Having kids required me to rethink my approach to visiting New York City. I found myself Googling things like NYC’s best playgrounds, rather than NYC’s best rooftop patio bars. That said, I didn’t want to completely give up on my life in the land of grownups, so I set out to find the best kids activities in NYC that could also be enjoyed by the rest of the family. Over a number of trips, starting with a visit to NYC with a toddler to now two school-aged children, I curated this list of family-friendly attractions, museums, parks, shops, and other fun things to do in NYC with kids, that would not compromise a parent’s sanity.
In a hurry? Watch our short video on our favorite things to do in Manhattan with kids (and beyond).
Just before we get started, I want to offer up some quick tips for saving money on New York kids activities.
Save Money on Family Activities in NYC
You may wish to consider buying an all-in-one attraction pass for your New York City family vacation. The CityPass New York, for example, can save you up to 42% on a selection of the most popular attractions. The competing New York Pass has a much more extensive list of attractions and comes in 1 to 10 day pass options. My preference leans towards the CityPass because you can visit the attractions on your schedule, without feeling pressured to see a whole bunch of things in one day. You may wish to take a peek at some of the most popular tours and attractions in NYC with GetYourGuide.com as they sometimes have some good combo and skip-the-line attraction promotions. I also would like to mention that there are some great free things to do with kids in New York such as visiting the awesome playgrounds and waterparks in Central Park.
Uber is a great way to get around New York and can be cheaper than a cab and more convenient than the subway. Our trip to/from Laguardia airport was $34 with Uber and would have been $60 in a cab. There are times with Uber when their cars are in short supply triggering “surge pricing”, in which case a cab can be better. In rush hour, you may be able to get places faster with the subway. We also find that the subway is more economical for going way out of town (The Bronx, Coney Island etc.)
If you have not stayed in a New York City hotel room before, you might be shocked by how tiny and expensive they can be. I recommend booking as far out as possible (with a room that you can cancel if something better comes along) and paying close attention to reviews by families. TripAdvisor is great for this and even has a hidden tab (under “more”) called Room Tips that I find very useful. For what it is worth, I am a big fan of Affinia hotels for families because of their relative value and large rooms (4 properties in NYC). I also like Kimpton Hotels (3 properties in NYC) for their Kimpton Kids program and all the extras they offer through their Karma Rewards program (free to sign up). As far as using sites such as Airbnb to find a vacation rental in Manhattan, please be aware that short term rentals of less than 30 days are prohibited in this city.
See also: Our post on top family-friendly hotels in NYC.
The Best Family Activities in NYC
1. Walk the High Line
The High Line is a beautiful place for a stroll, but keep in mind that it is still a walk, which isn’t always thrilling for kids. That said, in the summertime, the flowers are beautiful and there are birds a plenty (I even watched a mother bird feeding her young). My suggestion on how to do the High Line with kids, would be to start your walk at 18th St. or 16th St. and head south (both entrances have elevator access if you have a stroller with you). Grab some gelato along the way and finish at Gansevoort Street, which is just a short distance away from the Hudson River Park Playground at Pier 51. The High Line gets really busy on weekends (where people kind of have to shuffle along as part of a crowd). If at all possible,visit on a week day.
2. The Statue of Liberty – Crown Tour
A morning visit to Liberty Island with the opportunity to climb up into Lady Liberty’s crown* was a huge hit with our family. The climb is not terribly strenuous with it only taking about 10 minutes to ascend the 393 steps. It was well worth it for the unique vantage point. Be sure to book your tickets for the crown visit well ahead of time as these sell out months in advance. Buy tickets through Statue Cruises. Even if you are not doing the Crown Tour, there is lots for kids to enjoy on Liberty Island. I highly recommend the kids audio guide (narrated by an eagle). See other Statue of Liberty tour options here.
* Children must be 48″ or taller to climb to the top of Lady Liberty’s crown.
3. See a Yankees Game
On a sunny summer evening, grab the subway to the Bronx and catch a Yankees game. In comparison to many New York activities, this one can be quite inexpensive (we paid $17/ticket and the kids even received bobbleheads). For more information see the Yankees website. Make sure to also check their website for special events as they often have fun things going on for kids at the stadium before games.
Note: In no way does this picture exemplify the excitement of watching a baseball game… we took the red-eye to New York and hit the game the following evening.
4. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
Take a stroll (or ride bikes) over the Brooklyn Bridge. Plan to hang out for a while on the other side, going for ice cream at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, riding Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, or enjoying a picnic at Main Street Park and Playground (fantastic views of Manhattan). See also our post on things to do in Brooklyn with Kids.
Note: The bridge is 1.1 miles in length.
5. Visit Times Square
Times Square is a rather overwhelming experience, but something my kids always enjoy seeing. Primarily, they are interested in visiting the M&M store and the Hershey’s store. We like to plan a quick walk through, without lingering so long that we get a headache.
Note: Beware the angry mascots. If you don’t tip them enough they have been known to aggressively demand more. Let me tell you from experience that it is rather disconcerting when a trio of sinister Disney characters turn on you. Legislation from 2016, prohibiting mascots from soliciting tips, should have curtailed this behavior.
6. Central Park with Kids
Central Park is one of my favorite places to spend time with my kids in New York City. It is also the place where my son proclaimed “Finally ! A breath of fresh air !” Visit Belvedere Castle and the Central Park Zoo, sail model boats at the Conservatory Water pond, ride the carousel, or visit one of many wonderful playgrounds and spray parks. My children’s favorite is the Ancient Playground, which was designed to compliment the Egyptian Collection at the neighboring Metropolitan Museum of Art. Learn more on the Central Park website.
Tip: While on a summertime visit to Manhattan, we got in the habit of tucking the kids suits, a large Ziplock (to later hold the wet suits) and a towel in a backpack just in case we stumbled across a water park.
7. Best Museums for Kids NYC
Almost all of the major Manhattan museums offer a complimentary kids’ guidebook to the collections upon request. Even better, kids are free at New York City museums. As cultural experiences such as this can be a little challenging for young children, you may want to consider visiting only one small portion of a museum, rather than tackling the whole thing. For example, on our first visit to The Metropolitan Museum in Central park, we only took the kids to the Ancient Egyptian gallery. We followed this up with a visit to the Rooftop Garden Cafe. With its sweeping views of Central Park and no formal seating required, it is not surprising that this is a favorite spot for families. Other great NYC museums for kids include the American Museum of Natural History (see Night at the Museum Sleepover further down) and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Tip: We have been known to take advantage of our kids’ jet lag (coming from the West Coast = our kids stay up late) by visiting museums during extended evening hours. On a most recent trip, for example, we visited the boutique-sized Whitney Museum of American Art on a Friday evening when it was relatively quiet.
8. Take the Subway
My mathematically minded son cannot get enough of riding the subway. After several visits to the city, quite frankly, he know the rails better than I do. In fact, both of my children are very engaged with the process of figuring out which station to get off at, where to change trains, etc. Never do we hear “Are we there yet?”, which is a blessing in itself.
Tip: Ask for a subway map from an attendant as it makes for a great souvenir (we also have London and Paris framed in inexpensive IKEA frames on our son’s bedroom wall).
9. New York City Candy Shops
Have a little sweet tooth in the family? Tie in a visit to Central Park with a stop at Dylan’s Candy Bar on the Upper East Side (they also have a location at Union Square). One block over you will find Sprinkles Cupcakes with their fun Cupcake ATM. As a bit of a cake snob, I have to say that their cupcakes were a pleasant surprise to me.
If you are near Times Square, check out the M&M store and the Hershey’s store. For real candy aficionados, Economy Candy on the Lower East side, is a must. What the store lacks in attractive design, it makes up in assortment.
10. A New York City Museum Sleepover with Kids
My favorite thing that we have ever done in NYC with kids was to have a sleepover at the American Museum of Natural History. While it is the kind of thing that seems a little expensive at first, when you take into account the fact that you don’t have to pay for a pricey NYC hotel room, and also get the privilege of roaming the great halls without crowds, it starts to seem more economical. For more information, see our complete post on the AMNH Night at the Museum Sleepover.
See also: This Travel & Leisure article on Museum and Zoo Sleepovers.
11. Visit Coney Island
Yes, it’s a little gritty, but we found that to be part of the charm. This iconic amusement park is only a 45 minute subway ride outside of Manhattan. Grab a hot dog at Nathan’s, stroll along the boardwalk and work up the courage to ride the historic Cyclone wooden roller coaster, which has been terrifying riders since 1927.
12. Admire New York from Above
Enjoy a great view of the New York City skyline by visiting Top of the Rock, The Empire State Building, or one of New York City’s newest attractions — The One World Observatory. Find skip-the-line ticket options for all of these here.
Personal opinion: Honestly, our family found the One World Observatory to be really overrated and expensive (Disney attraction-esque). We much preferred the other two, where you can actually go outside to enjoy the view, hearing all the sounds of the city below. That said, One World Observatory gets great reviews on TripAdvisor, so it might just be us. What did really impress us, however, was strolling through the beautiful arched Oculus building (shown below) on the way to the tower.
13. See a Show – Broadways Kids Shows NYC
Looking for the best New York shows for kids? A few kid-friendly favorites that consistently receive great reviews include The Lion King, Aladdin, Wicked, School of Rock, Harry Potter and the Curse Child and Frozen. Most shows offer a weekend (and sometimes weekday) matinee option, which may be a better choice for toddlers.
Tip: You may have heard about the TKTS booths in New York City that offer discounts of 20-50% off same day performances that still have seats available. While the Times Square booth has notoriously long lineups, the South Street Seaport usually only has a few people hanging around. You can also download the TKTS app which will give you real time updates on which shows are available for that day. Plan to visit the booth at opening for the best selection. You are allowed to buy up to 6 tickets per show.
Update: I have just become aware of an interesting site called Broadway Roulette. The site allows you to buy discounted tickets ($49-$59) to a range of upcoming Broadways shows (from next day to 3 months ahead of time), where the show remains a mystery until after purchase. What I especially like about this site, is that it gives you some flexibility in your choices (you can eliminate certain shows), and it also has an option to opt for only family-friendly Broadway shows. According to CEO and co-owner Elizabeth Durand Streisand, booking in advance (up to 3 months) will increase your chances of winning tickets to the hard-to-get-into shows. This is because at Broadway Roulette they like to lock those tickets in earlier since the prices never drop and they like to reward people who plan ahead.
14. Climb Aboard the Intrepid
The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum is dedicated to the exhibition and interpretation of history, science and service as related to its home aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid, a National Historic Landmark. While this isn’t really my thing (I snuck off to shop in Soho for a few hours), my kids thought it was pretty great. Their interest was piqued by the fact that their grandfather was an F8 fighter pilot and this was the aircraft carrier he first practiced landing on before shipping out overseas. See skip-the-line ticket options for The Intrepid here.
15. Visit the Bronx Zoo
Escape the hustle and bustle of the city with a day trip to the Bronx Zoo. This sprawling green space makes for a delightful stroll while admiring the enormous collection of creatures from around the globe (It is the largest metropolitan zoo in the U.S.A.).
Tip: While in the area enjoy some great Italian fare on nearby Arthur Ave (The Real Little Italy) and take in a game at Yankee Stadium.