Visiting New York with kids – The top family-friendly places to visit
Ask people what city is top of their bucket list and many people will say New York. Even if they’re been before, they’ll probably still want to go back.
What is it about NYC that captures people’s imaginations? I think it’s the energy, the architecture, the food, the diversity and the family-friendly attractions that entice millions of tourists to visit the ‘Big Apple’ every year. It’s also the perfect holiday destination to bring kids, especially tweens and teens. The memories that you will make with your kids in New York will stay with you forever.
James and I visited New York twenty years ago for a couple of days and we’ve always wanted to return with our kids ever since. On a recent road trip along the US East Coast, we were lucky enough to stay in city for five nights and we made sure we crammed in as much as we physically could.
So what is there for families to do in New York?
Here’s a list of our top things that we would recommend, in no particular order :
Staten Island Ferry
New York can be an expensive city to visit with the family, so let’s start with one of the top free things to do, the Staten Island Ferry.
Leaving from Whitehall Terminal, the crossing takes about twenty five minutes and offers amazing views of the Statue of Liberty, New York harbour, Ellis Island, and the Manhattan skyline.
When you get on, head straight for the right hand side of the ferry for the best views of America’s Great Lady. Even if you intend to return on the ferry, you must disembark onto Staten Island first. As locals use this ferry to commute I would avoid it at peak times. Ironically this is one tourist attraction that’s actually quieter on Saturdays and Sundays.
When you return to the Manhattan terminal, turn left and head into Battery Park for a coffee and a visit to the public toilets.
Another free attraction that is a must see in New York is the famous Central Park. The location setting for so many American movies and programmes that you may have watched over this side of the pond.
I was surprised to see that cars are actually allowed to drive through the park during the week so be careful if you have kids with you as you, and they, may not be expecting that. Cars are banned during the weekends so the only thing you’ll need to be wary of then is the hundreds of bikes that will be whizzing around. In fact renting a bike and exploring the park with two wheels is a really popular family activity but we didn’t have time for it so we just explored by foot.
Talking of time, you could easily spend an entire day in Manhattan’s largest urban park. There is a marionette theatre, museum, carousels, zoo, tropical rainforest, Wollman skating rink, fountain, lake, castle not to mention the numerous playgrounds dotted all over the park.
It feels bohemian and laid back and you can quickly see why this gorgeous green space feels like it’s the heartbeat of this great city and why it comfortably attracts over 25 million visitors a year.
Just across from Central Park is the Guggenheim Museum. It’s an iconic building on Fifth Avenue that stands as a fitting tribute to it’s designer Frank Lloyd Wright. If you and your kids are interested in art, I would definitely recommend visiting this incredible gallery. It’s as fascinating inside as it is outside. There is a spiralling ramp with the art displayed on the walls around the spiral. There is a permanent collection including pieces by Kandinsky and Picasso to name but a few. When we were there it was the last day for a temporary exhibition by Hilma af Klint which may explain the crowds.
We started at the top of the spiral ramp and worked our way down however the way the temporary exhibition was displayed it felt that we should have done the opposite. Make sure you pop into the gift shop. There’s a smaller one on the top floor and a larger one on the ground floor. There are family tours on the second Sunday of every month at 10:30am with a hands on workshop at 1pm.
You should definitely consider buying tickets in advance as when we visited, people were queuing down the street.
We were determined to get the Dumbo shot, you know the one I mean. We could’ve got the metro under the East River but then we would have missed the opportunity to walk across the famous Brooklyn Bridge. The only issue is that everyone else has exactly the same idea so be prepared to follow a crowd. It’s not as wide as you think and half of the walkway is taken up with a bike lane. If you have little ones in a pushchair then I’d recommend that you head over the bridge early in the morning before the crowds descend.
The walk is 1.3 miles and will take about thirty minutes to walk depending how many times you stop for photographs. Bring some water with you if it’s a warm day as you’ll be parched by the time you get there and back.
When you cross the bridge (from Manhattan), the Dumbo photo spot is about a two minute walk away, just follow the people. Be prepared to wait while the world and his wife tries to take the same photo where you can see the Empire State Building through the bridge. Be careful while you do so as there are cars on the road to contend with.
When we walked back across, the nearest toilet is the Starbucks across the street on the left hand side but be prepared to queue there too.
Time Square really sums up the terrific madness that is New York. It’s definitely worth bringing the kids there just to soak up the atmosphere. Everything is bigger there, the shops, the lights and most certainly the crowds.
We popped into the M&M store but quickly walked out again not understanding what all the fuss is about. I wonder if it’s ever quiet there, I can’t imagine it. Remember to keep a tight hold on those little hands and those purses as I can imagine that it’s a haven for pick-pockets.
The new kid on the block in New York is The Vessel at Hudson Yards.
Hudson Yards is an area in Manhattan’s New West Side that has undergone incredible redevelopment over the last few years. The centre piece of this new cultural centre is ‘The Vessel’. A structure that resembles a cross between a honeycomb and a spaceship. The Vessel is made up of 154 intricately interconnecting flights of stairs, totalling nearly 2,500 individual steps. It was beautifully designed by British designer Thomas Heatherwick and offers incredible views over the Hudson River.
The stunning copper coloured structure is free to climb but you must book a timed ticket in advance. Tickets are made available online two weeks in advance. There are some tickets available each day but you’ll have to queue and there’s no guarantee you’ll get a time that suits you. If you have young children or older relations with you, you can get a single elevator to the top but note that you will have a long queue to get up and down.
It’s worth noting that there are no public toilets near the Vessel so I would recommend bringing the kids into the shopping centre next door before your allocated time to visit the Vessel.
This was hands down one of the most amazing things we did with the kids in New York. It’s such a beautiful structure you can’t fail to be amazed with it. The views were incredible too. I would put this in my top three things to do in NYC.
Running from 15th to 34th street on the city’s west side, the Highline is an elevated walkway through the Meatpacking district of New York. It was once a railway line built in the 1930s to transport freight but it’s been converted into a lovely walk (lasting from 30 minutes to a couple of hours) which gives you some really interesting perspectives on the buildings and landscapes.
Some of the locations along the way have been transformed into artist installations and industrial themed playgrounds. Although it’s narrow in some parts, the walkway is buggy-friendly and has some elevator stops and a ramp to help parents get onto the Highline. There are toilets available at 16th street.
World Trade Centre, Occulus and One World Observatory
I think that when you visit New York, it’s important to visit the World Trade Centre. Understandably it can be difficult for children who are part of the post 9/11 generation to understand what happened on that dreadful day however I still think it’s important to bring them and, if possible, explain to them what happened, in age-appropriate language.
One way to visit the World Trade Centre is to do a guided tour with a reputable company like Take Walks. We booked the 9/11 Memorial with One World Observatory tour and we all (kids included) found it really interesting.
It’s a powerful tour which focuses on the heroics of those who came to the rescue of those caught up in the aftermath of the event and does not dwell on the tragic event itself.
You can read all about our tour of the World Trade Centre, Oculus and One World Observatory here.
MoMA – Museum of Modern Art
A modern art museum might not be the first place you think of taking the kids when you visit New York but the MoMA is an incredibly family-friendly place. Admission is free for kids who are aged sixteen and under. In fact admission is free for everyone on Fridays between 4pm and 8pm but I would not recommend visiting then as it will be unbearably busy. The best time to visit is 10:30am when they open. There are lots of interesting family programmes that are available just head to the education desk on the second floor for more information.
If you have little ones, make sure you bring a buggy in case they get tired walking around. For older kids, sketching is encouraged in the galleries but you must use pencil only.
One of the most famous pieces in the MoMA is Van Gogh’s A Starry Night which is even more beautiful in real life. Other pieces worth checking out are Salvador Dali’s melting watch and Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians.
If you’re there on a Saturday or Sunday morning then look at joining one of the family tours. Before you head into MoMa, it’s worthwhile having a chat with kids, tweens and teens included, that not all modern art will be hanging on the wall. Some pieces may be in the middle of the room so it’s best to assume that everything may be modern art, even that chair in the corner of the room.
The Manhattan side of the Roosevelt Tramline is located on 2nd Ave. between 59th and 60th Streets. You can buy a ticket from the vending machine or alternatively, it’s free if you have a Metro card. This unique cable car leaves every fifteen minutes but in rush hour they are more frequent. I would avoid bringing the kids during rush hour as people use the tram to commute to and from work so it is likely to be very busy.
It only takes five minutes to cross the river so try and stand near the doors for the perfect view. It runs from 6am to 2am so if you time it right, you could catch the sunrise or the sunset.
Getting around New York
New York Metro
Don’t bother with taxis, use the subway to get around New York. I would recommend getting everyone a Metro Card.
As we knew we were going to be there for five nights, we bought a seven day unlimited card which cost $36 each. It’s the same price for an adult or a child. Also, you need to pay cash for these cards at the kiosk. They won’t take credit cards.
Big Bus Company
If you fancy seeing the sights of New York from the comfort of an open top bus then you should consider booking tickets for the NYC hop-on hop-off Big Bus Company. Big Bus Tours is the largest operator of open-top sightseeing tours in the world, providing sightseeing tours in 20 cities across three continents. Instead of burying your head in a guidebook and letting New York pass you by, the beauty about the bus is that a commentary is included by a tour guide on board who will tell you more than any guidebook.
A day ‘classic ticket’ costs $49.50 for an adult which means it can become expensive for a large family but if you are prepared to get up and out and onto one of the first buses then you will definitely get the value.
As the day goes on, the number of the people looking to use the buses goes up dramatically so bear in mind that when you wait for bus in the afternoon, you may not get on board and, if you do, you may have to wait for a few stops before you get to sit upstairs.
A huge shout out to Big Bus Company NYC for gifting us our tickets for a day to explore the city. Book your own Big Bus NYC tickets here.
Top Places to Eat in New York
Even though we had self-catering accommodation in the Beacon Hotel, we were determined to sample some of the best food that New York had to offer. I would recommend the following :
Best Pizza – Adrienne’s Pizzas
A stone’s throw from Battery Park and the Staten Island ferry terminal, Adrienne’s pizzeria on Stone Street, was highly recommended to us by friends and TripAdvisor.
It’s not cheap but the pizzas are incredible.
We make our own pizza dough at home every week and this was even better. A 12” round pizza starts at $18. I would recommend getting a couple of ‘Old Fashioned’ large rectangle pizzas which cost $24 each and two of these would’ve been perfect for our family of five hungry tummies to share for a hearty lunch.
Best Juice – Joe and the Juice
We love our Nutribullet back home and have a fresh Spinach, Kale and fruit juice everyday. We were keen to try and keep our vitamin intake up so when we were out and about we tried to buy freshly pressed juices whenever we could. We found the chain of coffee and juice bars called ‘Joe and the Juice’. They’re dotted all over New York city.
Their coffee was really good too.
Best ‘clean’ lunch – Mulberry and Vine
A stone’s throw from Dumbo is the small yet perfectly formed ‘Mulberry and Vine’ where we enjoyed a delicious salad lunch for $12 each. They were so large we shared four between the five of us.
Best NYC food experience (for our daughter) – Hard Rock Cafe
My eldest daughter always wanted to visit Hard Rock Cafe in Time Square, New York so we booked about two weeks in advance and just about secured a table.
I’ll be honest, Hard Rock Cafe is a tad overpriced and underwhelming but the kids enjoyed the atmosphere. Burger and chips cost $18 and a 20oz pint of beer cost $12 (but you get to keep the Hard Rock Cafe glass afterwards). It was cool to see the Rock and Pop memorabilia dotted around but it was so busy you couldn’t really walk around to look at any of it.
New York really is an amazing city. If you visit do try and stay for a more than a weekend if you can. There is just so much to see and do for families, you need at least five days to even scratch the surface of all that this incredible city has to offer.
Invest some time before you get to New York planning all the things you would like to do so that you can get the most out of your visit.
To plan your own New York adventure, head to NYC Go’s website for more useful information.
Disclaimer : We paid for our own flights, travel, accommodation and meals unless otherwise stated. This blog post is in collaboration with NYC & Company.