It still feels quite strange to look at travel guides right now, but in some ways, there couldn’t be a better time to explore New York City with your children. Whether you live in the area or have managed to travel here safely, you have a chance to experience some (though not all) of its best attractions without the gigantic, bustling crowds it’s known for. All you have to do is put on those masks, load up on hand sanitizer, and make a bunch of reservations.
Most of this guide was written in the Before Times, so not everything we list is open at the moment. Make a note of those closed attractions for your future visits. In the meantime, we highly recommend this as a great opportunity to see a slightly quieter, but still vibrant New York City.
A travel guide to NYC could never be complete; it could never reflect everyone’s favorite gems. And there’s no such thing as a “must-do” here. There are simply solid options should your orbit through the boroughs swing you near enough to land. After all, we locals notoriously hermit-hole up in our own micro-neighborhoods and forget why on Earth we still live in this city only to remember in April when the skirts come out of deep storage, our tiny-living kids can get the hell out of our 500-square-foot apartments and our ancient office heating systems stop trying to murder us slowly via skin dryness.
But you’re here. And you have kids. So, check “listen to a local NYC mom whine” off your list, and move on to the recommendations below. Oh, and if you really want to see stars? You can catch them (and their trendy celeb kids) in the most surprising of New York City spots — but almost never the sky.
The Statue of Liberty
As much as we like to gaze on Lady Liberty from afar, many adult New Yorkers have never even stepped foot on her island, for fear of tourist throngs. Which is a shame, really, because she is mighty impressive up close. But COVID-19 capacity restrictions make this an ideal time to reserve a ticket on the ferry to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. Not only do kids love a good cruise through the New York harbor and a chance to see the giant symbol of freedom up close, but the history lessons about immigration available there are super important for everyone to learn. These days, there isn’t a crowd in sight.
Obviously, right? From the rowboats and street performers, to a system of walking paths you’ve seen in some of your favorite movies, Central Park is one of the city’s most well-trod destinations. Beyond sought-after patches of grass (hard to come by in the concrete jungle!), the park also offers ice rinks, volleyball courts, Wi-Fi zones, dog parks, concerts you actually want to go to (though not during the pandemic), people-watching and an incredible amount more. But parents in the know seek out the East 110th Street Playground at the top edge of the park. With a splash pad, ample wooden climbing structures and plenty of shade, it’s a fun kid stop after a gorgeous walk by Harlem Meer Lake.
The Whitney Museum of American Art
While there’s a case to be made for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History to be New York essentials, we’d like to recommend the Whitney for a much more manageable outing with children. Head way west to the Meatpacking District to take in a few floors of contemporary art as well as unparalleled views of the city from the balconies and the gallery windows. Just be sure to check on the museum’s site ahead of time to determine whether there are any exhibits that aren’t so kid-friendly. In this Time of Corona, you’ll also need to make a timed reservation at this and any other museum you want to attend. This actually makes for a very pleasant, relaxed museum experience that we might want to continue in the after-times too.
Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling
Note: This museum is temporarily closed due to COVID-19 safety measures. While you’re uptown, pop into this boutique kids museum with a socially conscious bent. With story time and theater and hands-on creative activities, it’s less gallery and more learning through art experimentation — plopped right in the center of the Sugar Hill historic district, erstwhile home to the Harlem Renaissance. If your child is the next Zora Neale Hurston or Duke Ellington, they’ll love to investigate, explore and cozy up in a reading nook here. And if you’ve got a, shall we say, spirited child, there’s ample space for her to run around like a madwoman on bad-weather days that keep you cooped inside. It’s only open Thursdays through Sundays, with special events almost daily. For eats afterward, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a regional chain, is up in the same neck of the woods.
Modern Pinball NYC
Note: This attraction is temporarily closed due to COVID-19 safety measures. Look, when you’re a parent, it’s hard to take advantage of the “city that never sleeps” aspect of an NYC getaway, but this place can take you back to your youth while entertaining your passel of kids way past bedtime. Offering classic and modern pinball games, they’re open until midnight every day and have a wristband payment system that allows you to play all you want and come and go as you please. (It also hooks you up with a 10 percent discount for food at The Mad Hatter, a totally serviceable saloon next door with happy hour deals almost all day.) Sleep is for the weary; Ms. Pac-Man is for everyone.
Back downtown, check out this “store” (if you can call this new retail experience for families that) in the Flatiron district — or one of it’s other locations in Brooklyn or the Hudson Yards. Here, kids have everything from play space to toys to snacks that follow a changing theme (every 8-12 weeks you’ll get a brand-new experience at CAMP). The first theme was (obv) “Camp” — we probably have the Met Gala to thank for that. To stay safe with regard to COVID-19, Camp is currently offering “studio time,” in which families purchase craft materials and sit at their own table, socially distant from other Campers and properly masked up.
Chelsea Piers & the High Line
Note: Many of the activities at Chelsea Piers are currently closed due to COVID-19 safety measures, call ahead. A monstrous recreational facility, Chelsea Piers offers skating, parkour lessons (see aforementioned “spirited” child), a climbing gym, pools, courts of all kinds and pretty much any indoor athletic activity you can think of. You can even access sailing cruises of the Hudson River here because it is literally a pier. Just up the street, access the High Line, which is the West Side’s famed park built atop retired train tracks. There, you can stroll through gorgeous landscaping; snack on empanadas, ice cream sandwiches and Blue Bottle coffee; then plop down on amphitheater-style benches overlooking 10th Avenue when you literally can’t walk a second more. (See a theme? Play stuff for kids, pretty walk for grown-ups, snacks everywhere for everyone.)
Though its trendiness has waned in recent years, Williamsburg now plays home to just about any amenity traveling families might need. You’ll find a warehouse-style coffee shop (with avocado toast), a Swedish coffee shop, a vegan-forward coffee shop and Brooklyn Bowl, the music venue and bowling lane that now offers concerts for kids (plus journeyworthy fried chicken for the whole family). (Note: Brooklyn Bowl is currently closed due to COVID-19.) Throughout the North Brooklyn neighborhood, you’ll find kid-forward storefronts like Edamama for toy shopping and haircuts (a TV for each chair!) and Smoochie Baby for urban-sophisticate playthings and clothes. Stroll Bedford Avenue for quirky shops and capital-F fashion, grab the takeout of your choice and head to McCarren Park to picnic, play, swim or catnap in the grass. You’ll forget you’re in the city at all — until you look at the receipt for those coffees.
Di Fara Pizza
There’s nothing visitors to NYC like to do more than selfie with pizza, and there’s nothing children enjoy quite like waiting two hours for a single pie. OK, maybe not that last part, but the pizza at Di Fara Pizza is handmade by Domenico De Marco, the octogenarian who’s been doing it since 1965, and his children, and it is truly the city’s best. Once you’ve put your name in for a pizza (and do not make the mistake of ordering individual slices), stroll across the street to Isaac’s Bakeshop, a kosher bakery (closed Saturdays) that caters to anyone smart enough to follow the sugary smells that waft all the way to the elevated Q train down the block. Try babka, black-and-white cookies, and even sweets that haven’t been featured on Seinfeld. If you’re staying in Manhattan, take the subway back for gorgeous skyline views as you cross the Manhattan Bridge (at sunset, even daily straphangers will slyly lift an iPhone to grab a snap mid-commute).
As you’re cruising your way south through Brooklyn, you’ll notice that all roads (or rather, trains) lead to Coney Island. There, you’ll find a historical amusement park, boardwalk, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, the New York aquarium (open with reservations during COVID) with indoor and outdoor attractions and, of course, the beach (not a particularly clean or scenic one, but a fun afternoon frolic nonetheless). If you haven’t spoiled your appetite on hot dogs, or if a seagull stole your fries, head slightly eastward to Randazzo’s Clam Bar, an Italian-American seafood stalwart offering classic kid-on-vacation fare (fried clam strips, all manner of pasta). Or for picnic table eats and a slice of Brooklyn your friends back home probably haven’t already Instagrammed, head to L&B Spumoni Gardens for thick, square pizza — heavy on the sauce — and the authentic spumoni and Italian ices they’ve been slinging since 1939.
So there you have it: one mom’s guide to New York City. In addition to trekking far and wide for these worthwhile city spots, I hope you’ll also take some time to wander aimlessly, which is actually my favorite thing to do here. If you do, you’ll find the options are more than endless, and city kids kind of do what they want — which means yours won’t be out of place if you take them to eat at a Michelin-star restaurant, to sleep in a boutique guesthouse owned by Robert De Niro or to climb to the top of the Empire State Building to help you find the love of your life. The real insider info? Hotel lobbies always have public bathrooms.
A version of this article was originally published in April of 2018.
Keep your little ones safe while you explore the city with these adorable kids face masks.