December in New York City is a true winter wonderland. With a chill in the air and festive lights aglow, the city offers many activities that don't cost a dime, and here, you can spend an entire day of fun without taking a hit on your holiday budget.
Whether you're a first-time visitor or a city expert, join us as we unwrap the best free experiences in the Big Apple during this magical time of the year. From iconic holiday displays to hidden gems, these are the top free things to do in New York in December.
Top 10 Free Activities in NYC in December
Stroll Through Central Park
Address: 5 Av to Central Park W, 59 St to 110 St. Manhattan
Central Park in winter is a serene, snow-covered oasis. The park's iconic features, like the Bow Bridge and Bethesda Terrace, offer snowy landscapes that are romantic and serene. Enjoy a peaceful walk, capture some amazing photographs, or sit back with some hot chocolate and people-watch.
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
Address: 45 Rockefeller Plaza
The lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is a hallmark of the holiday season in NYC. The tree, typically over 75 feet tall and brightly decorated, is a spectacle. Surrounding the tree, the plaza buzzes with energy, complete with live music and the adjacent ice-skating rink, where you can practice your balance and flair. Visiting the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is a must-do activity during the holiday season.
Window Shopping on Fifth Avenue
Close to Christmas time, Fifth Avenue transforms into a festive runway, showcasing elaborate holiday window displays in stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. These artful displays are a visual treat, often telling stories and capturing the holiday spirit in intricate, whimsical designs.
Brooklyn Flea Winter Market
Address: DUMBO Archway, 80 Pearl St.
A sanctuary for vintage lovers and treasure seekers, the Brooklyn Flea Winter Market is perfect for browsing antiques, local art, and handcrafted goods. It's a great spot to feel the pulse of New York's artisan community, even if you're just window-shopping. You can taste food samples from local producers and chat about their journey, learning about the lives of artists in New York.
Winter Village at Bryant Park
Address: 41st Street and, 6th Ave
This European-inspired open-air market is an enjoyable destination. Browse the holiday shops, enjoy free performances, and soak up the festive ambiance. The centerpiece is the ice-skating rink, surrounded by various food kiosks offering delicious treats.
Free Museum Days
NYC's museums are a cultural treasure chest. Institutions like the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA — 11 W 53rd St), the 9/11 Memorial Museum (180 Greenwich St), and the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Pkwy) offer free entry on certain days. It's a fantastic opportunity to delve into art, history, and culture without spending a penny. Check their websites for detailed information about free entry days.
NY Public Library Tours
Address: 476 5th Ave
The New York Public Library, with its lions guarding the entrance, is not just about books. You can already enter the library for free and explore its grandiosity alone. However, free tours reveal its stunning architecture, rich history, and unique collections. The Rose Main Reading Room is a highlight, with its amazing space and beautiful ceiling murals.
Staten Island Ferry Ride
Address: 1 Bay Street
Offering stunning views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline, the Staten Island Ferry is a hidden gem. This 25-minute ride is a great way to see the city from a different perspective, particularly enchanting as the evening lights twinkle across the skyline. Once you hop off, how about exploring the island and discovering a hidden, quieter side of New York?
Holiday Markets at Union Square & Columbus Circle
These markets are the epicenter of holiday cheer. Featuring rows of retro shops and food stalls, they are perfect for savoring seasonal treats, browsing handmade crafts, and soaking in the holiday atmosphere.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden – Winter Weekdays
During the winter, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden offers a retreat with free weekday admissions. Most people are drawn to Central Park or other greenery hubs in Manhattan, turning their backs on treasures in Brooklyn and other neighborhoods that surround the city. This is the perfect chance to enjoy the beauty of winter flora and the warm greenhouses, providing a tranquil escape from the city chaos.
Entry Restrictions and Best Times to Visit
To make the most of these experiences, consider the timing of your visits. Different attractions peak at different hours and researching when to go to each place can make your visit to New York a lot more enjoyable. For instance:
- Rockefeller Center: Best viewed early morning or late at night to avoid crowds, as this is one of the main tourist attractions during winter time in the entire city.
- Museums: Check their websites for free entry days and hours, and make sure you arrive early in case there are any lines.
- Staten Island Ferry: Less crowded during weekday afternoons, where you can find some room to enjoy the views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan Skyline.
What to Expect at These Spots
Here's what you need to know about crowd levels, timings, and safety:
- Central Park & Rockefeller Center: It can get crowded, especially during weekends. These areas are generally safe, but always stay aware of your surroundings.
- Fifth Avenue: Crowds peak during evenings, but the avenue is still safe and very well-lit at night.
- Winter Village at Bryant Park: The Village is outdoors and can be crowded; arriving early is advisable to have time and space to explore everything without feeling overwhelmed.
- Staten Island Ferry: There's indoor seating available in case you feel cold standing outside. The ride is safe and offers spectacular views.
As for the other attractions and places, the same advice is always applicable: even though all of these places are super safe, it is always good to stay aware of your surroundings and your belongings.
Scenic Spots for Unforgettable Pictures New York is a highly photogenic city, especially in winter, when the snow covers the streets and the Christmas lights glitter above your head. Although every corner makes for a good picture, some key places guarantee the best Instagram photo ever:
- Bethesda Terrace, Central Park: stunning pictures of the snow covering the park.
- Rockefeller Center: Iconic Christmas tree and ice-skating rink.
- DUMBO in Brooklyn: Stunning Manhattan skyline views, especially at sunset.
Practical Tips for Visitors
Winter Essentials for Your NYC Trip
York in December can be quite chilly, with temperatures often dipping below freezing. To ensure a comfortable and enjoyable experience, remember to pack these items:
- Waterproof Boots: Snow and slush are common, so boots that are waterproof and well-insulated will keep your feet warm and dry.
- Warm Layers: Layering is key. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer, add a fleece or wool mid-layer for insulation, and top it off with a windproof and waterproof outer layer. Because temperatures can change from indoors to outdoors, make sure your layers are easily removable.
- Warm Accessories: Protect your extremities. A good pair of gloves, a warm scarf, and a beanie are essential to keep you warm, especially during long outdoor walks.
- Hand and Feet Warmers: These can be a lifesaver on particularly cold days, keeping your fingers and toes toasty while you explore.
Packing List for December in New York
Packing smart can make your December trip to New York much more comfortable:
- Heavy Coats: Choose a high-quality, insulated jacket, preferably waterproof or water-resistant.
- Umbrella and Waterproof Gear: Brief showers or snowfall can happen. A compact umbrella will be invaluable.
- Comfortable Walking Shoes: NYC involves a lot of walking. Make sure your shoes are not only warm but also comfortable for long distances.
- Moisturizer and Lip Balm: The cold weather can be harsh on your skin and lips.
- Portable Charger: With so much to see and capture, having a portable charger ensures your phone stays charged all day.
Getting around New York City in December is part of the adventure. Here's how to do it smoothly:
- Subway: Often the quickest and most efficient way to travel. Keep an eye on the MTA website or app for service changes, especially around the holidays.
- Walking: Dress warmly and comfortably. Many of New York's attractions are within walking distance of each other, and walking is often the best way to experience the city's holiday atmosphere and discover new attractions to see, places to eat, etc.
- Rideshares/Taxis: Ideal in inclement weather or when traveling late at night. Be mindful of increased holiday demand, which might lead to longer wait times and higher fares.
- Bus System: This can be a slower but scenic option. It's particularly useful for routes not well-served by the subway.
Top Free Things to Do in New York in December
New York City in December is a treasure of experiences, with its festive lights, winter charm, and an array of free activities that cater to every taste. But, as with any travel, it's essential to plan for the unexpected. Winter weather can be unpredictable, and while you're busy exploring, you want peace of mind knowing you’re covered for any surprises.
That's where AXA Travel Protection Plan comes in. Whether it's a delayed flight due to a sudden snowstorm, lost luggage in transit, or a need for medical assistance, AXA offers travel assistance to support your trip. With various plans tailored to different needs, you can choose the coverage that best fits your holiday itinerary.
Remember, the best part of NYC is its ability to surprise and delight at every corner. With the right preparations, the appropriate attire, and assistance from an AXA Travel Protection Plan, you’re all set to explore the city’s festive charm.
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