There are two ways of visiting New York with kids. The first way is to devote the bulk of your time attempting to see all the sights. If you take this approach, not only will you haemorrhage cash from every orifice, but you’ll also spend an awful lot of time standing in queues or being squished into elevators or crammed on to boats with people wearing mugger belts, waterproof ponchos and rucksacks on their chests. You’ll see as much of the real New York this way as you would on a trip to London where you only visit the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and eat at Garfunkels.
The second, and I’d suggest, infinitely better way to see New York is to check out everything that is free and cool and do that instead. Time Out New York and the websites of some of the places I recommend below are your new best friends. You don’t need to spend a fortune in NYC – your kids will just love hitting the streets, running around in the parks, soaking up the views and stuffing their faces with as much teeth-rottingly delicious candy as they can get their grubby little mitts on.
Where should we stay?
If it’s your first trip to New York, I would advise families to stay in Manhattan. Short term apartment stays in Manhattan are illegal, so assuming you are going for a short break, you’ll have to stay in a hotel. You can get Airbnb and apartments for shorter stays just over the river in Brooklyn but we found hotel stays came up at similar prices (along with the added bonus of no one expecting you to do the washing up.) Midtown might not be the trendiest area, but it works well for families as it’s within walking distance of loads of great things to do and see with kids. We stayed at the Grand Hyatt on East 42nd Street – next to Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building – and got the best deal through Booking.com (although it’s worth contacting a hotel directly to see if it will offer you a better price.) We also looked at The Roxy Hotel, Ace Hotel and Affina Shelburne. The dream hotel would be The Standard, but maybe more appropriate sans enfants so you can hit the rooftop bar and pretend you are 21 again.
Whatever price you are quoted for a hotel, check it includes tax, city tax, hot dog tax and any other random inexplicable American taxes that might be added on at the end.
What should we pack?
I’ve been to New York in all seasons with the exception of Autumn (which I suspect is the best.) Summer is brutally hot and humid, winter will freeze your eyeballs and early spring is just bonkers; this trip was the first week of April and the weather was insane with snow one day and sunshine the next. This poses a Herculean packing challenge for the discerning and fashion conscious traveller, as you could very easily end up wearing a cagoule, palazzo pants and a pair of hastily bought emergency wellies if you’re not careful. For 6 days I packed the following clothes:
- black skinny jeans, grey skinny jeans, black leggings x2
- long black vests x2, black long-sleeved thigh-length top, Denim shirt, Breton long-sleeved top, burgundy cardigan, grey waterfall cardigan, plain black sweater, one ‘going out’ top and one ‘going out’ dress
- decent waterproof trainers. I took my vans and lived in them. I also took a pair of heeled boots for evenings.
- leather jacket, denim jacket and longer leopard print coat
- 2 scarves (one light and one thick)
- umbrellas for you and pacamacs and waterproof shoes for the kids.
What should our itinerary be?
I’m pretending here that you arrive Saturday night and are too banjaxed to do much other than wander around gazing up at the skyscrapers. I’ve organised this itinerary by specific days so you can take advantage of free museum and park days. Also being a fan of excessive orderliness
totally anal when it comes to travel, this is what I was looking for when I was planning our trip. As an aside, we got a yellow cab rather than an Uber from the airport (JFK) to Midtown as there is a fixed price of around $60. Uber can work out more expensive, so bear that in mind.
Sunday: Use jet lag to your advantage on your first day and do something that is usually super busy as it will be at its quietest in the morning. If the weather is good, be the first in line for the Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Centre. Don’t book tickets in advance for a skyscraper – unless you’re a Cloudologist* the last thing you want to do is spend money to see the inside of a cloud – the weather has to be clear so you can see everything from Central Park to the Statue of Liberty and the amazing, up close, view of The Empire State Building. Our kids also enjoyed the slightly freaky, elevator experience on the way up to the observation deck on the 70th floor.
*made up word
A note on the CityPASS: You might want to get a CityPASS or C3 if you’re planning to do Top of the Rock along with the Empire State Building and the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Guggenheim as technically, it allows you save a bit of money and to skip the queues. Don’t use the CityPASS for the American Museum of Natural History as it is suggested donation only (aka free.) Work out your savings as kids under 12 are free to most museums and kids under 6 are free to go up the Top of the Rock and The Empire State Building. Often the savings aren’t massive unless you do lots of touristy stuff. We didn’t use one but if we had, we’d have only saved $16 – although that’s a lot of candy to be fair.
When you come back down to ground level, it’s time for a massive walk. Head to the flashing billboards of Times Square, walk along the theatres of Broadway, past Madison Square Garden and cut across towards Penn Station and the start of the High Line, an old disused railway track that’s been turned into a unique, elevated city park that snakes along the West side of Manhattan. It’s worth checking the calendar of events for the High Line as there are all sorts of child friendly arts and culture events through the year. The walk itself will take about an hour and it’s utterly glorious with lots of cool street art and some amazing views of the Hudson river one on side and the streets below on the other. There are plenty of places to sit and people watch – look out for the seating on wheels that slides along the old rails.
Walk the High Line down to Tribeca, stopping to take in views of the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, and head for brunch – a weekend institution in NYC. People love Bubby’s but we choose The Roxy, Tribeca for its jazz brunch instead, as tickets included a kid’s film in the art deco cinema downstairs from the restaurant leaving the adults to free to get stuck into bottomless mimosas whilst the kids watch a movie.
After brunch you can get your boho on in Soho and Greenwich Village. SATC fans should look out for 66 Perry Street (Carrie’s apartment) and Magnolia Bakery on Bleeker Street, and music fans don’t want to miss the legendary iconic jazz club Village Vanguard. Grab a coffee to go and take a walk past the historic brownstone houses through the University area and up to Washington Square Park. Here, you can take a cool photo of the Empire State Building framed by the Washington Square Arch, and watch the chess players and skaters and artists.It’s a great spot for people watching. Find the Friends apartment on the corner of Grove and Bedford and you must grab a booth (if you’ve got room after brunch) at Johns Pizzeria on Bleeker Street and make your mark by carving your initials into your seat whilst you eat the best crispy based pizza in town.
Monday: Head to Central Park for a day of exploring. Central Park is beautiful at any time of the year but it’s probably best in warm weather when you can take a picnic, see some free Shakespeare, row in the lake and hire bikes. We didn’t do any of that as we were too busy trying to reduce heat loss from our vital extremities and lamenting our wet shoes. It was a cold, cold day. Still we wandered along its undulating paths; we climbed on the rocks, we saw Strawberry Fields, Bethesda Fountain and walked down the Mall. There is also a cute zoo which is worth a visit for a couple of hours (although I visited it in 1997 so I accept my recommendation may be a little out of date.) Check out this post for the best things to do in Central Park with kids.
From Central Park you can head down to 5th Avenue, passing The Plaza Hotel from Home Alone: Lost in New York, on the way. Fifth Avenue is great for window shopping and actual shopping if you can bribe your kids with enough candy. At the risk of sounding basic, American brands like Gap, Banana Republic, Levis and Urban Outfitters are loads cheaper than in the UK so it’s worth having a look if you get the chance.
In the evening head to Urban Space, Vanderbilt – a buzzing food hall with plenty of seating and full of vendors from some highly recommended places to eat in the city; we particularly loved hibiscus donuts from Dough, coffee from Toby’s Estate and pizza from Roberta’s. Not all together of course (ok, well it happened once….)
Tuesday: Head to the New York Public Library and Bryant Park. The Children’s Centre at 42nd Street is the permanent home to the original stuffed toys of Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet and Roo. It’s also worth checking the website to see what events and exhibitions are on at the library as they are free to enter. Always one to take my kids into an age-inappropriate art exhibition, the library is currently home to a ‘Remembering the Sixties’ exhibition which includes footage of Woodstock, a recording of Hair, posters used to protest against the Vietnam War and an early Kerouac manuscript. There’s also a section on the Sexual Revolution with some quite explicit images and ‘fruity’* language. Still, it’s never too soon to introduce your kids to the counter-culture.
*I am 90 years old.
Bryant Park is another amazing outdoor space, surrounded by the skyscrapers of Midtown. Incredibly family friendly there is an entire area of the park dedicated to reading, and various other sections of it devoted to activities including art, table tennis and chess. There are cafes and lots of places to sit whilst your kids have a run around. This place is an absolute gem for families and awesome in the summer where it hosts outdoor movie screenings on Monday nights.
You can’t say you’ve visited New York unless you’ve been to a proper New York Deli. We loved Sarges Deli – open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – and serving incredible matzo ball soup, chicken soup, hot dogs and every sort of sandwich you can imagine.
Hop in a cab from here and head to the Natural History Museum for the afternoon – you could also do this on your Central Park day. If you stand in line, you can pay what you want here – the entrance fee is ‘suggested donation only’ – so technically it could be completely free. We paid $10 for adults and $5 for kids and had the most amazing afternoon. I really love this place; so much of it is really well done from the dinosaurs on the top floor to the naked Neanderthals on the ground floor. There’s also bits of the Moon and Mars and a huge blue whale, and of course the kids loved finding Dum Dum from Night at the Museum! I expected it to be hell, but we loved it. My tip: start at the top and work your way down in the opposite direction to everyone else. Pretend to be French if challenged.
You can then walk through Central Park down 5th Avenue – again – and hit Dylans Candy Bar for some serious candy action. If you’re allowed, Bloomingdales is over the road.
Head to Totto Ramen for dinner – its paitan broth is noodle soup heaven. Cash only, this place was one of our favourite places to eat during the trip. Ramen lovers should check out this post on the best ramen in NYC.
Wednesday: Watching an American sport that you don’t understand the rules of is an essential part of the US experience for a non-American. It doesn’t have to cost the earth though. For select Yankees games you can purchase tickets for $5 using a MasterCard and an offer code. We booked these in advance so keep an eye on the website before you go. You are seated quite high, but it doesn’t matter at all. Plus, if it’s rained off – or your kids get bored – you’ve only paid $5 a ticket. It’s a great day out and for $10 you can get a welcome message on one of the video-boards. The stadium has loads of awesome food choices; we particularly enjoyed chicken waffles – shouldn’t work but does- and fries in a baseball helmet. When in Rome.
If you don’t fancy a Yankees game, the Bronx Zoo is pay what you want on Wednesdays, although it’s a good hour from the Yankee stadium so I’m not sure you could combine a trip.
In the evening, you should try to see a Broadway show. I would advise booking well in advance. It’s no good going to the discounted booths when there’s 4 of you. You need to get decent seats to enjoy a show and sitting in the Gods watching a show you’re not that interested in (as it’s the only one left) is pointless. If you want to see a Broadway show, you need to suck up the cost and get good seats. Alternatively there are some off-Broadway shows aimed at kids too that are worth booking in advance. Try the New Victory Theatre. After the show, you can grab some tacos from Los Tacos and sit right at the top on the steps outside the TKTS booth, and watch the bright lights of brilliantly mad Times Square.
Thursday: Head down to the Staten Island Ferry terminal if you want to see the Statue of Liberty up close and for the grand sum of $0. This will take about 1 1/2 hours out of your day and it’s best to avoid peak time, so aim to get on it at about 10am. If you can’t spare the time, you can see the Statue – and great views of the harbour – quite well from Battery Park and Brooklyn Heights over the bridge. The rest of the morning and afternoon can be spent in Lower Manhattan. For a bit of history, you can check out the Fraunces Tavern Museum to see a lock of George Washington’s hair (obviously there’s more to it than that but I thought that was pretty cool) and Federal hall and can also visit Trinity Church graveyard to see the grave of Alexander Hamilton. Century 21 is round here for some bargain hunting and Eataly is nice for a late lunch. The Museum of the American Indian (free to enter) is here as is Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange, the One World Trade Centre and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. You could also walk up to Chinatown, Little Italy and Soho from here if you really wanted to rack up your step count.
Aim to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge late afternoon for a wander around the area under the bridge, known as Dumbo, and home to legendary New York restaurants Grimaldis and Juliana’s. If you don’t want to queue, you can walk along the waterfront and over the funkily named, Squib Park Bridge to the tree-lined brownstone streets of Brooklyn Heights and eat there. We liked the Heights Café which is on the same street as Arthur Miller’s house.
The Brooklyn Heights promenade is the place where you will see the most breath-taking views of downtown Manhattan as the sun sets. Walking back over the bridge at night, watching the city glitter, is a total bucket-list experience.
Friday: Visit the Whispering Gallery at Grand Central Terminal. Just under the arch by the Oyster Bar are four corners. Stand in one, get your partner/child to stand in the other -diagonally from you – and whisper away. Afterwards, look upwards at the incredible zodiac constellation painted on the ceiling. Grab a cab or train and head down to Chelsea Market for lunch and check out a couple of free galleries. You can wander back up to midtown via the High Line, taking a detour through Koreatown.
In the afternoon, head to the Museum of Modern Art known as the MOMA. It is free from 4pm or if you are happy paying, it’s quieter on a Friday morning as most people wait until the afternoon. Kids are free and the adult entrance fee is the cost of an exhibition fee for a similar sized gallery in the UK. Although there isn’t a trail (they need one) there are activity cards that you can collect from information desks that direct kids to specific pieces of art and encourage them to ask questions and respond creatively. The museum also runs drawing classes. When you get hungry, you can head to the very child friendly Café 2 in the museum or pig out at Burger Heaven just round the corner from the MOMA.
Saturday: Head to 34th Street Pier in Midtown and hop on the East River Ferry to visit outdoor food market Smorgasborg in trendy Williamsburg, located on the waterfront with more amazing views of Manhattan. Most of the action is along Bedford Avenue between N11 and N4th – it’s all cafes with quirky names and trendy vintage shops with ridiculously priced clothes – fun for a browse. After that you can head to Bedford and 5th and visit my new favourite book store, Spoonbill and Sugartown. If you want some ironic bowling hipster action (and who doesn’t) then throw on a quirky brightly coloured beret and some ill-fitting spectacles, roll up your jeans and slip into your brogues and get yourself down to Brooklyn Bowl, open to families from noon to 6pm. If you have little music lovers, they would love a visit to Rough Trade to check out the listening posts and live music. And if you’re a beer lover then you can get a free tour of the Brooklyn Brewery every hour between 1pm and 5pm.
In the evening, take the ferry back to Midtown – sit on the top deck and say goodbye to the sparkling skyline*.
*adopts wistful expression and starts playing Billy Joel’s ‘New York State of Mind’ on imaginary piano.
I’d be really interested in your comments. What good free stuff did I miss? What should we do next time? Are there any rooftop bars that let kids in during the day? What are the rules of baseball?