The ultimate holiday NYC bucket list for New Yorkers

If you live in New York, or want to experience the holidays like someone who does, check out these events beyond the Christmas Spectacular and Rockefeller tree.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Millions of people flock to the city every year to see New York's most famous holiday shows and attractions. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. The Radio City Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular. New York City Ballet's The Nutcracker in Lincoln Center. But if you're a local — or want to ring in the holiday season like one — there are plenty of other events worth checking out.

Things like the opera, the circus, and ice skating in the park are still New York institutions in their own right. And if you live here and haven't experienced them, they are bucket-list items worth seeing at least once. We've included recommendations across the boroughs, so you can expand your horizons beyond the tourist-centric Midtown area. Who knows — you might find a new holiday tradition in the city!

Newer to the city? Check out our recommendations for must-see holiday attractions, shows, and festive food and drinks in New York to figure out where to start your seasonal festivities.

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The Metropolitan Opera

One of the city's most storied institutions, The Metropolitan Opera is a bucket-list destination all year round, but especially during the holidays. Besides seeing Lincoln Center decked out in holiday decor, you can also opt to see the Met's annual holiday presentation, an English-language opera suitable for all ages.

For the past few years, that opera has been The Magic Flute, a classic Mozart piece to delight aficionados and newcomers alike. However, there are plenty of operas going on during the season, so if you'd rather see, say, a Puccini classic or a new, contemporary opera, you can.

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Big Apple Circus

Ask most New York locals, and they'll know the giant blue big top that goes up in Lincoln Center every holiday. It's almost as famous (or perhaps infamous) as the Rockefeller tree. Hearing the sounds of the circus coming from inside it is all but guaranteed to make you want to check it out for yourself eventually.

And you should, for the Big Apple Circus is home to some of the best circus entertainment in the city. When you think of an old-fashioned day at the circus — the ringmaster, the acrobats, the clowns, the cotton candy, all under that big top — you're envisioning exactly what this seasonal spectacular has to offer.

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Light shows at the botanical gardens

Both of the city's major botanical gardens put on annual festive light exhibits, and they're both worth checking out. The best part for locals? Because light fests are a holiday staple at gardens, parks, and event venues all over the country, you're less likely to be among large tourist crowds.

The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx hosts Glow, which boasts two unique things alongside the colorful light displays. One is the Holiday Train Show, another annual holiday spectacular featuring model trains and buildings created partly from the plants. The other is pop-up food vendors from the Bronx Night Market, a local summer food festival that shuttered permanently in 2023. So this is your only opportunity to experience it!

Down at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is Lightscape, which has installations in cities all over the country. Food and drinks are available at this event, too, alongside spectacular, fan-favorite light sculptures like the Winter Cathedral, Fire Garden, and Dancing Palms.

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Nutcracker Rouge

Want to really discover a hidden gem? Head to Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood for Nutcracker Rouge. It's not quite like the Nutcracker up at Lincoln Center — this 21+ version is light on the ballet, heavy on the burlesque and booze.

Nutcracker Rouge is the flagship show of Company XIV, a Baroque-inspired burlesque troupe that's been putting on sensual spectaculars for 10 years and counting. Their shows mix "highbrow" entertainment forms (like opera) with "lowbrow" ones (like striptease) and everything in between (like music, dance, and acrobatics). And there are themed drinks and treats on offer throughout — this is the Land of Sweets, after all.

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New York City ice skating

Ice skating is one of the most cherished New York holiday traditions. Rockefeller Center is the most famous place to do so, especially for tourists who also want to see the tree in one go, but it's far from the only place.

Escape Midtown by skating at Pier 17, the city's only rooftop ice rink located in the South Street Seaport. Skate and shop all in one at Bryant Park, where admission is free (you need only pay for skate rental and bag storage) and you can walk through a scenic holiday market with gift shops and food. Or, experience Wollman Rink, tucked away in the heart of Central Park. Like the park itself, it's a city classic and local favorite.

New York holiday window decorations

Anyone who's ever waited in a long line at a New York department store can attest: Walking outside and looking at the elaborate holiday window displays is almost more fun than actually going into the stores to shop.

Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue have the most famous exhibitions, but locals know to also stop by Bergdorf Goodman's for a fabulous display — and walk down all of Fifth Avenue's shopping district to see many more storefronts decked out in seasonal decor.

Holiday markets in New York

Don't want to venture into the crowded department stores to get holiday gifts? The city's many open-air holiday markets are the way to find more unique gifts from local vendors. The Bryant Park market surrounds the ice rink, so you can make a day of it. Traveling for the holidays and realize you forgot to buy a gift? Grand Central has a market right in the terminal.

If you want to avoid the Midtown crowds, check out the markets in Columbus Circle or Union Square. Every market has slightly different vendors, so you could even tour all of them to check everyone off your shopping list.

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Photo credit: Glow at the New York Botanical Garden. (Photo courtesy of NYBG)

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