New York at Christmas: 3-Day Itinerary with Kids

Friends, happy 2019! December was a whirlwind – a wonderful whirlwind. But it’s so nice to be getting back to a normal routine and to be writing and creating and thinking again. I’m really excited for this year.
As a lot of you know, for Christmas this year, we gave our kids a trip to New York and DC. We’ve done a trip gift the last two years and it is the best! I have to say, in 2017, we didn’t get quite the reaction we wanted from our kids – I think they didn’t quite know what to make of it, they had a hard time visualizing it, etc.          

But this past Christmas, we packaged it up well with fun activities, and had talked New York at Christmas up the entire month. Our kids are old enough that they totally understood the magic of New York at Christmas and could really picture it, but they’re still young enough that they didn’t pick up on all the hints we were giving, haha. We kept talking about how magical New York is at Christmas, how huge the Rockefeller tree is anytime we saw another big tree, watched clips of the Rockettes and NYC Ballet Nutcracker, etc. So when they found out, they were OVER the moon. It was so fun to watch their reaction.It can be a little overwhelming deciding what to do in New York, especially around the holidays. There is just so much to do! So if you’re wondering what to do in New York at Christmastime, you’re in luck – we loved every minute of our trip and I’m excited to share.

We flew out the day after Christmas (which I would…not recommend. ha.) and spent 3 days in New York before heading down to my parents’ house in DC. We had an early flight so we were sure to take our inflatable leg rests on the plane with us for naps. The kids took their awesome folding travel backpacks which are super lightweight, and each had their own stuffed animals, snacks, water bottle, and an activity or two (Toone was so excited to pull out his new Mercy Watson book he got for Christmas, and we took a small bag of Click a Bricks and LEGOs. Kina was very content with her Magic Treehouse book about New York, and Nat flew through a few of those on the kids’ Kindle Fire and couldn’t wait to pull out some math challenges with his new Skilly Billy).We’ve visited New York a bunch before (especially while living in Philly/DC for 14 years), so we knew of quite a few things, but we also did a few that were new to us that we’d wanted to try for years.

Here’s my version of a perfect 3-day itinerary for New York at Christmastime!

 

DAY 1

  • Ice Skating at Bryant Park
  • Bryant Park Holiday Market
  • New York Public Library
  • Rockettes Christmas Spectacular
Get up and out the door early and head straight to go ice skate! The lines get long at most of the rinks in the city, and those just build over the course of the day. While it’s magical skating at night with the lights, the lines tend to be insane then, and your kids will be antsy and hungry and tired. So go first thing! I recommend the rink at Bryant Park – skating is free, and it’s $20 to rent skates. Dan and I took turns – he went first with the 3 big kids while I waited with Anssi (the Bryant Park rink has a fantastic viewing area up above with an excellent view of the rink and a little cafe that’s free). When we switched, Toone was pretty much done skating so I took Kina and Nat back out. It was crowded and the ice got “snowy” quickly with that many people, but it was so fun and the Zamboni did clear things pretty frequently.
Other classic options are Wollman Rink in Central Park or the Rockefeller rink, of course, but that tends to be even more crowded (and expensive!) than the rest.

Assuming you go to Bryant Park, take some time after to wander around the holiday market there. Pick up some lunch (we love the raclette sandwiches at Baked Cheese Haus and the Max Brenner hot chocolate) and then wander into the New York Public Library next door to warm up. The children’s section is great for taking a break and reading for a bit, and it’s fun to see the original stuffed animals that inspired the Winnie the Pooh stories. There’s also a gorgeous tree inside, and don’t forget to see the famous lions out front with the wreaths around their necks (and also the LEGO Lions outside the children’s section!).
From there, if you have extra time, take a while to wander the city (or perhaps head back for a nap!). If your day has been more leisurely, head straight over to the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular! This is an absolute must-do for Christmas in New York. The tickets can be pricey, but you can sometimes find discounts if you book through Visa or American Express. Regardless, it’s worth ponying up the money because it is magical!         

The show is about 90 minutes and very family-friendly. There are Santas and lights and music and dancing and a beautiful live nativity at the end. Kids 2+ need a ticket; younger than that is allowed on a lap for free. When we went 3 years ago, we left Toone (13 months at the time) with a sitter because he was SO active and would not have made it through the show. This time, we brought Anssi (15 months) along and he did great, but he’s a very mellow baby (I did pull out some emergency jelly beans for a few minutes to dampen his chatting). It’s obviously a performance so a baby couldn’t be walking the aisles or be yelling, but it’s also a show filled with children, and we heard plenty of excited chatter and noises, so it’s definitely not a silent affair. Use your best judgment.
(Tip: Watch some of the dances on youtube beforehand – our kids were so excited to see certain familiar numbers!)
After the show, grab some quick dinner and, if you’re not dead tired, head by the Rockefeller tree. Then go pass out in bed!

DAY 2

  • The Met or AMNH
  • Levain/Parm
  • NYC Ballet Nutcracker
  • Shop windows

 

Pick either the American Museum of Natural History or the Met for a museum morning. The former has a tree with beautiful origami animals, and the latter has a gorgeous angel tree. Both have tons of kid-friendly programming. Especially if the weather is bad, either will get busy, but the AMNH more so. Plan to get there early and/or buy tickets in advance. It was actually a 2-hour long line outside the museum when we went to the AMNH, so we went in on the south entrance and a kind guard let us peek at the tree without needing to buy tickets. No guarantees, but it’s worth a shot if the lines are crazy!
(We had grandparents meet us for one day – so fun! And they even babysat Anssi during the Nutcracker! So grateful to them.)
(Tip: The Met is open until 9pm on Friday and Saturday nights. If you’re not exhausted, go around 7pm and it will be SO much quieter. We love it there then!! We saw the Egyptian temple, some armor, and some 19th century European paintings, plus the tree, in just over an hour.)                    

After a couple hours at a museum, head over to Levain Bakery for some cookies (my favorite is the chocolate chip walnut; the kids’ fave is the chocolate chocolate chip). They’re an NYC staple! From there, walk 10 minutes to Parm for a quick and delicious lunch. We love the eggplant parm.
After lunch, head to the Lincoln Center for the NYC Ballet’s performance of Nutcracker. The NYC Ballet set is so iconic and beautiful, especially in the 2nd act! If it’s your first time taking kids (or even if not!), here’s a list of 7 tips to prepare your kids to see the Nutcracker. It’s such a special and magical experience, especially when everyone is ready for it.           

(We honestly debated whether we should see it as we’d already seen the SF Ballet one this season, plus my daughter had performed in her ballet company one that we’d seen, and her kindergarten class put on a mini version. But our kids LOVE Nutcracker, and we knew if we told them we were going to New York and weren’t seeing Nutcracker, they’d be super disappointed. Sure enough, it was the first thing they asked, it was the activity for which they were most excited, and the favorite thing we did for both Nat and Kina (Toone’s fave was the Rockettes. So if your kids are familiar with the story/music/dancing, it’s so special to go live.)            

Grab an early dinner and walk over to the West Side to check out some Christmas display shop windows. Some of our favorites are Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, Saks 5th Avenue (that light show is amazing!), and Bloomingdale’s (which had an amazing Grinch theme this year). Then head back to the hotel – and maybe even take a quick swim in the hotel pool if you can!

DAY 3

 

  • Plaza Hotel Eloise breakfast
  • NYC Botanical Gardens train show
  • Seaglass Carousel & Brooklyn Bridge OR The Cloisters
 
First things first – head to the Plaza Hotel for their Eloise breakfast! Anyone who knows and loves the books will appreciate the fun theming, as well as the gorgeous Palm Court. The afternoon tea is a set price and quite expensive (and I’ve heard mixed reviews of the sandwiches), but the breakfast is a la carte and sounds lovely. There’s also a breakfast buffet on Saturdays and Sundays. Don’t forget to dream up ways to booby trap your hotel room like Kevin from Home Alone while you eat. We didn’t actually get a chance to do this first activity, but it’s definitely on our list for next time!
From there, head up to the holiday train show at the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. Be sure to buy your tickets ahead of time because they will sell out! We thought they still had space, but turns out they were sold out on our last day, so we just visited the (free and very similar) one in DC instead. But it’s definitely worth going if you manage to remember to get tickets in advance!
From there, if you’re up for it, head all the way downtown to get some lunch as well as ride the Seaglass Carousel. It’s a bit of a trek from up there but the carousel is, by far, the most beautiful carousel we’ve ever ridden. You get to sit inside gorgeous translucent glass sea animals and ride up and down to beautiful music and lights. It’s not holiday-specific but it IS magic. From there, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can walk the Brooklyn Bridge, or maybe you can just walk to the water to see it instead. If you do make it all the way to Brooklyn, be sure to stop for pizza at Juliana’s.

If you don’t want to head all the way back downtown, go from the Botanical Garden to the Met Cloisters, one of my very favorite museums in the city. It’s surprisingly fun for kids with all the beautiful courtyards and fun stone windows and unicorn tapestries, and it has an extremely well-curated gift shop. Such a delight.

Whew! There you have it! Three magical, Christmassy days in New York City that are perfect for kids – or, honestly, adults. We loved it just as much as they did!
There are tons of other wonderful things to do at Christmastime and otherwise while in New York, and there’s no way you’ll be able to do them all (especially on a short time frame). But this will definitely put you in a festive mood and invite some Christmas cheer. That said – what did I miss? Any New York Christmas favorites that are must dos for you?

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