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The perfect New York Family Holiday

New York! New York! Lucky you if you are planning a New York Family Holiday. It really is one of the best city vacations you can have. There is so much to do in New York and it might seem overwhelming at first. Use this New York City guide for kids to plan your perfect New York family friendly itinerary.

How do I create the Perfect New York Family Itinerary?

You might have seen itineraries before that detail down to the hour where you need to be and what you should be doing. Traveling with children I have always found these itineraries impractical.

Families have different schedules, nap times, meal times, bedtimes and depending on the ages and interests of children and adults fitting into a cookie cutter itinerary just doesn’t work.

Here I’ve put together what I think are the best activities to do when visiting New York with kids. Whether you are a family that likes museums, parks, zoos or a bit of everything you can customize your family vacation to New York.

New York City skyline stop on 4 day Itinerary in winter

If you are looking for a 2 day New York itinerary you can pick a few of your favorite activities and if you are looking for an Itinerary for 4 days in New York you can add a few more attractions. You get the picture.

What to add to your New York city with kids itinerary?

Time Square

Time Square might seem like it is there just for tourists but it is fun to visit this iconic place that you will instantly recognize from movies and New Years Eve coverage.

What to do at Time Square with kids?

Brightly colored neon billboards light the square with almost blinding luminance.  

You’ll usually find some street performers rousing crowds. Costumed characters linger around time square posing for photos and giving hugs for tips.

Kids watching street perfomance on New York City family holiday

There are a number of attractions at Time Square:

Hop on hop off buses

You will find hop on hop off buses departing from around the square. These buses can be a great way to see some of New York’s popular landmarks if you are short on time.

Choose a double decker bus with an open top since most of the time you will be looking upwards and an unobscured view is best.

Beautiful building seen walking on New York city family vacation

The buses take their time getting around the city so if you are on a tight schedule to get somewhere the Subway or walking will be the best option. Otherwise, sit back, relax and enjoy the sights.

Add a Broadway Show to your New York family holiday

There are a number of family-friendly shows on Broadway.

Shows have an age limit starting at 4 years old.

The Lion King and Aladdin at the best options for children under 8. Both shows recommend a minimum age of 6 years old so consider how sensitive you 4 or 5 year old is before buying them a ticket.  

Shows recommended for 8 to 12 year old include Frozen, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Wicked, Anastasia and My Fair Lady.

If you want to guarantee tickets to a show you will just need to book early and pay the ticket price (ouch they can be expensive).

If the price is a critical factor there are some ways that you can save money on tickets, the most common way is to queue at the TKTS booth in Time Square on the day of the show you want to attend.

Here are some other ideas for ways to get cheap Broadway tickets.

See a future Broadway star

I am not going to recommend many restaurants in New York as there are so many fantastic restaurants that you can easily find on Google, Yelp or TripAdvisor.

Ellen’s Stardust Diner is more of an attraction than a restaurant. The food is simple diner style hot and fresh fare.

This is a fun thing to do if you have kids too young to go to a Broadway show, can’t get tickets or it’s just too expensive.

Ellen’s Stardust diner has been hiring wannabe Broadway stars for more than 20 years and many have gone on to find fame and success.

Only a certain caliber of performer can get a job here and the singing waiters are far from cheesy they are truly talented professionals.

Performer at Ellen's Stardust Diner Time Square New York with kids

Expect queues at peak times, you can check crowd levels on google maps. Arrive before 10am for breakfast on weekends.

Visit the Statue of Liberty

The first time we visited New York we missed out on getting tickets to the crown so decided to leave it for our next itinerary since we knew we would be returning with the kids. This time I was super organized and as soon as I knew our dates for travel I got online to book the tickets.

Only to find that our 5 year old was too short!

Not being able to climb to the crown we decided just being able to see the Statue of Liberty would be a good enough experience, save time on our already tight 4 day in New York itinerary and this option was free!

How to see the Statue of Liberty for free with kids?

The Staten Island Ferry runs from the Whitehall Ferry Terminal next to Battery Park on Lower Manhattan Island across to Staten Island every half an hour.

The Ferry is absolutely free and sweeps past lady liberty for spectacular views and a great photo opportunity.

Tips for taking the Staten Island Ferry with kids

  • Getting to the Ferry Terminal is easy, there are multiple subway stops within walking distance. We were riding the hop on hop off bus and got off here, returning on the subway.
  • Head into the terminal and stand towards the front of the waiting area or join the queue if people have started queueing.
  • The Ferry runs every 30 minutes on the hour and half an hour 24 hours a day.
  • There are restrooms and snacks in the terminal as well as on the ferry.
  • For the best views head to the right side of the boat at the back on the way to Staten Island and the left side of the boat at the front when returning to Manhattan. The Ferries differ in there outdoor seating, you’ll get the best photos from outside.
  • Everyone has to disembark at Staten Island and you can choose to stay on the Island or re-board to immediately return to Manhattan.
  • The Ferry can hold thousands of people but there is a small chance during commuter and peak hours that you may not be able to re-board immediately and instead would need to wait for the next ferry, extending your trip by half an hour.
  • You will be approached by ticket sellers telling you there are delays or the trip will take you much longer, they are trying to sell you their own tours. No need to buy a ticket from them just keep walking.

Add Battery Park to your New York City itinerary with kids

Next to the Staten Island Ferry terminal you will find Battery Park.

Battery Park 25 acre green space in Lower Manhattan. There are several statues and memorials in the park. The highlight here for kids visiting New York City is the sea glass carousel which was designed as a tribute to the aquarium that use to be housed here.

The carousel, which costs $5, to ride is incredibly charming, soothing music plays and the zen sea glass pods dance through the covered enclosure. I could have ridden it all day.

Visiting Wall Street and the 911 Memorial with kids

Wall street is a bustling area only a short walk from Battery park. The Raging Bull (actually on Broadway) makes a good photo opportunity and you can walk up past the Trinity Church to the 911 Memorial, 911 Museum and Freedom tower observatory.

The 911 memorial is free to visit. The dark pool represents the void left from the 2001 attacks and the cascading water soothes the sounds of the city and gives a space for contemplation and reflection.

I don’t recommended visiting the 911 Museum with kids, the Museum is a very somber experience and is not recommended for children under 10 years old. Even for children between 10 and 16 years and some adults, museums documenting such tragic events can leave a lasting traumatic impression.

Viewing New York City from above is a must to add to your itinerary

There are 3 main places to get a great view over New York city with kids.

  • The One World Observatory at the Freedom Tower
  • Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Centre
  • The Empire State Building .

Visiting the Freedom Tower with kids:

The One World Observatory is the newest of the 3 options and therefore has bigger crowds at the moment.

Planning ahead will allow you to purchase a timed ticket and alleviate some of the queuing.

The Freedom tower gives the best views of the harbour, Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty and is the tallest tower on the New York skyline.

The Top of the Rock with kids

Advantages of TOTR are the great views back towards the Empire State building and also over Central Park.

TOTR has timed tickets which means that you usually don’t need to queue long to enter. This also means you need to plan ahead and can’t be as flexible with your entrance time.

The location is very central and easy to get to.

The Empire State building with kids

The Empire State building is iconic and historic and this is a big draw card.

Queues can be long and this can be helped by purchasing your ticket ahead of time and upgrading your experience to a VIP skip the line (for a cost).

The central location make it easy to get to and the views are remarkable.

Displays about the construction of the building give interesting historical facts about the worlds most well-known buildings.

Freedom Tower vs Rockefeller Centre vs Empire State Building which is best with kids?

The location, lack of queues and views from the Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Centre would be my pick for visiting with kids.

We visited the Empire State Building on a couples trip to New York City, we purchased the VIP skip the line pass which at the time cost $80, for a romantic evening the price was absolutely worth it but on a weekend with kids in New York I would save time and money and go with Top of the Rock.

We couldn’t get tickets to the Freedom Tower which made our decision a lot easier as well!

Go to the American Museum of Natural History on your New York City family holiday

One of the top attractions for kids in New York is the American Museum of Natural History made even more famous by the Night at the Museum movies.

The Museum on the edge of Central Park is a bit of a rabbit warren and with a huge collection and over 40 halls it is worth planning your visit ahead of time and focusing on your favourite areas.

Dinosaur in the foyer at the American Museum of Natural History a great place to start on your visit with kids

Tips for visiting the Natural History Museum with kids:

  • Get kids interested in your visit by watching Night at the Museum.
  • Download the app and pick up a map or print one online before your visit.
  • To avoid queues buy your ticket online or use the lower level subway entrance which we found had no queue when we arrived.
  • If you are on a tight budget there is an option to pay what you wish at the main entrance ticket counters.
  • Though it is not mentioned on the website there are signs at security saying that outside food and drink are not allowed.
  • There are water fountains inside where you can fill reusable bottles.

Must sees for families with kids in the American Museum of Natural History include:

Hall of Ocean Life

To get into the Milstein Hall of Ocean life you will pass through the Hall of Biodiversity with it’s walk through rainforest diorama and Spectrum of life showcase with more than 1500 exhibits.

Blue Whale in the natural history museum New York City

The huge Blue Whale specimen hanging from the ceiling dominates the view in the Hall of Ocean life with oceanic displays around the periphery of the two-level hall.

Rose Centre for Earth and Space

There is lots to see and touch here. A film about the big bang then takes you down the cosmic pathway which shows the history of space over the past 16 billion years. The Planetarium uses digital projection to show 3D maps of the planets, stars and galaxies.

Dinosaurs

A visit to the American Museum of Natural History with kids wouldn’t be complete without visiting the many dinosaurs on display.

The entire 4th floor is dedicated to dinosaurs and the other prehistoric creatures that roamed the earth.

Start in the Wallach Orientation Centre where you will also find the Gigantic Titanosaur, so big the whole thing can’t fit inside the gallery leaving it’s head to peek out the entrance.

Watch the educational film here to understand how the fourth floor exhibits are arranged and gain a better understanding of the prehistoric timeline.

Hall of North American Mammals

The dioramas in this the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals are fantastic; the painted backgrounds blend seamlessly to the foreground and look as if they go off into the boundless wild west.

Showcasing North Americas big mammals, moose, bears and bison. The size of the animals close up is a site worth seeing.

Hall of African Mammals

Want to see a herd of elephants mid stampede then head to the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. The central elephant exhibit is surrounded by African habitat dioramas over 2 levels.

Elephant Stampede at a museum during a visit to New York with kids

You’ll see lions, antelope, giraffe, monkeys and more.

Free tours of the American Museum of Natural History run throughout the day meeting just outside the Hall of North American Mammals. The 90-minute tour can be great for those short on time or just to help orientate and plan which halls to visit for a more in-depth look.

Add an Art Museum to your New York Itinerary

New York has some fantastic art museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim are the top three, they are all suitable to visit with children.

The whole family can have a lot of fun visiting art galleries and museums and with a bit of planning and forward thinking it can be a very enriching and rewarding experience.

Top tips for visiting art museums with kids

  • Choose the right time: Think about when your child is most engaged and interested with the best attention span, for most kids this will be in the morning, so plan your trip accordingly. If you are travelling with a baby, you might want to time a museum visit during nap time and baby wear or have baby in a stroller.
  • Choose your priorities: Major museums like you will be visiting in New York have large collections. Even the most interested child will get fatigued trying to see everything so choose what are your top priorities and make a plan of attack.
  • Look for family programs: Many museums have programs for kids, this could be activity packs, audio guides designed for children or interactive workshops, check the website ahead of time or ask at the information desk, these things aren’t always well advertised.
  • Have a snack: Some museums won’t allow snacks through security, if this is the case have a snack before you enter, kids always behave better with a satisfied tummy.
  • Introduce kids to the art before you go: look up some of the artworks you might see and talk about the life of the artist to get kids interested before your visit to New York.

On this trip we chose to go to the Guggenheim, I thought that the spiral shape of the building with the continuous ramp would add a novelty value to help keep the kids interested and I was right.

The Frank Lloyd Wright designed building with its clean white lines and spiral shape sits beside Central Park.

The main gallery has changing exhibitions as well as a permanent collection which includes works by Degas, Monet and Picasso among others.

In the main lobby there is a kiosk dedicated to family activities. Here you can pick up an activity pack or sketchbook and find out what children’s programs are running, you can also check online.

Take the elevator to the top level and work your way down. Spend some time enjoying the building and the view to the lobby and lower floors before starting the gradual decent down the spiral ramp with artworks displayed along the left side.

We actually had to keep our kids moving, they loved stopping to sketch their own version of the art work and find architectural features in the family activity guide.

When we visited there wasn’t much of a queue to get tickets. You can save time and money by purchasing the New York CityPass, Explorer Pass or New York Pass. If you really want to save money visit on a Saturday between 5 and 8pm when you can “pay what you wish” but expect crowds.

Central Park

Central Park is a great place to hang out in New York City with kids. Kids need fresh air and to run and play and what a place to do it. If you are planning a 2 day New York itinerary then you might only have time to pop in for a quick run around but if you are planning on 4 days in New York then consider dedicating an entire afternoon to hanging out in Central Park.

The Guggenheim Museum, American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are all in close proximity to Central Park to if you are adding one of these museums to your New York Itinerary visit the park before or after.

The size of central park is immense, the views from the park are amazing, the soft, green landscape gives way to pale and glistening sky scrapers launching towards the crystal blue skies. The contrast is stark and striking.

The lake at central park visiting on a 4 days in New York Itinerary

Spend your time in the park enjoying the different landscapes, rolling boulders waiting to be climbed, the wide tree lined Mall, the narrow paths then circle the lake. Hire bikes if you want to cover a lot of ground alternatively take the subway and pop -up at the corner of the park you want to explore.

The central and south part of Central Park have the most appeal to families visiting New York with kids.

Kids visiting New York playing in central park with giant bubbles

A suggested itinerary for visiting Central Park with kids:

Take the subway to 72nd Street, walk along the lake edge to Bethesda Fountain, head down the Mall to Gapstow Bridge for some great photo opportunities then across to the Heckscher or Umpire Rock Playgrounds or the Central Park Carousel. Exit the park at Columbus Circle to catch the subway to your next destination. This walk is just over 1.5 miles, take it at a leisurely pace and fuel up with pretzels, hot dogs, and ice cream along the way.

Visiting Bethesday fountain in New York on a family trip

You could also visit the Central Park Zoo. New York has so many other unique attractions, so I haven’t visited.

Tips for your New York family holiday

How to save money visiting New York City with kids

  • Transportation: Take the Subway or walk, a lot of places are close together and can be easily reached by walking.
  • Food: Pick up some fruit, yogurt and sandwiches from a corner grocery store for a cheap bite to eat.
  • Choose simple and cheap fare like a slice of Pizza or street food like hot dogs or kebab.
  • If you are staying in an apartment pick up some groceries (Trader Joe’s is one of my favourite) and cook a few meals at home.
  • Skip bottled water. New York City water is clean and safe to drink, carry a refillable water bottle with you, top it up at restaurants and museums.
  • Don’t eat at Times Square. You only need to walk a few blocks to find some delicious and cheaper restaurants.
  • Use points to pay for hotels. We paid for our stay at the Novotel Times Square using hotel points we had accumulated from another trip.
  • Stay a night at an airport Hotel. If you fly in late or fly out early in the morning spend the night at an airport hotel. You have the added convenience and the cost is about 1/3rd of what you will pay near Times Square.
  • Depending on how many attractions and Museum you will be visiting consider purchasing New York CityPass, Explorer Pass or New York Pass, you can easily work out if this is worthwhile for you by visiting the website.
  • Take advantage of free hours and pay what you wish offers at museums and galleries. You can find details on the websites. Expect crowds during these times.

Tips for using the Subway in New York with kids:

  • Up to 3 children under 112cm (44 inches) can ride the subway with a paying adult for free.
  • If you will be using the subway more than 12 times you should buy the weekly unlimited pass.
  • Each rider will need their own weekly unlimited pass, including kids over 112cm.
  • Up to 4 riders can share the pay as you go pass.
  • If you are using a foreign credit card enter 99999 as your postcode.
  • The official app of the New York Subway is called myMTA, it can be downloaded for free.
  • Other popular apps for planning your trip include Google Maps, Citymapper and Transit.
  • I’ll be trying Citymapper on our next trip as Google Maps didn’t pick up some construction delays. Find out more about navigating the subway here.

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