Top Christmas in New York City Holiday Attractions

Grab the kids to experience Christmas in New York City with our guide to where vaccines are now required. The good news is that during the winter holidays, most family activities are still free. Things will be different this year, of course. Some visitors will be blindsided by the NYC Executive Order, effective Dec. 14, 2021, that mandates all guests age 5 and older must show proof of vaccination (at least one shot) in order to enter indoor exhibits. Many indoor celebrations we cherish will be online virtual spectaculars. Others will be moved outdoors.

Where do all the changes leave your family? Let’s see what’s on for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated during the 2021 holiday season.

The Conservatory and NY Botanical Garden lit for NYBG GLOW, photo by Marlon for New York Botanical Garden
Tour the beautifully lit Conservatory and Gardens during NYBG GLOW. Photo by Marlon for New York Botanical Garden

Top Christmas in New York City Holiday Trees

The 89th Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is a must-see attraction that is sentimental for all New Yorkers. Even in the height of the Great Depression (1931), workers at Rockefeller Center pooled their money together for a Christmas tree and brought handmade garlands from home to decorate it. This year’s gorgeous tree was trucked to Manhattan from Elkton, Maryland.

Watch the lighting in person on Dec. 1, 2021 this year, or on NBC TV. Typically, A-list celebrities, the Radio City Rockettes and ice skaters twirling on the Rockefeller Ice Rink perform in person. Expect to see more than five miles of lights and a giant star any time you visit from Dec. 1st to after New Year’s. It’s lit up from 6am to midnight daily (24 hours on Christmas Day.) Located in the center of the complex of buildings between 49th and 50th Streets and 5th and 6th Avenues, the tree attracts gawking tourists from all over. There’s no vaccine requirement outdoors, so be sure to wear masks and keep at least six feet from other visitors not in your party.

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The American Museum of Natural History has its own Christmas tree. Look at what’s dangling from this pine — it’s arguably much more interesting than just bright lights. Its boughs are decked with hundreds of paper origami shapes, adhering to this year’s theme, “Gems of the Museum.” Download instructions to make your own origami cranes and color them in for the tree at home. On display between Nov. 24 and Jan. 9, 2022; book entry times online for a fun Christmas in New York City celebration. Not vaccinated? Get your shots at the museum. Arrange a date and time in advance, do it at no cost, and pick up a voucher for four free general entry tickets.

Favorite Christmas in New York City Events

Great Hall at Grand Central Terminal remains quiet and a beautiful architectural landmark.
The Great Hall at Grand Central Terminal is quiet during the pandemic. Photo by JPlenio, pixabay.

The amazingly energetic Radio City Christmas Spectacular is back. Vaccine mandates are strictly enforced. Book early if you want to sit close enough to feel the warmth of the Radio City Music Hall footlights. And, don’t miss their souvenir gift shop.

This year, the holiday season glows again with the Grand Central Terminal Holiday Fair. The excellent craftsmanship, arts n’ crafts, gift items and clothing boutiques reflect the high quality of traditional European Christmas Markets. Shop here till Dec. 24 and arrange to have purchases shipped or pick them up at the stunning terminal. Note that some areas of the terminal are open only to visitors with proof of vaccination.

If it’s your first visit to Grand Central, mask up to tour of this famous railway station from the round Information Booth. (According to their website, it has a hidden, spiral staircase leading to the Information Booth on the Lower Level.) 

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The famed Constellation Sky Ceiling is an astronomical mural inspired by the French painter Paul Helleu that floats above the 80,000-square-foot Main Concourse. Its view of the Mediterranean sky with 2,500 stars (60 of which are lighted with fiber optics) is said by astronomers to be backwards but it’s extraordinary anyway.

Christmas in New York City Starts in Times Square

Cast members of "Ain't Too Proud", the Temptations musical, pose in Times Square with their Show Globe. Photo c. Times Square Alliance
Cast members of “Ain’t Too Proud”, the Temptations musical, pose in Times Square with their Show Globe. Photo c. Times Square Alliance.

You may have seen the controversial decision by NYC Mayor DeBlasio to reinstate an in-person New Year’s Eve Ball Drop Dec. 31st — and limit spectators to only those fully vaccinated. Whatever your opinion, there’s no doubt that Times Square, the lights, the craziness and window shopping can be safely enjoyed by all.

This season, the Times Square Alliance has installed selfie-magnet snow globes in the Broadway Plazas between 44-45 Streets and Broadway and 7th Avenues. These fun Show Globes feature the cast of hit Broadway shows including Lion King, Wicked, Dear Evan Hansen and Ain’t Too Proud. Did you know that due to public health guidelines, there’s no more hanging around the stage door for autographs after a show? Go now through Dec. 26 to grab a selfie with these great cast members while you can. And, of course, check out the TKTS Discount Tickets Booth to see which shows have same-day tickets.

Or, take the subway over to the Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA, where you’ll need to purchase an advance timed ticket. There’s forever something going on at MoMA, and the “Automania” show is a huge draw through Jan. 2, 2022. Plan ahead; events are limited in line with New York City protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Christmas in Manhattan: The Great Outdoors

Macy's Christmas windows for 2020 thank first responders for their work.
Macy’s Christmas windows for 2020 thank first responders for their work. Photo c. Macy’s.

While you can certainly mask up, bundle up, walk around and enjoy the sights New York City has to offer, remain vigilant to current health and safety guidelines. Cruising along on one of the city’s double-decker buses is perfect for the older generation or littler ones. Book ahead, have proof of vaccination, wear your mask and board early as seats are socially distanced. Plan ahead and dress according to the weather.

Whether you ride a bus or stroll along, make time for the unique storefront windows and displays of the big 5th Avenue stores. Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf’s are showcasing cheerful windows. The smiley faces along Bloomingdale’s Lexington Avenue entry are unmissable. Of course, Macy’s is going all out. Check out the 50 miles of red and white lights turning Nordstrom into a candy cane this year. Share photos on our Facebook page!

While outdoors, you can catch a bit of the city’s famous lights and 360-degree views of the boroughs of New York City and beyond from a very high vantage point. At the Empire State Building, the 86th-floor Observatory has heat lamps for the winter season that will keep you extra cozy when the temperature drops below 50 degrees. Their fun indoor museum on the 2nd floor is open also, to limited capacity, so book ahead. The entire attraction is only open to those who have been vaccinated.

Wherever you walk, be sure to gaze skyward to see the lights on the Empire State Building, whose colors change according to specific dates and holidays.

Cruising Around Holiday Manhattan

Statue Cruises ferry sailing back to Manhattan from State of Liberty.
Statue Cruises ferry sailing back to Manhattan from State of Liberty. Photo c. Monica James

Sometimes, you just get lucky and there’s an opportunity to be outdoors, packed with teachable moments and wonder, a way to scratch off a bucket list item in a fun and fruitful way.

Author Keith McCarthy’s cruise account encourages New Yorkers and visitors to “spend the day crushing on Lady Liberty, rekindling a sorely-tested faith in Democracy, touring Ellis Island’s National Museum of Immigration to uncover the truth about our mixed attitudes towards immigrants.” This winter, get up close to “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” a New Yorker since 1886, on a Statue Cruises boat tour that includes stops at Liberty Island and Ellis Island. The Circle Line round-the-island cruise is also a fun way to see the city.

While both private tour companies require proof of vaccine from ages 5+, unvaccinated visitors can take the Staten Island Ferry (masks required) for a free, and pretty close, view of Lady Liberty.

Holiday Beauties in the Bronx

Gorillas in lights at Bronx Zoo Holiday Lights show.
These gorillas in light are part of the huge Bronx Zoo Holiday Lights show. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher.

On select dates Nov. 19 to Jan. 9, 2022, the Bronx Zoo will hold “Holiday Lights” with animal lantern safaris, ice-carving demonstrations, holiday treats, costumed characters, wildlife theater, stilt walkers and more. Because Holiday Lights is totally outdoors, no vaccinations are required. Book ahead as capacity is limited.

Also in the Bronx, the New York Botanical Garden is presenting its annual Christmas “Garden Holiday Train Show.” It’s a limited capacity, wildly popular attraction (train tracks laid out in a huge tent) so get tickets now. Note that at NYBG, visitors ages 5 and older who do not supply valid proof of vaccination and ID are only permitted entry to restrooms and outdoor gardens.

Another treat is NYBG GLOW, open from Thanksgiving till after New Year’s. If you have unvaccinated family members, they may tour these beautiful gardens as they glow with thousands of dazzling lights. Visitors who do not supply valid proof of vaccination can look from outside at the lovely crystal Haupt Conservatory. We love the photo-worthy installations that fill the Reflecting Pool. Look for artistic ice carving displays, roving dancers and musicians plus more outdoor fun.

Holiday Lights #StarryLights in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn

Brooklyn is known for many things. One of our favorite holiday activities is to explore the Dumbo area outside between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. There’s Grimaldi’s Pizza, Brooklyn Ice Cream and the park outside the legendary River Cafe is festooned with lights. From here, the lights of Manhattan reflected in the East River and those of the growing city of Brooklyn surrounding you will put you in the holiday spirit year round.

For an even bigger dose of holiday lights, join more than 100,000 annual visitors to view the amazing decorations in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. The unvaccinated won’t be able to join a private bus tour, so they should take the R or N train (masks required) out to Brooklyn. Bundle up for the 15-minute walk through Brooklyn’s quiet neighborhoods to reach 10th through 13th Avenues between 81st and 86th Streets near the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Even if you drive or take a car service, get out and walk by the homes so you can appreciate the animatronics and lightshows. Please keep on your masks and stay away from other groups as you sightsee. Ask the kids to bring a few dollars to contribute to a local charity as some homes take collections.

Favorite Christmas in New York City Shopping

Dad and son watching holiday windows at Macy's Herald Square.
Dad and son watching holiday windows at Macy’s Herald Square at the 2019 celebration. Photo by Bill Waldorf, courtesy Macy’s.

We love Christmas Markets which are outdoors and open to everyone. Best of all, they’re free to roam around in, providing endlessly fascinating art objets, crafts, clothes, jewelry and other gift items your kids will want to see… but probably not own.

At Bryant Park, a reduced Christmas Market of small shops is surrounding the ice skating rink till Jan. 2, 2022. Look for one-of-a-kind arts and crafts, plus hot cider and hot chocolate to keep the chill off. Masks are required and hand washing stations will be widely available. The skating rink is open daily till March with free admission; book your skating time online in advance of arrival. There’s a fee for skate rentals and equipment will be sanitized between every use.

The Union Square Holiday Gift Market will be back from Nov. 18-Dec. 24. In addition to the reduced in-person operation, holiday shoppers are urged to support local businesses by doing USQHoliday shopping online. You are welcome to buy produce, etc in person at the famous Green Market, open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Sample a brand new market this year in Times Square. The Times Square Alliance Holiday Market is set up on the pedestrian-only Broadway Plaza between 45th and 46th Streets. It’s open till Christmas.

While there are certainly thousands of stores eager for your support, and many more things to do at Christmas in New York City, we urge you stay safe and help New York businesses recover some of their holiday cheer. For more information and current events schedules, check out the NYC & Company website.

What’s your favorite way to celebrate Christmas in New York City? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

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6 Replies to “Christmas In New York City – The Best Holiday Attractions”

  • Osvaldo

    thanks for this wonderful post! it is magical)

  • Devesh

    Wow…really amazing blog.
    I really like the way you describe the post..

  • Mohammad shekh dabs

    this is touristy. But there’s a good reason for that. Soar to the top of the Rockefeller Center via an elevator to take in the views at its observatory, Top of the Rock. You’ll be able to take in the many lights of the city from above, including a red-and-green Empire State Building.

  • NewSmartTraveller.com

    Speaking of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, don t miss out on seeing the Rockettes show-stopping leg kick precision chorus during the holidays at Radio City Music Hall.

  • Fatima

    thanks for sharing this wonderful post, it was awesome reading it.

  • Prisca

    Thank you for useful information. It is very detailed.

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