Truffleist and Mure + Grand, which were at multiple markets. If you were just casually strolling through the market without something specific in mind, my guess is you’d be equally happy at any of the three markets.

The biggest difference between these markets was definitely the food and alcohol offerings. Bryant Park Winter Village had the best and widest selection of prepared foods by a mile. That makes it an appealing option at mealtime. (Of course, the lines can get quite long at that time.) The other two markets had food as well, just a much smaller selection.

Similarly, the alcohol options varied a lot. If you want to sip mulled wine while you wander the market, you’ll want to make your way to Columbus Circle Holiday Market. If you prefer to have a beer in a cozy, temperature controlled space, then Bryant Park winter Village is the place to be. Union Square doesn’t serve alcohol at all, so set you sights on a tasty cup of cocoa.

It also made me think a lot about crowds. In my case, going to three Christmas markets in Manhattan in a single day was only possible (and fun) because it was a weekday afternoon. The crowds at all three of these markets can be way worse than during my visit. That can make everything take longer, from ordering food to checking out at a shop, and even just walking through the market. If you want to avoid these crowds, weekday afternoons right after they open is the way to go.

As much fun as I had on this experiment, I would also say that I don’t think you actually need to go to all of these markets. Because they’re so similar, I think you’re better off choosing one and spending an afternoon there. If you have more time in your day, I’d fill it with some other holiday fun in the city. (I have links to some of my favorite NYC things to do at Christmas time below.)

And finally, this experience made me realize that I did in fact have a favorite and it wasn’t the one I was expecting it to be.

Which NYC Christmas Market Is Best

Bryant Park Winter Village and Union Square Holiday Market tend to be the golden children of holiday markets in the city. Bryant Park Winter Village is massive and has a ton of fun stuff to do there. Union Square Holiday Market is the oldest holiday market in NYC and is beloved by locals and tourists alike.

While both of these markets are great, I actually thought that Columbus Circle Holiday Market was the best of the three. I’m sure this is probably an unpopular opinion, but hear me out.

First, it tends to be a little less crowded. It’s the smallest of the three markets and doesn’t have the same level of prestige as the other two, so I think it tends to be overlooked. (To be clear, it’s still crowded, just less crowded.)

Even though it’s smaller, it still has a good selection of vendors. Many of the shops are even the same ones that you’ll find at the bigger markets, just with shorter lines. The food selection is definitely lighter (and very expensive), but they have the essentials. And since it’s not as crowded, you may not need to actually eat there. There are several other restaurants nearby, including P.J. Carney’s Pub for a casual meal, Tavern On the Green for an upscale spurge or one of the many restaurants across the street at The Shops at Columbus Circle.

I really don’t mean to harp on the alcohol, but I really love that you can walk around the market with mulled wine at Columbus Circle! It is nice to enjoy both of these things at the same time, versus having to drink in a crowded bar before or after your shopping. This was by far my best moment of this adventure.

I felt like I got everything I wanted out of a Christmas Market at Columbus Circle for the least amount of effort and stress. It was enjoyable, and not overwhelming. I really loved it!

5 Tips for Visiting Christmas Markets in New York City

  • Avoid the crowds. I’ve said it several times, but these markets get really crowded. Weekdays in the morning/early afternoon is the best time to go. If you have to visit on a weekend, go early. My favorite way to beat the crowds though, is to go in November. Both Union Square Holiday Market and Bryant Park Winter Village open before Thanksgiving and usually have the very lowest crowds.
  • Swing by the Curling Bar in Bryant Park Winter Village. This relatively large bar is tucked behind the reservation-only curling lanes and igloos. It’s easy to miss or mistake for a reserved area, so it is often less crowded. It’s a great place to sneak away for a mid-market drink break.
  • Bring your own bag. I rarely go anywhere without this foldable tote bag. It’s really great for Christmas markets, because you can keep it in your coat pocket until you find that special something you have to have. It’s eco friendly, convenient, and saves you a few cents on bag fees.
  • Make reservations in advance. If you’re heading to Bryant Park Winter Village, check out the reservation options a few weeks in advance. Curling, cozy igloos and ice skating all require reservations. Popular days and times can sell out quick, but you can usually find a decent selection with a week’s notice. Same-day bookings are usually only available on weekdays or during bad weather, but it’s always worth checking.
  • Take a detour to the New York Transit Museum’s Holiday Train Show. Two blocks east of Bryant Park Winter Village is Grand Central Terminal. Inside, near tracks 29 and 30, you’ll find the New York Transit Museum Gift Shop. During the holidays, they build an impressive miniature NYC cityscape with a variety of model trains zipping around. It was such a fun display and a highlight to my Christmas Market Day. Plus, it’s a cozy place to escape the cold.

Other Christmas Things to do in NYC