The first time I visited New York City, in 1977, the city was in such terrible shape I wondered why anyone would want to live there.
Fast-forward almost 40 years and I wonder why any family would want to leave. Sure, there are purists who complain that New York is less gritty and more Disney than it used to be. But when it comes to kids, what's wrong with a little Disney? There are plays for kids, shops for kids, great restaurants for kids, playgrounds everywhere and lots of opportunities to get a taste of the “real” New York.
Here’s a handy list of top adventures for families in Manhattan and Brooklyn, spotlighting some of the newer things to do (you can always save Queens and the Bronx for your return trip). Plus, we include a guide to family friendly places to stay and nosh.
Top New York City adventures with kids:
1. NYC like a local: Big Apple Greeter + Boba Life NYC
2. Freedom's waiting room: The Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island + National Museum of the American Indian
3. Living history: The Tenement Museum + Berkli Parc
4. Underground cool: The Transit Museum + Shake Shack
5. Bright lights: Broadway + Broadway Play
6. Park in the sky: The High Line + Chelsea Piers
7. Dino-mite: American Museum of Natural History + Central Park's Great Lawn
8. Air and sea time: The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum + Market Diner
9. Deal fun: Governors Island + Brooklyn Bridge Park
NYC like a local: Big Apple Greeter + Boba Life NYC
New York can be a challenge for even seasoned solo travelers, let alone families. A perfect way to start your visit is to have a Big Apple Greeter show you the ropes based on a family interest or even one of your children's passions. There are more than 300 greeters who volunteer to help; they can introduce you to some aspect of one of 114 neighborhoods scattered throughout the city's five boroughs.
My greeters were Josephine Murray and her 8 year-old daughter, who took me through SOHO and Chinatown with an itinerary including Vesuvio Playground (until it rained), the Scholastic Store (you know, the place where the books you order for your kids come from) and The Evolution Store, a gallery where science geeks and youngsters who love artifacts could while away the hours. We finished off with dumplings and chow fun at 456 Shanghai Cuisine.
Allow three hours for a greeter tour. There's no charge for the volunteer service, but you do have to send in a request at least a month in advance. Donations accepted.
If you do Chinatown with a greeter, as I did, stop by Bobalife NYC, a drink stand for a bubble tea, smoothie, milk tea or hot tea. It was my guide's favorite place for bubble tea.
Freedom's waiting room: The Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island + National Museum of the American Indian
My children, both international adoptees, may not be as impressionable as they once were, but seeing Lady Liberty should inspire the same awe in them as the generations of immigrants who preceded them … especially when they learn they can go inside, and even up to the crown.
The big change in the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island these days is that a ferry ticket won't get you inside the statue. Now you need to make reservations and pay a bit more based on what you want to see. (The ferry ride is $9 for kids 4 to 12, $18 for adults, $14 for seniors. Crown access is $3 more per person. No additional charge for pedestal access.)
There's no extra charge for Ellis Island, but I'm sure my kids will find the Great Hall equally impressive: The cavernous 200-foot-long, 102-foot-wide space served as freedom's waiting room for thousands of immigrants who waited to be processed for entry into the country. Allow two hours for one stop or four hours for both.
The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, located just five minutes north of the Statue of Liberty ferry landing. The museum has a variety of programs for children, including Infinity of Nations (kids can hunt for objects used by tribes) and The Cycle of Dance, an exhibit of Native American regalia that shows how they were used in dances and ceremonies. There are also screenings of kid-friendly movies and cartoons most days at 10:30 and 11:45 a.m.
Living history: The Tenement Museum + Berkli Parc
It's one thing to talk about being an immigrant, and it's another to experience it. Located in a perfectly preserved tenement that dates from 1863, the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side has long done an extraordinary job of showing adults what living conditions were like for folks fresh off the boat. Now it offers an hour-long tour where younger kids (and adults) can pretend they've just arrived and are visiting the small family apartment of 14-year-old Greek immigrant Victoria Confino. The museum offers other tours, but this is the only one aimed at children as young as 5 (tour free for children under 6, $20 for students and seniors and $25 for adults).
A stop at Berkli Parc (two blocks from the museum), a comfortable Berkeley-inspired café that boasts coffee, fresh sandwiches, large salads and Nothern California cuisine. Don’t miss the chocolate chip cookies, say the folks at the Tenement Museum.
Underground cool: The Transit Museum + Shake Shack
If your child is as fascinated with all things transportation as mine are, the New York Transit Museum (kids ages 2-17, $5, adults $7) in Brooklyn will be a big hit. In addition to learning how the subway came to be, visitors can push a wheelbarrow full of rocks, as workmen did when the project was underway, play with hands-on exhibits that explain how the subway works and sit in old subway cars dating back to the 1930s. Even the entry looks like a subway station. Allow up to four hours, depending on attention span.
A “concrete” at the Shake Shack – a thick milkshake made with custard instead of ice cream. The Shake Shack is three or so blocks away from the Tenement Museum.
Bright lights: Behind the scenes on Broadway + Broadway play
Your child may view you as a god or goddess among mortals when you get her tickets to Matilda, but why stop there? Take her on a Broadway tour before the show.
Try a behind-the-scenes tour of Radio City Music Hall with Stage Door Tours or Behind the Emerald Curtain's peek into what goes into putting on the play Wicked. Older kids and theater buffs will also enjoy Inside Broadway Tour's walking tour of the theater district, where guides like Remy Germinario tell entertaining tales of theater riots, naked cowboys, ghosts and where the phrases "Break a leg" and "The Show Must Go On" came from. (Don't worry, the tour is rated G.)
Allow about 90 minutes to two hours, depending on the tour. (Stage Door Tour $15 for ages 12 and under, $19.95 for adults; Behind the Emerald Curtain $33; Inside Broadway $35.)
A Broadway play, of course. You can watch lions sing, newsboys dance, musicians stomp or people being Fantastick. If you don't want to take chances, buy advance tickets through Telecharge or you can save money by buying through the Today Tix app (download it before you go).
A park in the sky: The High Line + Chelsea Piers
An elevated walking park built on the site of an abandoned freight rail line, the 1.45 mile High Line on the West Side is one of the city's newest attractions (the first segment opened in 2009, the second in 2011) and a fun place for families to roam.
The park offers fine views of the Hudson River, Chelsea and the Meatpacking District and enough room to run or walk without getting too far ahead.
Bikes aren't allowed on the walkway and there aren't any playgrounds, but kids love climbing on the angled benches and playing hide and seek in odd doorways. If you still need to blow off excess steam, take them two blocks from the southern end of the High Line to the Pier 51 Play area at Hudson River Park.
Play time at Chelsea Piers (four minutes west of the entrance at 20th St.), which has activities that range from a Toddler Adventure Center to rock-climbing, soccer and skating, depending on the time of your visit. From 4 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays in July and August there are hands-on activities for kids that will allow them to experience nature in the city. On Saturdays from 10 to 12, children can create their own works of art.
Dino-mite: American Museum of Natural History + Central Park
My kids have been curious about the American Museum of Natural History since they read about a cartoon monkey who causes a stir when he climbs up a tyrannosaurus skeleton.
The Museum has also become a must-see for fans of the movie Night at the Museum, who can look for characters from the movie ranging from the statue of President Theodore Roosevelt on a horse to the woolly mammoth.
The hands-on Discovery Room alone would be one of the many reasons that Zagat's U.S. Family Travel Guide named the museum the country's number 3 most popular attraction just behind Walt
Disney's Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center. Where some museums have just a few token items for kids to look at, this room boasts a man-made two-story baobab tree holding a wide range of animal specimens. It also features the answer to a 3-D jigsaw puzzle lovers dream: a 14-foot-long assemble-yourself skeleton of a Prestosuchus dinosaur.
A wander through Central Park's Great Lawn. Located across Central Park West from the museum, the 55-acre grassy open space stretches from 79th to 85th Streets and is perfect for running, throwing a ball, playing Frisbee or having a picnic. After working up an appetite, head over to Sugar and Plumm for family-friendly meals or confections such as macarons, sweet crepes, cakes and sundaes. If you're feeling truly adventurous, try the Earthquake in a Fishbowl (five kinds of cake and pie, plus three kinds of ice cream in one dish).
Air time: The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum + Market Diner
If your kids like touring naval ships, they'll be in heaven during a visit to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, a museum on the west side of Manhattan housed on the legendary aircraft carrier Intrepid. The hangar deck inside the ship is home to the Exploreum Hall, a museum with hands-on exhibits on all things naval-related, ranging from a medical helicopter (where you can pretend to be a pilot or a patient) to the landing capsule from the Gemini III (yes, you can sit in it) to a flight simulator (extra charge).
The flight deck one level up is filled with all kinds of cool flying machines including a 1950s-era Sikorsky helicopter, a 1952 MIG-17, an F-14 Tomcat, a Lockheed A-12 Blackbird and an AV-8C Harrier.
If you don't know what those are, ask your family aviation expert. As if that weren't enough, you can also tour the nuclear submarine, the USS Growler and a Concorde, and see the Space Shuttle Enterprise up close. How cool is that? (Admission to Intrepid for 3–6-year-olds is $12, ages 7–17 $19 and adults $24; save $2 for online tickets. Intrepid and the Space Shuttle Pavillion costs $17–$31. Concorde tour and Simulator extra.)
A slice of cream pie, a piece of red velvet cake or a milk shake at the Market Diner, a nearby restaurant with clean, metallic lines serving all the comfort food you'd expect.
Deal plan: Governors Island + Brooklyn Bridge Park
New York can be an expensive city, but Governors Island isn't. The 172-acre former U.S. Army/Coast Guard base that was turned into a National Monument/recreational area is only a $2 ferry ride from lower Manhattan. Kids can bike, play on the climbing structure, create art at a City Museum of the Arts Art Outpost and even golf a round on a mini-golf course designed by artists.
On the National Monument side, activities include touring a historic military installation and learning about life during the Civil War. Although both sections of the island are typically open from May through September, this is the first year the Trust for Governors Island-run section has been open daily.
A walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. On weekends, you can hop a ferry over to Brooklyn Bridge Park instead of going to Lower Manhattan. If your kids aren't tired of playgrounds, they can choose from one of four themed areas — Slide Mountain, Sandbox Village, Swing Valley or the water-jet festooned Waterlab — at Pier 6 before taking in spectacular views as you cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. While most adults can do the walk in 10 minutes, you should allow 20 if your kids are younger.
If this doesn't tucker them out, nothing will.
New York City: Places to stay with kids
Airbnb/VRBO: You could stay at a hotel, but if you belong to a family of independent travelers who don't need a concierge, bellman or other amenities, get more space for about the same price, plus the ability to make your own meals. The key difference is that Airbnb accommodations often (though not always) involve staying in a room in someone else's apartment while you usually get a Vacation Rental By Owner, VRBO, all to yourself. Depending on where you want to stay, both start around $170 a night and go up from there. (It's worth noting that AirBnb is currently facing legal challenges in New York, where it's against state law to sublet an apartment for less than a month because some owners are doing short-term rentals of entire units rather than just a single room.)
The Benjamin Hotel: At The Benjamin in Midtown East, younger guests are signed up for the Winks' Kidzzz Club upon arrival, given a child's pillow, child-sized robes (which they can take home for $35), and access to a library of bedtime books. The hotel also has a concierge who is kid-activity-savvy; and you can find more expensive family suites with small kitchens. Rates start at $359.
Hotel Beacon: Located on the Upper West Side, the Beacon is a boutique hotel far enough away from Midtown to be quieter, but close enough to walk or hop a subway to Times Square. All rooms have kitchenettes, there's a market across the street or, if you really want to feel at home, a Trader Joe's down the street. Many rooms have great views of classic New York architecture, the hotel restaurant is open into the wee hours, it's close to Central Park. Although most domestic vacationers haven't heard of it because it doesn't have the advertising budget of its larger rivals, it's surprisingly popular with leisure travelers from New Zealand and Australia. Rates range from $235 in low season for single or double occupancy and $295 for one-bedroom suites to $345 and $405 in summer.
The Westin New York at Times Square: Convenience is the selling point at this Westin in the middle of the Theater District. Step outside the hotel and you're in the heart of the action, just a block away from the New Amsterdam Theatre where Aladdin is playing.
New York City family food adventures
Pizza: While locals may not agree on much other than the superiority of New York-style pizza, many also agree that John's of Times Square is one of the best pizzerias in the city. The only thing that's more impressive than the thin-crust pies made in the coal-fired brick ovens may be the stained-glass windows in the former church where it's located.
Deli: Where to find the real, honest-to-goodness kosher (and kosher-style) purveyors of pastrami and corn beef that New York is known for? If your kids aren't into the over-stuffed sandwiches that lower east side standby Katz's Delicatessen is famous for, there are comfort foods such as blintzes, knishes and matzo ball soup. If you'd prefer kosher over kosher-style head to 2nd Avenue Deli which, ironically enough, is now located on First Avenue; the Midtown location on E. 33rd Street between Lexington and 3rd may be more convenient.
Smorgasburg: I've been told that the Sunday morning gathering of food booths — a "food flea market" — at Brooklyn's Bridge Park's Pier 5 known as Smorgasburg has gained a reputation for cutting-edge offerings such as the Ramen Burger, but that doesn't mean your kids need an adventurous palate to enjoy it. Other offerings range from The Bruffin – a sandwich in a brioche/muffin hybrid – and chocolate-covered soft pretzels at the Bronx Baking Co. to fried chicken tacos at Cemita's. The best part is, when your kids are done, they can burn off all their energy at the playgrounds across the street.
If not stated otherwise, images by David Volk