New York is an overwhelming city to visit with children — crowded, loud, expensive and larded with a seemingly infinite number of landmarks and showstoppers that your children simply must experience.
If it’s any consolation, even people raising children in New York are daunted; at any given moment another family is certainly doing something more enriching and entertaining than yours. But from experience comes wisdom, and parents have learned how to take advantage of New York in manageable portions.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art as one of five things to do on a Saturday? Not unless you feel like losing sight of your 4-year-old. Try something smaller or skip it. Need a roomy bathroom in Midtown? Department stores present an all-too-rare opportunity. What follows is carefully culled advice from New Yorkers on how to cover the city right, whether your brood includes a toddler or a teenager.
No one can expect children to spend a week traipsing through museums, but some of New York’s boutique institutions are of special interest to young people. The Tenement Museum (103 Orchard St. near Delancey St.; tenement.org) on the Lower East Side offers a riveting glimpse into urban family life. Guided tours reveal the daily routines of generations of Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants who made their mark then quickly moved up and out. Pick up a copy of All-of-a-Kind Family or a vintage toy in the museum shop, one of the city’s best.
MoMA (11 W. 53rd St.; moma.org) does an excellent job making modern and contemporary art accessible to children as young as 4. On weekend mornings, guided tours are divided into age-appropriate groups in which children can observe a number of works and draw; later they gain free admittance to the entire museum. The cafeteria is both adult- and child-friendly, and there’s an art laboratory with hands-on activities and even an audio guide for young people.
Ideal for balmier days, the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum (Pier 86, 12th Avenue at 46th Street; intrepidmuseum.org) has expanded its exhibits and family programs since I spent chilly, bored afternoons there as a child in the ‘80s. The most significant is the Space Shuttle Pavilion, which showcases the Enterprise, NASA’s first space shuttle, which arrived last year. The USS Intrepid, a World War II-era aircraft carrier, is worthwhile in itself. Families may want to consider Operation Slumber, which allows for overnight visits with special activities for children 6 and older.
The New York Transit Museum (Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn; mta.info/mta/museum) is a favorite with train-obsessed grown-ups and children alike. The permanent exhibits include old turnstiles and vintage subway cars.
An entire book could be devoted to kid-literary New York, but highlights include the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, a standard photo-op; Grand Central Terminal for the finale of The Cricket in Times Square; the genteel neighborhood of Yorkville, specifically East 88th Street, for the Lyle, Lyle Crocodile books, and the same neighborhood for Harriet the Spy. The Plaza hotel is a site for Eloise fans and the Met for fans of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (a downloadable guide is available online).
Chicken nuggets and chain restaurants can be found anywhere. For fresher food, head to the Union Square Greenmarket, a mecca for top restaurateurs (open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; grownyc.org/unionsquaregreenmarket). You may get a green or two into your child’s mouth, or at least a wild strawberry. There are ample samples of jam and maple sugar candy.
If you’re not up for the interminable wait for a table at Serendipity 3, try Alice’s Tea Cup (three locations; alicesteacup.com), where children can get a sprinkle of fairy dust before their Alice’s s’mores (“served melted and messy”) and admire murals of Lewis Carroll-inspired images. The astonishingly moist scones are not to be missed, and there are healthful salads and sandwiches as well (try the Lapsang souchong smoked chicken).
For more sweets, head to Economy Candy (108 Rivington St. near Ludlow Street; economycandy.com), an overstuffed emporium of candies both oldfangled (Astro Pops, Sugar Daddy) and new (gummies galore).
Once the children are hopped up on sugar, they’ll need to burn off the energy. Try the Children’s Museum of the Arts (103 Charlton St. near Hudson Street; cmany.org). All the artwork is made by children, and visitors can make their own (bonus: you don’t have to clean up). An area for younger children includes sand, Play-Doh and guided music activities. Children go berserk for the Ball Pond, a closed-in area of oversize balls. Is it experiential art? An installation? Children need not bother with such imponderables.
For those more in need of a gambol, New York has hundreds of playgrounds, with 21 in Central Park alone. Some of the best truly shine in summer, when the sprinklers are turned on. Heckscher, Central Park’s oldest playground, just off Central Park South, is hard to beat with its rivers of water and sprinklers separated into areas for older and younger children. Behind the playground are massive glacial rocks that bolder children like to climb on and slide down. (It’s also within striking distance of the manageable Central Park Zoo, with its fanciful musical clock and accessible feeding zoo.)
Adventure Playground at 67th Street in Central Park also offers excellent water play, as does the Arthur Ross Terrace, a free outdoor water fountain park on the north side of the American Museum of Natural History. The gentle play is especially good for toddlers and very small children. On the East Side, Ancient Playground, just north of the Metropolitan Museum of Art near 85th Street, includes pyramid structures for climbing.
Downtown, Teardrop Park in Battery Park City is a haven of walkways, playgrounds and Hudson River views, with one of the grandest slides in the city. Nelson A. Rockefeller Park near Chambers Street includes a wading pool.
Adults and children of all ages (with smaller children in strollers) may enjoy taking the pedestrian walkway over the Brooklyn Bridge, one of New York’s great pleasures. Once in Brooklyn, Jane’s Carousel (janescarousel.com), a gorgeously restored 1922 ride in Brooklyn Bridge Park, gives children a spin while offering parents a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline. Dumbo, one of Brooklyn’s newly glitzy neighborhoods, has a number of boutiques for local loft babies, as well as Jacques Torres Chocolate (66 Water St. near Main Street, mrchocolate.com), where children can gawp at the factory within.