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Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree 2013
Photograph: Filip Wolak

9 alternatives to the most crowded holiday attractions in NYC

Instead of forcing your way through the masses in Midtown, check out these alternative holiday attractions in NYC

Annalise Mantz
Written by
Annalise Mantz

New York City might be magical at Christmastime, but the hordes of tourists it draws to the five boroughs are not. Some mainstream events, like the Rockefeller Center tree lighting, might be worth braving the crowds for once; others, like New Year’s Eve in Times Square, should be avoided at all costs. This holiday season, get your fill of festive things to do without the crowd by visiting these alternative holiday attractions in NYC. If you must see all the iconic windows and light displays, sign up for one of the many Christmas tours in NYC—your tour guide will at least know the best route to take and might even be able to give you VIP access.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to Christmas in New York

Christmas tree

Touristy: Rockefeller Center
  • Things to do
  • Midtown West

The tradition of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree has been going strong for more than 80 years, which explains why the Midtown landmark is perpetually crowded from Thanksgiving through the New Year. Though the artful decorations on the 78-foot Norway spruce are truly breathtaking, good luck finding a place to stand in the plaza during the busy season.

Ice rink

  • Things to do
  • Ice skating
  • Central Park

With views of both Midtown skyscrapers and Central Park’s changing leaves, this rink at the south end of the park is constantly crowded with families and tourists. There’s no room for speed-skating or fancy tricks, so those with ice capades in mind better go elsewhere.

Holiday market

The selection of wares from the 150-plus vendors at this alfresco market is certainly enviable, but sadly, the crowds make leisurely shopping nearly impossible. If you actually want to purchase a few holiday gifts, try to go during the workday when it’s at least a little less busy.

Outposts in both Manhattan and Brooklyn make this holiday pop-up event from Etsy convenient for shoppers in both boroughs. The list of 70 vendors changes daily and by location, but always includes plenty of handmade jewelry, clothing and home goods. Though lots of shoppers turn out for this holiday market every year, it tends to draw fewer tourists than some of the city’s other options.

New Year’s Eve festivities

  • Attractions
  • Midtown West

An estimated 2 million onlookers crowd into Times Square every year on December 31, all anxious to get the best view of the ball dropping. Experts recommend arriving no later than 3pm—that means you’ll have to be prepared to wait outside for another nine hours without access to a seat or bathroom. Much as we love New Year’s Eve, that ordeal just isn’t worth it.

  • Things to do

Though you can’t see the ball drop from the Brooklyn Bridge, it does offer spectacular views of the New Year’s Eve fireworks. Join one of the walking tours starting from 160 Broadway to explore the City Hall era before walking onto the bridge to view the pyrotechnics at midnight. You’ll learn all kinds of historical facts and interesting tidbits about the bridge on your way!

Twinkling lights

Touristy: Saks Fifth Avenue
  • Shopping
  • Department stores
  • Midtown East

Like most New York City department stores, Saks Fifth Avenue goes all out with their holiday window displays. For the past few years, the store has also put on a light show that turns the building into an icy winter palace. While the show is undeniably beautiful, the building’s location directly opposite Rockefeller Center makes it a top destination for tourists—thousands of them.

This Brooklyn neighborhood might take the title of the NYC location with the most razzle dazzle. Every year, residents put up extravagant displays featuring giant Santas, sparkling reindeer and loudspeakers blasting Christmas carols. Though thousands of sightseers flock to the nabe every year, there’s much more room to spread out, making it a better option for light-gazing.

Seasonal show

  • Theater
  • Musicals
  • Midtown West

The traditional kickoff to the holiday season (see what we did there?), the Rockettes’ Christmas show really is spectacular. With flying Santas, 3D effects, a live nativity scene and plenty of kick lines, it’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. That said, it’s probably better suited to families with young kids than adult fans.

  • Dance
  • Ballet

Far less flashy than the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, the New York City Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker has oodles of holiday charm. The full New York City Ballet company and two casts of School of American Ballet students perform George Balanchine’s enchanting choreography set to Tchaikovsky's magical score. No matter your age, the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the enormous growing Christmas tree will fill you with wonder.

Family-friendly fun

  • Shopping
  • Department stores
  • Midtown West

Every Christmas, Macy’s transforms an entire floor of its Herald Square store into the North Pole. Kiddos can carol with snowmen, take photos with reindeer and, of course, sit on Santa’s lap. Still, the lines can get a little out of control: Starting this year, you’ll have to make an appointment if you actually want to get some face time with jolly old St. Nick.

Alternative: The Holiday Train Show
  • Things to do
  • Exhibitions

Marvel at teensy trains chugging along a nearly half-mile track at the New York Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show. Miniatures of NYC landmarks made out of leaves, twigs, berries and other natural materials line the way. Look closely and you might even spot a tiny train conductor or Santa Claus!

Holiday tour

Christmas card photo opp

  • Attractions
  • Libraries, archives and foundations
  • Midtown West

Not everyone realizes there’s an even better photo opp just a block or two away. The two Tennessee marble lions flanking the steps of the New York Public Library, Patience and Fortitude, get dressed up for the holidays in wreaths with regal red bows. This NYC institution with just a touch of festive flair would be an ideal setting for a group photo. 

Still working on your holiday shopping?

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