You could pick about a hundred “best things” to do in NYC, so we’ll just get that out of the way. In fact, one doesn’t have to do much other than pace the streets and soak up the energy to enjoy the most amazing city in the world. We believe everyone should experience New York City on foot. That said, there are some really amazing things to do in NYC with children.
Some folks may be afraid to bring their children to an uber-bustling city. They’re afraid of crime, traffic, rude people, and other things that really aren’t a problem. We brought three kids aged 10-14, two of whom have autism, and did just fine. New Yorkers are helpful people, friendly and wonderfully frank. We hope you find them as vibrant as we did.
Here are the ten best things we did and saw in NYC.
At one time the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world, standing at 1,250 feet and 103 stories high. It has since been eclipsed by a handful of buildings, some here in NYC, nonetheless its legacy is unmatched and the Empire State Building remains a must-do attraction in New York.
The view from the 86th floor is awestriking. On a clear day you can see Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Delaware. The cityscape looks incredible from up there, which is why this location has been in dozens of movies and tv shows. Pay the extra few bucks for the audio tour, as it really makes the whole experience come alive. If you’re going to do one thing in NYC with children, this – or the next one – should be it.
Central Park is the calm at the center of the storm, the oasis in the desert, the pocket of air in a capsized boat. In 1853, NYC approved a plan to turn 778 acres into what would become the most visited urban park in the US. It was pure, visionary genius. We cannot imagine this city without respite from the commotion. This is an amazing thing to do in NYC with children.
Some of the attractions include: Central Park Zoo, the Heckscher Playground near Umpire Rock (awesome for kids), Wollman Skating Rink, the Carousel, The Lake, Strawberry Fields (John Lennon tribute), The Ramble (wooded walk), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Belvedere Castle. There is a massive reservoir, countless softball fields, a hockey rink, remote control boats, and myriad bridges, arches, and statues.
No trip to NYC is complete without spend a few hours in the park. If one wanted, an entire weekend could be enjoyed only there.
When you book a boat to the Statue of Liberty you will also stop on Ellis Island. We spent more time on Ellis Island that at the statue, which surprised us. We recommend you take the audio tour, which is free.
Ellis Island opened in 1892 and during its sixty years of operation millions of immigrants passed through its doors. Here you can learn about the immigration processes of 100 years ago. You can sit on the same benches they sat on, see the same walls they grinned at, and hear the incredible stories of sacrifice and jubilation. Interesting to us as parents of autistic children, they had a test to determine whether people could read facial expressions properly. If our children had entered the country at this time, they would have been graciously sent back to their country of origin due to their disabilities.
The Statue of Liberty might be the quintessential tourist attraction in the entire USA. A gift from the people of France in 1884, Liberty Enlightening the World represents freedom, democracy, and justice to societies around the world. Backdropped by NYC, the State of Liberty became the consummate symbol of an immigrant’s arrival in America.
You have several viewing options at the statue: The crown, the pedestal, or ground level. We tried to book the crown viewing three months in advance through Statue Cruises and it was sold out. If your intention is to catch the Crown view, you might want to plan accordingly.
Eventually we settled for the pedestal tour, which worked out well because the crowd is much smaller there. The pedestal is large and allows for excellent photographs without other people marauding your shot. From there, a look toward the ground level reveals it is crawling with tourists — think Dawn of the Dead looking down from the roof of the mall — we were so thankful to be on the pedestal. Do your best to get pedestal or better tickets!
Overall, we were whelmed by the experience. The boat ride was swell, taking pictures was fun, the statue was impressive, and the history was adequate. Ellis Island is the jewel here, but it’s not a competition (yes, it is; it always is). Overall, it’s a great way to spend four hours.
NYC is famous for a lot of things, perhaps none more important than their pizza. We’ve never had better (sorry Chicago), but trouble is, which pizza is the best? Locals don’t necessarily agree on their favorite pie, so we researched over twenty different “best pizza in NY” web pages and made a master list. One of the highlights of our visit wound up being the pizza tour that took place between all our other activities. Finding the best slice in town is an amazing thing to do in NYC with children.
We kept our travel range to Manhattan, which eliminated some essential pizza joints in Brooklyn and Coney Island. And believe it or not, one can only eat so much pizza, so several highly regarded joints were missed due to shameless overstuffing.
Our favorite slice was at NY Pizza Suprema near Madison Square Gardens. It was so good we visited twice! We were also fond of Prince Street Pizza, and Joe’s (near midtown on Broadway – there are a lot of Joe’s around town — the one on Broadway was the best). The Pizza Tour was such a fun endeavor that we can’t wait for our next trip to catch all the places we missed!
Chelsea is an art center on the west side of Manhattan full of restaurants and galleries. We enjoyed the time we spent walking around, especially along the High Line aerial greenway.
This 1.5-mile venue was built on an unused section of elevated railway, and is replete with gardens, vendors, art exhibits, and gorgeous city views. The vibe is relaxing and family friendly.
Toward the southern end of the High Line is the Chelsea Market, which we absolutely loved. Full of cool shops and incredible foods, the market is an easy place to lose yourself for hours. We recommend eating at Los Tacos No. 1. The food is preposterously delicious.
Home to the highest concentration of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere, Manhattan’s Chinatown is a wonderful place to explore and observe. Here you can absolutely score a “designer” purse or get a dynamite beef and broccoli. Walking through the outdoor markets is unusual and fun. Chinatown is an easy place to be a tourist, and an amazing thing to do in NYC with children.
We found that the most satisfying time we spent was in Columbus Park, watching the locals go about their business. Many sat around four-seat tables intently playing games. A few handfuls were making music together. Others were simply smiling and laughing over conversation. The atmosphere was convivial. It felt as if we found a significant component of the community.
From Central Park southward to the NY Public Library, 5th Avenue becomes a bustling, glamorous roadway full of major retailers and iconic buildings. Places like Rockefeller Center, Trump Tower, and the St. Patrick’s Cathedral stand tall amidst stores like Cartier, Louis Vuitton, and Versace. It is also the home to famous Saks Fifth Avenue. Whether you’re in the mood to window shop or actually shop, a stroll down this iconic avenue is easy to enjoy.
Times Square is an arena-like shopping hub in mid-town Manhattan at the intersection of 7th, 42nd, and Broadway. Everything moves — the cars, the people, the digital billboards — it is equal parts fantastic and nauseating. If Las Vegas decided to rough-you-up it would look like Times Square. The stimuli are so intense it’s hard to process, which is probably why the city installed bleachers to sit your butt down and have a look around.
This is a spectacle to observe and move on because it gets old real fast. We shopped for an hour in the afternoon and it was fine. At night, when the neon contrasts the nighttime sky, and the crowds intensify, and the beer mugs rise and fall, and the flattering beggars come out, and the advertisements stand over you like you owe them money, it makes for a heck of a scene. Clearly one of the best things to do in NYC with children, just be careful.
The Subway is less of a destination and more of a lifestyle. The weekday average ridership is 5.5 million people, and the annual is over 1.7 billion. In 2019 the subway fleet traveled 365 million miles. When you ride the subway trains in NYC, you are getting a tiny taste of daily New York living.
Now imagine two hyperverbal children with autism looking around and labeling the behaviors they see and the odors they smell. It’s a good thing everyone wears headphones these days because we say some things that could make a New Yorker blush.
We love that under the streets hundreds of trains at varying depths zip people to other parts of the city. We love that we can hop on a train in New Jersey and travel under the Hudson River. And we love how wide our children’s eyes can get, which makes it an amazing thing to do in NYC with children.
Time to Visit: Spring and Christmas
Best Family Adventure: Ellis Island / Statue of Liberty Boat Tour
Most Romantic: Empire State Building, High Line Stroll
Best for Photos: Everywhere
Best for Hiking: All over Manhattan
Our Favorites: Central Park, Pizza Tour
Map of NYC: Click Here
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