“I’d like to visit New York City, but I can’t imagine living there.”
The fact that I’m raising my kids in NYC comes as a bit of a surprise to me, too! It’s as far from small town Oklahoma as you can get.
Here’s the thing, though. NYC is a great place for kids! Lots of families are raising their kids here. Over 1 MILLION children are the public school system. That means there are many, many kid friendly places in the city.
Maybe you want take your family and travel to New York for the first time. You want to take the kids to see the major sights. Great! Here are some tips I’ve learned over the years, both as a parent and as someone who plays tour guide several times a year for visiting friends and family.
We need to get one thing out of the way. NYC can be overwhelming. If you’re not used to an urban environment, the noise, activity and people everywhere can be jarring. The streets are constantly, constantly moving. For little ones, all that walking can lead to meltdowns if you don’t plan your day with plenty of breaks. I have always tried to balance part of the day with a high engagement sight (standing in long lines or listening to a guide or reading material) with open and free play. You don’t want to plan to visit the Statue of Liberty AND the Empire State Building on the same day. Please. Don’t do that.
Statue of Liberty
This is at the top of everyone’s list. It’s the one thing people back home will ask you about. There are a couple of ways to go: get tickets for the ferry and admission to Liberty and Ellis Island. I recommend this for older children, as it will take most of the day and require a lot of reading. Get tickets in advance to cut down on wait times. But. If you want to spend less time AND you want a free (yes, I said free) option, take the Staten Island Ferry.
The Staten Island ferry runs every 15-20 minutes and goes right past Liberty Island. Avoid rush hour. It gets packed with people getting to/from work. On the ride out, enjoy the view and take great pics of downtown Manhattan. Debark at Staten Island and reboard the Manhattan-bound ferry. You won’t be the only one. The last time I did this, Staten Island got smart and put several cute vendors at the terminal for tourists doing this exact route. Find something unique to take home or pick up a snack for the ride back!
After riding the ferry, you might want some free time for kids to run around. Fortunately, Battery Park is beautiful with plenty of room to roam. One of our favorite playgrounds is the Nelson Rockefeller Park. Your kids may not want to leave! It’s often listed as one of the top playgrounds in the city. (Side note: bring a water container and fill it up at the playgrounds. New York City water comes straight from the Adirondacks and is some of the best water in the USA- no joke.)
You’re very near the 9/11 Memorial. Expect lines here, even with advance tickets. Tip for traveling with high schoolers: the 9/11 Tribute Center is quite moving. The Tribute Center is at the top of my list to visit. It gives context for the site itself from people who worked in or lived near the towers.
Trinity Church on Wall Street is also nearby. The building is beautiful, and kids can wander (respectfully) around the cemetery next door. Bonus for the Broadway musical lover: Alexander Hamilton is buried here!
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
Our family has done this many times! It’s an activity that doesn’t get old and it’s high on the list for first-time guests. Be ready for a bit of a walk. Wear comfortable shoes and start earlier in the day when everybody’s fresh. Plan to take your time walking over the bridge, enjoy a bit of Brooklyn, then take the subway/ uber/ taxi back. Do be aware of pedestrian and bicycling traffic patterns. Bicyclists use this route to commute to work, so children shouldn’t wander into the bike lanes. Our plan usually goes: walk across the bridge, take photos, enjoy the scenery and skyline. The midway point offers information about how the bridge was built (1883 and going strong!) When you reach the other side, refuel at Grimaldi’s Pizza or Shake Shack. Shake Shack has great concretes & shakes but pace yourself. Just beyond is the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. What they lack in variety they make up for in freshness and spectacular views.
Brooklyn has done a great job with the park along the waterfront. Brooklyn Bridge Park has some of the best views of Manhattan. Walk north along the park to discover the trendy DUMBO neighborhood. Older kids will like Instagramming a selfie from one of the most photographed spots in NYC (below). Pull out a blanket and lie around on the lawn underneath the bridge and enjoy the view. Watch the sun set behind Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge. For older kids, wander around the chic shops. Brooklyn Industries has unique Ts with Brooklyn roots.
Grand Central & Bryant Park
Grand Central is one of the most iconic buildings in the city. Kids love the “whispering arch” in the lower concourse near the Oyster Bar. Kidding Around is a cute little toy shop in the 42nd Street Passage. If you’re an Apple fan, the store located in the Main Concourse (below) is impressive. Go downstairs to pick up lunch or a cupcake from Magnolia Bakery.
Don’t miss the ceiling! Can you spot the one small patch that was not cleaned? The ceiling was restored in 2003 and the small patch was left on purpose. Spend some time wandering around then head over to 5th Avenue and the New York Public Library Main Branch. Constance and Prudence, the lions, have been guarding the entrance since the library was dedicated in 1911. The library often has interesting free exhibits, readings, and shows. The children’s section is a great spot to wait out a rainy afternoon. Definitely visit the gift store- I find something interesting every time I visit!
At the rear of the library is Bryant Park, a jewel in the center of Midtown. Pull up a chair and let the kids run around a bit- maybe take a ride or two on the carousel! You can’t beat the price- $3 a ride.
What a gift Central Park is to the city! My family has spent hours and hours and hours here. Central Park is HUGE, spanning 57th Street on the lower end all the way to 110th on the north. Most visitors only see the very lower tip, which is also the most crowded. Two of the city’s finest museums – The Natural History Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art– are located near or in the park. They’ll be saved for another post. I’ll just hit some high points near the southern end of the park, where most people are likely to stay when they come to the city.
Heckscher Playground. The path to get to this playground is winding, but worth it. It’s a very large park with several sections- swings, water, climbing, even a huge rock that kids like to scale. If you worry constantly about losing your kid, this playground may stress you out- just a warning. It’s big and busy. There is not a lot of shade either, so the water features are packed on a hot day. There are water fountains and bathrooms. Heckscher is the oldest and largest playground in the city. (Insider tip: when we come to this area, we often pick up something to eat at the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle either before/after to eat in the park. It’s about a 10 minute walk. Bouchon Bakery has some of the best cookies in the city!)
The Central Park Zoo is nearby. It’s a small and charming. Children enjoy watching the seals at feeding time (Insider tip: if you don’t want to go inside the zoo, you can usually glimpse feeding time from the path in front of the zoo. Feeding times are 11:30, 1:30, and 3:30. It might be worth a stop if you’re walking by). The clock tower comes alive at the top of the hour. Little ones might enjoy seeing the “dancing” bears.
Our favorite section is the Tisch Children’s Zoo, just north of the main section. It has a petting zoo and is a bit more interactive.
After leaving the zoo, walk towards the Mall. Just so you know, The Mall is the only straight path in the park. That is by design. The meandering paths create a more wooded, wandering feel- perfect if you want to slow down. But a headache if you’re trying to find your way around! Don’t hesitate to ask people who look like they know where they’re going. Ask more than one person if you’re not sure. For all their reputation as rude, NYers are typically friendly and helpful when approached. Fantastic musicians and street performers often line these paths. The entertainment is free, but if you like what you hear, leave a tip!
Still going strong? Head further north to the Bethesda Fountain and the Boathouse. Boat rentals can be found at the Loeb Boathouse for a fun experience. Insider’s tip: The Boathouse Café has reasonably sandwiches and salads. And a bathroom. It’s never this empty, by the way. I must have been up at 7:30 on a Sunday morning when I took these shots. Expect longer lines for lunch!
This barely scratches the surface of what is available in Central Park. There are so many nooks and crannies for kids to enjoy (including Alice in Wonderland, a meer, and a castle!)
The Empire State Building
If you want to see the city from the sky, the Empire State Building is the most popular observatory by far. Other options: Top of the Rock (where you can actually see the ESB in the skyline) at Rockefeller Center and One World Observatory downtown. Each has great views (and long lines). To avoid the busiest times, plan to go early in the day or in the evening. You could get lucky and get a glorious sunset. It’s pretty amazing to see the city at night, when the lights spread as far as the eye can see. Know that once you’re done, the ESB is equidistant between Madison Square Park and Bryant Park. You will need to walk a bit to find green space if your kids are dying to run around afterwards.
Speaking of subways, definitely, definitely take the subway! Yes, you might get lost. You might get turned around. But the NYC subway is part of the experience. Because subways are novel for young kids, they really enjoy it. Don’t try to untangle the whole mess if it’s your first time visiting. Try going a few stops on one line. You never know who or what you’ll see on the subway: preachers, panhandlers, musicians, and every day people just doing their day as they move around the city. It’s always an adventure!
Next post: more family favorites, including the High Line, the Met Museum, more Central Park, and some of our favorite shops. Maybe I’ll even tell you how I feel about Times Square…