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Tourist Christmas in NYC vs the Local Experience in 2024

Christmas in NYC may be the one time of year when the touristy activities are just as good as local experiences! Here are my favorite touristy and local options for holiday magic in and around NYC. 

Each fortnight (that’s every 2 weeks, for the Americans!) Micharne will share what she’s learned about some aspect of the US, from an Aussie perspective.

Christmas Trees in New York

For the tourists: Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

The tree at Rockefeller Center is an unmissable, enormous, iconic tree.

When does the tree go up? The tree itself arrived this year on Saturday, November 12, 2022 and the lighting ceremony was on Wednesday November 30, 2022. Between these two dates you can see the tree in a natural  or semi-decorated state, which is a fun and different perspective! There’s also less crowds than in December (less being a relative term!)

For the locals: Cut Your Own Tree!

One fun thing about doing Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere is you can go to a Christmas tree farm, and cut your own! Farms often have different kinds of trees, so you can pick the perfect tree based on shape and also smell (different kinds have different smells!) You literally can take a saw and cut it down yourself, or there is someone there to help. This does require a car, something New Yorkers are famous for not having. But I’ve also found the longer you are here, the more likely you are to know someone who’s moved to a car friendly neighborhood, so perhaps y’all can make a day trip out of it. There’s farms in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey that are an easy day trip from the city.

Some farms also have other activities like hay rides and photos with Santa. A fun Aussie-in-the-US moment was when I tried to tip Santa. I accidentally stumbled on Santa and said “Oh my goodness it’s Santa” like I’m in a Hallmark movie, which Santa even laughed at, so obviously I had to get a photo. Now I can’t speak for all Santas, but this Santa ran on holiday magic and the goodwill of Miller’s Hill Farm, New Jersey.

Ice Skating in NYC

For the tourists: Ice Skating at Rockefeller Plaza

Again, Rockefeller Plaza is where your iconic NYC Christmas dreams come true! Ice skating at the foot of the tree, with holiday music and lights at full volume, is a magical experience. The rink is also small, and not too crowded, even when I went skating in a sold-out session. This makes it a good option for folks who haven’t skated in a while. Be aware you want to book these tickets well in advance, as sessions sell out early in the season.

For the locals: Ice Skating in Central Park

Ice skating in Central Park is of course also an iconic NYC winter activity! The Wollman Rink sits in the shadow of the skyscrapers of midtown, and also has holiday music for the season. The rink is bigger, and can sometimes get crowded on the edges. But it also has the space that if you’re lucky, you may see figure skaters doing their thing in the middle of the rink. Tickets to the Wollman Rink are much cheaper than Rockefeller Centre, and for a local, season passes are very reasonably priced.

But to take the local experience to the next level, when it’s very cold and the ice is consistently six inches thick, you can skate at Conservatory Water for free! Conservatory Water is on the East Side of the park, between 72nd and 75th streets, and in the Summer, is where you can sail little boats. You just need to bring your own skates.

Holiday Lights in New York City

For the tourists: Lights in midtown

The holiday lights in midtown are an unmissable part of a trip to NYC during Christmas. But especially for new New Yorkers, when your guests say “take me to the lights!” it can be hard to know exactly where to go, as you know you’ve seen some cool decorations in your movements around town… but where were they again?

To see the highlights of midtown, my recommendation is a wander that begins at the Pulitzer Fountain at the south east corner of Central Park. Last year the fountain was completely transformed with polar themed animal decorations, so is a wonderful location to begin your excursion.

You then want to walk down Fifth Avenue, where Bergdorf Goodman will have spectacular holiday themed fashion windows. Pop into 57th Street briefly to the see the giant candy canes that get hooked in the edge of the Solow Building, like it was a giant mantlepiece!

Keep heading down Fifth Avenue, which is lined with giant lit up toys (you’ll see!) Soon you’ll reach the Cartier Building, which is always wrapped up like a giant present.

At Saks Fifth Avenue they have a light show that covers the entire façade of the building, timed to a compilation of holiday music. The show repeats itself, but does have a little break in between shows, so if you arrive and the show is not going, just find a place to stand and it will play again in a few minutes.

Opposite Saks is Rockefeller Plaza, and if you head down 50th Street for a block, you’ll hit Radio City Music Hall, which is all done up for Christmas. One block south of Radio City is a fountain with the largest stack of giant Christmas baubles you have likely ever seen.

This may be a natural stopping point for your walk, but if you’re not too cold, keep heading south for Bryant Park’s Holiday Village and ice-skating rink. And if you are still fueled by holiday magic, keep heading south to see the Macy’s windows, which always have a good old-fashioned, often animatronic display.

For the locals: Dyker Heights in Brooklyn

The reputation of Dyker Heights has traveled so far and wide that the crowds are real and the parking is tricky, so it’s not exactly a local secret, but the lights are spectacular. Families put a huge amount of effort into the transforming their homes with lights and decorations. For the Aussies, these are freestanding homes, so may remind you a little of your neighborhoods back home, except for the sheer scale of the decorations. 

The homes can be found in the neighborhood roughly between 10th Avenue to 13th Avenue, and 83rd to 85th Streets. The best way to get out to Dyker Heights is by the D train to 79th Street Station or R train to 86th Street Station. Either way it is then a 15 minute walk to the lights.

Whether it’s your first Christmas in NYC, or you’ve had so many you’ve lost count, I hope you find some new holiday magic this year. Feel free to drop any local tips into the comments section!

Micharne Cloughley

Micharne Cloughley

Micharne is a writer for TV and theatre. She hails from the Blue Mountains NSW, and currently lives in Jersey City NJ. Her favourite Aussie words are daggy and mate. Her favorite American words are y’all and Kansas City BBQ.View Author posts

1 thought on “Tourist Christmas in NYC vs the Local Experience in 2024”

  1. Hey AmericaJosh, I hope you are still enjoying your Vegemite on toast in beautiful Adelaide. We are heading off to your Big Apple in a couple of days and I wanted to thank you for this post as I have only just now had a proper read of it. We shall follow your lights’ mudmap! Yay! There is some very relevant information on your site and I shall continue to follow even when back in Charlotte. The tipping advice is especially helpful! I am still cramming in activities on my ‘to do’ list for NYC and my head is spinning a bit as I am finding more and more things of interest (of course). We have set aside plenty of days just for walking and exploring but perhaps now we will be ‘legging it’ sometimes, to fit in all the sights. Phew!
    Perhaps we shall have to return another time. Have a happy Xmas and New Year in Australia.

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