It has always been a dream of mine to visit NYC at Christmas time. You see the holiday spirit in all of the Christmas movies and it always looks so magical. For years I have wanted to take the kids but was always hesitant about it. It’s a long trip, there is a ton of walking involved and it is winter so you never know what kind of weather to expect.
I decided this was the year, we would finally take that bucket list trip! With the kids being 7 and 10 years old they still believe in Santa and the magic of Christmas so it was a great time to travel there as a family.
The first weekend in December was the perfect time to go. The Thanksgiving crowds had gone home, the weather was pretty decent and averaged +7 everyday and all of the Christmas things were set up wherever we went. There is so much to see and do at this time of year so I planned ahead and made lists for everyday while we were in town. We wanted to make sure we maximized our time while visiting so planning ahead was key.
Here is my list of things you must do while in NYC during the holidays from our personal experiences. It will definitely put you in the Christmas spirit!
Santa At Macy’s
This is the most iconic Santa to visit in the city and it was at the top of our list of things to do. Now here’s the insider tips from our first hand experience. You need to go online up to 5 days before you plan to visit to make a reservation. We reserved our spot 5 days in advance and were able to get the express line because of it. Choose a weekday over a weekend (the weekend was even more chaotic) and the earlier you go the better. The 10 am time slot was perfect for us on a Friday. When we arrived we checked in and were taken to the front of the line because of that express line pass we had. I still can’t believe we got to skip the line and go in front of hundreds of people waiting! You won’t be able to visit Santa without a reservation so be sure to go online before you visit to book your time.
Santaland is very well run by the elves, we were quite impressed considering how many people were there! They have check in stations for your reservations and they lead you to various lines (I’m assuming there are several Santa’s but shhh don’t tell the kids that). You get your own private visit in a room with Santa where he chats with the kids about what they would like for Christmas. Professional photos are done and our elf was kind enough to ask for our phone to do a few shots for us as well. We had the sweetest little elf at the end who looked to be in her 80’s and absolutely loving her job, she made my day! She handed the kids a souvenir pin and wished us all a Merry Christmas. We then headed to the mail room where you can order your photos if you choose to purchase them. There was plenty of choices for photo packages and we had 4 shots to choose from. We went with the 6×8 photo of the kids for $20.
Once you are done visiting Santa head up to the 9th floor where you will find the Christmas village in the furniture section. It is filled with different themed rooms and all sorts of Christmas decorations. It was so beautiful and there was lots to see with the kids. Friday morning was a great time to visit this area as well, I also went back on the Saturday and it was a complete zoo!
A year ago I attended a Disney conference where one of the leaders told us how he is in charge of Santaland at Macy’s. I was fascinated listening to him talk about all that goes into this magical land and the months of planning that happen ahead of the opening. I was so excited to see it in person after listening to his story. We were very impressed with the whole experience considering how many people come to visit it every year,
The Tree at Rockefeller Center
Imagine the biggest, most beautiful Christmas tree you have ever seen, you will find it at Rockefeller Center! I actually teared up when I saw it because it was so amazing to see it in person. For the last 8 decades, the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center and the holiday decorations have become a tradition for many. Today over half a million people pass by that tree every single day!
There is so much to see and do in the Rockefeller Center area including ice skating, shopping and the FAO Schwarz toy store which reopened just a couple weeks ago. We visited the original before we had kids, I was so excited to be able to bring my kids to the iconic NYC toy store. If you plan on ice skating the lines can be long but there are some options online if you don’t want to wait, including breakfast with Santa. If you are visiting the toy store on the weekend be prepared to wait in line, we waited close to an hour and went to line up before the store opened on the Sunday.
When you leave the Rockefeller Center area head towards Radio City Music Hall, you will find two great photo ops including giant Christmas ornaments and lights! We spotted these thanks to the route the cab driver took us on! I just love how this city has so much Christmas spirit!
Department Store Windows
Every department store in NYC had the most amazing Christmas windows! I have always wanted to see these displays at Christmas time and they did not disappoint. We didn’t make it to all of the stores but the ones we did see are definitely worth visiting! Be sure to head inside the stores as well, they are all beautifully decorated for the holiday season.
Macy’s NYC offers 2.2 million square feet of shopping space which takes up an entire square block on the corner of 34th and Broadway. The ‘Believe in the Wonder of Giving‘ Christmas theme for 2018 featured a character called Sunny the Snowpal, a cute snowman who is also for sale in the store. We checked out the interactive windows which included a video game that allows guests to help Sunny catch up to Santa’s sleigh while he zooms through snowflakes. They have lots to see and do at Macy’s so set aside some time to explore the store while there, including the Christmas village I mentioned above.
The Bloomingdale’s Christmas displays on the upper east side were inspired by the Grinch this year! They also had high tech interactive windows for the kids, one of the windows snapped their picture and it showed up on the screen with the Grinch! The store had lots of Christmas displays as well that were great for taking photos including a giant snow globe you could climb inside.
Sak’s Fifth Avenue
When walking down 5th avenue you can hear the Christmas music coming from Sak’s Fifth Avenue. The flagship store has an amazing display of lights strung across the front of the entire building. As the music plays the lights flash in sync with the Christmas tunes which was really cool to watch. We opted to stay across the street where the view was better but if you do go up close you will see their beautifully decorated Christmas windows. The windows displayed the stores most luxurious offerings with a tribute to the Broadway Stage in different themed vignettes.
With so many windows to see we did not make it to every store. Other popular store windows to visit during the holiday season include: Lord & Taylor, Henri Bendel, Barney’s New York, and Bergdorf Goodman.
Outdoor Holiday Markets
New York City has several Christmas markets throughout the holiday season, including some outdoor ones! We had time to check out two during our trip and they did not disappoint!
Union Square Holiday Market: The European styled outdoor holiday market has more than 150 vendors that offer everything from food to jewelry, Christmas ornaments to handmade items. We sampled popcorn, cookies, chocolate covered pretzels and more while we shopped the market and picked up some great local items while visiting. The smell of Christmas is in the air as they also have fresh cut trees for sale for the locals. We love the Union Square area for the shops and restaurants surrounding the park, it’s a great place to spend a few hours exploring when you visit the market.
Winter Village at Bryant Park: With a skating rink, outdoor beer garden, food vendors, and over 170 shops, this is a great spot to visit during the holidays. We stopped by for a little Christmas shopping, took the kids for a ride on the carousel ($3 per person) and checked out the ice rink. The skating rink is free but to rent skates, helmets, or a skate aid will cost you. This market runs until January 2nd and offers plenty to see and do when you visit.
Unfortunately we couldn’t do everything on this trip but that’s a great reason to visit again sometime! Here are a few places we’d like to see and things we’d like to do on our next trip:
Radio City Rockettes – the most iconic Christmas show in NYC. We will definitely take in this show next visit
Rolf’s – a German restaurant that is turned into a Christmas wonderland, apparently it’s quite spectacular in person!
Birreria – a rooftop bar and restaurant inside of Eataly Flatiron that is converted into a winter wonderland at this time of year.
Santa at ABC Carpet and Home – for our first trip to NYC we had to visit Santa at Macy’s. The locals head to ABC to visit Santa, we stopped by the store for a little shopping it was gorgeous inside!
Ice Skating – we would have loved to have skated while in town but it was raining the day we were near the rinks and we didn’t want to get soaked. We still enjoyed watching everyone on the ice including Santa himself on the Rockefeller rink! There are three options for skating, Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park and Central Park.
NYC is one of my favorite cities to visit, I have been during every season now. I have to say that December was by far my favorite month to travel there because of the magic of Christmas.