Writing a travel guide for NYC is like writing a travel guide to space. Do you rise with the sun or stay up late watching the stars? It’s a whole universe out there, and you can do and see and eat just about anything your heart fancies on a moment’s notice. (We’re talking about New York again, not space. You’ve got to keep up).
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, the 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 celeb kids) in the most surprising of New York City spots — but almost never the sky.
Obviously, right? From the horse carriages lined up by the Plaza Hotel 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, 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. Plus, the nearby Discovery Center (a photogenic waterfront structure in its own right) offers free discovery kits for further outdoor enjoyment.
Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling
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, and Bierstrasse, a beer garden with German bites and picnic-table vibes, are up in the same neck of the woods.
Modern Pinball NYC
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.
If you’re from a different part of the country entirely, you may be psyched to sidle into a red vinyl booth for a taste of the authentic NYC diner experience. You may not, however, want to waste a coveted vacation meal on slimy eggs and shouty service. Enter Dizzy’s, a micro-chain in Brooklyn that has ever-so-slightly upscaled the whole diner concept. The food is fresh and inventive while still delivering on all the pancakes, eggs and bacon that you please. The people are overboard sweet to kids. Plus, they put a basket of home-baked mini muffins on the table pretty much the second you sit down, which wins over little ones instantly (grown-ups too), if the crayons, colorable placemats and take-home straw cups hadn’t already.
Chelsea Piers & the High Line
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 a coffee-shop-laundromat-music-venue-in-one. Brooklyn Bowl now offers concerts for kids (plus bowling and journeyworthy fried chicken for the whole family). 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 and Area Kids 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 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.