Entertaining the kids during a long Northeast winter isn't easy—or cheap. Throw in an already cramped New York City apartment and a shortage of vitamin D and of course, everyone is eyeing the exit. Luckily, in NYC some of the best things in life are FREE (really).
If your kids are bouncing off the walls and your wallet is screaming for a break from shelling out for another movie, theater outing, museum or drop-in play space, we've got you covered. Check out our list of more than 20 FREE indoor destinations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and elsewhere in NYC for fun, games or just a much-needed change of scenery.
For more great indoor places, check out our Winter Fun Guide and Indoor Activity Guide. (Sign up for our FREE newsletters to get posts like this delivered to your inbox.)
Make sure to check venue hours before heading out.
1. Head to your local library for no-cost fun. But remember, not all branches are created equally. The Children's Center at 42nd Street at the main branch of the New York Public Library, the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in Prospect Heights and the Children’s Library Discovery Center in Jamaica, Queens are all destination-worthy, with wonderful children's sections and frequent family programming. Prefer to stay closer to home? Discover what's going on at all branches in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.
2. Visit an amenity-filled public atrium. Our favorites include the Ford Foundation’s garden lobby on East 43rd Street and the Winter Garden in the Financial District.
3. Enjoy FREE storytimes every day of the week at bookstores and other kid spots.
4. See what else is going on at some of our favorite independent bookshops, including author readings, crafts activities and even puppet shows.
5. Stop by the FDNY Fire Zone in Rockefeller Center to learn about fire safety from a real firefighter. General admission is FREE.
6. While in the neighborhood, check out amazing recreations of NYC landmarks such as the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center at the Lego Store in Midtown West. The shop also hosts occasional FREE maker-building events. Live further south? Visit the Flatiron Lego Store and rest in its lounge while your child admires the recreation of the neighborhood.
7. Explore the always FREE National Museum of the American Indian, housed in the historic U.S. Custom House. Programming includes family-friendly films, workshops and other no-cost fun.
8. Head to Grand Central Terminal to train-watch, try out the whispering gallery or take in one of the other kid-friendly activities.
9. See what's going on at one of the NYC Parks Department's many nature centers. Enjoy hands-on activities such as tours, crafts and face time with animals.
10. Get your game on at the just revamped Nintendo NY where kids can gawk at the giant Donkey Kong and test out not-yet-released tech and video games.
11. Hit one of NYC's other interactive megastores, while they still exist, like the magic mirrors and giant castle at the Disney Store Times Square, or try independent favorite Kidding Around in Grand Central or Flatiron.
12. Watch the bakers in action at Chelsea Market where a number of the city's best bakeries are rolling out dough, or read a story in the children's section of Posman Books after grabbing a bite at the market.
13. Register for a FREE youth program at your nearest Apple Store (there are several in Manhattan). Check out the latest gadgets and apps.
14. Don’t forget Central Park! There are a handful of FREE indoor destinations in the 840-acre greenspace, including Belvedere Castle and the Chess & Checkers House.
15. Take in a FREE flick at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) or one of these other no-cost cinema spots.
16. Enjoy all genres of music at Carnegie Kids FREE neighborhood concerts, which take place at various venues throughout the city.
17. Register for a FREE creative workshop at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Center, which offers hands-on programs for children of all ages from toddlers to teens.
18. Get crafty with the kids at no cost at Michaels or one of these other spots.
19. Introduce kids to contemporary art at the always FREE Bronx Museum of the Arts.
20. And don’t forget: Many NYC museums offer free hours on a weekly or monthly basis.
Top photo: Indoor maker spaces such as the city's multiple Lego stores are a great way to keep kids busy and engaged all winter. Photo by Shannon McGee via Flickr.
This post, originally published in January 2010, is updated annually.