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Things to do in New York during the festive season

Lorna Cowan / 14 November 2016

From the Rockafeller Christmas tree to Central Park ice-skating, we list the top things to see and do in the Big Apple this Christmas and New Year.

Ice skating in Central Park
Gliding across the ice at the iconic Wollman Rink in Central Park is a popular winter tradition for tourists and New Yorkers alike.

New York is a great city to visit at any time of year, but those who take a bite of the Big Apple during the festive season get the chance to enjoy so much more than shopping, skyscrapers and sightseeing.

Just an eight-hour flight from the UK, the average temperature in December is around 9°C, though be mindful it can get a whole lot colder.

However, as you can expect six hours of daily sunshine, just wrap up warm and enjoy the holiday season in a city, as Frank Sinatra told us, that never sleeps.

Ice skating in Central Park

Visitors have the opportunity to skate at various open-air ice rinks across the city, however, gliding across the ice at the iconic Wollman Rink in Central Park is a popular winter tradition for tourists and New Yorkers alike.

The 3,000-square metre venue, located on the east side of the park near the zoo, provided a backdrop for the classic 1970 movie Love Story, starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal – maybe you’ll enjoy some romance here too.

Early risers can get their skates on daily at 10am (8am on Christmas Day and Boxing Day). The rink stays open until 11pm on Friday and Saturday evenings.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Standing 24 metres tall and weighing 10 ton, the Christmas Tree erected in the Plaza outside New York’s Rockefeller Center can’t fail to impress. 

Indeed, the annual ceremony to switch on the Norway Spruce’s fairy lights – all 45,000 of them – is such a big event that it’s broadcast live on TV.

If you’re in Midtown Manhattan on 30 November, get there early. Otherwise, you’ve got until 7 January to pop along. While at the Center, take a trip up 70 floors to the Top of the Rock Observation Deck and enjoy 360-degree views over the city.

The last elevator up is 9.10pm on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve and 11.10pm on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Fifth Avenue window displays

You’ll need to fight the crowds, and listen to a lot of Salvation Army bands, but no festive trip to New York would be complete without a wander along Fifth Avenue to gasp at some of the best Christmas window displays you’ll ever see.

Last year, the Bergdorf Goodman department store used more than seven million Swarovski crystals to create truly sparking scenes. What will Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co and Chanel treat us to in 2016?

Sadly, FAO Schwarz, the world’s most famous toy store, is now closed. However, rumour has it the magic will return in 2017

Santaland at Macy’s

Don’t tell everyone, but there’s no need to trek all the way to the North Pole to see Santa Claus this year.

The man with the white beard is going to be spending December on the 8th floor of Macy’s Herald Square situated on 34th Street, where, if you’ve seen the film, miracles happen.

As you’d expect, you’ll also find lots of elves busy at work in Macy’s free Santaland, and during the day, you’ll need to compete with excitable children to get a glance at the enchanted forest and train display.

For fewer crowds, arrive at the store just before it opens or later in the evening, when the little angels should be in bed.

Bloomingdale’s department store

No one goes to New York without indulging in a spot of shopping.

Even if you’ve missed the Black Friday sales (this year on 25th November, the day after Thanksgiving), there are plenty of department stores to lose yourself in, searching for a bargain.

Bloomingdale’s on Third Avenue is a good place to start, regardless of whether you’re after their signature small, medium or big ‘brown bag’ for someone’s Christmas present.

You’ll find details of sales and promotions online.

Union Square Holiday Market

More than 100 red and white booths appear in Union Square Park every year for the Holiday Market, where the socially conscious can shop for handmade Christmas decorations and gifts, all created by local artists and craftsmen.

Vendors selling artwork, jewellery and toiletries, as well as food and drink, can be found daily until Christmas Eve.

Bryant Park Winter Village

Situated behind New York’s Public Library, Bryant Park turns into a festive Winter Village every year from late October to early March.

Up until 2 January, there are also Holiday Shops, an open-air market selling arts and crafts from around the world.

Be tempted to treat a loved one, or yourself, as funds from every purchase go back into supporting the park’s maintenance.

Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station, or Terminal, to give it its correct name, should be on everyone’s sightseeing itinerary.

Although a busy commuter train station with 44 platforms, the majestic building with its vast main concourse is a joy to behold – no wonder it’s one of the top 10 most visited tourist attractions in the world.

The Holiday Fair in the historic Vanderbilt Hall takes place up until Christmas Eve, staying open until 8pm on weekdays.


We’re taking an all-family trip to New York for a half-term break, including our pre-teen grandchildren, and would love a knock-out idea to surprise them.

Try the Museum of the Moving Image at 36-01 35th Ave, Queens. The permanent Jim Henson Exhibition celebrates The Muppet Show and the puppeteer who brought us Kermit (below), Miss Piggy and the Swedish Chef (the original puppets are on display), along with the rest of the crew.

There’s also The Dark Crystal and the genius of Sesame Street (‘Come and play, everything’s A-OK!’).

From scripts to videos and costumes, it’s a glorious celebration of innocence, imagination and anarchy. It’ll be impossible to leave without a smile on their faces – and yours…

Extract taken from Saga Magazine, October 2017. For more travel tips,  subscribe to the magazine today!

The Holiday Train Show

If your travels takes you to the Bronx district, then make time to catch the Holiday Train Show at New York’s Botanical Garden.

Up until 16th January, visitors get the chance to witness a delightful model train chugging its way along a quarter mile track passing 150 of the city’s landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge.

Cleverly, each has been built from natural materials such as bark and leaves.

Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular

If you’ve only time for one must-see show while in New York, get tickets for the Christmas Spectacular at Manhattan’s art deco Radio City Music Hall. 

Starring the legendary Rockettes, this family-friendly show sees the glamorous precision dance group in all their glory, dressed up as Christmas gifts, toy soldiers and reindeer. 

For fans of the Sugar Plum fairy, you can enjoy the magic of George Balanchine’s enchanting Nutcracker, performed by New York’s City Ballet at the David H Koch Theater.

The Lights at Dyker Heights

There’s only one place in the city that really gives the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree a run for its money, and that’s the festive lights twinkling in Dyker Heights, a residential area in Brooklyn. 

Every year the people living there pull out the stops to lavishly decorate their homes and gardens. 

Nativity scenes, huge inflatable snowmen and animatronic reindeer are all a common sight, with some houses setting up powerful speakers to blast out classic Christmas tunes. 

Take note, though, that the neighbourhood also watch their electricity bills and it’s usually lights out at around 9pm. 


A Chinese Christmas Day

New Yorkers tuck into turkey at Thanksgiving so it’s not normally on the menu again at Christmas.

If you happen to be in the city on Christmas Day, chances are you’ll be tempted to dine at a Chinese restaurant – so many are open on the 25th.

Unlike places in the UK, New York doesn’t shut down with many of the main attractions open 365 days a year.

So remember your trip by spending the big day at the top of the Empire State Building or wishing a merry Christmas to the residents of Central Park Zoo.

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is also open daily throughout the festive season.

New Year’s Eve in Times Square

If you want to first-foot it into 2017 with a bang, then at the stroke of midnight be in Times Square.

You may have to jostle for space, but the atmosphere here will be one you’ll remember for many new years to come.

Arrive early to find a good spot, then try not to wander far. Entertainment starts around 6pm with fireworks lighting up the square every hour on the hour until 11pm.

When the clock reaches 11.59pm, a magnificent time ball – almost four metres wide, weighing over 5,000kg, and covered in crystal panels and lights - starts its journey from the roof of One Times Square.

Sixty seconds later after dropping 43 metres, an explosion of colour signals another year. Auld Lang Syne anyone?

Experience New York for yourself and find out what to see and do


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.