Everything there is to do in New York for families could fill a lifetime of vacations. However, some experiences are more iconic than others. Here’s our pick of the top 10 activities your kids won’t want to miss in New York this summer.
Find your New York for families WOW on the Edge Skydeck
As an alternative to the Empire State Building, the Edge observation deck at 30 Hudson Yards has a few things going for it. For one, it claims to be the world’s ‘highest open-air building ascent’. It’s not quite as high as its rival, but it is the tallest outdoor deck, jutting 82ft into Manhattan airspace. It’s also less expensive than the Empire State, cheaper for 6-12 year olds and free for under sixes.
Although most rewardingly, it looks toward the Empire State Building itself, one of the world’s most recognisable buildings. From the cantilevered glass platform at the north end of the High Line, you’ll also see down the Hudson River. Expect a stellar view of One World Trade and the Statue of Liberty. The Edge may not be a bargain, you can make your tickets pay off with good timing.
Find out when sun sets on the day of your visit, then purchase tickets for that time slot. Visitors get an hour’s window, at 10-minute intervals, so if the sun goes down at 7pm, book the 6.20-7.20pm slot. You might wait for an elevator, but you won’t be forced back down the moment your window expires.
Once you’ve made the ascent, let kids take photos through the glass barrier. And give bonus points for braving the glass floor. It hovers a spinetingling 1,132ft over the city.
Catch a breath with kids in The New York Public Library
After traipsing through hectic Times Square, The New York Public Library is a soothing palate cleanser. A gracious Beaux Arts-style masterpiece it stands guarded by two massive and climbable stone lions. Monday to Saturday mornings, there are free guided tours of the Reading Room. Known for a magnificent frescoed ceiling, it’s featured in films including Ghostbusters and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
A stroll through the library’s permanent treasures is another must-do. The Rare Book Division houses Christopher Robin Milne’s teddy bear, the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh. It also contains original illustrations from The Wizard of Oz, as well as Charles Dickens’ annotated proof of A Christmas Carol. But the biggest treasure of all is probably the copy of the Declaration of Independence, handwritten by Thomas Jefferson.
If that’s all a bit highbrow for kids, take a library crawl. On the opposite street corner is Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library: a vast, kid-friendly space packed with fun furniture and colourful murals. The sunny atrium overlooks a lower-level Children’s Center where kids can see a robotic book-sorter. Teens will like the podcasting lab and recording studio. Check the website for its schedule of storytelling, sing-songs and ‘crafternoons’.
Grab a snack on the seventh floor, where a new rooftop cafe sits under a soaring glass canopy and extends outdoors to a wraparound terrace.
The iconic adventure that’s free in New York for families
We don’t tend to think of New Yorkers as seafarers, and yet the most enjoyable journey between the five boroughs is by water.
New York for families can be expensive. But every half hour a totally free Staten Island ferry departs Whitehall Terminal, at the southern tip of Manhattan, for a 25-minute journey to New York’s best known island. From the breezy, bright-orange deck you get a prime view of the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and the downtown skyline.
No interest in touring Staten Island or its well-loved zoo? No problem. Simply board the next ferry back to Manhattan as soon as you can.
Or dash between Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York’s hippest borough, on one of the eight inexpensive river networks run by NYC Ferry. One popular route leaves regularly from Pier 11 at Wall Street for the Dumbo Terminal at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Disembark, then wander the neighborhood’s network of boardwalks, lookouts and amusements. Don’t miss Jane’s Carousel, a 100-year-old atraction with views of Manhattan Bridge. Stop at the Time Out Market gourmet emporium in a converted waterfront warehouse. Then hop back on the ferry to cruise further up the East River.
You hit Williamsburg next, before sailing to East 34th Street. And this year another new route runs between Pier 11 and Coney Island, the legendary oceanfront funfair behind Brighton Beach.
Dim sum is the perfect feast in New York for families
Pre-pandemic, dim sum was New York’s most exciting dining prospect. Crowds headed to Chinatown to hail handcarts piled with steamers of juicy dumplings. Post-pandemic, all that’s missing are the crowds, which used to reach fever pitch on weekends.
Golden Unicorn sits upstairs in a nondescript office building. It’s famous for luscious pork buns styled like piglets as well as bite-sized spare ribs and shrimp shumai. All of this is perfect for small hands and tempting enough for fussy eaters. Kids love watching the little motorised carts circulating the room, and their eyes widen when waiters carves crispy roast duck at the table. Leave space for egg tart desserts. Alternatively, walk four minutes to the Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory for a scoop of lychee or black sesame.
Find your own little slice of peace at Little Island park
New York has no shortage of visionaries with grand ideas for improving the landscape skirting the Hudson River. Some projects, like the High Line, are popular, others such as Hudson Yards are less well know. Little Island, a floating park funded by philanthropist Barry Diller and imagined by British designer Thomas Heatherwick, falls into the former camp.
You approach the park from Hudson River Greenway, past a giant steel archway passed through by survivors of the Titanic after their rescue 110 years ago. But you’ll spot it before that, thanks to dozens of concrete ‘tulips’ of varying heights ‘planted’ in the river and sprouting hundreds of native plant species. Clustered together they form a man-made mountain linked by paths, stairways, benches and sculptures which kids can explore before rolling down the grassy hills on two sides.
Like most outdoor venues in New York, Little Island is surrounded by views of the skyline, and food trucks. Unlike most other outdoor venues, it feels rustic. This is a place for watching sailboats drift past and inhaling the scent of herbs. In summer you’ll likely catch live music at the amphitheatre or a crafting session at the mobile Art Cart.
Central Park turtle trailing is great fun in New York for families
Central Park is more than a square mile of meadows, woods, ponds, statues and historic walks. Perhaps you’ve already visited, to watch buskers pay their respects to John Lennon at Strawberry Fields or climb Vista Rock to Belvedere Castle, a folly shaped like a Disney palace. Regardless, you could go every day for a year and still discover something new. Children’s playgrounds cluster by the southern end, punctuated by a folk-art carousel with 57 handmade horses. A butterfly garden flourishes by the softball fields near the North Woods.
Still, the least expected delight lies closer to the park’s center. Stroll in from the entrance nearest the Museum of Natural History and you’ll come across a series of ponds surrounded by rocky banks that are fun to climb. Look closer at where the rock meets the water and you’ll spot something moving. Five species of turtle inhabit the waters, dominated by the red-eared slider, a spotted creature that swims and sunbathes on the fringes of The Lake, at Turtle Rock and around aptly named Turtle Pond.
Park rangers consider them invasive, descended from pet turtles abandoned years ago in the park’s fragile ecosystem. But they’re also very cute. Kids can spend hours watching them creep from land to lake and back again, impervious to the ducklings flapping in their midst. If you time it right, you might catch the Turtle Pond Discovery Walk for Families, a 90-minute session with a Central Park Conservancy guide, aimed at children aged five and older, though younger siblings can join.
Learn about NYC’s past at New York Historical Society
A picture is worth a thousand words, and the granite-pillared manor that houses the New York Historical Society gives you both. The building occupies a block between the Museum of Natural History and the apartment buildings of Central Park West. Its front steps are patrolled by bronze statues of Abraham Lincoln and Black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, stars of America’s most compelling narratives.
Inside, grand galleries are festooned with photographs, paintings, cartoons, books, dolls and keepsakes. Each was made by African American women before the Civil War and all have a tale to tell. Kids will be mesmerised by the darkened gallery. Moodily lit by dozens of Tiffany stained-glass lamps, its walls are crowded with framed watercolours of black and indigenous New Yorkers.
Recently the Society acquired a vast collection of early 19th-century toy trains. These are displayed along with model Ferris wheels and roller coasters, as well as 3D collages by artist Betye Saar, who uses vintage objects such as washboards and window frames instead of canvas.
On Sunday mornings or Friday afternoons families can participate in crafts programmes and story-telling sessions, sing-songs and games. All activities are centred around a special exhibition or artefact and the vibe is all energy.
Thrift stores are a New York for families must-do
You may not be able to avoid your children’s constant requests for souvenirs, but you can redefine what passes for one . So think thrift shop finds. Kids go mad for the unexpected gems they turn up at second-hand stores, and New York has plenty of them. Arty Chelsea, between the Hudson River and the Empire State Building, has some particularly rich pickings.
Break up long New York walks by popping into Screaming Mimis or Buffalo Exchange. Crossroads Trading, New York Vintage or the permanent garage sale No Particular Hours are also excellent bargain territory. Here, a bucket hat or a pair of wild sunglasses will set you back far less than an NYC fridge magnet.
Or do it all at the one-stop-shop Artists & Fleas. Here vinyl-vendors and food stands make a party out of rummaging for hair clips and postcards. Wherever you are, you won’t have to go out of your way for a Salvation Army or Goodwill. But if you happen to be in the East Village, make a beeline for Mr Throwback. These veteran sports gear resellers stock nostalgic satin jackets, baseball caps, basketball tanks and trainers. But you can also pick up old toy figurines, lunch boxes or bumper stickers for pocket change.
Take kids to celebrate soul food in Harlem
Harlem is the soul food go-to in New York for families, so resist snacking before you arrive. Sylvia’s, a family-run lunch counter on Malcolm X Boulevard, has been deep-frying chicken and barbecuing ribs for 60 years. Barack Obama was known to stop here to refuel on the campaign trail. Kids also love the informality of Amy Ruth’s, just outside 116th Street Station, where plastic plates are piled high with waffles and chicken, sides of corn bread and mac’n’cheese.
Afterwards, walk up to 125th Street. Here you’re in the heart of the community made famous by writers including Zora Neale Hurston and musicians like Louis Armstrong. It’s the core of the great early 20th century Harlem Renaissance. Today the road is lined with big-box stores, T-shirt vendors blasting beats and the headquarters of Bill Clinton’s foundation. See that massive hole in the earth? It’s the soon-to-be Studio Museum of African American Art, designed by British architect David Adjaye.
Among it all, the venerable Apollo Theater still stands out with its iconic neon sign. The theatre hosts an hour-long backstage tour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, covering all that fascinating Billie Holiday, James Brown, Gladys Knight lore. Or bring your over-7s to one of its regular family-friendly Amateur Nights, known for discovering a young Ella Fitzgerald in the 1930s. The audience is encouraged to cheer or jeer performers – unless the performer is a minor.
Are your children keen walkers, or happy snuggling in their buggy? They may also take to affable local Derrick Edwards, who hits the hotspots of historic Harlem on his free, thrice-weekly, two-hour walking tour. Choose your theme, whether hip-hop or architecture, food or history, Derek will take you past handsome brownstone terraces, jazz clubs glimpsed in gangster films, graffiti and murals by now-revered artists, the Harlem Walk of Fame and views down Fifth Avenue from the watchtower at Marcus Garvey Park.
New York for families needs Yankees in the mix
Don’t know your ‘foul ball’ from your ‘ground rule double’? No problem. Baseball is as much about the hotdogs, mascots and music videos flickering on the Jumbotron as it is about the sport. And the most worshipped baseball team in NYC is no doubt the Yankees, who play home games at their eponymous stadium.
The team generally plays weeknights around 7pm and weekend afternoons around 2pm. Tickets can be bought in advance from the website before hopping the B, D or 4 subway line up to the Bronx.
File in alongside diehard fans in their pinstriped shirts, who lend the activity a thrilling vibe. Yankees fans are also known for their singing and cheering between plays, so just flag down one of the traders selling snacks and drinks, sit back and enjoy the performance, on and off the field.