Read Caption
Skaters take to the ice in front of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. (Photograph by Lazyllama/Alamy Stock Photo)

How to celebrate Christmas in New York City

Nobody would fault you for heading to New York City in the spring when Central Park blooms big or, really, in any of the seasons—but to see the city in a full-on glittery Christmas frenzy, winter can’t be beat.

The city’s usual go-go-go energy (there are places to go and people to see, people!) swings into overdrive once you add holiday shopping, lights, the shop windows along Fifth Avenue, and a world’s worth of visitors into the mix.

Hop right into the swirl, but when you need a breather, choose a spot to sit and enjoy the people-watching. As artist Jason Polan, a columnist and the pen behind the drawing project “Every Person in New York,” puts it: “I love getting hot chocolate with a friend and about eight million other people.” But, really, one of the great joys of New York is the mix of moments large and small all winter long.

Gifted Excursions

The city’s normal abundance of flea and farmers’ markets gets holiday company every year: gift and craft markets. Some are outdoors, so you’ll want to bundle up.

Take a deep breath and hop into the traffic streams that crawl through the aisles of the Union Square Holiday Market or its midtown cousin, the Columbus Circle Holiday Market. The booths stock everything from artisanal chocolate to delicate jewelry.

Or, for crafts from some up-and-coming artists, head to the Brooklyn Flea’s Winter Flea + Smorgasburg, a weekends-only event in the month or so leading up to Christmas.

Get a four-for-one experience with a visit to the Holiday Market in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall. Stop for gifts that range from trinket to pricey before tackling the mall’s worth of shops set up underground.

Then give your eyes and ears a treat by taking in the sights and sounds of the main concourse before gifting the rest of your senses with a meal at the legendary Oyster Bar.

Light it Up

Holiday lights aplenty shine all over Manhattan—the Empire State Building sparkles in green and red—but it’s off to Brooklyn you go for some of the city’s most dramatic lights.

Head to the borough’s Dyker Heights neighborhood for a house-by-house tour of its over-the-top holiday decorations. (No, we can’t imagine their electric bills, either.)

If you’re in the mood for a good old fashioned tree lighting, the Rockefeller Center tree is notable, but it’s not the only spruce (or fir) in town. The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx lights up its trees in late November, and Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art goes for multiple lighting ceremonies.

Hit the Ice

Hans Brinker may be the world’s most famous skater, but the Rink at Rockefeller Center is really the best known spot to twirl (or fall) in front of a crowd of onlookers.

Under the legendary Christmas tree at 30 Rock and the watchful eye of the golden Prometheus Prometheus statue, lace up and then hit the ice (gracefully). The rink is also a very popular spot for marriage proposals, so keep an eye out; part of your day may include wishing well to a newly engaged pair.

For another classic NYC skating experience, head into Central Park. The park sports two rinks: the Wollman and Lasker rinks.

A Room for a Read

When the swirl of the city gets to be too much, the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is a perfect resting spot. One of New York’s most famous sanctuaries, the historic landmark is equal parts beaux arts wonder, art museum, and, of course, a great place to read.

If you decide to take in a few pages in the main reading room, don’t forget to look up from your book, where blue sky shines through the clouds, floating on the ceiling mural five stories above. Or take a free tour.

Oh, need more gifts? The library has a stellar shop.

This article first appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.