'Tis the season to pack a parka and head to the city so nice they named it twice. New York, New York, is full of life 365 days a year, but something special happens to the five boroughs once winter hits. December in NYC is something everyone should experience at least once. Whether you’re looking for fruitcake or a pile of rugelach, you’ll find it somewhere in the Big Apple.
Here’s a look at everything there is to do in NYC in December. All that’s left is to create a once-in-a-lifetime itinerary and then protect your plans with travel insurance for New York so your holiday season is merry and bright no matter what.
New York City's December Charm and Weather
New York City in December means chilly temps and blustery winds. Expect weather hovering around 36.5 degrees F, but it can easily dip below freezing or rise into the 40s for a few hours here and there. There may be snow, too. There’s about 4.1 inches of precipitation in NYC in December, and this can manifest as anything from barely there flurries to persistent sleet that makes it hard to tell if you’re heading uptown or toward the LES.
Luckily, cold weather just adds to the seasonal charm sweeping across the Big Apple toward the end of the year. People seem to get caught up in the magic. It’s easy to do, with storefronts gradually shifting to holiday-themed displays, winter markets popping up in parking lots and parks and Christmas tree sellers taking up street corners with their bristly wares.
Join in the fun and grab a cup of hot chocolate or some roasted nuts from a street vendor to snack on while you stroll between market stalls or take in the famous lighting displays in Dyker Heights.
New York Holiday Events
New York City’s slate of holiday events is so well known that many of the parades and parties get national coverage via the major TV networks. But tuning in from the comfort of your couch just doesn’t have the same enjoyment factor as scoring a front-row seat in the city itself. If you’re planning a December trip to NYC this year, here are some things to add to your itinerary.
1. The Rockefeller Tree Lighting
Technically, there is tree lighting all over New York City, with each borough and many neighborhoods hosting their own celebrations centered on a tree decorated by the community. But none quite stack up to the grandeur and history of the tree at Rockefeller Center.
Every year, the city brings in a gigantic Norway Spruce to hold court in the middle of the 22-acre complex that makes up Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan. The tradition has been in place since 1931, and while the initial tree lighting often takes place at the end of November, you can visit the tree for the entirety of December, including on Christmas Day, when it’s lit for an entire 24 hours.
2. Photos With Santa
Score an Instagram-worthy pic with the world’s most famous elf, and your NYC holiday trip will be complete. You can usually find Father Christmas at Macy’s Herald Square, where there’s even a breakfast event on tap that includes an Italian feast, bellinis for the adults and table visits from Santa. Rockefeller Center has a similar Santa breakfast, or you can book tea with Santa at the Plaza or a Santa-themed lunch cruise that swoops by the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge while you chat with Mr. Claus.
3. Lift Voices for Make Music NY
Every December 21st, the organizers behind Make Music NY host a slew of interactive musical parades throughout the city. Anyone of any age, regardless of talent or background, can join in and perform in front of shops, on sidewalks and in public plazas and parks. There are lots of businesses involved in the project, and professional musicians help anchor the event. It’s a chance to feel the holiday spirit in a different way while surrounded by the hustle and bustle of NY in December.
Have you ever dreamed of putting on a red suit and beard and making your belly shake like a bowl full of jelly? Sign up for SantaCon and you can embrace holiday cheer while supporting a good cause. All you have to do is put on your costume, donate to the affiliated charity drive, follow the con’s list of rules and join hundreds of other faux Santas as you go bar to bar, spreading love and adding people to your naughty and nice lists.
5. NYE at Times Square
Finish off a fun December by welcoming in the New Year at Times Square. Yes, it’s the same spot you’ve been gazing at longingly via TV for decades, but now you can see the confetti up close and personal. The festivities begin around 6 p.m. on December 31st when the ball is raised to its highest point. Then, at 11:59, it begins a rapid 60-second descent while you and your fellow revelers chant loudly and toot on those little paper kazoos.
Other December Activities in New York
Is it even December in New York without ice skating? There’s no city-wide mandate requiring visitors to strap on skates and try a triple-axel, but NYC’s rinks are so inviting (and plentiful) that it’s almost impossible to skip out on the activity altogether. Rockefeller Center is one of the most obvious spots to practice your ice dancing routine, but there are also smaller rinks at several parks — including two spots in Central Park, where you can rent skates, stick your shopping bags in a locker rental and glide to your heart’s content with the city’s skyscrapers as your backdrop.
There’s also a 17,000-square-foot ice rink at the Bryant Park Winter Village, but the rink is only one piece of this massively entertaining holiday spread. Think of the Winter Village as a small city within the city. There are some 60 artfully designed kiosks manned by vendors selling gifts and food, a Small Business Spotlight booth that highlights minority-owned area businesses and a pop-up restaurant where you can refuel after you finish your shopping spree.
If the weather outside is frightful, head indoors to a museum or gallery for some culture without the cold. The Guggenheim lights up its halls for the holidays, and there are often other events, such as musical performances and specially curated exhibits, on the calendar as well.
NYC's Dazzling Holiday Displays
Holiday window displays in NYC are such an integral part of the city’s seasonal traditions that there are actually ticketed walking tours that take locals and tourists from store to store. Of course, you can also wander about on your own. Be sure to hit the big-name retail spots like Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman, but there are windows all along Fifth Avenue’s shopping district and throughout Herald Square that mix holiday décor with humor, heart and lots and lots of art.
New Yorkers know it’s practically impossible to talk about holiday lights in December without mentioning the displays in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights. Back in the 1980s, Dyker resident Lucy Spata decided to deck out her house with oodles of Christmas décor. Her neighbors loved Lucy’s display so much that they began to put up their own, and now the neighborhood is like the borough’s very own North Pole.
You can walk through the three-avenue spread of Dyker Heights on your own in about a half-hour, but many people prefer the guided bus tours. You’ll be on the bus for about 3.5 hours, but your ticket scores you a direct, subway- and taxi-free ride to Dyker, and you’ll get lots of expert commentary on the displays, drinks and snacks to boot.
From Festive Feasts to Cultural Delicacies
New York City is a cornucopia of culinary culture. If you can eat it, you can find it in NYC. That’s true around the holidays, too, when seasonal eats and cultural delights join forces to create some of the most delicious treats you’ll find anywhere in the world. Some items are simpler, like the hot cocoa and roasted chestnuts that are almost synonymous with Christmas in the city. Other suggestions are more about a vibe, a specific dish or the décor.
Rolf’s German Restaurant near Gramercy Park is decorated with over 200,000 Christmas lights, countless ornaments (many of them antiques) and miles of swag all year long, but the twinkly Victorian-inspired display seems much more magical once December hits. Try dishes like potato pancakes with applesauce and sour cream or jaeger schnitzel with a paprika mushroom sauce followed by a mulled wine, hot apple cider or spiced eggnog.
If you’re in town on Christmas Day and don’t know where to eat, head to Chinatown. Many of the restaurants in this charming area in lower Manhattan will be open, including the highly lauded Jing Fong, where you can get small bites like siu mai along with authentic eats such as pan-fried noodles and chicken feet.
You’ll have to head out to Brooklyn to visit Shelsky’s, but even a bumpy subway trip will be a distant memory once you sink your teeth into smoked fish spread, kettle-boiled bagels and homemade sweets from this haven of Jewish eats. This is also where you should come to snag Hanukkah essentials, not only for snacking while you’re in the city but to send home as well, courtesy of Shelsky’s nationwide shipping.
Iconic NYC Holiday Performances: The Nutcracker and The Rockettes
One of the best shows in NYC around the holidays is The New York Ballet’s annual performance run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. The company first performed the classic in 1954, and the show was such a hit it’s been a December tradition ever since. There are typically about 47 performances on the calendar each winter, and it’s suitable for families, including children aged five and up.
Another can’t-miss show: The Rockettes Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The Rockettes have been entertaining the public at home in New York for almost a century, but their storied history also includes trips abroad for wartime USO shows entertaining the troops. But the most iconic Rockettes show is the Christmas Spectacular, a 90-minute show that features some 140 performers putting on the Ritz backed by an original score. It’s funny, it’s heartwarming, and it’s about as quintessentially New York as you can get.
3 Tips From the Experts: What to Pack and Why Travel Insurance for New York Is Important
As you get ready for your trip to one of the most famous cities in the world, use these tips from our travel experts to prepare like a pro.
Pack plenty of winter gear. You want to look your best as you conquer Broadway or get your fill (literally) of the city’s best restaurants, but you also want to be warm and comfy as you trudge from Hudson Yards to Herald Square. Pack clothes that can easily be layered, plus a warm coat, gloves, a hat, a scarf and extra socks.
Get ready to walk. New York City has been ranked the most walkable city in the United States, but being on foot is only fun if you’re well-equipped. Bring comfortable walking shoes or even hiking boots, as well as a cross-body bag or other secure carry-all that can hold your essentials, as well as any trinkets or souvenir ornaments you pick up along the way.
Invest in travel insurance. Protect your trip with travel insurance for New York. Safeguarding against trip cancellation, trip interruption, missed connections, and other snafus can give you peace of mind just in case something goes wrong.
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