The city that never sleeps. It is hands down one of our favorite places in the world - the bright lights, the hustle & bustle, the energy from the city and its people. You get caught up in it from the moment you set foot in the concrete jungle.
Yet our kids had a chance to experience it outside a layover visit and when our eldest was just an infant. We were all teeming to go, and with dear family friends getting married, we had the perfect reason to. So we decided we were going to send off summer break with a few days in the city!
But how do you design a kid-friendly trip to the Big Apple and what all is there you can really do with kids?
Here’s a glimpse of must-sees while in NYC along with a rough design of your trip!
Battery Park, Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
This is a day long activity if you want to enjoy it right! And for us, it was how we started day one of our city tour.
We pre-purchased tickets via the official vendor, Statue Cruises, prior to arrival to guarantee an entry time and save time from waiting in line. Checking out tickets before hand can also allow you to get the coveted Pedestal or Crown tickets, as both are limited in quantities. Pedestal tickets are the same price as the regular tickets (which get you ferry access to the islands), so it is worth trying to get your hands on these. Pedestal tickets are the the only way you'll be able to get into the Statue of Liberty, with a whole museum to check out at her base. Crown tickets are even harder to come by; they do cost a little more and allow only those 48" & taller up to climb the statue all the way up to her crown. But if you do manage to get these tickets, it is so worth it - even just to say you made it to the top!
While you're on Liberty Island, make it a point to get your kids their Junior Ranger badges. Not familiar with the program? Certain National Parks around the US offer booklets and activities for kids to complete while visiting the parks. Once complete, find a ranger, review your activities and receive an official badge after a swearing in ceremony. It has definitely been a hit for the kids during our trips and a fun FREE activity to find while we're visiting national parks around the US!
If possible, before you even visit, read some books about the Statue of Liberty. "Her Right Foot" by David Eggers was our favorite and taught the kids so much about what they were looking at. They were eager to find her right foot and talk about what it symbolized once looking at her in person.
Hop the ferry over to Ellis Island next, to learn about an icon in immigration to America. This was the thoroughfare for immigrants arriving by boat and the first place that they set foot on before making their way to their new home. Kids have another opportunity to earn a Junior Ranger badge here, which makes touring the facility that much more intriguing, even for adults! We learned so much more through the activities they were doing as we were looking at this relic with different lens. We also made it a point to visit The American Immigrant Wall of Honor on the island before we left, where years ago we had families' names engraved to celebrate their immigration to the states. It was the best moment of the day, having my kids find their grandfather and great grandfather's names and explaining to them the sacrifices that were made to move here.
Once you finish both islands, it's time to make it back to Battery Park. A good portion of your day may be spent waiting in lines, boarding ferries, and getting to the next spot. That's where a day for this activity allows you to explore without feeling rushed. Once back at Castle Clinton, the ticket booth location for the Statue of Liberty, locate a ranger for one last badge. The fort does not appear to house much, but once learning about the history you come to appreciate it even more. It sits on its own manmade island, was once an aquarium, and for pop culture fans, it was the location of the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind's first US performance (yes, of The Greatest Showman kind)!
Your visit has to end with a ride on the Seaglass Carousel - truly a work of art and as beautiful to ride as it is to look at. So reward yourself after a day of exploring by kicking back your feet, relaxing on and enjoying the show on this marvelous attraction!
Take in a Baseball Game!
We’re partial to the Mets but you can’t go wrong either way! If you're spending summer in the city, a baseball game is a MUST!
It was a big moment for us, since it was our first time at Citifield; last time I saw a home ballgame was when it was still Shea Stadium (while the new stadium was under construction). For the kids, it was the first time watching the Mets play outside of Spring Training. And my youngest even got to wear a family heirloom; a toddler size 1986 World Series Champions shirt that's 8 times as old as she is.
Central Park also needs to be reserved for a day all its own. You can do as little or as much as you want to, but for us, we wanted to let the kids immersive themselves so made Day 2 all about this urban forest.
We started at the Central Park Zoo, which in its own right, deserves a visit just so your kids can say they went to the one Alex and his friends in Madagascar called home. The zoo, though small, is adorable and can fill just enough time without taking away from your day. Undecided? Do what we did and buy tickets on your phone right on the spot - it will also get you a discount code to save AND reduce paper use.
Once you're done visiting the wild animals of New York, its time to explore the park itself. We read "A Green Place to be: The Creation of Central Park" by Ashley Benham Yazdani before our visit to learn about how the park came to life. It introduced the different architecture of the park and allowed even the most seasoned visitor (me) to look at the park in new appreciation.
We explored the statues and landmarks with a different set of lens now that we knew their unique stories. We stopped at Strawberry Fields and ironically had "Hey Jude" playing in the background as our kids learned about this famous memorial. We visited the preserved Belvedere Castle and climbed with the kids to the top.
If you come early enough and have time, within Shakespeare Garden is an wonderful playhouse for kids. The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre puts on puppet shows for young and old alike in the mornings, and though we didn't get to see it, we were told it was absolutely fantastic!
The weather decided to turn on us, but we had plans to rent a boat and spend some time on the water. And we were all anxiously looking forward to the activity - but said we'd add it to our list for next time! You can rent a boat from the Loeb Boathouse for $15/hr + $4 per every additional 15 minutes for up to 4 people.
Over the summer, Wollman Rink turns into Victorian Gardens, an amusement park in the city. It was a nice change of pace for the kids to get to play in the city, with that skyscraper backdrop behind them. But now our new goal is to come back and allow them to properly ice skate on this iconic rink with the same beautiful view behind them!
You can picnic in the park, ride a horse & carriage, enjoy a summer concert or movie or simply just be. Central Park is definitely worth the immersed day if you're willing to see it like a little first timer.
If you're lucky enough, you may even get a summer concert here! We were able to get tickets to Good Morning America's taping of their summer concert series right in Central Park - so we woke up to Keith Urban playing for all of America! What a moment, even for the kids to experience their first televised concert!
Frozen Hot Chocolate before Dinner!
We couldn't take a trip to New York and not stop for the famous Frozen Hot Chocolate. Serendipity 3, an iconic restaurant made famous by the movie of the same name, is truly what its name lives up to - a fortunate accident. You're only so lucky if you get to drop by to experience this restaurant's eclectic vibe only complemented by its massive food choices.
And yes, you have to have the Frozen Hot Chocolate before dinner. It is just that good - and big enough to share, if you want to!
Watch Frozen on Broadway!
What better to complement Frozen Hot Chocolate than going to see Frozen itself! If you have a chance to dabble in local theater back home with your kids, a trip to NYC is time to upgrade to the big time. There are plenty of family friendly options on and off Broadway, including long running The Lion King, Aladdin, Wicked and whatever else is introduced into rotation in the theater district.
Frozen was the latest release and the only our kids hadn't seen, so we made big plans to see it. And we all absolutely fell in love with Broadway's take on this beautiful story about self and love!
Fifteen Seconds of Fame
Those morning shows you catch glimpse of after your local news are taped right here, so why not try to get your 15 seconds of fame? The Today Show is our personal favorite, staged right under 30 Rock, and its outdoor atmosphere inviting. Tapings are free and early, so make sure you're ready to rise and shine. If you need coffee or sweets to help with that, stop by Bouchon Bakery next door for morning wake up treats (we especially enjoyed the macarons)!
If you're more of a GMA fan, head over to Times Square to catch a glimpse of them at work.
Grand Central Station
Visit this beauty and not just to pass through - we started one of our mornings by heading over to take it all in!
Prior to our visit, we read all about this landmark in "When Jackie Saved Grand Central: Jacqueline Kennedy's Fight for and American Icon" by Natasha Wing. The station is beautiful, from its intricate architecture to the details in its paintings. The book gave us a preview to the story of its legacy and how it was almost lost and the fight to save and preserve it. We enjoyed our visit a little more by reading all about it, and even made sure to look for the dedication wall placed in the foyer for Jackie O.
Beyond its history, the station sees so much foot traffic and is home to some great eateries and places to shop. If you're here, make sure to make a stop to the restaurant level and visit Magnolia Bakery for a treat - its definitely one of those New York places that is NOT to be missed! Grab the blondie - it was arguably the best!
Want the ultimate moment for a kid? FAO Schwartz is back in Rockefeller Center and its just as magical as its flagship store once was. Come for opening and be welcomed in by toys and toymakers alike. Head up to the top floor to play on the iconic "Big" floor piano. Or simply just take in the magic of this magical toy store.
Walk The High Line
The High Line is a walkway above the city built on old railways and a different way to take in New York. The kids will enjoy finding the eclectic uses of art and the relaxed vibe up here - along with the views!
We suggest starting at the The Standard, specifically at the Biergarten. This open air venue sells tickets at the ticket booth for beer and food; purchase what you'll like in exchange for item of choice once inside. There are fusbol and ping pong tables set around the venue, along with the community tables. It makes for a great time for the whole family, without getting too rowdy. And for us, it was a nice place to duck into as we avoided the rain!
Once you make your way up to walk down The High Line, feel free to get off and on to check out neighborhoods as you'd like. You'll run into Chelsea Market which is marketplace of shops, eats, and events! Finish at Hudson Yards, where you can climb The Vessel - a centerpiece made for exploring!
Climb a Skyscraper
There are plenty to choose from, including the iconic Empire State Building, grand view of Central Park from Rockefeller Center, and a national treasure for all it represents, One World Trade.
We've visited all and really there is not a right or wrong, but suggest doing one a trip! It'll make every visit back extra special if you get a skyline view from a different landmark each time!
Visit a Museum
New York is full of museums, which make for the best any time activity!
... and that doesn't even finish that list nor start the selection of children's museum to see!
Finally, don't forget your reciprocal benefits from any museum memberships from back home. For us, the ASTC Travel Passport Program allowed us free entry to the Intrepid, which was an amazing and unique experience. Not only did we get to wander an aircraft carrier, looking at all types of vessels but we also had the opportunity to tour a submarine. The Growler was a Cold War era sub and even had one of the original crew volunteering on board. To meet someone that served and that could give us firsthand account was indispensable.
Want some really good Italian food? Visit Little Italy! It makes you feel like you are in Italia with the hosts enticing you to enter and the language floating through the air. This is just one of those iconic neighborhoods you have to pop over and visit!
While you're there, go to Caffe Palmero - home of the best cannolis this side of the Atlantic!
Visit another zoo! This ended up being serendipitous for our eldest - who was wanting to see the zoo but we couldn't squeeze it in during our three short days! When our flight got cancelled and only rescheduled for two days later, we had the time to fulfill his wishes.
The ZOO (of TV legacy) is truly an experience - and got us to another borough to visit. An upgrade from the Central Park Zoo in sheer size and attractions, it was a delight to see our kids immerse themselves in this beautiful zoo. They even had education stations to participate in activities and earn stickers all while learning about animals and what they can do to better help this world.
We were immediately sold on a Wildlife Conservation Society membership during our visit, which covered the difference in the price of our Central Park tickets and this visit. It also gave us a year's worth of visits to WCS affiliated zoos and aquariums in the greater NYC area. So if we just happen to be back, we're covered; if not, we've donated to a great cause! And saved while doing it.
Walk across this architectural mastepiece for some stunning views of Manhattan Island! Do it at sunset for a glimpse of the heavens showing off!
Looking for the shoreline near Manhattan? Head further into Brooklyn to iconic Coney Island! Spend a perfect summer day on the boardwalk and riding the famous rides, like the Cyclone. Nothing else feels more like summertime!
Well, except a hot dog eating contest - which happens here every 4th of July!
Also, make use of that WCS membership and visit the New York Aquarium included in your purchase! Easily another two in one day here!
Take in the city!
Each section of this great city is so distinct to itself and its what makes this place so special!
When and how long to go?
There’s never a wrong time for New York! But how long you go is completely up to you!
You can make a long weekend of it and focus on only one thing - like we did a few years back and hit up Broadway shows. You can come for a few days and take in all the highlights! Or if you decide to stay longer, fill up your schedule with so many things to do.
How to get there?
Flying into NYC is relatively inexpensive from around the US, but it is always worth playing around with your dates and arrival airports to see what's available!
We prefer flying into LaGuardia (LGA) because flights tend to run a little more frequently and cheaper. But this last trip we flew out of JFK and had a wonderful experience - right down to getting there! We were able to take the subway and then connect over to the AirTrain to get to JFK smoothly. A cab ride can run over $75 - whereas taking public transit cost us about $20 (and our 4 year old was free the whole way) and in about the same amount of time.
You can take public transit from LaGuardia too, but it takes a little more maneuvering and connecting to buses. Knowing the ease of connection at JFK, we may consider flying in there more often than not!
How to get around?
Subway, foot, or taxi are really the only way to go. There is no point in having a car in the city, as you'll just be frustrated at the lack of parking or the sky high prices when you do find it. So unless you plan to head out of NYC for the trip, save renting a car until it is needed.
The subway is cheap and easy to use - $2.75 each one way trip or you can purchase multi-day cards for a discounted price. If you have the opportunity, spend as much time above ground as possible too. Take in the city and sights, it's how you truly appreciate New York. And if you're in a hurry, you can always hail a taxi - they're everywhere and in my opinion still more convenient than any Uber or Lyft in the city!
Where to stay?
We prefer Midtown because of the accessibility to public transportation and the central location. Our last stay brought us to Hyatt Place Midtown-South off West 36th Street. We were two blocks from Hearld Square (home of Macy's), a handful of blocks from Times Square, and had a subway on every corner.
We stayed in a generous size King Room with sofa bed, which was more than enough space for sleeping & changing aka the only times we were in our room. And as a World of Hyatt member, we got free breakfast every morning. They were in the middle of renovations in their main breakfast room, so we got to enjoy our first meal of the day right under the Empire State Building. Pretty incredible for the price we paid to stay here!
When our trip got extended, we stayed at the Hotel Beacon in the Upper West Side. We were a few block away from Central Park and near a subway line that had a Trader Joe's, Duane Reade and some other shopping near by. We had a two-bedroom suite with a full kitchen, lodging that reminded me of my first dated apartment. Had we spent more time using the amenities this spot would've been great with the accessibility to the marketplaces we had! Instead we enjoyed dining at nearby Levain Bakery & Zucker's Bagels for breakfast and delighting in Gray's Papaya for hot dog & fruit juice for lunch.
If you haven't done NYC with kids, its definitely worth the consideration. This melting pot of people, culture, and history is such a wonderful experience for them and exposing them to so much in one little trip!