Think of New York City and you probably summon a mixture of mental images from a lifetime absorbing its literature, music, theatre and films. But what is the city to a kid; and is it a good place to visit as a family? A decade into parenting, writer Tasmin Waby headed to the city that never sleeps with her daughters in tow.
New York City is surprisingly child friendly
The streets may be crowded in Midtown, but for a city of its size, New York is surprisingly family friendly. There are dozens of museums (American Museum of Natural History, Museum of Modern Art, and Brooklyn Museum) and interactive attractions (Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Intrepid Sea Air & Space museum or the New York Transit Museum) to visit. You could probably spend a year with children in New York without running out of places to go.
Green spaces are plentiful despite the population density. From Central Park to Battery Park via the High Line in Manhattan you’ll find many places to roam without cars. Plus there are small squares dotted everywhere; the perfect places to eat a picnic lunch or just to sit on a park bench for a well-earned rest.
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Playgrounds are common, with 21 in Central Park alone. Most, however, are fairly basic affairs (except for a handful of standout spots) with little space for deconstructed playtime. Some have water fountains for wet play in summer. The subway will zip you up and down Manhattan with ease, and you're never that far to the next subway station. Plus locals actually stop and tell you the way if you look lost. So much for New Yorkers being rude or unfriendly!
Height, rather than age, determines free public transport
The rules for free public transport in New York say that if a child is under 44in (112cm) they can ride the subway and buses for free. Basically they can just slip under the turnstiles. This means that, up to around the age of five (unless your children have 'tall' genes), they won’t cost you anything extra.
After that, children pay the same full adult fare. There is a reduced-fare (about half price) but this is for locals over 65, kids at local schools, or people living with a disability, and requires a personalised card with your name and photo.
But before you weep for your wallet, New York’s public transport is pretty reasonably priced if you purchase an unlimited 7- or 30-day ticket. Single-trip tickets quickly add up at $2.75 per ride on a pay-per-ride MetroCard, but a week-long, unlimited ticket is $33.00 (plus the initial $1 to purchase a reusable MetroCard).
Pre-purchase tickets to popular attractions
New York is an iconic destination for many people from many countries; it’s "the capital of the world" after all. This also means it is incredibly popular during peak school holiday periods. Visitor capacity was once limited by the number of hotel beds, or international airlines arriving per day, but over the last couple of decades tourism has grown, and New York’s key sites are even busier.
For this reason, it’s highly recommended that you do some forward planning (even a day or two ahead of time) and pre-purchase tickets to places you want to visit. No-one wants to stand in a two-hour-long queue to catch a ferry to Ellis Island, let alone a 10-year-old who doesn’t even know what the Ellis Island Museum is going to be like (it’s fascinating for kids too, for the record).
Also, if you really want to take your children to a Broadway musical like Wicked or The Lion King, get planning at least six to nine months ahead by signing up for ticket release emails with the production or the theatre directly. Last minute tickets and lotteries exist, but demand outstrips supply exponentially .
New York really needs more public toilets
Finding public lavatories in a city is always a challenge, especially when you’re travelling with kids who don’t need one at the same time! New York is bereft of places to take a comfort break.
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Our usual go-to in a city is at a major museum, art gallery or library. But in New York many sites are ticketed, some even had queues just to get inside. Public transport hubs like Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station and Port Authority Bus Terminal have toilets, and we found that larger parks also had coin operated facilities. Otherwise we hightailed it to Starbucks – where there is also free wi-fi – but these restrooms weren’t always the most salubrious by the afternoon.
Things I didn’t prepare for
While downtown, we also paid a visit to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, which was beautiful and moving, particularly as my neighbour was one of the 3000 people killed in Manhattan that morning. It didn’t occur to me until we got there that this epoch-defining event was of course something I’d have to explain to my children. But unlike recounting why the French gifted America a statue by Monsieur Eiffel, this history was part of my living memory – and no doubt a trauma that haunts New Yorkers today.
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While the 9/11 Memorial & Museum website has excellent information on talking to children about terrorism, I went into these conversations unprepared. We decided not to visit the 9/11 Museum this time around: as adults these kids will be better able to process the stories it contains. But the bronze bas-relief sculpture of the NYC firefighters across the way offered the opportunity to continue the conversation by turning to stories of heroes, and hope.
New York exists in a child’s imagination too
Don’t assume you need to do all the trip planning when heading to a city like New York with kids. If your children are about six or older they may have some ideas about New York already. Unexpectedly, my kids knew of a New York City they wanted to see from iconic images of the Statue of Liberty (it was much smaller than they imagined) and Central Park (much bigger than they expected).
A recent mid-term break watching some episodes of Friends on Netflix had filled them with dreams of share-housing, dating, and hanging out in cafes without smartphones and TikTok. Thus we visited the Friends apartment building in the West Village along with 20 other people, some of whom were loudly honked at by a yellow cab for standing on the road (another iconic NYC moment).
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My eldest led us to a bunch of Hamilton-related sites we may otherwise have walked past: Trinity Church near Wall Street, where Hamilton and Eliza are buried (she knew this from the musical’s lyrics), and a statue behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park (again something one could easily miss). I spent my childhood in this city and had stayed twice before in my adult life, and now I was being shown around by someone a quarter of my age. It was magic!
New York is one of the world’s great cities for so many reasons, but seeing it through the eyes of a child brings a new perspective. One day I’m hoping they’ll return with their own kid in a Greyhound on the Hudson River line.