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The best things to do this holiday season in NYC

From naughty bashes to dazzling light displays and more festive fun, here are the best things to do this holiday season

By Tolly Wright, Jillian Anthony and Time Out New York contributors |
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Photograph: Filip Wolak

Happy holidays! Wait, you’re not excited? Snap out of it, because we’ve cooked up a bunch of killer ways to toast the season no matter what you think of it. Discover classic Christmas shows and where to go ice-skating in NYC, as well as a steamy Christmas party and amazing NYC concerts in December. Make this the year you finally knock off these classic holiday outings off your bucket list. 

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to Christmas in NYC

Watch a video of Saks Fifth Avenue’s Christmas window display

Best things to do this holiday season

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Macy's Herald Square Christmas Window Unveiling
Photograph: Courtesy Andrew Kelly
Shopping, Department stores

Macy’s Santaland

Midtown West

Worried about standing in line forever to get a picture with an out-of-work actor in a fat suit wearing a white wig and beard? At least at Macy’s (151 W 34th St; 212-695-4400, macys.com/social/santa-land; Nov 24–Dec 24) you can reserve your “visit” with the big man online before you go. And by visit, we mean the approximately 30 seconds you’re guaranteed in a structure resembling a gingerbread house arguing with an elf about where you’ll sit in relation to Kris Kringle’s lap. It will be worth it for that ironic Christmas card—we promise.

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Lord & Taylor NYC 2015 Holiday Windows Unveiling With Austin Mahone
Photograph: Cindy Ord
Things to do

Department store holiday windows

Need to snap into a festive mood? A tour of the city’s fanciest Fifth Avenue–adjacent megastores should do the trick. There’s Lord & Taylor’s scene (424 Fifth Ave; 212-391-3344, lordandtaylor.com), the  windows of Henri Bendel (712 Fifth Ave; 212-247-1100, henribendel.com), Saks Fifth Avenue (125 E 57th St; 212-634-0730, saksfifthavenue.com), Bergdorf Goodman (754 Fifth Ave; 212-753-7300, bergdorfgoodman.com) and moreIf you want to peep Santa, he’ll, of course, be at Macy’s (151 W 34th St; macys.com).

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Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Photograph: Teddy Wolff
Things to do

Dyker Heights Holiday lights

So your attempts to decorate your third of the studio apartment you share with two other dudes started—and ended—with a pile of blinking lights on the floor. Leave them there and journey to Dyker Heights (11th to 13th Aves from 83rd to 86th Sts, Brooklyn), where a slew of people use the holidays as a festive excuse to brag about the size of their houses. Seriously, these families don’t just have front yards—they have enough property to fit multiple 10-foot-tall nutcrackers and massive inflatable Santas. It’s kind of a long walk to see all the decked-out houses, but what are you going to do? Drive? Just be sure to stretch first. Multiple blocks and avenues participate throughout the ’hood. (We’re talking tens of thousands of lights.)

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Photograph: Filip Wolak
Things to do

Rockefeller Christmas Tree

The center of the Christmas universe in New York is just outside 30 Rock and right next to that famously overcrowded ice rink. You have to see it at least once a year or Mariah Carey will have you assassinated, so you might as well get it over with. But here’s the thing: It’s a lot more stunning and even heartwarming in person. And this year’s tree is a stunner, a Pennsylvania-raised 75-foot-tall Norwegian monster that has 50,000 lights and a blinding Swarovski star on top. Prepare to feel all warm and toasty inside.

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Holiday Train Show 2013 at the New York Botanical Garden
Things to do, Exhibitions

Holiday Train Show

Tiny trains ain’t just for kids. In this famous, verdant display of little model engines and trolleys at the NYBG, more than 150 iconic Gotham landmarks—biggies like the New York Public Library, Grand Central Terminal and Brooklyn Bridge—have been scaled down and re-created with natural materials. It’s pretty cool—as if Wes Anderson made a stop-motion animated picture about NYC. (If you’re reading this, Wes, please make that film and cast Owen Wilson as the conductor.)

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Things to do, Performances

Nutcracker Rouge

Even if you’ve seen the essential ballet a million times, you’ll be surprised by this sexy spin on the holiday tale, which features more jockstraps than it does strapping toy soldiers. The high-energy, circuslike burlesque show should leave you with visions dancing in your head—but they won’t be of sugarplums.

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Movie theaters, Independent

It’s a Wonderful Life at IFC Center

West Village

If ever you need an excuse to weep in public, join the wet-eyed club at a screening of Frank Capra’s classic, whose last 10 minutes is known to bring tears (Dec 8–25). Seventy-one-year-old spoiler alert: Small-town hero George Bailey (James Stewart) is saved from the brink of personal ruin by Clarence, an angel who shows George how bleak the world would be without him. Clarence actually does this good deed because he hopes to earn some sweet wings, but everyone ends up so happy with their ringing bells and crushed flower petals that it doesn’t seem to matter.

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Elf—The Musical
Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus
Theater, Musicals

Elf—The Musical

Everyone’s favorite fish out of water—that’s Buddy the Elf—returns to Madison Square Garden for a brassy-scored good time appropriate for all. Get in the spirit of the season by shadowing the North Pole orphan (played by Erik Gratton) as he follows his heart to New York City.

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The Christmas Season at Rolf's Restaurant
Restaurants, Austrian

Rolf’s Restaurant

Gramercy

Rolf’s is what we imagine the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree to feel like on the inside. And it’s nearly impossible not to be enchanted by the balls-out display of twinkling lights, crystal icicles and hundreds of ornaments that hang inside the German restaurant every holiday season. The atmosphere is more special than the food, though the drinks are strong enough to warrant paying $15 for a glass of eggnog or mulled wine.

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Wollman Rink in Central Park
Photograph: Shutterstock
Things to do, Ice skating

Wollman Rink

Midtown West

Looking for a fun opportunity to be part of a slow-moving horde going around in circles repeatedly? Then it’s time to hit up an ice rink. If you want to please your significant other with a wintry date—or prove to your friends once and for all that you can skate backward (jeez, guys)—then go to the only one in the city surrounded by the scenic splendor of Central Park, Wollman Rink, a pretty darn magical backdrop.

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LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Prospect Park
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Le Frak Center at Lakeside at Prospect Park

Prospect Park

Yes, the rink at Rockefeller Center is lovely, but those lines? Not so much. For those who want their Christmas cheer without a long wait and plenty more room to, you know, skate, might we recommend the two outdoor, state-of-the-art rinks in Prospect Park? The recent $74 million project is a worthy alternative, complete with cool events plus the adjacent Bluestone Café, which serves hot chocolate and spiced apple cider. It’s one hell of a deal, set in a gorgeous park atmosphere to boot. Enter at Parkside and Ocean Aves, Brooklyn (718-462-0010, lakesidebrooklyn.com). Various dates and times; weekdays $6, weekends and holidays $9, skate rentals $6. 

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Radio City Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall
Photograph: MSG Entertainment
Things to do

Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes

Nothing screams Christmas in New York like watching high kicks at this annual extravaganza in the splendid confines of Radio City Music Hall. Hell, even if you don’t have a little one to bring, go by yourself: You needn’t be a kid to appreciate grown women dancing like they’re sparkly reindeer, 1,000-plus festive costumes and the real, live animals in the nativity scene.

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Phil Kline's Unsilent Night
Music, Classical and opera

Unsilent Night

Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village

This trippy musical performance piece, dreamed up by composer Phil Kline, is downtown’s decidedly arty, secular answer to Christmas caroling. Boom-box–toting participants gather under the Washington Square arch, where they are given a cassette or CD of one of four different atmospheric tracks; you can also download the Unsilent Night app and sync up via smartphone. Everyone presses play at the same time and marches through the streets of New York together, blending their music and filling the air with a beautiful, echoing 45-minute piece. 

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Shopping, Boutiques

BARC Shelter

Williamsburg

Is seasonal affective disorder destroying your motivation to get out the door? Try borrowing a dog! At Williamsburg nonprofit BARC, simply walk in and start volunteering that same day, either by walking doggies or playing with kitties. It’s a way to give back in between Christmas window shopping down Bedford Avenue. Various dates and times.

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Winter Solstice Celebration
Photograph: Rhonda Dorsett
Music, Jazz

Winter Solstice Celebration

Having trouble deciding which one of your friends’ apartments to use to host this year’s solstice bonfire and ritual sacrifice? Avoid all that messy virgin blood, and try a more modern tradition: Paul Winter’s annual concert. You'll see a slew of dance and musical guests, including Procol Harum singer Gary Brooker, and of course, the Paul Winter Consort—with Winter himself on sax, right where he belongs.

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Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

Masbia

When you think of volunteering to feed the city’s hungry, you probably think of cafeteria-style soup kitchens. And don’t get us wrong, those organizations are great. But Masbia, Brooklyn’s only kosher soup kitchen, stands out by using volunteer waiters to serve meals and clean up after diners, treating needy New Yorkers—here a largely Orthodox Jewish population—with dignity and respect. Various locations (718-972-4446, masbia.org). Various dates and times.

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