Winter Gardens: Get Out of the Cold at NYC's Indoor Plazas

Free Play for NYC Kids: Winter Garden, Trump Tower, United Nations, NYBG, AMNH, Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, Wave Hill, Lincoln Center

If you feel like you've already exhausted your favorite NYC museum or indoor play space, why not try a nearby public atrium or garden? New York City is full of many semi-secret indoor public spaces, as well as not-so-secret gardens that are perfect for staving off cabin fever this winter with an antsy kid.

Bonus: The atriums are FREE to wander into and many offer seating, snacks, Wi-Fi and art. The gardens are so steamy that we practically feel as if we booked that tropical getaway after all. This is why we love New York, right?

My son is a winter baby, so when he was a newborn, it was freezing cold everywhere and between nursing, naps, sleep deprivation, laundry and that overwhelming frenzied new-parent feeling, I just couldn’t get it together to go anywhere or do anything. For two months I sat on the couch with him and let people come to me. But one day I decided to venture out.

We found our way to an indoor, tropical, hideaway just a few blocks from our Midtown apartment. My salvation was the lush, green, rainforest of a garden that occupies the atrium of the Ford Foundation building. There are quite a few more indoor public spaces dotted around the commercial areas of Manhattan thanks to a zoning initiative where the city granted buildings the rights to additional air space, i.e., taller buildings, in exchange for indoor and outdoor public areas. 

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Manhattan's FREE Indoor Public Atriums

The Ford Foundation Atrium provides a peaceful respite from Midtown Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Rory Hyde via Flickr.

The Ford Foundation Building — Midtown East
320 East 43rd Street
Entrances on both 42nd and 43rd Streets west of First Avenue
Open to the public Monday-Friday, 8am-4pm
Closed holidays
On a typical day you may find people sitting on portable stools sketching the foliage, little kids learning to navigate the stairs and, of course, tourists. There is no seating or public bathrooms, people tend sit on the ledges and stairs. I don’t recommend any sort of loud or boisterous activities here since it is an office building and definitely a quiet time place. What it is perfect for, however, is chatting, reading, nursing and drawing. Children enjoy exploring the third-of-an-acre jungle or throwing coins into the wishing well (all monies collected are sent across the street to UNICEF). 

The garden is impressive, but equally so is the landmarked building that houses it. Built in 1963 for the Ford Foundation, the building is a giant steel and glass cube, with a full-sized open atrium in the center. It was green way before its time. In order to keep the beautiful oasis from becoming a drain on the city’s water supply the roof is equipped to collect water to use in the fountain and for watering the plants.

If your children get too antsy and need to get running again, the Tudor City playgrounds are two minutes away and accessible by taking the stairs directly to the left once outside the 42nd street entrance.

180 Maiden Lane — South Street Seaport
Between Front and South Streets
Open Monday-Friday, 8:30am-5:30pm
Light-colored wood, brass and lots of glass create an elegant, light-filled, atrium steps away from the South Street Seaport. Well-stocked seating areas provide plenty of space to lounge and a regularly changing gallery of artwork keeps you coming back. More perks: free lunchtime musical performances and a newsstand/snack shop to pick up life’s little necessities.

60 Wall Street Atrium — Financial District
Between William and Pearl Streets
Open daily, 7am-10pm
This space looks like a grand hotel ballroom from yesteryear with soaring vaulted ceilings of silver tile, gigantic palm trees and lots of cafe tables and chairs. Chess and backgammon players get there early to stake out their tables. Grab a bite at one of the two take-out eateries. The space is cavernous and well used with a fair amount of seating and noise. Extras: Free Wi-Fi and easy access to the 2/3 subway.

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The Winter Garden at Brookfield Place offers year-round arts and other family programming. Photo courtesy of Jorbasa Fotographie via Flickr.

The Winter Garden at Brookfield Place — Battery Park City
220 Vesey Street near West Street
Open daily, 5am-2am
This magnificent glass atrium, flanked by two massive marble staircases and decorated with enormous palm trees, offers tons of shopping and many fine dining and take-out restaurants, including the kid-friendly Hudson Eats. Don’t miss the world-class views of the Hudson River, especially at sunset. Extras: Free arts programs occur year-round, mostly in the evening. The seasonal ice rink is a must-try too.

Park Avenue Plaza — Midtown East
55 East 52nd Street between Park and Madison Avenues
Open daily, 8am-10pm
This Midtown oasis is currently undergoing a makeover to the tune of $35 million. Once completed, expect a modern interpretation of an indoor public space. A waterfall will be a focal point once again. In the meantime, Starbucks remains open and seating is limited.

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Quirky sculpture pieces are always on display in the public atrium at 590 Madison Avenue. Photo courtesy of Andrew Russeth via Flickr.

590 Madison Avenue — Midtown East
At 57th Street
Open daily, 8am-10pm
This glass structure is a real find in Midtown East. There is plenty of room and tons of tables and chairs. Get lunch, coffee or gelato at the Obika Mozzarella Bar, then check out the current sculpture on display or watch birds fly between bamboo thickets. Extras: There's an easy walk-through to Trump Tower without going outside.

Trump Tower — Midtown East
725 Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets
Open daily, 8am-10pm
Like its namesake, the space is over the top in every way. The public space has everything: marble walls, a waterfall, an ice cream parlor, bar, restaurant, shopping and tons of tourists. Take the elevators to landscaped garden terraces on the upper floors for a great view of the entire place.

The David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center offers plenty of sitting areas, plentiful snacks and entertainment, a trademark of the arts organization. Photo by Mark Bussell/courtesy of Lincoln Center.

David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center — Upper West Side
Broadway between 62nd and 63rd Streets
Monday-Friday, 8am-10pm; Saturday and Sunday, 9am-10pm
Tourists might flock to the David Rubenstein Atrium to try to score deals on shows at the venerable arts campus, but locals know it's a great place to meet and mingle. The two-story atrium has a beautiful floor-to-ceiling fountain, vertical gardens and plenty of places to lounge. There's a 'wichcraft cafe on-site as well as free Wi-Fi. Extras: Plan your visit around the weekly free performances or monthly LC Kids events.

United Nations NY Headquarters — Midtown East
801 First Avenue at 45th Street
Monday-Friday, 9am-5:30pm
The United Nations may not seem like a place for a family to spend the day but once you make it through security, it has everything you need for an hour or a day out with kids. The lower concourse has a warm public seating area, an old-school coffee shop and a few gift and book shops where you can pick up a gift with international flair. The upper entrance has an ever changing display of global art. You can also take a tour as long as your child is older than 5. Extras: The UN has its own postal service and issues its own stamps. Send a postcard from the UN Post Office on the public concourse.

Urban Garden Room — Midtown West
One Bryant Park, 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue
Daily, 8am-8pm
The newly-opened Bank of America Tower houses this small, yet very green atrium where four leafy sculptures adorn the public space. Designers see it as an extension of nearby Bryant Park and also as an homage to the building's LEED Platinum rating. There are tables to lounge at but beware that Midtown office workers are quick to snap them up around midday. Extras: While there's not much to speak of in the way of amenities inside, you're across the street from Starbucks and all of Bryant Park's offerings.

For more ideas, you can find complete list of indoor and outdoor public spaces on the city's website.

Indoor Gardens in NYC

The Conservatory at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — Crown Heights
990 Washington Avenue at Crown Street
Open Tuesday-Friday, 8am-4:30pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am-4:30pm (November-February); Tuesday-Friday 8am-6pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am-6pm (March-October)
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Conservatory boasts five separate and distinct indoor areas, each reflecting a different climate. In the steamy Aquatic House, you'll find waterfalls and green foliage cascading from ceiling to pond. Delicate and colorful orchids are safely ensconced behind glass. The dry Desert Pavilion is filled with spiky cacti and hearty wildflowers, largely from South America and the African continent. The Tropical Pavilion features lush plants and trees, and has a 65-foot ceiling to accommodate the tallest arbors. The Warm Temperate Pavilion is the place to visit in February and March, as many of the vibrant African plants will be in bloom. The winding path leads to a restful viewing point, making this pavilion a personal favorite of mine. The Bonsai Museum is home to 350 miniature trees, one of the largest collections outside of Japan. Children will be fascinated by these tiny woody plants, which look as if they sprung magically out of a storybook. The BBG's free winter weekday admission is an added incentive to visit now.

Wave Hill’s conservatory houses cacti, vibrant tropical plants and more creating a beautiful escape from winter’s gray days. Photo courtesy of Wave Hill.

The Conservatory at Wave Hill — Riverdale
675 Independence Avenue between West 249th and West 250th Streets
Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9am-4:30pm (November 1-March 14) and Tuesday-Sunday, 9am-5:30pm (March 15-October 31)
This beautiful 28-acre garden and cultural center is a glorious destination in warmer months, but in the winter you can marvel at its Conservatory, a trio of glass houses that contain delicate flora. There's the Palm House, home to vibrant South African bulbs; the Cactus and Succulent House, featuring plants from dry climates and the Tropical House, hosting a variety of plants from humid regions. Creative Family Art Projects on the weekends are always inspired by nature.

Tropic Zone: The Rainforest at Central Park Zoo — Upper East Side
830 Fifth Avenue at East 64th Street
Open daily, 10am-4:30pm (November-March) and daily 10am-5pm (April-October)
This two-tiered, indoor jungle is a literal hotbed of animal activity. You'll feel like you need to duck to avoid low-flying exotic birds (or their poop—watch out for it!) You'll also spy sapphire-colored poisonous frogs, lemurs and golden lion tamarins through the lush-green foliage. Don't worry: They're all safely behind glass but the continuum of trees and greenery gives the impression that you're in the wild.

The Butterfly Conservatory at American Museum of Natural History — Upper West Side
Central Park West at 79th Street
Open daily, 10am-5:45pm (October through May)
No glass here! The museum's live butterfly exhibit allows you to get up close with these delicate insects, whose spots and colors rival a peacock's. Kids are encouraged to look at live specimens through magnifying glasses and if you're lucky (and wearing bright clothing), one might even perch right on you. In addition to the gorgeous butterflies, you're surrounded by stunning tropical flowers. Good luck getting your kids out of this room warmed to a steamy temperature for its delicate inhabitants. 

The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the NYBG — Bronx Park
2900 Southern Boulevard
Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm and some holiday Mondays. Visit the website for a complete schedule.
The always-in-bloom Enid A. Haupt Conservatory offers a retreat from the cold New York winters. Around the holidays, catch the must-see train show housed here. The rest of the year, you'll find special exhibitions like the annual orchid show, while plenty of fauna and flora call the space home day in and day out. When you're done checking out the greenery here, head to the Everett Children's Adventure Garden where there's always family-friendly programming to enjoy.

Top image: The Ford Foundation atrium is popular with sketch artists and new moms. Photo courtesy of Timothy Vollmer via Flickr.

This post originally published in January 2010.

Area/Neighborhood: 
location: 
The Ford Foundation Building
320 East 43rd St
10017 New York , NY 40° 44' 59.5284" N, 73° 58' 16.0608" W
New York
180 Maiden Lane
180 Maiden Lane
10038 New York , NY 40° 42' 19.0188" N, 74° 0' 19.746" W
New York
60 Wall Street Atrium
60 Wall Street
10005 New York , NY 40° 42' 22.5972" N, 74° 0' 30.6936" W
New York
The Winter Garden at Brookfield Place
220 Vesey St
10281 New York , NY 40° 42' 49.7376" N, 74° 0' 50.7096" W
New York
Park Avenue Plaza
55 East 52nd St
10055-0022 New York , NY 40° 45' 31.7124" N, 73° 58' 26.1948" W
New York
Sony Plaza
550 Madison Ave
10022-3211 New York 40° 45' 32.3172" N, 73° 58' 0.6276" W
590 Madison Ave
590 Madison Ave
10022 New York 40° 45' 39.924" N, 73° 58' 23.754" W
Trump Tower
725 Fifth Ave
10022 New York , NY 40° 45' 45.2016" N, 73° 58' 27.2568" W
New York
1991 Broadway
1991 Broadway
10023 New York , NY 40° 46' 31.1916" N, 73° 58' 57.5724" W
New York
120 Park Ave
120 Park Ave
10017 New York , NY 40° 45' 3.3012" N, 73° 58' 43.2444" W
New York
499 Park Ave
499 Park Ave
10022 New York 40° 45' 45.1116" N, 73° 58' 10.5636" W
New York Botanic Garden
2900 Southern Boulevard
10458 New York , NY 40° 51' 44.8272" N, 73° 52' 48.8568" W
New York
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street
10024 New York , NY 40° 46' 55.3152" N, 73° 58' 18.1884" W
New York
Central Park Zoo
830 Fifth Avenue
10065 New York , NY 40° 46' 3.5904" N, 73° 58' 16.7412" W
New York
Wave Hill
675 Independence Avenue
10471 New York , NY 40° 54' 3.9888" N, 73° 54' 38.1492" W
New York
Brooklyn Botanic Garden
990 Washington Avenue
11225 New York , NY 40° 40' 10.2108" N, 73° 57' 44.9064" W
New York