New York, New York. Need we say more? Except that, whilst there are endless activities aimed at children in this city of cities – Baby DJ school, anyone? – many of the highlights for a visitor, first-time or otherwise, are the same simple pleasures whether you’re 4, 14, or 44.
When in town, travel by subway: at $2.50 a journey, it’s cheap (buy a $30 7-day unlimited Metrocard if you’re going to be hopping about a lot), fun for kids, efficient, and up to three children under 44 inches tall ride free with a paying adult. If you’re planning on hitting lots of the big-ticket sights, there are a number of ways of saving a few dollars: the New York CityPASS, New York Pass and New York Explorer Pass are themselves all worth exploring. But there’s also plenty of things to do that don’t cost a dime: swim, walk, play or watch an al fresco movie for free, all day long, all across the city.
1. Play in the Park
(free) There’s likely no more iconic park on earth than Manhattan’s Central Park, and for so many wonderful reasons. The playgrounds, the Alice in Wonderland, the free Summerstage concerts, family programs, and Strawberry Fields; the boating lake, the carousel…the list goes on and on. If you’re here in summer, stay for the day. If you’re here in winter, wrap up warm and stroll – or ice skate – with the native New Yorkers.
2. Admire the Dinos
Every child should head to the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West to commune with the famous T-Rex – though there’s far, far more to see (as Night at the Museum fans know) than that. But if you still haven’t had your fill of dinos after a visit, head out to Field Station Dinosaurs, an ‘outdoor prehistoric theme park in New Jersey,’ and a quick zip from Penn Station.
3. Climb the Heights
Don’t let anyone convince you it’s too touristy or pricey: racing up in the express elevators to the almost-tippy-top 86th floor of the Empire State Building (where the husband of one of Seven Suitcases’s founders proposed to her) is 100% worth it – even when, at night in dense fog, it creates an “all alone in the world” sensation. Pay extra if you’re feeling flush to go all the way up to the 102nd. For the scaling of other heights, visit the (marginally cheaper and a dozen storeys lower) Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Center.
4. See the Great Green Lady
When in New York, you can’t not pay a visit to the Statue of Liberty, who has been guarding its waters for the last century-or-so. There are two ways to see her: up-close-and-personal with a visit to the island itself via Statue Cruises, which depart from either Battery Park or Liberty State Park in New Jersey, or for free, but at a distance, from the atmospheric, commuter-laden Staten Island Ferry, which parents will recognise from Working Girl, among other iconic ’80s movies.
5. It’s all happening at the Zoo
Two zoos well worth taking your little monkeys to whilst in the city are the wonderful Bronx Zoo (we’re in love with the red pandas) and the smaller Central Park Zoo slap-bang in central Manhattan, where you mustn’t miss the penguin feedings. Buy tickets online for a 10% saving.
6. See Art
New York City’s art museums are absolutely not just for adults: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET) offers two fabulous Family Itineraries: one for the under-fives and one for the overs, whilst family programs, maps and audio guides can all be accessed here (or, for teens, here). Children under 12 get free admission. Likewise, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) (under 16s free) and the Guggenheim (under 12s free) offer stellar artistic encounters for children: visit the MoMa’s family page or the Guggenheim’s for full details.
7. Eat Historic on E. Houston
A pastrami on rye is about as New York as they come: stop in at Katz’s Deli (open since 1888) at 205 E. Houston Street to split a vast and famous version with your little people, or for matzo ball soup and knockwurst. If bagels are the order of the day, Russ & Daughters, (since 1914) at number 179, is the place to gobble one down with lashings of cream cheese and smoked salmon, while for knishes, look no further than the Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery (since 1910) at number 137. Finally – though it’s not on E. Houston – nostalgia-lovers young and old might want to stop for a bite at the Carnegie Deli on 7th Ave (founded 1934), where a piled-high sandwich will keep you full all week.
8. Go for a Walk
(free; Brooklyn Botanic Garden $10 adults) If your little charges are feeling energetic, take a jaunt across the Brooklyn Bridge for amazing views of the Manhattan skyline (an extra 3km will take you to Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 6 for some incredible playground action: think water park and giant sandbox). Alternatively, stroll along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade (home to many movie moments that parents may recall), the historic High Line, a one-mile “linear park” built on a freight train line above Manhattan’s West Side, or go green at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (check here for children’s programs and workshops).
9.Try an Egg Cream
Never heard of it? Your children will thank you when you discover this thick, sweet, bubbly concoction of milk, soda water and vanilla or chocolate syrup. All three E. Houston eateries (see number 7, above) vend their own version of this NYC delight, but you can also get your fix at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop on 5th Ave, Ray’s Candy Store or Gem Spa in the East Village, Café Edison on Times Square, the Lexington Candy Shop on Lexington Ave, or, across the bridge, at the hip Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain.
10. See a Show
All right, so you might prefer to see The Book of Mormon, but with little people, you’re more likely heading to The Lion King or Matilda. Discount tickets can be had at many online sites, but drop into the reliable TKTS booths on Times Square and at South Street Seaport to purchase yours in person (matinee performances are usually cheapest, and best for younger kids). Off Broadway, meanwhile, see what’s on at the fabulous New Victory Theater, the “theater you never outgrow.”
11. Picnic from the Market
If it’s sunny and you’re heading to the park, peruse the stalls at the Union Square Greenmarket (open Mon, Wed, Fri & Sat) for the perfect picnic produce, or, at the weekend, at Smorgasburg at the Brooklyn Flea (see number 14, below). If you’re feeling fancy, shop instead at Dean & Deluca on Broadway & Prince St, for groceries fit for a little prince and princess’s picnic.
12. Go Barefoot in the Park
(free) Open spaces abound in New York City, perfect for whenever the need to dash-about-wildly strikes. Washington Square Park is a firm favourite on our list (all the more so when we stop off for a veggie dosa at the incredible NY Dosa street cart, and watch the chess games in progress on the Square), while Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (for additional kids’ activities, including an Audubon Center, click here), the scenic, playground-heavy Hudson River Park (Especially for Kids offers a full run-down of what’s on offer), the Bosque Garden with its splashable fountain at Manhattan’s southern-tip Battery Park, and Rockaway Beach and Park Playground in Queens all provide ample running, jumping, climbing room.
13. Head to Coney
You can’t not: take the D, N, Q or F train (about 50 mins from Midtown Manhattan) to ride the Cyclone (making riders scream since 1927) and the equally venerable 1920-built Deno’s Wonder Wheel. Stop for a dog at Nathan’s (attend the hot dog-eating contest if you’re there on the 4th July, or the Mermaid Parade – see Number 20, below – in June), munch funnel cake and salt water taffy, grab a slice of pizza pie at Totonno’s (1524 Neptune Ave; 12-8pm, closed Mon & Tue) and dip your feet with locals’ in the chilly NY waters.
14. Ride the Cable-Car
Children love taking the Roosevelt Island Tram (which is actually a cable-car) across the East River between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island; take the trip back and forth in one go, or take the red bus (for free) to the island’s South Point Park for great views of Manhattan and a run-around amid the greenery.
15. Munch the World
Beware of highly touristy Little Italy (though it’s worth sampling a cannoli or two at the century-old Ferrara Bakery & Café), and head instead to Chinatown (Mott St, btwn Worth & Kenware), where your little ones can choose from the delicious likes of slurpable Great NY Noodle Town, cheap-and-cheerful Xi’an Famous Foods, and dim sum (since 1920) at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which even has a few yummy veggie selections. On the Lower East Side, opt for delicious one-dollar dumplings at Prosperity Dumpling or, in the West Village, try the incredible, melt-in-your-mouth Hummus Masabacha at our super-fave Hummus Place. For an oozy, cheesy slice of NYC’s much-disputed “best pizza”, try long-standing Brooklyn Di Fara Pizza or Totonno’s (1524 Neptune Ave, Coney Island), or grab a pie at John’s of Bleecker Street in Manhattan.
16. Pick Through a Flea
It’s not only adults who like rummaging through a good old flea market. Our tinies love a look-see at the Brooklyn Flea on Saturdays and Sundays, the GreenFlea on Columbus Ave (Sundays), Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market on W 39th (Saturdays and Sundays), and at the Hester Street Fair, also on weekends, on the Lower East Side. Spend a fun-filled afternoon explaining the concept of typewriters, record players and 8-track tapes.
17. Swim Al Fresco
(free) When New York heats up, join the natives for a dip in one of the city’s many outdoor pools – most of them, quite incredibly, free of charge. Take your pick from the wildly popular Astoria Pool in Queens, the Olympic-sized Hamilton Fish Pool on the Lower East Side, the huge Brooklyn McCarren Park Pool, the cute John Jay Pool on FDR Drive, or the famous Lasker Pool in Central Park. For a full run-down of all free pools, click here.
18. Take Them Out to a Ball Game
The Knicks, the Nets, the Mets or the Yankees…whether it’s NBA basketball (the former two) or major league baseball (the latter two) that thrills your family, it’s well worth grabbing tickets to experience a ball-game, peanuts, Crackerjack and all.
19. Get out to Governor’s
Take a free ferry from Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park or the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan out to Governor’s Island, a 172-acre former military base, now a hub of New York City summer relaxation. Ride bikes, attend an open-air concert, play mini golf, or don a costume and dance away at the fabulous summer Jazz Age Lawn Party. Loads of kids’ activities, hammocks on the lawn, and yummy food and ice cream carts with which to fuel up for further fun (open weekends, May to September).
20. Parade Away
(free) Almost every month sees a parade hitting New York City’s streets. If you’re visiting in March, it’s the St. Patrick’s Day Parade; in June, the quirky Mermaid Parade at Coney Island; in October, the incredible Village Halloween Parade, and in November, the massive Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Take sunscreen (in summer) and stamina (year-round) and take to the streets with several thousand – or hundred thousand – local revelers.
21. Catch an Outdoor Flick
(free) Summer sees a host of outdoor movie screens erected in New York City’s parks, and as dusk falls and fireflies flit, folks settle down on blankets to watch a movie. Check park schedules for upcoming listings – many of which are family-friendly, and some of which even have free popcorn – and consult a copy of Time Out New York for details of what’s on in Central, Bryant, Hudson River and Brooklyn Bridge Parks.
22. Go Skating
When winter hits, get your little people bundled up and skate a chilly afternoon away at one of Manhattan’s many skate spots: we like the free Bryant Park Rink, the iconic Rink at Rockefeller Center, the glorious Trump Wollman Rink in Central Park, and the rink at The Standard Plaza in the Meatpacking District.
23. Take Tea
Though Manhattan has no shortage of fancy hotels with High Tea on the menu, our two favourites for an afternoon treat – complete with porcelain and finger sandwiches – are the oh-so-opulent Russian Tea Room, with its children’s High Tea menu (there’s also a vegetarian option), and the sweet, whimsical Alice’s Tea Cup (which has three Manhattan locations), which offers a “Wee Tea” for little ones alongside its regular menus. No elbows on the table, please.
24. Make for a Museum
Where to start? New York has a museum – or so it seems – for every day of the year. Some of our favourites with kids are the toddler-friendly Children’s Museum of Manhattan, the strangely compelling Museum of Mathematics, the amazing New York Hall of Science, the truly fascinating DiMenna Children’s History Museum, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (recommended for the over-8s, and entirely immersive) and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum…because you just can’t go wrong with a museum on board an immense, historic aircraft carrier.
25. Galavant in a Playground
(free) You’ll never be stuck for a playground in New York City, but Hudson River Park’s Pier 25 and Pier 51, the myriad playgrounds in Central Park (we heart the Heckscher), the Imagination Playground at Prospect Park, the Hippo Playground at Riverside Park, and the Moira Ann Smith Playground at Madison Square Park are among our tinies’ personal New York favourites.