Not to sound like a Scrooge, but some things about Christmas in New York are overrated (Looking at you, Union Square Holiday Market). As your friendly but jaded New Yorker, it’s my civic duty to give you an honest evaluation of which New York Christmas traditions are worth your time. So if you’re wondering which NYC holiday activities you should keep on your Christmas list, keep reading.
Shiloh says: Yes, but…
Rockefeller Center is practically the Christmas capital of Manhattan. Between the giant tree, the ice skating rink, the Rockettes show, the dancing Salvation Army volunteers, and the FAO Schwartz toy store, you’re bound to find something to get you into the Christmas spirit. But, and this is a big but, expect large crowds. Try to go as early (or as late) as you can, because nothing takes you from having goodwill for all men to saying ‘bah humbug’ like trying to fight your way through a crowd of tourists.
Shiloh says: Meh…
It depends on whether anyone famous is performing at the tree lighting and if you have a front row spot to view the ceremony. Even so, I’d say skip it. The tree in question will most likely be lit for the whole holiday season, so you can see whenever.
Dyker Heights Christmas lights?
Shiloh says: Yes, but…
The Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights has been decking their houses with over-the-top light displays since the 1980s, but the pretty lights have only recently caught the public’s attention. As a result, over the past five years Dyker Heights has practically become Times Square every holiday season and not in a good way. Just like at Times Square, expect to find slow-moving hordes of tourists, obnoxious vendors chasing coin, and people hamming it up for the gram (btw, follow me on IG. I post funny reels about NYC). And if this sounds off-putting to you, imagine what it feels like for the people who actually live in Dyker Heights, a residential neighborhood. If you do go to see the lights there, please be respectful.
Shiloh says: How much do you like burning money?
Unlike the Dyker Heights lights, which grew out of a neighborhood tradition, these light displays seem like a classic example of selfie-bait: things designed to have you to part with your money just to take some pretty pictures. If you do decide to visit one of these displays (Pro tip: the NYC Winter Lantern Festival has the most interesting lights), make sure you get your money’s worth of pictures.
Shiloh says: It depends on when you go…
NYC’s holiday markets are great places to find unique, albeit pricey, gifts for your loved ones. But, depending on the time of day you visit, you’re not going to love the crowds. At the most popular holiday markets, ie. Bryant Park and Union Square, the ever-moving crowds make it nearly impossible to see any of the vendors’ merchandise, thus defeating the point of going to the holiday market. Also be aware that you’ll be paying premium for tiny portions from the markets’ food stands.
Christmas Eve caroling in Gramercy Park?
Shiloh says: Yes!
Christmas Eve is the only day of the year us plebeians get to step foot into NYC’s most exclusive park. I’ll admit, although its impeccably manicured, Gramercy Park isn’t that impressive. But there’s something about getting to occupy the same space as New York’s upper crust. Besides, who doesn’t like caroling?
Fifth Avenue holiday window displays?
Shiloh says: Definitely!
The holiday window displays along Fifth Avenue is capitalism at its most creative. Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue’s displays are not to be missed. And although it’s not on Fifth Avenue, Macy’s holiday display is an honorable mention. Just don’t go in the middle of the day. The crowds will kill your Christmas spirit.
Ice skating in Central Park?
Shiloh says: Yes, if your bank account is set up for it.
Nothing sounds more tranquil than gliding along an ice rink in midst of the iconic Central Park. But don’t expect this classic Christmas tradition to be cheap. Not only do you have to pay for admission to the Wollman skating rink, you’ll have to also pay for your skates and locker rental.
Shiloh says: Sure!
This is probably the most elaborate way to see Santa, short of flying to the North Pole. Macy’s decks out its eighth floor with Santa-themed displays that are worth seeing even if you’re not planning to sit on Santa’s lap. FYI: Santaland is free, but you do have to make a reservation on Macy’s Santaland website. (According to MommyPoppins, Macy’s releases new reservations daily at 5:30am.)
Holiday Nostalgia Rides?
Shiloh says: All aboard, train nerds and history buffs!
While it isn’t the Polar Express, taking a Holiday Nostalgia Ride aboard a 1930s R1-9 train is an exciting experience. Between comparing the ancient subway cars to today’s trains, cracking up at actual contemporary advertisements, and fawning over other passengers’ vintage costumes (Yes, people go all out for this), it’s more than worth the $2.75 swipe. For even more details, check out my full review of the Holiday Nostalgia Rides.
Shiloh says : Ho ho no!
Do you want your New Yorker card revoked? I don’t see the point in dressing up in Santa suits to bar hop and look messy all over Manhattan, but you do you, Roderick.
Lotte Palace Christmas tree?
Shiloh says: Yes, dahling!
The Lotte Palace Christmas tree is arguably the most photogenic Christmas tree in NYC. It’s an obligatory stop for influencers and anyone who wants to get a glamorous holiday picture, so dress to impress. Couple this with visiting the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and/or viewing the Fifth Avenue holiday window displays to really make it worth your time.
Shiloh says: If the Grinch was a New Yorker, this would be his villain origin story.
Rolf’s Restaurant has been all over social media for its over-the-top Christmas decor. But according to various reviews, there’s not much going for it besides its thousands of ornaments. The few people who have managed to score reservations report that the food is bland and the service is far from courteous. On top of that, the prices will sap your Christmas cheer.
Do you have any other honest evaluations of New York Christmas traditions? Share them in the comment section.
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