Post Overview: Free Things to Do During Christmas in NYC
It’s no secret that New York City is expensive, so needless to say finding free things to do for Christmas is a priority for both locals and tourists alike.
During the holidays folks flirt with poor financial decisions every day, but it’s just a tease because there’s plenty of fun and free things to do during Christmas in NYC. In this post we’ll cover all the best, so let’s dive in!
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Free Things to Do During Christmas in NYC
#20. Attend Christmas mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Smack-dab in the middle of Manhattan, St. Patrick’s is a gothic cathedral surrounded by concrete and metal skyscrapers. The church is striking and impossible to ignore, whether you’re a Catholic or not.
One of the best things to do for free during Christmas in NYC is to try to make it to the church. Whether you’re attending the service because you’re a devout believer, to appease your mother in law or to experience something new it’s near impossible not to be awestruck.
Attending the mass is one of the best free things to do for Christmas in New York City, so tickets are sorted via a lottery. Just note the lottery closes on November 22nd, so enter now!
For more information regarding mass times and how to enter the lottery visit Saint Patrick’s Cathedral’s official website.
#19. Snap a picture with the famous Radio City Music Hall Christmas tree
I dare you to name a holiday movie based in New York City that doesn’t use Radio City Music Hall as an establishing shot. The instantly recognizable marquee is topped with a 71-foot tall Christmas tree during the holidays.
Not only is visiting and snapping a picture in front of the iconic lights one of the best free things to do during Christmas in NYC, but the location is pretty hard to beat.
Located in Midtown, you’ll be near so many other free holiday attractions that you could spend half the day bopping around the area. Just across the street are giant red ornaments that are a popular backdrop for pictures.
Some other free things to do during Christmas in New York City in the area include visiting the Rockefeller Tree, 5th Avenue and much more we’ll cover further down this article!
Address: 1260 6th Ave, New York, NY 10020
#18. Gawk at the creative costumes during this year’s SantaCon NYC
SantaCon NYC is an epic annual booze-filled event in the Big Apple. Flocks of folks come from all over the city dressed in festive holiday costumes and indulge in a massive pub crawl.
Obviously going bar hopping is going to cost you a pretty penny, but you can always arrive at the gathering point (which is revealed closer to the date) to just gawk at adults dressed as reindeers, elves and Santas.
Spirits are high and pictures are always encouraged so if you’re looking for free things to do during Christmas in NYC look no further than Santacon (and then scram because this event can get pretty wild!)
Interested in participating? Check out our complete guide Everything You Need to Know About SantaCon NYC (or How to Avoid it!).
#17. Check out Dyker Heights with your family
Dyker Heights is a neighborhood in south Brooklyn that’s famous for some of the best decorated Christmas houses in New York. It’s the type of neighborhood you think only exists in movies.
While technically you’ll need to swipe your subway card to get to the charming neighborhood, the houses are impressive enough to warrant a spot on our list of best free things to do during Christmas in NYC.
Take your time meandering up and down the streets while taking in all the hard work and the extravagant houses. A fun game my husband and I like to play to pass the time is guess the price of the electrical bill. 😉
Want to learn more? Check out Everything You Need to Know About The Dyker Heights Christmas Lights. This is one of the best free things to do during Christmas in NYC with kids!
#16. Visit the Columbus Circle Holiday Market
The lively Columbus Circle Holiday Market is located in the southwest entrance of Central Park. Featuring more than 100 holiday booths you can easily spend a few hours browsing the beloved free NYC Christmas market.
The talented vendors sell an array of fun trinkets. Expect to find everything from home-made souvenirs, cute tote bags, creative Christmas ornaments and much, much more.
Even if you don’t intend to shop, simply perusing the festive stalls is one of the best free things to do during Christmas in New York City. If anything the people-watching opportunities are hard to beat.
#15. Rock out at Unsilent Night
Most of us have heard of Silent Night, the 200 year old Christmas carol, but what about Unsilent Night?
Instead of a soothing song sung by a children’s choir, Unsilent Night is the combination of four chaotic synthesized songs played loudly in a parade that’s become one of the best free NYC Christmas events.
Composed and led by artist Phil Kline, every year New Yorkers gather at Washington Square Park to make the mile march to Tompkins Square, carrying old school boomboxes playing the electronic track.
Kline brings extra boomboxes for particants, but bringing your own speakers is encouraged.
In 2023 the free NYC Christmas parade takes place on Sunday, December 17th at 6PM. Once at the park you’ll get an audio file of the song and hopefully make some new friends this holiday season.
This is the 31st anniversary of the “sound sculpture,” the event that has spread across the country (and the world). According to the official website, the event draws in thousands and has been hosted in five continents.
So if you’re in search of fun, free things to do during Christmas in New York City participating in Unsilent Night might just be up your alley.
#14. Experience the Wall Street Tree Lighting
This year marks the 100th annual New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) Tree Lighting, which means 100 years of hosting one of the best free Christmas events in NYC.
Located at Experience Square, right in front of the New York Stock Exchange, you’ll find one of the the most massive Christmas trees in NYC. This year the ceremony takes place on November 30th from 3:00 to 6:30PM and believe me when I say it’s an event you don’t want to miss.
Attending the tree lighting is one of the best free things to do in NYC during Christmas with kids. Enjoy some cocoa while taking photos with costumed performers and take the time to write a letter to Santa.
Address: 11 Wall St, New York, NY 10005
#13. Hop aboard the Nostalgia Train
During weekends in December the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) partners with the New York Transit Museum to offer New Yorkers a chance to time travel.
How is this possible? The MTA runs a vintage eight-car subway train in a free NYC Christmas experience dubbed the Holiday Nostalgia Ride.
I mean, riding in a vintage 1930 train is the last thing you’d expect when looking for free things to do during Christmas in NYC, but alas it’s one of the most memorable.
My favorite thing about this free Christmas tradition in New York City is that it doesn’t cost anything more than the standard subway fare. Before you write it off, $2.90 is a small price to pay for an epic holiday experience.
2023’s Holiday Nostalgia Ride information yet to be announced. Come back to this article to find out when and where you can hop aboard.
From the New York Transit Museum website:
The Holiday Nostalgia Train consists of eight cars from the 1930s that ran along lettered lines through the late-1970s. Featuring rattan seats, paddle ceiling fans, incandescent light bulbs, roll signs, and period advertisements, these are the cars that inspired Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train.” Today, they are preserved as part of the New York Transit Museum’s collection.
#12. Get lost searching for the best Christmas decorations New York City has to offer
Christmas in New York City is pure magic. You won’t struggle finding decorated storefronts, epic holiday window displays and festive decorations larger than life. The best part? It won’t cost you a penny to stare!
Taking the time to explore your neighborhood’s holiday decorations is one of the best free things to do in NYC for Christmas. It’s both exercise and entertainment, just remember to bundle up and bring a hot chocolate.
If at all helpful, here is a short list of some of our favorite neighborhoods to walk (with no plan or streets in mind) during the holiday season:
- The West Village
- Upper West Side
- Upper East Side
One of the easiest free things to do during Christmas in New York City is to stroll the charming brownstones scattered around the city and enjoy the fun decorations.
If you want something more specific than neighborhood recommendations check out New York Christmas Decorations: Where to Find Festive Decor in NYC.
#11. Gawk at all the magical Christmas trees sprinkled around the city
If you know where to look, it’s not difficult to visit New York City during the holidays on a budget. The amount of outdoor markets, holiday displays and Christmas trees sprinkled around the city available at no cost is amazing.
I highly recommend visiting the many (many) beautifully decorated Christmas trees throughout the city if you’re looking for free things to do during Christmas in NYC.
Here is a quick round-up of popular Christmas trees you must see (and won’t cost you a dime!):
- Rockefeller Center | 45 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10111
- Lotte New York Palace | 455 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10022
- New York Stock Exchange | 11 Wall St, New York, NY 10005
Have more time? Check out 15+ Captivating Christmas Trees in NYC and Where to Find Them.
#10. Pay a visit to all the iconic holiday movie sites
It’s common knowledge that the Big Apple is a filmmaker’s playground, and more than a few Christmas movies are set in New York. Odds are you’ll recognize more than one location in the city from the big screen.
So naturally, one of the best free things to do during Christmas in NYC is to take yourself on a self-guided tour of these famous sites.
Below I’ll give you a few of my favorites, just bear in mind there’s no way I can cover them all. If I missed your favorite location you can leave them in the comments for other readers to enjoy.
- The Plaza Hotel | Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
- Bryant Park Holiday Market | Something from Tiffany’s (2022)
- Macy’s Herald Square | Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
- The Rockefeller Christmas Tree | The Night Before (2015)
Film buffs can agree that seeing the filming locations with your own eyes is one of the best free things to do during Christmas in NYC. If you really want to commit, watch the film the same day you visit!
#9. Peruse Union Square Park Holiday Market
Personally speaking, a proper New York City Christmas itinerary doesn’t kick off until I find myself bundled up at the Union Square Holiday Market. Exploring the 185 stalls is one of the best free things to do in NYC for Christmas!
Truth be told, the Union Square Holiday Market is the largest Christmas Market in NYC so the amount of vendors can feel overwhelming! Especially with the massive crowds during peak times (weekends and weekdays after 5pm).
However, if you’re looking for free things to do during Christmas in NYC then you simply can’t skip it. This is the perfect place to draw inspiration and go window shopping for Christmas gifts or souvenirs.
#8. Explore the epic decorations at Macy’s Herald Square
The largest Macy’s in the world is as impressive as it sounds, it covers an entire city block and spans 1.1 million square feet! It’s in Herald Square in Midtown Manhattan, and trust me when I say you’re not going to want to miss it.
The size alone might make you think, “wow, capitalism is on full display” and normally you’d be right. But instead, I’m here to tell you about one of the best free things to do during Christmas in NYC.
Every year the store transforms into an oasis of winter festivities. The decorations are second to none, and they even convert an entire floor into something called Macy’s Santaland (which we touch on next 😉 ).
Even if your itinerary doesn’t allow you extra room to explore the gigantic store, Macy’s strings up some of the most beautiful Christmas lights outside the store as well.
#7. Or take your kids to see Santa at Macy’s Santaland
Macy’s Santaland is a beloved Christmas event that has been attracting families for ages! Spanning 13,000 square feet, this is an experience your kiddo is bound to love.
The best part? The entire experience is completely free to enjoy, but advanced reservations are required.
Macy’s transforms the 8th floor of their massive department store (the biggest department store in the world, actually) into a Christmas palooza.
Visitors will meander through charming villages, Santa’s workshop and tons of other fun displays before getting to meet Santa face-to-face.
Fair warning — this is one of the most popular free things to do during Christmas in NYC with kids and reservations can be hard to come by. Book an opening as soon as you can!
Want to know more? Check out The Complete Guide to Macy’s Santaland in NYC!
#6. Check out the lights at Hudson Yards
Hudson Yards is a massive mall adjacent to the (now) infamous Vessel. The mall features tons of high-end shops and restaurants, it’s fun to explore anytime of year but Christmas is especially worth a visit because the mall is decked out with over two million Christmas lights!
The holiday celebration at Hudson Yards Mall is called Shine On. It’s a unique light and music installation that spans the holiday season. I think kids would really like this experience, so if you have tots definitely swing by!
The mall might be made up of high-end shops but taking in the lights won’t cost you a thing. Not to mention just steps outside of Hudson Yards you’ll find dozens of surrounding trees bursting in beautiful lights. Consider stopping by one of the few non-negotiable free things to do during Christmas in New York City.
#5. Attend the Rockefeller Tree Lighting
The Rockefeller Christmas Tree is an annual Christmas tradition that dates back to 1933 officially (unofficially, construction workers put up the first tree in 1931). The tree typically lights up the end of November/early December, you can check exact days here.
A new tree is selected every year with an impressive requirement: the tree must be at least 75 feet tall. Decorated with more than 50,000 lights and topped with a breathtaking (and super bright) Swarovski star, seeing this masterpiece in person is one of the best free things to do in NYC at Christmas.
My advice is to visit as early as possible (like first thing in the morning). The crowds are so intense at this popular New York City Christmas attraction and it takes away from the overall experience.
#4. Go ice skating at Bryant Park
One of my personal favorite free things to do in New York City during Christmas is to visit the Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park
The park is transformed into a European-style holiday market, equipped with 100 vendors that lining a popular ice skating rink.
The stalls sell fun Christmas decorations, handmade crafts, unique jewelry and — my favorite — food, lots of good food.
But what really puts Bryant Park on our list of free things to do during Christmas in NYC is the 17,000-square foot ice rink that is free to use. The only catch is you need to bring your own skates, otherwise there are some available for rent (for a fee).
#3. See the Saks 5th Avenue Light Show
Of all the impressive Christmas lights you’re bound to see while visiting New York City during the holidays, nothing will compare to the spectral display of the Saks 5th Avenue Light Show.
The lights play in tandem with classic Christmas music, dazzling children and adults alike. The experience takes the New York City holiday spirit to a whole new level!
The songs play at regular 10-minute intervals from 5pm to 11pm. Stick around and enjoy a few rounds, but prepare for crazy crowds because this is one of the most popular free things to do during Christmas in New York City.
#2. Walk down 5th Avenue and admire the (breathtaking) window displays
If you’re visiting New York City during Christmas with the hopes of getting as many free magical experiences as possible then you need to know about the famous window displays on Fifth Avenue.
Fifth Avenue is the most popular shopping area in New York City and one of the most popular shopping areas in the world. It’s always chock-full of people, but especially so during the holiday season.
This massive shopping district is marked by luxury brands competing for attention by way of stunning window displays. I do not use the term luxury lightly. Indeed, Fifth Avenue is often referred to as one of the most expensive shopping districts in the world.
Knowing that window shopping is one of the best free things to do in NYC during Christmas, the stores go all out to impress visitors.
But some do it better than others. If you’re short on time, the best window displays are at Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Empire State Building and Bloomingdales.
#1. Explore Central Park
Central Park is breathtaking anytime of year, but especially so if you get to experience it covered in snow. Now I’m not saying it’s common to get snow during the holiday season in New York, but it’s also not unheard of.
With that said, if you’re visiting NYC during Christmas one of the best (free) things to do is popping in your headphones and letting Christmas music roll as you meander through the various paths. It’s a very peaceful and magical experience.
If you’re with a special someone, split the headphones with them as you slowly stroll through Central Park. Can you think of a more romantic way to spend the holidays in New York City?
Also worth mention, if you’ve never visited Tavern on the Green pay it a visit during the holiday season. The interior is decorated in cheery Christmas decor and the expansive menu is full of delicious seasonal fare.
Free Things to Do during Christmas in New York City (Post Summary)
- Explore Central Park
- Walk down 5th Avenue and check out the window displays
- See the Sakes 5th Avenue Light Show
- Go ice skating at Bryant Park
- Attend the Rockefeller Tree Lighting
- Check out the lights at Hudson Yards
- Take your kids to see Santa at Macy’s Santaland
- Explore the epic decorations at Macy’s Herald Square
- Peruse Union Square Park Holiday Market
- Take a self-guided tour of iconic holiday movie sites
- Gawk at the magical Christmas trees sprinkled around the city
- Get lost searching for the best Christmas decorations NYC has to offer
- Hop aboard the Nostalgia Train
- Experience the Wall Street Tree Lighting
- Rock out with half of New York during Unsilent Night
- Visit the Columbus Circle Holiday Market
- Check out Dyker Heights with your family
- Swoon over the creative costumes during this years SantaCon NYC
- Snap a picture with the famous Radio City Hall Christmas tree
- Attend Christmas mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Christmas in NYC on a Budget (Helpful Map)
And there you have it friends, the best free things to do during Christmas in New York City. We hope you enjoyed this guide and as always let us know if we missed a spot. We love hearing from you!
Cheers and happy holidays from all of us at New York Simply. 🙂