The Best FREE Things to Do in New York City During the Holidays

New York City doesn’t do low-key or subdued or understated. Those words aren’t even in its vocabulary. It’s a “Go Big or Go Home” kinda town. So it’s not difficult to imagine just how festive the Big Apple is during the holidays. From incredible light and holiday-themed displays to one-of-a-kind events and activities, New York City makes it nearly impossible to get your Grinch on. Now, there are plenty of things worth parting with your hard-earned cash for. Big-ticket events like the Radio City Christmas Spectacular or the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker are huge draws every year. But we’re here to let you in on a little secret: you don’t need to break the bank to enjoy the holiday season in The City That Never Sleeps.

So, whether you’re a local staying put or you’re coming for a visit during the holiday season, we’ve compiled this handy list of our favorite free things to do in New York City during the holidays.

Unsilent Night

Crowd gathered at Washington Square Park for Unsilent Night in New York City via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Crowd filling the sidewalk for Unsilent Night in New York City via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Wanna go caroling but can’t carry a tune? Not to worry! Unsilent Night is an annual event in which a procession of participants trek from the West Village (under the arch in Washington Square Park) to the East Village (Tompkins Square Park under the giant elm tree), all while blasting four intermingled pieces of composer Phil Kline’s holiday score. While some participants pull their boomboxes out of storage, just your smartphone will do too. Wearing Santa hats, reindeer antlers, ugly sweaters and battery-powered lights isn’t mandatory but it’s certainly encouraged. Free and open to the public, you’ll just need to bring your own device and download one of the four compositions.

Sunday, December 15, 2019 at 6:00 pm

We’ll update this with 2020 dates as soon as they’re available.

Holiday Windows

Bergdorf Goodman holiday window with dinosaurs made of Swarovski crystals in New York City via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Bergdorf Goodman holiday window with bright colors in New York City via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Every year, the department stores throughout New York City vie for your attention with incredibly imaginative holiday window displays. Most windows go through an extensive design process that lasts an entire year, and you’ll find high-profile collaborations (like Barney’s 2017 window display featuring the work of L.A. design duo, The Haas Brothers), to partnerships with iconic brands (like Bloomingdale’s 2017 Swarovski crystal-themed The Greatest Showman displays). You can choose a short route that takes you past the most luxurious windows, or continue down Fifth Avenue and 34th Street for the full treatment.

Pro Tip: Many of the larger retailers have window unveiling events that are open to the public and often feature elaborate performances, free refreshments and more. If you miss the unveiling and plan on checking out the windows later, go late in the evening or early in the morning for unobstructed views (and photos!). Just remember to dress warmly, here’s a winter packing list to ensure you have all your bases covered.

Nov 21, 2019 : Bergdorf Goodman
Nov 21, 2019: Macy’s
Nov 25, 2019: Saks Fifth Avenue
Nov 22, 2019: Bloomingdale’s

We’ll update this with 2020 dates as soon as they’re available.

Holiday Train Show and Nostalgia Train Rides

Front car of the Shoppers Special Nostalgia Train in New York City via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Musicians and dancers in vintage dress at 2nd Avenue subway in New York City via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Though the New York Transit Museum is located in Brooklyn, Grand Central Station is home to their Gallery Annex and Store. Located in the station’s Shuttle Passage, the Gallery Annex and Store gets into the holiday spirit each year with its Annual Holiday Train Show. The display features Lionel trains traveling along a 34’ long, two-level, “O” gauge model train layout, which departs from a miniature replica of Grand Central Terminal on their way to the North Pole. The theme of the holiday train show changes every year and the event is free and open to the public.

Nov 15, 2019 – Feb 24, 2020

We’ll update this with 2020 dates as soon as they’re available.

But that’s not the only way the New York Transit Museum gets into the holiday spirit! It also offers Holiday Nostalgia Train Rides on Sundays between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. It’s not entirely free, but for the cost of a Metro Card swipe, you get to ride on a vintage 1930’s R1-9 train car. And New Yorkers love a good excuse to travel back in time, so don’t be surprised if you show up for the Nostalgia Train Ride and find some commuters in vintage dress there to accompany you.

Sundays, December 2019, on certain routes.

Holiday Markets

Bryant Park Winter Village skating rink with the Empire State Building in the background via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Floral garden in front of the holiday shops at Bryant Park Winter Village in NYC via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Story Time at Le Carrousel at Bryant Park Winter Village in NYC via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
New York City has no shortage of holiday markets. The Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park, The Union Square Holiday Market and The Columbus Circle Holiday Market have all partnered with Urbanspace, which means that in addition to great shopping for local artisanal goods, you can now enjoy expertly curated food experiences as well. The Winter Village at Bryant Park also offers ice skating (for a fee) and a second-floor observation deck. For more family-friendly fun, make your way to the carousel where you may find a magic show or story time event taking place.

Pro Tip: For access to the Observation Deck, you have to get in the same line as those who are planning to skate. Access to the overlook is free (assuming the area isn’t reserved for a private event), but you’ll need a wristband to get in.

Bryant Park Holiday Shops
Oct 31, 2019 – Jan 5, 2020

Union Square Holiday Market
Nov 21, 2019 – Dec 24, 2019

Columbus Circle Holiday Market
Dec 4, 2019 – Dec 24, 2019

We’ll update this with 2020 dates as soon as they’re available.

Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting & Holiday Displays

Rockefeller Center Tree and Channel Gardens Holiday Display in New York City via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

The tree and holiday displays at Rockefeller Center are iconic. You’ve likely seen them on a live broadcast of the tree lighting or in a movie or television show. There’s a reason the tree is an annual pilgrimage for locals and tourists alike: it’s fantastic. The annual tree lighting ceremony is free and open to the public, though you’ll have to get there early to secure a spot for the popular event. You can skate at The Rink (for a fee), but just strolling around the area and taking in the magical displays will be enough to fill you with holiday spirit.

The tree lighting will be broadcast on Dec 4, 2019 8-10 pm and the tree will stay up through early 2020.

We’ll update this with 2020 dates as soon as they’re available.

Dyker Heights Christmas Lights

Fully decorated home in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Home with giant inflatables in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

The Dyker Heights Christmas Lights is what happens when an affluent neighborhood turns holiday decorating into a competition. And the winners, of course, are the visitors. If you’re like us and you make it an annual ritual to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, you’ll understand when we tell you that even Clark Griswold would feel inadequate in this neighborhood! From life-size Nutcracker dolls to lights of every shape and size, you’re in for quite a treat.

Pro Tip: Strolling around the neighborhood is free, but please note that it’s still a residential area and parking is restricted. Consider taking public transportation or a rideshare service. For a hassle-free experience, it might be worth it to shell out some cash for a guided tour.

Runs through the month of Dec, excluding Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve.


Colorful holiday decorations hanging from the ceiling at Rolf's Gold and silver holiday window decorations at Bloomingdales in New York City via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Okay, so this isn’t technically free. Sure, there’s no entry fee, but it’s expected you’ll buy something–at least a drink. Rolf’s is a German restaurant and bar in New York City, known principally for its elaborate holiday decorations. And when we say “elaborate”, we mean the restaurant has an alleged $60,000 budget for their 100,000-plus lights and 15,000-plus ornaments. They begin work on the display in September with a deadline of November 1st, and it takes a crew–often working around the clock–to complete the work.

Pro Tip: Rolf’s is a holiday institution, so getting reservations for a meal is a must. If you’re just grabbing a drink at the bar, note that you might have to wait in line so plan accordingly.

As you can see, whether your jam is caroling, mind-blowing window displays, miniature or old-fashioned trains, ice skating, markets, iconic 80-foot trees, or insane holiday lights displays, the city has you covered. So get out there and make it one to remember. New York City is officially yours for the holidays.

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Pinterest pin of the holiday decorations at Rolf's German Restaurant and Bar in New York City with the caption "The Best Free Things to Do in NYC During the Holidays" via Mad Hatters NYC blog.

– L. & J.

15 thoughts on “The Best FREE Things to Do in New York City During the Holidays”

  1. This is extremely serendipitous! As it happens, I will be visiting NYC during the holidays. This gives me some great ideas, since I want to keep within a reasonable budget. Won’t be there on a Sunday so will have to miss the vintage train ride, but I plan to make use of your holiday window route, and maybe get a reservation at Rolf’s!

    1. We’re so glad this will be useful to you, Cynthia. And we’re thrilled you’ll be visiting the city during our favorite time of the year. We’re so excited for you! Obviously, we’ll DM and figure out a time to meet up. 😉

  2. Thanks for this fabulous list. I think I will look up some of them. For instance, I had no idea about Rolf’s or the nostalgic train rides. Sounds exciting. Bring on the festive spirit with generous lashings of mulled wine and hot chocolate! Yay. 🙂

    1. Dippy! Justin here. Thanks for checking out the post and dropping us a line. I’ll take some hot chocolate regardless of the holidays, and I enjoyed plenty of mulled wine last time I was in London. As you know well, those Londoners also celebrate the holidays with zeal. 🙂

  3. Got to know something new from this post!!
    Observation Deck visiting info!!!
    Thanks for sharing that tip.

    I love the holiday atmosphere in the air, in NYC. I wonder if it’s just me or does it feel a little subdue this year?

    1. Thanks, Tara! There’s nothing better than being told we added something unexpected in our post. As for your sense of the city, I do feel like it is building up a bit slower than usual. Fortunately, we’re talking about NYC, and NYC always comes through in the end. Unless your talking about public transportation. But that’s for another discussion. 😛

    1. Thanks, Lynn! I wholeheartedly agree with your feelings about L&T. Their windows were always quite clever and creative. It’s a shame, but there’s a larger story here about what’s happening with retail. On the one hand, there are the excessive rents in the city. On the other, there’s the loss of foot traffic and the change in shopping habits. I read an article today that was talking about Nordstrom being a victim of its own success–its push to find growth online has been successful enough that it’s hurting the sales at its physical locations. As for the snow, we came out of it unscathed. 😉

  4. This is a great list, but I have one question…what time of the night (wee morning hours?) did you go to Rockefeller Plaza to get a photo of the lit tree with NO PEOPLE? We will certainly miss the Christmas adventures this year, especially the holiday train. Keep havin’ fun – Jam.

    1. Hahaha, it’s actually a tradition of ours to go late at night (after midnight) to see all the windows, and that’s when we scored that pic! We’re looking forward to making the pilgrimage after Thanksgiving 🙂

      Hope you’re both planning something special for the first holiday season in your new home! ❤️

  5. Well, you have made us sufficiently homesick! We are really going to miss the Christmas season in what is “Christmas City”. I am forwarding your blog to a friend who is visiting this week and wants some insight into what to do and where to go. Miss you guys! Have a Merry Christmas.

    1. Aw, we miss you guys, too, Tip. We’re so glad you follow along with our adventures, though. Using our blog as a reference for a friend’s trip is an incredible honor. If there are any additional questions we can answer, don’t hesitate to send them our way. We’ll be thinking of you through the holiday season and beyond. Please stay in touch. We look forward to your new discoveries going forward as well.

  6. wonderful ideas and will save it for my future visit! This time of the year is really awesome , the pictures bring on the festive mood and holiday cheer!!

    1. Thanks, Nisha! So glad you enjoyed our post. We hope you get the opportunity to check out some of these classic NYC holiday activities in the future. We wish you a happy holidays and an exciting new year to come.

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