Insider Tips for Visiting New York at Christmas From a Local

Insider Tips for Visiting New York at Christmas, the Wall Street Christmas tree.

If you're planning a New York trip for Christmas, you've come to the right place! Read on for my insider tips for visiting New York at Christmas from a local.

As a third-generation New York City native, I've spent nearly every Christmas of my life in the city. Home is where the most cherished holiday experiences unfold, making it impossible for me to imagine celebrating anywhere else. New York at Christmas is a magical time of year with dazzling holiday displays, fun Christmas markets, and wondrous events. There's nowhere else in the world I'd rather be. 

However, this is also one of the city’s most visited seasons. Navigating the holidays in New York can feel daunting with the excess crowds and increased prices. As a local, over the years, I've learned a few tricks to manage the city that never sleeps during this busy but incredible time of year. Discover the magic of the holiday season with these insider tips for visiting New York at Christmas from a local. 

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New York City Christmas Trees

FAQs:

Where Should I Go In NYC at Christmas Time?

There are enough sights and events to enjoy a New York Christmas that one could easily spend weeks experiencing it all. Of course, that's usually not possible, even for us native New Yorkers, so it ultimately depends on each person's interest. Prioritize your must-sees. Listed below are my top 10 of the best things to do in New York at Christmas. 

  1. Rockefeller Center
  2. New York Botanical Garden
  3. Dyker Heights Holiday Lights
  4. Brooklyn Botanical Garden
  5. The Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park
  6. Lotte New York Plaza
  7. Hudson Yards
  8. Union Square Holiday Market 
  9. Brookfield Place
  10. South Street Seaport 
Dyker Heights Holiday Lights, tips for visiting New York at Christmas.
Dyker Heights Holiday Lights

When Does New York Decorate for Christmas?

A majority of decorations and tree lightings occur in New York the week after Thanksgiving. This does continue for some of the less visited trees into the following week. However, it's expected that most lights and trees will be lit shortly after Thanksgiving. Giving both New Yorkers and tourists alike plenty of time to experience New York’s holiday magic. 

When Should I Go to New York for Christmas?

The first two weeks of December are the best time to visit New York for Christmas. Most Christmas trees are lit, and decorations are up, but there are fewer crowds than in the last two weeks of December. Especially during the holiday break when children are off from school. Not to say that there won't be crowds, New York will still be packed with tourists, but less so compared to the second half of the month. Additionally, it gets colder as the month goes on.

Is New York Worth Visiting at Christmas?

I am completely biased when I answer this, but New York is absolutely worth visiting at Christmas. Despite the crowds, the cost, and even the cold weather, it's a magical place. It's my favorite time of year in the city and the reason I never want to travel during the holidays. Of course, it can feel unmanageable at points when there's bumper-to-bumper traffic or so many people you can't move. Nevertheless, when I gaze up at the impressive Rockefeller tree or walk past the Dyker Heights twinkling lights, I am reminded of how beautiful the place I call home is. 

Lotte New York Palace Christmas Tree from a local.

Insider Tips for Visiting New York at Christmas From a Local

Don’t Waste Your Money on a Tour

My number one tip as someone who's spent their entire life in New York City is don't book a Christmas tour. Popular tours take tourists to see some of the Christmas trees in Manhattan, sometimes by bus. Or tours to see the Dyker Heights lighted homes in Brooklyn. Any of these tours are a waste of money. Manhattan isn't difficult to navigate either by subway or cab, and a tour of the Christmas attractions is unnecessary when they're all easily accessible. The Dyker Heights tours provide the convenience of getting there, but that's a lot of money for a trip back and forth to see a few blocks of lit houses. There are subway stations visitors can walk from to see the famous Christmas homes. Save your money on the tours, and make an itinerary instead. 

Be Prepared for Crowds

Every article you read will tell you that New York is crowded during Christmas. What they don't say is that a Saturday at 6 pm two weeks before Christmas near Radio City is so packed with people that you’ll resemble a sardine in a can. It’s a lot, there's no room to move or escape until there's a break in the crowd. If you're with family or a partner, hold hands tightly to stick together. It's overwhelming in the best of times, and panic-inducing in the worst. However, if you prepare for the shocking amount of tourists visiting New York’s Christmas attractions, you can enjoy them by taking it slow and moving with the crowd.

Enjoy All Five Boroughs

Growing up in New York City meant I explored all of it, not just Manhattan. It grinds my gears that every New York itinerary I come across focuses solely on Manhattan and a single day in Dumbo, Brooklyn. There are plenty of things to see and do across all five boroughs that visitors miss out on. Especially during Christmas with amazing festive sights. Consider the New York Botanical Garden or Zoo in the Bronx for their incredible displays. Besides Brooklyn’s famous Dyker Heights homes, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden also transforms into a magical wonderland. Queens holds a dazzling Winter Lantern Festival. Staten Island even has fun holiday activities. It's unrealistic to see all of it but get out of Manhattan for a day to enjoy the other borough's events.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Lightscape
Brooklyn Botanic Garden Lightscape

Go on a Weekday

As a native New Yorker, one of my nightmares is Rockefeller Center on a Saturday night in December. I've done it several times already, which is why I still have nightmares about it. Rockefeller on a Tuesday night though, that is more like a dream. The difference between visiting NYC’s most beloved Christmas events on the weekend compared to a weekday is staggering. There's less crowds and more breathing room. Don't expect to see empty events, but it's infinitely better than on the weekends. If you're like me and have severe anxiety, consider coming on a weekday. The city can feel like panic attack fuel during Christmas weekends.

Arrive Early or Late

Besides going on a weekday, another local tip is to arrive at any Christmas events early or late. Prime hours for most attractions are approximately from 6 pm to 10 pm. It gets dark in December shortly after 4 pm, making this an ideal time to visit popular locations before the crowds pour in. Similarly, after 10 pm the crowds will begin dying down (except on Saturdays,) and the lights on trees and homes are on until Midnight, so this is another great time to go. Also, don't rule out seeing New York Christmas spots during the day, plenty of activities are available. Among the trees illuminated during the day, the ones at Rockefeller and Lotte New York Palace stand out. Christmas markets are open as well and seize the opportunity to visit a festive bar like Oscar Wilde or Pete’s Tavern. Try to avoid prime hours if possible for a more relaxing experience. 

Make Reservations and Buy Tickets Early

The entire month of December is one of New York City’s busiest times of the year. Events and shows sell out before the start of the month and restaurants book up weeks in advance. Not every event requires a ticket, and not every restaurant needs a reservation, but a majority do. Those that don't accept reservations in December, expect long wait times. Like the famous Christmas restaurant Rolf’s, you'll want to book as early as the late summer or early fall to secure a table. For must-see shows and events, buy a ticket as early as possible. The same goes for reserving any must-visit restaurants. Booking early helps ensure that you aren't left disappointed while visiting New York at Christmas. 

Dress in Weather-Appropriate Attire

Instagram is filled with photos and videos of people in long flowy dresses and towering heels twirling in front of the glittering Christmas trees. I cannot emphasize enough that this is not how to dress for Christmas in New York. Generally, the city is cold in December, so you'll want a winter coat and warm layers. There's also a lot of walking involved in NYC. Wear comfortable shoes that can easily maneuver over uneven sidewalks. Comfort is key, but you don't need to sacrifice style either, get a chic coat and a cute pair of booties. As a local, I can also say that December here has occasionally been unseasonably warmer or colder. Before your trip, check the weather forecast for a more informed decision on what to pack.

Brookfield Place in New York.

Make a Comfortable Itinerary

The amount of Christmas experiences that happen in not only Manhattan but throughout all of New York’s boroughs is astounding. There's so much to see and do in NYC regularly, but during Christmas time, it's tenfold. It can be tempting to cram in as many activities as possible during a New York City Christmas vacation, but I strongly advise against it. Prioritize your must-see places. Save the others for another trip, or keep them as a maybe if there's time. Try to keep places close to one another for your itinerary. For instance, the Bryant Park tree and Winter Village are within walking distance of Rockefeller Center, consider making both of these a long afternoon/evening. However, you wouldn't go to the Union Square Christmas Market after, as that's too much and too far. With the crowds, keep breathing room in your itinerary, which makes for a better overall trip. 

Budget Accordingly

New York City is expensive, it's a simple fact. No matter what time of year you visit, the drinks, the food, and the events cost more here compared to other cities and towns. During Christmas, one of New York’s busiest seasons, expect to pay even more. Unfortunately, this also includes hotel room rates and even cab fare. While some attractions are free to visit, including all the Christmas trees and entrance to the holiday markets, everything else has a cost. Ice skating, Broadway shows, and museums all require a fee or ticket, to name a few. Even as a resident, I must manage expectations as nights out this time of year are pricey. Make a budget that you can live with and stick to it. Prioritize what to focus the expenses on, whether it's fine dining, shows, or a luxury hotel.

Set Realistic Expectations

Christmas in New York has been romanticized for years. Similar to other big cities like Paris and London, NYC is often portrayed in the media in a glamorous light. I mean at least 75% of Christmas movies occur in NY for that reason. So, when travelers come to New York City to experience Christmas here for themselves it can sometimes result in a bit of a shock. The crowds, the expenses, and the environment aren't always a magical experience. Yet, going on a New York Christmas trip with realistic expectations will make for a much more enjoyable time. Understand that it's crowded, the streets are dirtier, and prices are high. This doesn't have to take away from the Christmas magic. Enjoy it for exactly what it is: both magical and still a major city with its issues. Set the right expectations and have fun. 

Rockefeller Center Christmas
Crowded but still beautiful

Where to Stay In NYC During Christmas

1. The Muse New York: The Muse is a stylish hotel right in the center of all the Christmas events. It's steps from Times Square and less than a 10-minute walk from Rockefeller Center. The rooms are modern and spacious, and the price is reasonable for its prime Manhattan location. 

2. Staypineapple, An Artful Hotel, Midtown: This fun and stylish hotel in Midtown is located 15 minutes from Bryant Park. It's reasonably priced, has cozy rooms, and is dog-friendly. This is a great base location to explore New York during Christmas. 

3. The Standard, High Line: If you're looking for a cool hotel far enough away from the Midtown crowds but still easily accessible to iconic Manhattan Christmas locations, this is the place. This beautiful 4-star hotel offers scenic views and two rooftop bars, plus it always has fun events planned. 

4. New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge: For those who would prefer to stay outside of busy Manhattan but also have a quick train ride into the city, this hotel is the perfect choice. The Marriot is a contemporary hotel close to several subway lines with comfortable rooms. 


Are you planning to visit New York for Christmas? Let me know in the comments if you are and what you plan to see first! 

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6 comments

  • Amy Tull says:

    Perfect timing as I'm going toNY this year! I've done the train show at Botanical Gardens but now I have more great ideas! (need to pack a red coat too. Looks great on you!)

    Reply
    • Jillian says:

      How exciting! The train show is such a gem and I hope you love your time in New York! And thank you so much, red really is perfect for the holiday season!

      Reply
  • A Capone Connection says:

    I'm from PA (not far from NY) and I visited at Christmas a few times. These are all great tips. NY is so pretty at Christmas (but so darn cold)!

    Reply
    • Jillian says:

      PA is one of my favorite weekend getaways (I go to the Poconos often!) It's so beautiful but cold and crowded so always good to prepare!

      Reply
  • Kelly says:

    I've always wanted to visit New York around Christmas time! It looks so magical around the festive season! Thanks for sharing your insider tips for traveling to New York around Christmas!

    Reply
    • Jillian says:

      I hope you can someday! No matter how busy it is I still think it's absolutely magical!

      Reply