Whether you’re planning Spring Break, a summer getaway or a long weekend around teacher in-service days, put New York City on your list of surprisingly easy family travel destinations.
When the right airfares happened to sync with an extended weekend school break, my wife and I decided there was no time like the present to introduce our sons to “the city that never sleeps.”
Upon our arrival, my older son and I took that Sinatra lyric to heart, and embarked on an 11pm stroll from West 54th & Broadway to Times Square. They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, and they ain’t kidding. Sam was dazzled by the quasi-daylight of our late night journey. Side note: our stop in front of the Ed Sullivan Theatre triggered his continued fandom of late night comic Stephen Colbert.
American Museum of Natural History
This was my sons’ Henry and Sam ultimate New York destination, and we planned accordingly. Despite arriving a half hour before opening, the lines extended out the front doors, down the massive steps and out into the sidewalk opposite Central Park West.
Thankfully, we had learned from an earlier Chicago vacation about the CityPASS package. Tourists can purchase the ticket package which best suits their plans. CityPASS holders not only get discounts on admission prices, but also quicker admission into the venues.
As we queued our way between the ropes, a CityPASS representative invited any CityPASS holders to exit the line and gain immediate entrance to the museum. We bypassed the throng and started our museum journey. TIP: New York CityPASS includes entry to one special experience at the Museum of Natural History, such as an IMAX movie. We did not realize that our entry had pre-populated tickets for the planetarium show, so speak up if you are seeking a specific experience.
After our visits to see Sue the T-Rex at Chicago’s Field Museum and the Smithsonian’s dinosaurs in Washington, D.C., you might think my two sons’ appetites for dinos would be satiated. Not a chance. If anything, the Museum of Natural History stoked the fire, fed by fellow science enthusiasts who crowded the exhibits.
My advice is to simply let your children guide you, and don’t be afraid to divide and conquer if one child wants to delve into biological history while the other can’t wait to marvel at the gems and minerals.
Lunch at the jammed food court was surprisingly efficient. Lots of food stations and choices for picky palates. TIP: As most of the family finds its food, let one parent or older child scout the dining room for an open table. At peak times, these are snagged as soon as they are vacated. Or, eat a hearty breakfast and delay lunch until after 2pm.
On the opposite side of Central Park sits the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We decided to take our time strolling to this museum to experience Central Park itself. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (who also designed Louisville’s renowned parks system), Central Park is the opposite of the island which surrounds it. While Manhattan is laid out on a logical grid with Broadway the diagonal exception, Central Park is a complex of paths intended to make you feel lost, a natural escape from the cacophony of the city. Here we see sunbathers and peddlers, opportunistic street entertainers and tourists, exercise junkies and artists.
We happened upon a storyteller entertaining young children beside the statue of Hans Christian Anderson and his Ugly Duckling.
We ambled through the slopes and curves, pausing to pick apart the remains of our morning bagel to feed the pigeons. Finally, the Met emerged from the brush.
You could spend an entire day in just one wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and come away not seeing everything. We decided to let chance and the kids’ curiosity decide our path. Tagging along on a museum-guided tour of the ancient Egyptian artifacts, we became so immersed that we lost track of time.
What followed was a less than ideal scurry into targeted areas of the museum to be able to at least eyeball the Met’s greatest hits, Rembrandt, Degas, Van Gogh, and – in an affirmation of investing in my children’s education – when we entered room 214, Sam exclaimed “No way! It’s Monet!”
To at least expose my kids to these great works of art helps them realize that the great things of this world are not distant and unreachable.
With the help of my boys’ favorite babysitter – now NYC advertising executive – we enjoyed a few other city specialities, lunch at Shake Shack, (adequate burger and fries but I don’t get the hype), a trip on the Subway demystified what can be an intimidating experience, and a walk through recognizable neighborhoods and streets, such as the Upper East Side and Madison Avenue.
Nearly as ubiquitous as New York’s signature yellow taxicabs are the double decker tour buses making endless loops around Manhattan. Discounts are also available everywhere. Be sure to check for coupons at your hotel, or click here.
But, for a premium tour experience, look no further than The Ride, which connects passengers to the city like no other tour. Instead of a typical bus seating arrangement, The Ride converts a motor coach into a traveling studio audience, with three rows of stadium seating facing toward the drivers side of the bus.
Windows extend from your feet to above your head, providing an unparalleled view of the streetscape while staying climate controlled and under cover in case of rain.
Yet the The Ride’s physical characteristics are only the beginning. The 75 minute drive through Midtown Manhattan is sparkled with live street performances literally along the route. Sidewalk performances include singers, dancers and a gifted rapper who weaves The Ride’s passenger manifest into his lyrics. Just fun.
If you simply want to see Manhattan, the same people behind The Ride also offer The Tour aboard the same climate controlled bus, but with no outside entertainment (other than what may organically appear on the streets of New York. You never know)!
Food and Family
Some trips to New York can include a gastronomical journey, exposing your taste buds and stomach to a global array of choices. This introductory trip was not one of them, deliberately.
At the end of long days with lots of walking and multi-sensory experiences, I suggest sticking with familiar foods at a variety of restaurants. My kids love Italian food. So, our dining on this NYC adventure played several variations of that theme.
Patsy’s Italian Restaurant – 236 West 56th
A favorite of Frank Sinatra, Patsy’s maintains the charm and personal attention of its family-owned tradition despite its celebrity clientele.
Founded in 1944 by Pasquale “Patsy” Scognamillo, the theater district locale has had only three chefs; the late Patsy himself, his son Joe Scognamillo, who still greets diners, and Joe’s son Sal Scognamillo, the chef for the past 30 years. One of the nephews was managing the dining room during our visit.
Carmine’s – 2450 Broadway, near 91st Street
A larger facsimile of the traditional NYC Italian restaurant, what Carmine’s lacks in authentic history it delivers in big family-style portions of Southern Italian favorites. Meatballs the size of baseballs. It’s a huge dining room that can accommodate large parties.
Patzeria Family & Friends 311 West 48th St –
We stopped at this cozy pizza and pasta place in the theater district for a late lunch and missed the crowds that pack the restaurant before and after the Broadway shows whose casts are among the patrons. Show posters line the walls.
Tony’s Di Napoli 1081 Third Avenue
Do you sense a trend? Large, family style Italian fare. Classy Upper East Side location is in a great neighborhood to walk off the calories. An Italian restaurant right out of central casting. Friendly staff, and accommodating for the kids.
Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien Hotel, 119 West 56th Street
My wife read about this “hole in the wall” within a swanky hotel on Trip Adviser and we decided to give it a try. Behind a massive, heavy velvet curtain in the lobby of the Le Parker Meridien Hotel is the “Burger Joint,” serving exactly what the name suggests, greasy (good greasy) thick hamburgers and $6.66 milkshakes, not quite sure of the significance of the price. Very limited seating on stools and a few booths surrounded by graffiti covered wood paneling. If you go at the height of lunch hour, expect a long line. No reservations and cash only.
On the go…
In Manhattan, you’re never far from food, its availability a safety valve for families whose children becoming suddenly and ravenously hungry with little warning. I admit we leaned on the fallback all-day breakfast at McDonald’s to satisfy Henry’s hotcakes craving, but we also were pleasantly surprised to sample street vendors whose kitchens may be small but are packed with talent and a customer-friendly vibe. Try at least one toasted bagel.
Finally, I overcame my wariness to take a flyer on one of NYC’s hundreds of “Buck a slice pizza” shops. I get the sense that the range of quality of these places is very wide, but my roll of the dice was worth it at the 99 Fresh Pizza narrow storefront at 1723 Broadway. A reassuring “A” health inspection rating and the standard special of two slices and a can of soda or water for $2.75 encouraged me to give it a try. I ended up buying an entire 18 inch pie for $8.00 to carry back to our hotel room around the corner. Great deal and the cheese pizza was nice and hot out of the oven just a few feet from the counter.
Top of the Rock
In a city of giants, it’s easy to be overlooked, even if you’re a skyscraper 70 stories tall, and an iconic home of New York and American history. Such is the case with 30 Rock in the heart of Rockefeller Center, the home of NBC TV.
Though my favorite building in Manhattan is the Art Deco Chrysler Building, a still futuristic looking building even at 87 years old, and while the Empire State Building and new Freedom Tower (near the World Trade Center memorial) are New York City’s tallest buildings, a trip to Top of the Rock is perhaps the best way to take all of them in.
With an elevator ride that uses video to transport you through the decades, the observation decks atop 30 Rock offer fantastic views of all (five) NYC Boroughs, including the more famous skyscrapers farther south on Manhattan island. As a result, a photo from Top of the Rock provides – in my view – the best skyline backdrop for your NYC themed family Christmas card.
Since you’re traveling with kids, Rockefeller Center offers an added bonus. Within the complex is Nintendo New York, two floors and 10,000 square feet of all things Nintendo, the latest games and accessories.
Free game play includes a gaming paradise video wall, and lots of fellow gamers sharing the common bond of Mario, Pokemon, and Zelda. Buy a T-shirt.
In my mind, no visit to New York City is complete without taking in a Broadway show. The range of options, especially when you include off-Broadway plays and musicals, ensures that there is always something for everyone.
As I tried to build up my kids’ excitement for their first Broadway expedition, they weren’t all that jazzed. Only later, after they had laughed and cheered through School of Rock, did I learn why they weren’t initially enthused. Their preconception of Broadway was of top hats and tails, and a vaudeville softshoe. After seeing a show that rocked, and featured young actors their own age, they can’t wait to go back.
If you need to save money and don’t mind taking a chance on getting into the show of your choice, download the Today Tix app which features information about the shows, dynamic pricing and portals to enter ticket “lotteries” whereby producers of many shows set aside a limited number of tickets at relatively affordable prices. You’re unlikely to score seats to Hamilton, but even that smash hit offers a lottery.
We found ourselves back at Times Square for The Tour, followed by a nice walk to Pier 83, about one mile. Walking to the pier underscores that Manhattan is relatively narrow, just over two miles wide from one side to the other.
One of the best ways to see an island is from the water. Pier 83 is home to the Circle Line Tour, an efficient way to get a close up visit with the Statue of Liberty.
New York CityPASS came through again. An agent at a separate kiosk for pass holders greeted us and secured us entry on the cruise that was already boarding, departing in only 15 minutes.
It’s a no-frills ride on benches with a couple hundred people seated beside you. It leaves the spectacle to the Gotham skyline, shadows moving across familiar skyscrapers as the boat chugs its way down the Hudson River. Even on a cool and breezy day, the sun heats the deck well.
Consider a water bottle and a cap.
On a subsequent trip, we will step onto Liberty and Ellis Islands, but on this first NYC foray, it was impressive just to pay our respects to Lady Liberty. Somewhat lost in the swarm of selfies which quickly commandeered the vessel was the meaning of this symbol of freedom. Sam saved the day when he spoke up, reminding us that July IV 1776 is inscribed on her tablet, the birth of freedom in our beloved country.
Admittedly, it is impossible to look back at the skyline of lower Manhattan without thinking about what is no longer there. Reaching 1776 feet, the spire of One World Trade Center signals both a recovery and a loss. My children only know the September 11 attacks as another page in history that was written before they were born. The time together on that boat, with the city as a living illustration, provided the perfect opportunity to convey the enormity of 9/11, as best as I could.
Other worthy NYC destinations that are on our list for our return visit include:
- Wall Street. The Financial District holds great significance in both our nation’s history and our daily lives.
- World Trade Center memorial and One World Trade Center. As noted above, the reality of 9/11 is a lot for a young person to comprehend. It’s an important reality, but one we plan on experiencing when we are confident our sons will appreciate the enormity of the tragedy.
- TV shows – From early morning newscasts to entertainment television, New York sets the agenda of the United States.
And finally, a word on the people of New York and the many cultures which intersect and at times intertwine.
Our trip coincided with the initial rollout of the app sensation Pokemon Go. Much to my sons’ delight, one of the meccas in the Pokemon Go orthodoxy is the gleaming golden William Tecumseh Sherman monument in the Grand Army Plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park. There we found people of multiple races, lifestyles and obsessions sharing a legitimately unifying experience. My Vineyard Vines wearing progeny didn’t bat an eye comparing Pokemon Go notes with a young man sporting blue spiked hair and painful looking piercings. Burkas and hipsters, Hip-Hop and preppy all trained to their smartphones and shouting instructions to each other as if planning an invasion.
The occasional roar of the Pokemon Go crowd when someone spotted a rare animated character on their iPhone must have dulled our senses, because when we heard a different kind of roar – panicked but laughing – it didn’t phase us. A wall of rain swept across the streets. The tremendous downpour was ultimately inescapable. We took refuge at The Plaza hotel, where – swamped like castaways – we sloshed into a cab for the drive back to our hotel.
Moral of the story: plan your vacations carefully so you can make best use of your time, but allow for some spontaneity and let memorable experiences simply unfold around you.
Have fun, and email me with your family travel experiences or suggestions. Jarnold@kentuckyliving.com.