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A Holly Jolly Guide To New York City During the Holidays

Tour guide Steve Clopper gives us the inside scoop on the best things to do in New York this Christmas.

Hi, I'm Michele!

Michele Laufik is a writer and editor, covering topics such as travel, beauty and wellness, and the events industry for various print and digital outlets. She recently moved from New York City and now calls Lexington her new Kentucky home. Michele has written for Glamour, NBCUniversal, Martha Stewart Living, PureWow, BizBash, among others.

During the holiday season, visitors to New York City typically head to tried-and-true NYC holiday attractions such as the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and the holiday window displays along Fifth Avenue. But in-the-know travelers also venture well beyond Manhattan and the Empire State Building to local, must-see sights such as the Dyker Heights Christmas lights in Brooklyn. That’s where they can gaze in awe at the local residents’ over-the-top decorations, meet up with tour guides like Steve Clopper, and learn more about the best things to do in New York at Christmas,

Clopper moved to NYC in 2001, after visiting frequently throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. “The city spoke to me with its message of optimism and infinite potential, and its style, energy, and vitality.” He adds that September 11 evoked in him a “strong desire to share New York with the rest of the world.”

Now, his Christmas lights tour is one of our top-rated NYC Christmas activities. It “showcases New York at its holiday best. It’s all about lights, holiday decor, festivity, joy, fun, and sharing," as well as gives you an in-depth look at the dazzling displays from inside the comfort of a bus, which comes as sweet relief when visiting during the often freezing New York Christmas. Here’s his guide to some of the best Christmas activities in NYC.

What makes New York City great for the holidays

Macy's is a must-visit when in NYC for the holidays.
Macy's is a must-visit during a New York Christmas.Foto: littlenySTOCK / Shutterstock

With Santa Clauses on every corner, New York embodies the Christmas spirit.

Known for embracing the annual holiday spirit in all its sparkly glory, New York City attracts visitors from around the world during the holiday season. According to Clopper, New York invented the “American style of Christmas," noting that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of New York and that some of the classic holiday movies such as Miracle on 34th Street were filmed at the flagship Macy’s in Midtown. “New York was made for Christmas and Christmas was made for New York,” he says.

Clopper adds that NYC takes jolly to new heights with its extravagant holiday lights, Santa Clauses on every corner, holiday music on constant rotation, its tree lighting ceremonies, and—of course—the shopping. You can stroll down Fifth Avenue to view magical holiday displays in the windows and browse open-air markets packed with great gift ideas at Bryant Park and Union Square.

Where to try New York City’s top festive foods

Take in the Tavern on the Green.
Expect over-the-top seasonal decor when dining at the Tavern on the Green.Foto: EQRoy / Shutterstock

Don't miss these classic Christmas dining spots.

To stay warm while shopping, grab a mulled wine or hot chocolate at a cozy Christmas igloo in Bryant Park—it’s an NYC holiday tradition. For lunch or dinner, head to Rolf’s in Gramercy Park. This German restaurant is famous for its year-round, old-world holiday decor, and for serving spiced eggnog, schnitzel, and some of the best holiday food in New York. (Just call ahead because it books up fast.)

For a classic Christmas meal in the Big Apple, reserve a table at Tavern on the Green in Central Park. This spot is especially charming over the festive season and even hosts its own tree lighting ceremony, making dinner here one of the most festive things to do in New York at Christmas.

Where to go Christmas shopping in New York City

Stroll down Fifth Avenue for holiday inspiration and luxurious gifts this winter season.
Stroll down Fifth Avenue for holiday inspiration and luxurious gifts this winter season.Foto: Andrew F. Kazmierski / Shutterstock

The must-stop retail spots for festive souvenirs.

For high-end presents and some of the best holiday shopping in NYC, walk down Fifth Avenue, just off Central Park, where you’ll find luxury boutiques and department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Prada, and Cartier. Also don’t skip browsing the Christmas markets, which is among the best things to do in New York at Christmas according to Clopper. He recommends the ones in Central Park, Bryant Park, Union Square, and Grand Central Terminal.

There, you’ll find local vendors selling their wares along with lots of seasonal food and drink options. Of course, don’t forget to swing by Macy’s in Herald Square to see the cheerful holiday decor and ride the store’s early 19th-century wooden escalators, which are purportedly some of the last functioning in the world.

Where to stay in New York City this Christmas

The Plaza is a Christmas classic hotel stay for visitors to New York City.
The Plaza is a Christmas classic hotel stay for visitors to New York City.Foto: DW labs Incorporated / Shutterstock

Where to get a good night’s sleep.

New York is filled with festive spots that are perfect to get cozy in during your winter holiday in NYC. The Lotte New York Palace, a landmark hotel located in Midtown Manhattan, boasts a giant glowing tree in its courtyard, while its grand lobby feels like you’re stepping into a holiday fairy tale.

In the trendy Meatpacking District, Dream Downtown is known for transforming its rooftop bar and lobby into quirky winter wonderlands featuring life-size (fake) penguins. And the iconic Plaza Hotel offers special touches like a Christmas tree in your room, along with a pop-up holiday shop, and meet-and-greets with Santa.

More holiday activities in New York City

Catch a Rockettes performance at Radio City this Christmas.
Catch a Rockettes performance at Radio City this Christmas.Foto: Ben Sklar / Viator

New York City’s most festive attractions and activities.

The streets of New York and the city’s popular sights get all dressed up with twinkling lights for the seasonal festivities, so it’s easy to feel merry and bright from mid-November all the way through to Christmas Day. Clopper recommends catching the Christmas Spectacular show starring the Radio City Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, calling it a “not-to-be-missed holiday tradition in New York.”

He also suggests going ice skating and checking out the Christmas tree that sits outside the New York Stock Exchange, saying that it’s “similar to the one at Rockefeller Center without the crowds.”

Related: Radio City Rockette Heather Langham’s Guide to New York City

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