Actually Cool Things to Do in NYC This Holiday Season

Fun activities for over-the-top, holiday cheer.

230 Fifth
Photo courtesy of 230 Fifth

The holidays are—of course—going to look a little different this year. The Rockettes aren’t high-kicking; SantaCon revelers won't be roaming the streets (which, actually, might be a silver lining!); and for the first time since 1861, Mr. Claus will be skipping his route to Macy's. And while this may turn out to be one of the strangest winters of our lives, NYC will always be the most magical place to celebrate the holidays. That’s because, pandemic or not, after 10 months of brandishing hard grit and attitude, this is traditionally the time of year when New Yorkers let their guards down and embrace the season’s merriments. And especially in 2020, we’re ready to revel in all of the cheesy, over-the-top, holiday cheer we can get.

This year, see the Bronx Zoo transform into a light-up winter wonderland, take a trip to Queens to shop for decor in a gigantic Christmas shop, or warm up with a hot cocktail at a holiday-themed pop-up bar—we’ve rounded up every magical, miraculous, and must-do event in the city this holiday season. And when it comes to 2020’s hottest gift to give and receive—wearing a mask and social distancing responsibly—we hope it remains at the top of your list beyond this time of year.

Bryant Park Holiday Shops
Bryant Park Holiday Shops | Photo Kit/Shutterstock

Do some stocking-stuffer shopping at an open-air market

Through December 24
Bryant Park
Don’t know what to stuff inside your family’s stockings this year? The Holiday Shops at Bryant Park have handmade gifts from over 170 vendors from artisans all over the world, so statistically, you’re sure to find something they’ll like. Sip a hot cider, shop for scarves, take a break by watching the figure skaters glide across the ice rink at Bryant Park, and take in some retail therapy in the comforts of open air. 
Cost: Free to peruse

Warm up with a hot date in a rooftop igloo

Through spring
230 Fifth is bringing back its beloved Igloo Bar, which features 17 heated domes that are ideal for social distancing and (not-so-socially-distant) holiday dates. You can order food and drinks to your booze cocoon with a cocktail menu that includes hot chocolate spiked with Malibu, apple pie cider, and caramel Irish coffee made with whiskey and butterscotch schnapps. Igloos can be reserved, but walk-ins are welcome—and while you wait, warm up with one of the bar’s cozy red robes. 
Cost: Cocktails start at $10



Big cities may have a lot going on for the holidays, but no one does festive cheer like a small town. That’s why Maker’s Mark is giving one remarkable small town a holiday to remember this December with a holiday makeover -- complete with plenty of much-needed festiveness. It was all part of the Small Town, Bright Lights contest, so check back soon to see who took home the grand prize.


Get on board with a model train show

Through January 31
The Bronx
At the New York Botanical Garden, the Holiday Train Show is back—with a few twists on the tradition. The beloved recreation of NYC rendered in natural materials (like bark, acorns, and cinnamon sticks!) will be there, complete with the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Rockefeller Center. Due to social distancing guidelines, only members and patrons of the NYBG will be able to score a ticket, although they will be allowed to bring a guest. Why not start a new holiday tradition by becoming a member and supporting one of the best green spaces in NYC?
Cost: Membership starts at $90

Make your cheeks rosy at a pop-up bar

Through December 31
East Village
The pop-up bar Miracle on 9th Street will bring that warm holiday flush to your face… or maybe that’s just all the booze? From behind a bar draped with bows, garlands, presents, and all the other trappings of the season, they’re serving up cocktails to get you more than a little merry. Order the Christmapolitan with vodka, vermouth, spiced cranberry, and rosemary, or (because Die Hard is a Christmas movie!) the Yippie Ki Yay Mother F****r! with four rums, bitters, and pumpkin-almond orgeat. 
Cost: Depends how merry you get

Bronx Zoo Lights
Photo by Julie Larsen Maher

Walk through a winter wonderland at the Bronx Zoo

November 20-22, 27-29; December 3-6, 10-13, 17-23, 26-31
The Bronx
The Bronx Zoo is transforming into a winter wonderland for the holidays. Watch an ice carving competition, sip a steaming cup of hot cocoa, and walk through a glittering “lantern safari” that features light-up animals from habitats all over the world. While all the real animals of the zoo will be tucked into their cozy dwellings for the night, you’ll get to see glowing gorillas, flamingos, caribou, and sharks with a ticket to the Holiday Lights. 
Cost: $34.95

Stream the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade

November 26
Due to COVID-19, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will forgo their usual 2.5 mile route this year for televised-only, socially-distant festivities taking place at Herald Square. Streaming live from 34th Street with a 75% reduction of participants than years’ past, beam over 60 balloons and floats into your home and to get up close and personal to all your favorites without getting up and close and personal to a bunch of strangers. 
Cost: Free

Go on a shopping spree in New York's biggest Christmas store

Open 7 days a week
Ozone Park
With over 35,000 square feet of shopping space, Ozone Park’s House of Holiday store is filled with wall-to-wall Christmas cheer. Shopping here is like stepping inside a snow globe: Christmas trees, ornaments, stockings, and some (frankly) unnerving elves await you. Even if your apartment doesn’t have the space to start a miniature Christmas village, you can still ooh and aah over their collection of tiny trees, trains, and snow-topped houses. 
Cost: Free to browse; unnerving elves start at $24.99

Perfect your triple salchow on the ice

Check website for updated schedule 
Skip the crowds at Rockefeller Center and head to the William Vale’s outdoor Vale Rink, where the ice is just as cold and you can skate with the Manhattan skyline behind you. When you get too chilly, head to their cozy, socially-distant “tiny houses” to have a warm drink and compare moves with your ice-dancing partner. 
Cost: Check website for updates

Explore a magical light sculpture forest on Randall's Island

November 27 - January 10
Randall’s Island
The LuminoCity Festival is returning to Randall’s Island Park this year for a socially-distant light-up extravaganza. With glowing Christmas trees, castles, unicorns, and other magical displays, they’ve transformed the island into a jaw-dropping (and eminently Instagrammable) destination. Safety precautions are in place—including masks, temperature checks, and ticketed time slots—so be sure to secure your spot before you go.   
Cost: $38

Take a seat (virtually) on Santa's lap

November 27 - December 24
Seeing as you can’t sit on somebody’s lap from 6 feet away, the longstanding tradition of Macy’s Santaland is moving online. With Macy’s Santaland at Home, now you can recreate the “Santa at the mall” experience of your childhood from your very own computer. It might feel different from the mall of your memories, but Santa is exactly the same (isn’t it funny how that happens?). These new adaptations set in place due to COVID-19 will make 2020 the first time since 1861 that Santa won’t be ho-ho-hoing at Macy’s, but you can still tell the big man what you want under your tree.
Cost: Free; no reservations needed

Take a walking tour of NYC's holiday destinations

December 3-5, 10-12, 17-19
Columbus Circle
On this three-hour tour, you’ll make your way through three of Manhattan’s holiday markets, sipping cocoa and peering into department store windows as you go. Catch a glimpse of some of the city’s best holiday lights, learn about Christmas movie filming locations in NYC, and get all of your holiday shopping done in one fell swoop. You’ll be both walking and taking the subway, so bring your MetroCard and be prepared for a Christmas adventure. 
Cost: $45

Largest Menorah
Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

Watch the lighting of Brooklyn's largest menorah

December 10 - December 17
Park Slope 
Brooklyn’s Largest Menorah used to be the World’s Largest Menorah. At 32 feet high—the maximum height allowed by Jewish law—it has an equally-tall contender in Manhattan’s Central Park. While the middle candle in the Brooklyn menorah is six inches higher, Manhattan took the win in both the Guinness Book of World Records and a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical court. But never mind all that Hanukkah drama: Come out to Grand Army Plaza, where they’ll be celebrating the festival of lights every night with live music and hot latkes.
Cost: Free

See Brooklyn in its very best light

December 15 – December 31
Dyker Heights
Mid-to-late December is the time when Dyker Heights—finally!—shines at its brightest. Every year, the entire neighborhood transforms into a Christmas light spectacular, inflatable Santas and all. Almost every house gets into the spirit, but the most merry drive (or walk, if the night is warm) is up Dyker Heights Boulevard from 83rd to 86th Street. Head out after sundown, and be prepared to jump on the D train around 9, when the homeowners turn off the lights. Since individual homeowners decide whether to light up or not, 2020 might have fewer holiday lights than years past—but the neighborhood is sure to still be in the Christmas spirit.
Cost: Free

Celebrate Kwanzaa at Black-owned bars

December 26
Brooklyn and Harlem
Run by sisters Kerry Coddett and Krystal Stark, The Kwanzaa Crawl takes you on a tour of some of the city’s best Black-owned bars on the first day of Kwanzaa. Participants will move through Brooklyn or Harlem, drinking, dancing, and being immersed in culture that encompasses the African diaspora. Feel good knowing that having cocktails and making new friends while celebrating community will also help make an impact—the event runners say that last year, the Kwanzaa Crawl brought over $400,000 to Black-owned businesses in a single night.
Cost: Ticket prices TBA

Ring in 2021…

December 31
Your apartment
After the year we’ve all had, we deserve to celebrate 2021. While the Times Square ball drop usually draws more than a million people to the streets, this year you can watch it virtually and spend the night cuddled up in your pajamas. Sing "Auld Lang Syne," drink a split of champagne with your roommates, and brace yourself for whatever the new year will bring. 
Cost: Free

...and wash off 2020

January 1
Coney Island
If you want to wash away every single memory of 2020, the Polar Bear Plunge is a good place to start. Every New Year’s Day, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club—aka the masochists who like to jump into the icy Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the winter—meet on the boardwalk to wade into the water. You can join them, or watch from the sand with a jacket wrapped around your shoulders.  
Cost: Donations appreciated

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Rachel Pelz lives and writes in Brooklyn.