The ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center, with the statue of Prometheus overlooking the rink

Ice-skaters enjoy the rink at Rockefeller Center, with the statue of Prometheus overlooking the rink and the famed Christmas tree in the background

Every November, as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade concludes and our turkey dinner digests, New York City begins its transformation into winter wonderland. Vibrant holiday lights adorn its streets, while its up-scale department stores dress their storefront windows to the nines as eager holiday shoppers flock from around the globe.

New York City is indeed quite a site to see during the holiday season. And the good news—it’s not as out of reach as you might think! Here are ten ways to enjoy New York’s festive atmosphere without spending too much money.

10.) Raise your glass at Santa Con

Each year, thousands of young people dressed as Santa Claus gather from around the country in Manhattan for the annual Santa convention. Sound exciting? Well, Santa Con is essentially just a glorified bar-crawl. Although the kids start drinking well before they arrive, they “officially” start in the morning and hop from bar to bar throughout the day along with all the other Santas. The cool part? They tweet the location of the next bar just moments before you’re supposed to switch! (I know … so exciting, I can hardly contain myself). In addition, each participatory bar is supposed to donate a certain amount of food to a local food distribution center or soup kitchen. Although Santa Con is not really something I have a desire to actually participate in, it’s really fun to be in NYC on the day it happens. By the end of the day, you just have a lot of really drunk Santas running amuck through the streets of Manhattan. Ahh … ’tis the season …

 9.) Peruse the elaborate department store window displays

Elaborate window display at Bergdorff Goodman along Fifth Avenue

Elaborate window display at Bergdorf Goodman along Fifth Avenue

Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany & Company, Bloomingdales. These are just a few of the many stores who create elaborate window displays for the holiday season. Saks Fifth Avenue has a multi-media presentation running all along the front of their building every thirteen minutes. Shoppers stroll the streets taking in each of the unique creations.

 8.) Play like a kid at FAO Schwartz

Across the street from the luxurious Plaza Hotel at the southern corner of Central Park East lies another treasure of NYC: the FAO Schwartz toy store. Live toy soldiers greet and salute you at the front door as you enter a childhood wonderland. Whether you are a child or an adult, you will surely find this multi-story play-land well worth the wait in line. Check out life-sized stuffed animals and dance a tune on the giant keyboard. Just be prepared – this store is quite the visual overload.

 7.) Sing and dance with the Salvation Army Bell Ringers

A young girl sings "Jingle Bells" for shoppers along the Avenue of the Americas

A young girl sings “Jingle Bells” for shoppers along the Avenue of the Americas

These aren’t your typical bell ringers standing frozen outside the grocery store. These folks make an ordinarily unpleasant job fun. Groove along to the sounds of the season and give to a good cause.

 6.) Marvel at the holiday decorations throughout Manhattan

Giant Christmas ornaments, life-sized holiday lights, and six-foot-tall snowflakes dangling over major intersections are just a few of the fantastic displays of the season. You can also have your picture taken with multiple varieties of cartoon icons dressed as Santa Claus, including Sponge Bob Square Pants, Elmo, and Papa Smurf, to name a few.

 5.) Enjoy the sounds of Christmas carolers along the High Line in Chelsea

The recent-addition of the High Line has provided New Yorkers a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets below. On weekends in December, stop and enjoy the sounds of Christmas carols as you stroll along the mile-and-a-half long former railway-turned-park.

4.) See a holiday show

New York is known for its shows no matter the time of year, but Christmas offers something even more special. Two of the most popular shows are Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular and George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, performed by the New York City Ballet at the Lincoln Center. I usually don’t like ballet, but I loved seeing this holiday tradition in person. Most of these shows will run through New Year’s Day. Tickets are not cheap, but are nonetheless, reasonably priced. 

3.) Experience the grandeur of the New York skyline at the New York Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show

A toy train motors past the Manhattan skyline at the New York City Botanic Garden in the Bronx

A toy train motors past the Manhattan skyline at the New York Botanic Garden

This is probably one of the most worthwhile attractions we have visited. Located in the Haupt Conservatory of the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, the train show is a delight to visitors of all ages. Model trains weave through the indoor gardens, making their way past replicas of some of New York City’s most beloved landmarks. The buildings are made from organic material, such as sticks, bark, nuts, and leaves. Our favorite landmarks included the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, Penn Station, and Yankee Stadium. Tickets cost $20/adult. This gets you entry into the rest of the park as well. Take a ride on the train around the park, or just leisurely stroll the grounds. If you have children, they will no doubt enjoy the Gingerbread exhibit, where they get to decorate (and eat!) their own gingerbread.

 2.) Dine beneath the dazzling décor at Rolf’s German Restaurant

Each Christmas, Rolf’s transforms into a dazzling display of elaborate lights, ornaments, and garnishes. Visitors and locals alike pack into this shot-gun restaurant to enjoy the unique ambiance over a beer and bratwurst. Be sure to make your reservations a few weeks in advance if you plan to stay for dinner. Otherwise, you can drop into the bar anytime – that is, if you can make it through the door!

1.) Visit the spectacular Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center

It’s impossible to visit NYC over the holidays and skip out on this national symbol of the season. Although the tree is smaller in person than it seems on television, it’s well worth the effort it takes to get there. And I do mean effort. The location isn’t difficult to find, but getting close to the tree will require persistence (and a little pushing and shoving!). You can visit during the daytime when it is less crowded, but it doesn’t have the same wow-factor. There’s no entry fee to see the tree, but if you want to ice skate on the rink below, prepare to invest quite a bit of time and money.