Kick off your family's holiday season with an American tradition.
There are few places on earth more festive than New York City during the holidays, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade marks the official kickoff to the season. It’s not too late to make last-minute plans to travel to NYC and see it live in person. With everything from tips on how to navigate the parade and where to find the best turkey dinners to a list of ice-skating rinks and festive holiday markets, we’ve got you covered, pilgrim!
Photo courtesy: Warwick New York
What to do?
Thanksgiving just isn’t Thanksgiving if there’s no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the TV in the morning! Now in it’s 91st year, the parade has become an American tradition with more than 50 million viewers each year. And while seeing it in person is a big bucket-list item for many families, there are some things you need to know before you go.
First, get there early! With just 2.5 miles of public viewing space and an estimated 3.5 million expected spectators, you can imagine how crowded it’s going to be. The parade doesn’t begin until 9 a.m., but most people start staking out their spots around 6 a.m. (or earlier!).
Secondly, dress in layers and bring snacks. You never know what the weather is going to be, so be ready for anything. It’s likely going to be quite cold, and you’ll be out in it for a long time. Also, you never know when someone’s going to get hungry or how close to an open Starbucks you’ll be, so come prepared. And most importantly, limit your liquids beforehand! We’re talking millions of spectators in a very small area with a very limited number of bathrooms available. You get my drift!
Thirdly, know the route! The best place to view depends on you. Early birds camp out along the west side of the street on Central Park West from 59th to 75th Streets (the east side is not open for viewing) where the parade runs from about 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. If you’re going to arrive later, farther down the route on 6th Avenue may be better; the parade doesn’t reach this area until about 9:30 a.m.
KidTripster Tip: Avoid the area in front of Macy’s Herald Square and along 6th Avenue between 34th and 38th Streets as it’s blocked off due to the national television broadcast. Locals will tell you that the farther away you get from Herald Square, the more the crowd thins out.
Wherever you watch – whether it’s up front or in the way back – you’re sure to see a spectacular lineup of boisterous marching bands, celebrities atop colorful floats, the Rockettes, and clowns of all kinds… so many clowns! And then of course, there’s the procession of larger than life pop culture-inspired balloons that this parade is known for. It’s all topped off with Santa’s arrival at the end of the parade!
Not into standing out in the cold? Keep reading…
Photo courtesy: Julienne Schaer
Where to stay?
The only thing that isn’t family-friendly about this iconic event is that you need to arrive at the crack of dawn (earlier, actually) to stake out your spot along the parade route. That, and it can be very cold (or raining). And there are no bathrooms. For these and many other reasons, you may want to consider splurging on a hotel room with a view of the parade.
While you often have to book nearly a year in advance, some hotels tell us that there’s still availability… if you’re willing to shell out a pretty penny. Many rooms will cost more than three times the normal rate and require minimum stays.
Here’s your list of options for hotels on the parade route:
If you’re looking for a family-friendly hotel off the parade route, check out KidTripster’s Top 10 Stays in NYC.
Photo courtesy: JW Marriott Essex House New York
Where to eat?
When you think Thanksgiving, you probably think of mom’s cooking, so the idea of eating out may horrify you. But when in New York, eat like New Yorkers do! Here’s our list of the best places to find a traditional Thanksgiving dinner:
When the parade proceeds past Columbus Circle, patrons of family-friendly favorite Landmarc will have a birds-eye view. Book a table (quick!) and enjoy a festive, delicious brunch while watching the balloons float by from the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park. Celebrity chef Marc Murphy will be serving up Thanksgiving specials like roasted turkey, gravy, cranberry stuffing, and seasonal desserts like pumpkin pie bites and pecan pie with chocolate crust as well as kids’ options like turkey fingers with cheesy broccoli and tater tots. There’ll also be brunch favorites like Landmarc’s famous pain perdu (French toast), maple bacon, sausage, and made-to-order omelets.
The brunch features activities for the whole family to enjoy such as gingerbread house decorating, kids’ crafts, and a holiday-themed photo booth. You can’t book a seat by the window; guests will be seated in order of their arrival time. But an area of the restaurant will be sectioned off for parade viewing, where children will be given priority. Note: The restaurant's Tribeca location will be closed on Thanksgiving Day.
Rock Center Cafe
It’s hard to think of a better way to get in the spirit of the season than having Thanksgiving dinner overlooking the iconic Rockefeller Center ice rink. Watch the skaters circle round and round as you feast on a prix-fixe, three-course meal with eight entrée options including roasted turkey, braised short ribs, and even lobster at Rock Center Cafe. The Thanksgiving Day menu also offers fish and vegetarian options as well as a children’s menu that includes turkey, chicken tenders, pasta, grilled cheese, and more. While the giant evergreen that will light up Rockefeller Plaza won’t yet be aglow, it will be in place. Rockefeller Center and this restaurant are very busy during the holidays, so be sure to book well in advance.
I’m a huge fan of Sarabeth’s. Known for it’s killer comfort food and out-of-this-world baked goods, all five locations are hosting a classic Thanksgiving dinner. But it’s the Central Park South location parade-goers will be most interested in. Since about 3.5 million people will be pushing their way to the subway and since this Sarabeth’s is just a half a block off the parade route, it’s the perfect place to thaw out over a hot meal while you wait out the crowds. Enjoy free-range turkey, stuffing, and butter-whipped potatoes as well as pumpkin pie and a whole host of other delicious pies that they’re famous for.
Another cozy spot known for its affordable comfort food is The Smith. Just a couple of blocks off the busy parade route, this bustling brasserie overlooking Broadway and Lincoln Center (along with its three other locations) is offering a three-course spread complete with a starter, turkey and all the trimmings, and dessert. Vegetarians and all other dietary restrictions can be accommodated.
My family and I spent our first Thanksgiving in NYC at Rolf’s, a New York institution of sorts where it’s all about the decorations. This German restaurant takes “deck the halls” to a whole new level with shiny ornaments, twinkle lights, and tinsel from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. They offer a choice of roast turkey, goose or duck along with traditional sides like Brussel sprouts, candied sweet potatoes, and string beans, and of course, pumpkin pie. While I can’t rave too much about the food, it did serve up a decent traditional turkey dinner, and the atmosphere was fun and festive, albeit, cramped.
If you want to eat like the locals, get off the parade route away from the crowds and down to Freemans on the Lower East Side. This cute little bistro with the baby blue door is a hidden gem tucked away at the end of a graffiti-riddled alley off the Bowery. The four-course, prix-fixe menu offers diners a choice of turkey with all the fixings, as well as a fish or vegetarian option along with a choice of homemade pie for dessert. Be sure to start with the famed artichoke dip. Freemans is a mostly walk-in only kind of place, but it will take reservations for Thanksgiving dinner.
If you’re looking for a family-friendly restaurants for the rest of your stay, check out KidTripster’s Top 10 Eats in NYC.
Photo courtesy: Landmarc
What to do besides the parade?
While the parade may be the main event, it’s only the beginning of the holiday must-dos in NYC. Here are a few things going on around the city that are sure to get your family in the holiday spirit!
Want to get up close and personal with the biggest balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade without having to get up before dawn, brave the crowds or stand in the cold? Then take your kids to the Upper West Side on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving from 3 to 10 p.m. for the annual Giant Balloon Inflation. You can enter the balloon inflation area beginning at 79th Street and Columbus Avenue, right next to the American Museum of Natural History. Here kids can get a glimpse as these giants as they come to life.
While the balloon inflation isn’t exactly crowd-free (what is in NYC?), it is less crowded before 5 p.m., but it’s around 5 p.m. that the balloons being to really take their shapes. They’re usually all inflated by around 9 p.m.
Locals know the best way to beat the crowds is to spend the day at the American Museum of Natural History before they start the inflation. That way, you can walk right out to where all the magic will happen.
KidTripster Tip: If you have little ones, leave the stroller behind. It’s crowded, making it tough to navigate. And with so many people and barricades in front of them, your kid won’t see much by sitting down.
Santa Claus made his grand entrance to NYC at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade. Now it’s time to go get on his lap and tell him what you want! At Macy’s famed flagship store in Herald Square, Santa is a pretty big deal. This is where the classic film Miracle on 34th Street takes place, after all. And in the lead-up to Christmas, you can find Mr. Claus here in Santaland, a replica of his North Pole home complete with live elves, an enchanted forest, and toy train display. While I personally would rather stick a fork in my eye than wait in line to see him at one of the most crowded stores in NYC (and possibly, the world), I can tell you that seeing him early (early in the morning and early in the season like November) will save your sanity.
KidTripster Tip: Have a wriggly, moody or impatient toddler in tow? Grab a timed ticket from one of the kiosks in the Cellar (lower level) and on the 9th floor or book through the Macy’s app. Keep in mind that while the passes are free and are an express way to Santa, you won’t be able to walk through Santaland like you typically do when lining up.
The Nutcracker ballet has become a true New York City holiday classic. And while you will find several different interpretations all around NYC, none is more famous than George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. This magical production is truly a must-see at least once in your life. No one does it better than the New York City Ballet. You will be swept away by the grace and beauty of this timeless classic and the flawless dancers that bring it to life. The season opens the day after Thanksgiving. Know that this two-hour production is really not recommended for young children. Cost: Tickets start at $40.
Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular
If the New York Ballet’s The Nutcracker seems too stuffy, then this show is for you. As far as NYC holiday bucket-list items go, watching the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall is usually right up there with seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Along with the parade, the annual Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular (literally) kicks off the holiday season in the city. A holiday tradition since 1933, this show, set to original music with some classic Christmas tunes thrown in, stars Santa himself along with the Rockettes, the high-kicking dance troupe known for their chorus line. It’s a show that’s sure to get you in the spirit. Cost: Tickets start at $35.
Holiday window walk
While the tree at Rockefeller Center won’t be lighted until the week after Thanksgiving, the windows of all the major department stores (Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman, and Barneys) are decked out in holiday cheer by the week of Thanksgiving. It’s a seasonal sight to behold. Viewing the elaborate Christmas window displays as you stroll along 5th Avenue is free and fun for the whole family. And lucky for you, the crowds are still relatively sparse around Thanksgiving.
KidTripster Tip: Maybe skip this the day after Thanksgiving as you could get caught up in Black Friday crowds.
Never mind the parade, many people like me dream of the simple, yet timeless traditions of Christmastime in NYC, like sipping hot cocoa after ice skating. With so many ice rinks around the city, it’s hard to choose one. Each year, thousands of New Yorkers and tourists alike flock to the Wollman Rink in Central Park to enjoy gliding across the ice with the city skyline in the background. Newbies will love the learn-to-skate program, the largest in the country. Cost: Youth $6; Adults $11-19; skate rental $9; cash only.
To skate next to what is likely the most famous Christmas tree in the world, head to The Rink at Rockefeller Center, one of the city’s most celebrated attractions in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. Unless you plan on skating very early in the morning or between 9 a.m. and noon Thanksgiving Day, prepare yourself for long lines. With only 150 people allowed on the ice at a time, patience is a must here. Cost: Youth $15; Adults $27-32; skate rental $12.
Another great spot to skate is The Rink at Bryant Park which offers a 17,000-square-foot ice rink free of charge. While you have to pay for rental skates, the complex holds 500 people at a time, so the lines aren’t as long. It’s the best bargain for families. Cost: Free; skate rental $20.
Winter Village at Bryant Park
After getting your skate on, be sure to check out the holiday shops and food carts at the Winter Village at Bryant Park. More than 125 boutique-like shops housed in glass, jewelry box-like kiosks light up the tree-lined allées of this European-inspired, open-air market. Peruse the unique shops and eateries or head into Celsius, the rinkside restaurant which offers a full children’s menu and plenty of hot chocolate. This area is one of the most festive and vibrant shopping spots in the city and one of the many reasons to love NYC during the holidays.
Grand Central Terminal Holiday Fair & Train Show
At this time of year, you’re actually encouraged to stroll through Grand Central rather than rush for the next train. The Grand Central Terminal Holiday Fair is one of the longest-running indoor holiday fairs in New York City. The annual fair takes over the majestic Vanderbilt Hall for six weeks in the lead-up to Christmas, letting shoppers browse an array of American-made and handmade items like jewelry, toys, and artwork. You’ll find unique gifts for everyone on your Christmas list.
If you’re looking for more family-friendly activities, check out KidTripster’s Top 10 Plays in NYC.
Photo courtesy: Joe Buglewicz
Marcia Breen lives in Manhattan with her husband and 3-year-old daughter and spends her days exploring the city and writing about it. Well, that and doing laundry and making meals her kid won’t eat.