I fell in love with New York City. I absolutely didn’t expect to as I’m more of a country girl at heart, happier donning wellies and exploring the great outdoors than I am wandering around a city surrounded by crowds of people. But there’s something very special about this city and it’s an excellent place to explore with children. It’s a full-on experience though, a veritable assault on the senses and certainly not a relaxing, peaceful type of holiday, but there is something inspiring about the positive energy of this place. A city of opportunity, freedom and a chance for a new life for so many people of different race and nationality. We found the New Yorkers to be extremely welcoming, super friendly and so many of them helped us out with advice, directions or just offering seats to the children on the subway (something that has never happened to us in London).
Once again piggybacking onto one of Mr J’s work trips, we spent eight days on a field trip to NYC. Normally when I’m planning a holiday, I spend time with the Lonely Planet guide broadly planning the best place locate ourselves before booking the flights & accommodation, but then I put the book aside and only pick it up again when I’m on the plane to do a more detailed plan of what we’d like to see and do on our trip. With New York however, a bit of advance planning is a must, as many things are booked up well ahead of time. For example, I booked our tickets to see the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island the week before our visit, and sadly by this time all of the tickets to visit the crown and pedestal of the Statue were fully booked. In fact, they were booked up 4 months out…, so if you want to see the view from this part of the Statue, I recommend booking as soon as you can after confirming your flights. Even many of the tours to the Tenement Museum were sold out by the time I came to book ours the week before travelling.
Advance planning is also essential to help with cost management, because let’s face it, New York is super expensive. There are various different city passes, like this one, where you buy one card, allowing you access to multiple attractions for a much reduced price. There are also various Groupon vouchers with great deals for many of the sites/activities available. And buying your ticket online ahead of time allows you to skip the ridiculously long queues at many of the attractions. So, having a rough plan of what you’d like to do on your trip to NY combined with a bit of online research to find the best price will save you lots of time and money.
Choosing what to do in this city crammed with world famous sites and museums however can be quite tricky. When I started researching, I felt overwhelmed by all of the unmissable options available, but after some great advice, here’s what we decided to do on our eight-day holiday, broken down into museums, outdoor spaces and sites to visit. If you had less time, our top picks would be The American Museum of Natural History, The Tenement Museum, Central Park and The Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Tour.
American Museum of Natural History
This was hands down the children’s favourite thing to do in NYC. The museum operates a pay-what-you-wish admission, but this is only available onsite at the ticket counters (with the longest queue I’ve ever seen!). If you want to skip the queue and buy your ticket online, you can buy either a general admission ticket, a general ticket plus one special exhibition, giant-screen film or space show, or a general ticket plus all exhibitions, films and shows. We opted for the last option, which I’d highly recommend. Aside from a quick dip into the amazing dinosaur section of the main museum to see the awesome fossils of T Rex and Titanosaurus, and a brief look at the blue whale, we spent all of our time in the special exhibitions and films, which were excellent. It’s worth noting that when you book your ticket online, it asks you to select which exhibitions/shows/films you’d like to see at what time. I’d recommend putting a time in for all of the options, particularly the films & shows, spread out over the day. I didn’t think we’d have time to see the Dark Universe Space Show, so I hadn’t selected a time, and when we rocked up to try and see it, they informed us that all of the times apart from (fortunately) the last showing at 4pm were fully booked.
First up in the day and Bean7’s absolute favourite was the Amazon Adventure 3D film. This follows the extraordinary journey of British naturalist and explorer Henry W. Bates to the Amazon rainforest and through his study of mimicry in butterflies, documents his success in finding the beautiful proof for Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. It was literally the best description for children of how animals adapt, mimic other animals for safety and so evolve through natural selection that I’ve ever seen (and I did a biology degree focussing on evolution!). Bean7 has since developed an obsession with Henry W. Bates and asked many of the AMONH staff if they had any of Bates’ butterfly specimens on display at the museum. Sadly not, but luckily for us, London’s Natural History Museum has the largest collection of Bates’ butterflies in the world, so now we’re home, I think a visit to London is in order!
Second on our agenda was the excellent Opulent Oceans exhibition, a fantastic display of the life in our oceans, their geology and the technology used to explore them. Bean7 and 8 spent quite a lot of time in here sculpting the ocean floor with kinetic sand, forming underwater volcanoes and the Mariana Trench!
We then moved on to the Butterfly Conservatory, a walk-through butterfly and moth tunnel, to wonder at the variety and beauty of these colourful animals and a chat to the very knowledgeable helpers. Bean8 was very excited when one landed on her head, but sadly I was not quite fast enough with the camera.
The Dark Universe Space Show was next on the agenda, explaining the pivotal discoveries in our understanding of the history and structure of the universe. A little mind blowing to be honest, but fascinating nonetheless.
Lastly was the Our Senses exhibition, a brilliant and highly interactive experiential presentation of how we perceive the world, why we have senses and what’s unique about human perception. I wished we’d had longer for this exhibition; they loved it, but unfortunately, we were all flagging a little after a whole day in the museum.
Overall it was a fantastic day, and the museum an absolute highlight of our trip.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This museum is no longer free for non-locals, but your ticket does include a three day pass for three museums in one: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Cloisters (the medieval European branch) and The Metropolitan Breuer (the branch dedicated to modern art). We headed up to the Met Cloisters first, right up on the northern tip of Manhattan in the beautiful Fort Tyron Park. Bean8 enjoyed this, listening intently to her audio guide about all the stories uncovered in the tapestries and pieces of art on display. But this is not really a museum for younger children or for those who have already visited lots of European historical sites.
The main Metropolitan Museum located in Central Park however, was excellent – both children loved this one. We’re also in the process of reading From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a superb book about two children who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and get caught up in a mystery about an angel bought for a bargain price, which may have been carved by Michelangelo himself. This seemed to bring the MET to life for the children, and they loved discussing where the children may have hidden from the guards evading discovery for so long.
The MET is enormous, so I let them both choose one section they were interested in and we just focussed on those two exhibitions: Egyptian Art for Bean8 and Arms and Armour for Bean7. Both were phenomenal. Bean8 loved the Egyptian tombs, sarcophagi, statues and Egyptian artefacts on display, and in particular The Temple of Dendur and the famous female pharaoh Hatsheput’s, statues. Bean7 on the other hand was completely mesmerised by all of the different types of weapon on display in the Arms and Armour exhibit. Not sure if I should be worried about this….!
The Tenement Museum
This was definitely my favourite thing to do in NY. The museum tells the stories of immigrants starting their new lives in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, through tours of reconstructed apartments and businesses of real families. There’s a free 30-minute video about the different waves of immigration into New York, starting with the Irish following the potato famine in the 19th century. Then you join your tour and explore a part of the tenement block with the homes recreated in the style of the time and listen to the fascinating tour guide, explaining what it would have been like for these families living there at that time. We opted for the Under One Roof tour and visited the reformed homes of three families: the Epsteins, whose parents survived the Holocaust, Jose and Andy Velez whose mother left Puerto Rico for garment work and finally the Wong family whose stories were brought to life through the recreation of a garment factory. The tour guide was excellent and Bean8 was transfixed by the stories she told. Bean7 loved the interactive nature of the garment factory, which you could explore by tapping on various artefacts to start video snippets of stories told by people who worked in these shops during the 1960s.
Normally before any holiday or field trip abroad, I spend time with the children preparing them for what they’re about to see and experience. As mentioned in this post, we study the people, their cultures and religions, the animals and plants, and the geography and history of the places we’re going to visit. Sadly, we had an extremely busy time in the run up to our New York trip, and bar reading this great book to them, we didn’t have time for our normal preparation. And I’ll be honest, this really showed with Bean7. Bean8 was fine; she was able to go into any new museum or place and absorb the information given, but Bean7 struggled a little, particularly with this museum, aimed at adults and older children. I’m convinced that if I’d spent more time with him beforehand explaining the history, he’d have got a lot more out of this museum, as he has done with many other museums around the world. So, a lesson for me!
But be sure not to miss this museum on your visit to NYC; it’s one of the best I’ve been to.
Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Tour
You can’t go to New York without a visit to this world-famous site; she’s really quite spectacular. If you just want to see the Statue and are not interested in a tour of this or Ellis Island, I’d recommend taking the Staten Island ferry, which is free, and sitting on the starboard side, giving you excellent views of the Statue.
But the audio guide tour of the Statue and the neighbouring Ellis Island – the gateway to over 12 million immigrants to the US between 1892-1954 – was truly captivating. As mentioned above, we didn’t manage to secure tickets to go up to either the pedestal or the crown, but the 45-minute audio guide around the base of the Statue was extremely interesting. You then jump on a ferry to Ellis Island for another audio guide tour of this fascinating site and its use as America’s immigration station. The children were enthralled by the stories of what would have happened to immigrants entering the US through this site, from the medical inspections and sanity tests, to what happened to those held here while their cases were being reviewed, to what happened to them after their successful entry into the country. It brought it all to life for us, allowing us to imagine how it would feel to be in the shoes of these immigrants, empathising with just how terrifying an experience it must have been and saddened by the stories of those sent home.
Encompassing more than 800 acres of beautiful meadows, ponds and woods, Central Park was another highlight of our visit. The children particularly loved playing on the great expanses of rock face, running up them, climbing where it was more difficult and sliding down on their bottoms! We saw the park by three different modes of transport: by foot, bike and rowing boat.
If you’re hiring bikes, I’d recommend hiring them for an afternoon. We hired them for two hours, which comfortably allowed us to cycle around the park, but it would have been nice to have longer to jump off the bikes, lock them up and explore the less busy northern parts and playgrounds of the park.
In all honesty, it was much easier to explore the park by foot as with a bike you’re only allowed to ride on the central pathway which loops around the park. By foot, you can go deeper into the middle of the park, along all the rambling tracks, to find the quieter hidden spots, because even in a park this size, there are always lots of people around and it feels good to find some calm in amongst the chaos of this city!
There are plenty of different sections of the park to explore, including several playgrounds, the Betheseda Terrace & magnificent fountain, where we watched some excellent live music, a zoo (although we’ve been to so many zoos we decided not to visit this one), the Ramble (a popular birding destination), the Conservatory Water where you can hire remote controlled model sailboats and scramble about on the Alice in Wonderland statue, the Strawberry Fields garden (a memorial to John Lennon), the Conservatory Garden and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir.
Our favourite section though was The Lake. We hired rowing boats from the Loeb Boathouse and spent a leisurely hour rowing around this beautiful lake, spotting the abundant red slider turtles. Bean8 has already begun learning to row, so she had a chance to practise, and I started to teach Bean7 this skill. A delightful way to spend an afternoon.
The High Line
Once an old railway line connecting a district of slaughterhouses, the High Line is now a 1.45-mile-long elevated park and rail trail. It was a lovely place to walk, suspended above the city. Whilst we just enjoyed ambling along this green space enjoying the views, there seems to be lots going on along this space from live music to tai chi classes to family festivals to Latin dance parties (check this website out for an event timetable).
As so many people had recommended a free trip on the Staten Island ferry, we thought we’d make an afternoon of it and explore the island itself. It was a gorgeous sunny day, so we decided an outdoor location was in order. On disembarking from the ferry, I kind of expected there to be some information available about the attractions/sites to visit on the island, but the only thing we could find was a small information board tucked away in a corner. It did however mention the Franklin D. Roosevelt boardwalk on South beach, which sounded delightful, so we found the bus station and took the advised S51 bus to the beach. It was a 25min bus ride and I’m pretty sure we were the only tourists on the bus; everyone stared at us like we were a little bit bonkers when we asked to go the beach… But the children seemed very happy playing a game of Wink Murder with their teddies(!), so undeterred we persevered and found a beautiful beach overlooking the Verrazano Bridge, backed by the boardwalk. And it was lovely and peaceful. It felt like a completely different world to the business of Manhattan. We spent a happy afternoon eating our picnic (do bring a picnic as there were no restaurants open along the front in April) and playing on the beach/boardwalk. The children decided to play a game of football with their teddies, which involved them kneeling and crawling along the boardwalk whilst pushing their teddies. Unfortunately we later discovered that this innocuous game had resulted in about 50 tiny splinters in Bean7’s legs and one in Bean8’s bottom, which took rather a long time to rectify! But apart from this, it turned out to be a lovely afternoon.
Sites to Visit
After our mini foray into bridge design (see this post), we couldn’t miss seeing one of the oldest cable-stayed/suspension bridges in the US, connecting Manhattan Island with Brooklyn. It’s fun to walk the length of the bridge and takes about forty minutes with stops for photos and view admiring opportunities. We walked from Manhattan over to Brooklyn. There’s plenty to do on the Brooklyn side, in the Dumbo neighbourhood, with the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge Park by the East River, lunch at the famous Grimaldi pizzeria or an ice cream snack at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. But this was MrJ’s day, and he had more famous sites to visit, so we headed to the subway and back up to Manhattan.
Lower Manhattan and the Financial District
National September 11 Memorial
Surrounded by a plaza of white oak trees, there are two giant reflecting pools occupying the footprints of the twin towers, with the names of those who died in the attacks inscribed in bronze panels around the pools. A cascade of water flows 30ft down into a central abyss. It’s beautiful, poignant and heart breaking. I struggled to hold back the tears and that was just the memorial, so I decided it wouldn’t be appropriate to take the children into the Memorial Museum. The survivor tree was also incredibly moving. The tree was discovered at Ground Zero severely damaged with snapped roots and burned branches. It was removed from the site and carefully tended by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. After its recovery, the tree was replanted in the memorial, standing as a living reminder of resilience, survival and rebirth.
The One World Trade Centre, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, stands right next to the memorial. The view from over 100 stories up is supposed to be breathtaking, but it’s also extremely expensive for a family of four, so we passed on this.
One morning in NY, we did a trial run of a treasure hunt around the financial district, created by one of MrJs team as a team building exercise. The kids loved doing this, running around finding clues and seeing if they could do it faster than daddy! Our escapades took us to the statue of the Charging Bull, a bronze sculpture in Bowling Green. Bean8 loved the Fearless Girl statue facing the bull and representing girl power!
It’s good fun to do a walking tour through this part of Manhattan as there are so many impressive, famous buildings and sites to see, such as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station, the Rockefeller Center, New York Public Library, Bryant Park, Times Square and the stunning St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as well as being home to the theatre district on Broadway. For the most part, we just wandered around spotting these iconic NY landmarks. I’ve been told the view from either the Top of the Rock or the Empire State Building is spectacular, but as I’m not massively keen on heights and both were quite pricey, we opted to view the sites from the ground!
We were all particularly taken by the newly renovated St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was breathtakingly beautiful. Our visit happened to coincide with a Spanish mass, and as we’re learning the language and know the parts of the mass so well, it was fun to try and follow along and attempt to translate as we went!
We took a train from the magnificent Grand Central Terminal, to see a friend and her family in Westchester, north of NYC and they took us to their favourite Hibachi restaurant. This was our first experience of Hibachi – half restaurant, half theatre – in which your food is cooked in front of you, with pieces intermittently thrown into your mouth for you to catch like an expectant seal, along with the odd fire show and knife skills demonstration mixed in for good measure. My kids totally loved it! It was a brilliant evening.
Another of our favourite things to do in Midtown is to stop off at Dylan’s Candy Store, basically three levels of sweets and chocolates and a kind of heaven for children, for some sugar treats, before jumping on the tram (cable car, included in your Metro pass) across to Roosevelt Island, a long thin island which sits in the middle of the East River. The views from the tram are fantastic and the island itself has a relaxed feeling, away from the hustle bustle of the city. There’s also the Four Freedoms Park to wander around in the southern tip of the island. You can then catch a ferry from the east side of the island, and for only $3 each, take a trip down the river to Pier11, just past the Brooklyn Bridge – so basically a cheap way of doing a boat trip without the queues!
Getting Around New York
Moving around the city was relatively easy using the subway (once I’d figured out the difference between the express and local trains…) and we got a 7-day Metro pass for $35, which is excellent value. We used this on all the subways, the bus on Staten Island and the tram to Roosevelt Island.
One piece of advice I would offer though is to listen to the tannoy system (although it’s not always that clear) as things sometimes change from the designated schedule. And if you are left alone in your carriage on the subway and no-one gets on, get off too. Do not assume it’s because it’s a popular station like we did. I had my head down, busy investigating our map at the time and it was only when Bean7 asked why we were stopped in the tunnel and Bean8 said, “Mummy, why are we the only ones on the train?” that I looked up and realised that not only was there no-one in our carriage, but there was no-one in any of the carriages. And we were stationary in the dark between two stations. Bean7 literally started to tremble. Luckily there was a guard in between our carriage and the next, so we got up to chat to him. Unfortunately, he seemed to have a serious sense of humour failure and told us that the last station was this train’s last stop (it wasn’t supposed to be according to the subway map) and that they were “on their break now”… Oh joy! Fortunately, their break only lasted a few more minutes before it was on its way again to the next station. But then we had to get off the train and change to a different train as ours was suddenly going back in the direction in which we’d come (even though the train was supposed to go through to downtown Manhattan). There seemed to be no logic to this, but clearly I missed some important change to the schedule announced over the tannoy. So we were very careful from then on to listen out for announcements and never enter/stay in an empty carriage!
Above ground, it was easy to navigate with the simple grid based system of roads and clear signage. We walked everywhere as the traffic was often so bad, we figured taxis would be an expensive way to move around. We averaged between 15,000-20,000 steps per day, so I’d definitely advise taking a comfy pair of shoes!
Apart from our little incident on the subway, we had a wonderful trip to NYC. If you’re planning on a visit here, you’ll have an amazing holiday.