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
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.
The Met brings in a 20-foot blue spruce each year to display its stunning 18th century Baroque creche. Silk-robed angels adorn the branches and the full nativity scene unfolds at the tree’s base. You won’t have to fight the crowds to catch a glimpse of this tree—you can even watch the curators light it daily at 4:30pm.
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.
Each winter, Prospect Park’s massive arena transforms from a roller rink to ice rink. The price is reasonable, there’s plenty of room to skate and it’s embedded deep enough within Brooklyn that you won’t see too many out-of-towners. What could be better?
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Touristy: Holiday Lights Double Decker Bus and Walking Tour
Travelers looking for the quickest way to get around New York City at Christmas might very well opt for a combination bus and walking tour. While you can catch a glimpse of some of the best holiday lights from a double-decker bus, it isn’t exactly an authentic way to see the city. You can expect plenty of selfie sticks and tourists taking photos on iPads.
Alternative: Christmas on Wheels
If you must tour the city during the holidays, do it on two wheels. This bike tour takes you past Rockefeller Center, Macy’s, Grand Central Terminal and other New York landmarks. Best of all, you can whiz by the crowds of pedestrians.
Christmas card photo opp
The Christmas tree at the east end of the skating rink at Bryant Park’s Winter Village makes an appealing backdrop for photos. It’s beautifully decorated and located right in the middle of all the holiday shops. The only problem? During peak shopping times, it’s tough to get a clear shot with all the pedestrians.
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.