10 things to do in New York City with the children

Whether it's the yellow cabs, the neon rush of Time Square, or simply strolling around Central Park munching on pretzels, New York City is a delicious blur of excitement perfect for families to explore. Amanda Cassidy discovers some of the top child-friendly spots in the Big Apple.


We arrived with 9 suitcases in a jumble of jet lag, high on excitement and aeroplane food. Everyone's first time visiting New York is special but as a child, the magic is magnified. I was 11 and my parents bravely ventured Stateside with the five of us (aged 12, 11, 9, 6 and 4) on a bumper once-in-a-lifetime trip to New York followed by Florida. We were staying with our cousins on Long Island (an hour from Manhattan) who looked at us in sheer horror as the two taxis unloaded this gang of Irish lunatics onto their front drive. The theme of the trip would be them shaking their heads at my parent's plans to 'show the kids everything', amused and bewildered as we took the train into Manhattan each day. Looking back, my parent's determination to show us as much as they could was touching -  and probably explains my own unquenchable wanderlust.

And do it, we did. We ate melt-in-your-mouth steaks at Peter Luger's Steakhouse, got photos on the top of the Empire State Building, went to a Yankee game and bought trinkets in China Town. Despite our cousin's hesitations over safety, this family of seven marched up and down the Avenues absorbing all the Big Apple had to offer. There were plenty of breaks for bagels and red velvet cupcakes and after tasting 'real' pizza, we finally understood what all the fuss was about. We were in permanent awe of this fabulous city and its sometimes odd inhabitants.

Now, many years later, the city has morphed again into a shinier version of itself. It may be a more sophisticated version, but it still has the same grit that I remember loving as a child. After a lifetime of travel to far-flung destinations, it is still one of my top family destination recommendations. Here's why; It has enough for everyone, it is a foodies paradise, you can't help but have wonderful adventures and it is suitable for dreamers of all ages. Like every child is told at some stage of their lives 'you can be whatever you want to be' and New York reflects that extraordinary ethos. Here are my top 20 child-friendly tips for visiting New York (and you won't have to break the bank).

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1. Establish your family HQ

It is a good idea to establish a base that's close to all the attractions that you will be...well, attracted to! Remember too, that a big part of your holiday vibe will be your surroundings. We usually stay with family in upstate New York, but there are plenty of family hotels in the city itself that will save on travel time in and out of the city. Somewhere within walking distance is also an added bonus and saves on taking taxis, especially if you are only there for a few nights. If you want some home away from home, the institution that is Fitzpatrick's Hotel is very central and welcoming with family rooms to suit everyone. The budget-friendly Radio City Apartments are just steps from the Rockefeller centre and have kitchenettes for those who don't want to eat out for every meal.  If you are looking to treat yourselves to something a little fancier, you will fall in love with the fairytale dazzle of the New York Palace Hotel which is on Madison Avenue. It also has beautiful views over St Patrick's Cathedral and they do a mean Long Island Iced Tea.

2. Time to explore

The beauty of New York City is that you can simply walk around to get a flavour of what this city is really all about. Our first day, we usually go out for breakfast (the children don't have the same passion as we have for sitting around for hours eating in the evenings) and then like every good adventurer, we lose ourselves in the vast shadows of all the shiny buildings. The children will be mesmerized by the hot dog stands, the neon signs and the horse and carriages circling Central Park. For smaller legs, a buggy might be a good idea, but make sure you have a buggy board attached too for the slightly more reluctant walker. Bring plenty of water!

3. The Children's Museum

Learning while having fun...sneaky! The little ones will love this cultural playspace with its science show, story time and treasure hunts. There is even a dancing area where your budding ballerinas and rapping rascals can choreograph their own show. It is a great way to spend an afternoon if you have street fatigue. The creative photos also make for great souvenirs too. The Children's Museum of Manhattan is located on the Upper East Side. Admission is $14 and it is open until 5 pm most days.

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4. American Girl Store

Yes, it is a marketers dream, but you and your little dolls will adore checking out the American Girl Store with two floors of everything doll-related. Located in the Rockefeller centre, this shop is dedicated to this now world-famous plastic doll. From matching outfits to stylish accessories, it is easy to get caught up in the magic of it all. There is also an American Girl doll salon which...wait for it, is open for kids too. Just don't forget your wallet!

5. Eat out at Chelsea Market

You'll need to come hungry. This bustling Artisan food market has over 40 of New York's best-loved street food stalls. The children will love the sticky buns at the Fat Witch Bakery and they can even make a wish at the water fountain at the centre. We found out quickly that the children prefer places where you can eat on the go, so opting for places like the Chelsea Market where there are plenty of distractions when it came to mealtimes is a great idea. This foodie paradise is open 7 days a week and you can find it on 9th Avenue between 15th and 16th streets.

6. Ferry nice

There is something really special about viewing the Statue of Liberty up close. Taking the 25-minute ferry boat towards Ellis Island is definitely worth doing. Best of all, it's free.

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If you want the most breathtaking backdrop for your family photos, look no further than this activity. The children will enjoy setting out on the water and no matter how many times you have visited New York, looking back at the skyline here, in the shade of Lady Liberty will always give you goosebumps.

You can find details of sailing times here.

6. Mini-fun

Have you ever wanted to see some of the world's famous landmarks in miniature form? It may not be the most typical tourist attraction, but Gulliver's Gate on West 44th Street is a huge hit with families. It features more than 300 scenes globally and the level of detail is truly mesmerizing.

7. Central Park

Need some wide open space after a few hours window shopping? This so-called 'Green Getaway' is perfect for a visit. There are playgrounds galore (21 of them!),  a carousel and petting zoo. Stop for lunch at the Boathouse for some of the best sandwiches in town or simply people-watch as the children chase pigeons. You may also want to linger during the many, many wedding ceremonies you will find dotted around the park by people from all over the world. The children will also love spotting some of the scenes filmed here that they will recognise from movies like Home Alone 2. Whatever you choose to do in Central Park, it is one of the unmissable attractions of your family break to New York City. Find out what's on during the week you are visiting here.

8. The High life

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The high line is an elevated rail track (no longer used for transport) that has been turned into a wild garden track that city-dwellers use as well as those visiting the city. Families will appreciate the unique views as well as some of the uber-hip food trucks dotted along the track. The High Line is well worth a visit but take note, buggies are not always permitted. Depending on the calendar of events, there are often storytelling events, finger puppet shows and arch-making activities (a programme to encourage future architects) for all ages. You can check out upcoming events on the High Line here. 

9. Cool it

Did somebody say waffle cone? One of the benefits of New York's often muggy heat is the amount of ice-cream you will have to consume. If you are visiting in winter, you will still want to seek out one of these! One of the best places to sample the best Ice-cream the city has to offer is Brooklyn Farmacy in Carroll Gardens in the Borough.

The old-school soda fountains are what really draw the crowds. Expect soft creamy ice-cream smothered in whipped cream and sticky sauce. And of course, it is topped with a cherry. Pretty please...

10. The Imagination Playground

This place is as whimsical as it sounds. And although you may prefer to be sipping cosmos in STK or holed up inside the latest speakeasy (see notes below), this expedition is with the children in mind. The great thing is that adults will also get a lot out of visiting this very impressive space on Front Street.  It is designed by architect David Rockwell, who wanted to create an interactive, transformable space that allows children to manipulate their environment and create a play space of their own with sand, water and random shapes. Expect giant foam blocks, mats, fabric, and crates that your mini explorers will concoct a creative hideout. Details on the Imagination Playground can be found here.

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Special Note:

Parents, you didn't think we would write about New York and not put a special mention of some of the spoils for adults while the children are tucked up in bed? (Book that babysitter!) The Office on the Upper West Side is where all the cool kids go (and by kids, we mean grown-ups). It is in the upper part of the lobby of the head-turning Mandarin Oriental Hotel but don't let the dazzle put you off - this place has panache in bucketloads and you can even invent your own cocktail by giving the barperson a number from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most adventurous. 11, we say!

If you like crystal chandeliers, manicured hedges and marble tabletops, then the rooftop RH restaurant   in the uber cool Meatpacking district is where you will want to be found. It is standard American fare done extremely well and is proving very popular after the success of owner Brendan Sodikoff's other restaurants in the city.

Adventure awaits

Discovering New York as a family is something really special. As long as you have researched ahead and have a rough itinerary of how you want things to go, it will be as hassle-free as you make it. The list is endless when it comes to keeping the children entertained.  You can visit the Disney Store (if you are brave enough), do an open bus tour, go to a show, explore all the Boroughs have to offer, go for cupcakes in Greenwich village or head out to Coney Island for a flavour of the iconic funfair. You most likely have limited time, so do try to plan the attractions you want to see according to location and group them so you get the most out of your day. Also, try to use Eighth Avenue to get around as Broadway and Seventh Avenue can get very crowded.

NYC raised the bar for my subsequent travel adventures. As you will hopefully discover, it is an amazingly vibrant playground for both adults and children. Adventure awaits...

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