Upper West Side with Kids: 30 Things to Do for NYC Families
[UPDATED: July 23, 2012]
Below we highlight one of the most famously family-friendly areas in NYC: the Upper West Side. Mommy Poppins founder Anna spent part of her youth on the Upper West Side and NYC editor Raven was born and bred there. I've lived on the UWS since I was three myself, and I've raised two children (now teens) in the same apartment where I grew up, so we're all very passionate about the neighborhood. (That's part of why we've covered it so extensively in the past.)
Lincoln Center to 106th Street, Riverside Park to Central Park is a lot of ground to cover, and we could list a slew of hot spots and activities. But this list is our top 30 things to do with kids on the Upper West Side, and while we didn't want to skip the obvious ones (hello, AMNH and CMOM), we also included lots of offbeat ideas and unusual info about the familiar attractions.
Arts and Culture
1. Regardless of where you live in NYC, we're sure you've taken the kids to the American Museum of Natural History. But have you explored some of its lesser-known sections and activities? The Discovery Room encourages hands-on exploration of everything the institution covers, from anthropology to zoology. Kids can build a life-size dinosaur skeleton, romp in an interactive tree house, play memory games with fossils and much more. It's very engaging for children ages 5-12, and gives parents a bit of a break (there is seating but you need to supervise your kids at all times). Sessions last 40 minutes but space is extremely limited, so be sure to pick up your free pass at the Discovery Room entrance first thing when you arrive at the museum.
2. Another unique offering at AMNH: Mystery at the Museum. Equal parts interactive mystery and live environmental theater, Mystery takes you on a fun scavenger hunt throughout the institution. We went and just loved it. The $40 tickets include admission to the museum.
3. The Children’s Museum of Manhattan may seem like another "duh!" destination. But in addition to its seemingly never-ending Dora and Diego exhibit, the museum has some really amazing programming, especially on weekends. You can catch concerts by local kids' bands or participate in hands-on workshops with arts professionals. These activities are free with museum admission, and you can find the full schedule on CMOM's website. And even though my kids are almost grown, we attend the museum's gospel concert on Martin Luther King Day every year!
4. The New York Historical Society has the family-friendly attraction: DiMenna Children’s History Museum. It's a fun, interactive way for kids to explore New York City and its history, including stations that allow visitors to cast election votes and deliver a presidential address.
5. The UWS is a great place to expose the kids to the performing arts. Symphony Space's Just Kidding family performance series features a top-notch lineup of bands, shows and even film and book events aimed at children.
7. And don't forget Lincoln Center. Although many of the offerings at this high-brow performing arts complex are aimed at adults, the Little Orchestra Society presents classical concerts for young people at Avery Fisher Hall, the Big Apple Circus mounts an annual show, the Metropolitan Opera always has a family-friendly holiday offering and, of course, there's the annual Christmas production of The Nutcracker. In the summer, the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival always features a family day. And there's that awesome fountain year-round!
Parks and Playgrounds
8. Central Park is filled with Destination Playgrounds, although many of them are on the East Side. But in addition to lots of cool play spots, the West Side boasts the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, where the charming stringed puppets are the stars. Admittedly, it ain't Broadway, but with insanely cheap ticket prices ($5 for children, $8 for adults), short shows and post-performance sessions when kids can meet a puppeteer, it's a great choice for first-time theatergoers.
Read our post about other offbeat things to do in Central Park.
10. Riverside Park also has many Destination Playgrounds, like Hippo, Elephant, River Run Playground and Dinosaur Playgrounds. In warmer months, the Riverside Park South extension and Pier I host lots of annual family-friendly events like Mamapalooza in May and the West Side County Fair in September.
11. You can go kayaking for free in Riverside Park at 72nd St from May to October.
12. Riverside Park's Boat Basin Cafe is a great outdoor dining spot for families. It's also fun to look at the houseboats docked at the Boat Basin—yes, there are people in NYC who actually live on houseboats!
13. There are also lots of smaller green spaces that break up the urban landscape on the UWS. One of our favorites is the West Side Community Garden. Local families plant tiny plots that produce fresh veggies, fruit and flowers for their tables. The annual tulip planting is coming up the weekend of November 12-13. You can apply to join the garden for just $15, and you can also enjoy its annual events, like an arts and crafts fair, a fourth of July barbecue and alfresco Shakespeare in the summer.
14. Zabar's is an old-school Upper West Side institution (especially now that H&H is gone). Foodie families will be in heaven browsing gourmet goodies from around the globe, both exotic (caviar, all kinds of cheeses) and familiar (bagel with a schmear). If you ask nicely, the man behind the smoked fish counter will likely give your kid a free taste, and there are often free samples.
15. Speaking of old-school shops, although the Upper West Side is constantly welcoming new businesses, a few stalwarts still survive, in addition to Zabar's. There's a pair of veteran shoe stores—Harry’s Shoes (where Raven's mother bought her Mary Janes in her youth) and Tip Top Kids— where your kids' feet will be properly measured, and the salesperson will dole out a departing balloon.
16. For more retro browsing, try Westsider Rare & Used Books, which is filled with second-hand books, including kid lit, and LPs! You can finally show your kid what a record looks like.
17. Of course, some of the newer stores are worth visiting, too, especially when it comes to kids' clothes and gear. If you've got a baby or young child, there's Giggle, Granny Made, Z' Baby and Area Kids and Albee Baby (founded in 1933).
18. If you're the parent of a tween girl, Berkley Girl is a must-see shop. The boutique specializes in clothes and accessories for this hard-to-please age group, and the wears are exceptional.
19. We realize farmers markets aren't shops per se, but there are a handful of good ones on the Upper West Side, and they're a lot less crazy than Fairway or Whole Foods. My family and I frequent the 97th Street Greenmarket, which is open Fridays year-round, and often features entertainment and activities, like live music and cooking demos.
20. Another outdoor shopping destination: the GreenFlea flea market in P.S. 334's schoolyard and building. Every Sunday morning, you can find a variety of vintage and new items—clothes, toys, jewelry, cool knickknacks—both outdoors and inside. There are even seasonal refreshments, like warm cider in winter and fresh produce in spring.
21. Although we're planning on doing an entire post dedicated to sweet spots on the UWS (and a few restaurant posts too), I have to give a shout out to my favorite cupcakeries: Magnolia, Crumbs and Baked By Melissa. The latter's miniature cupcakes are the buzz of Broadway.
Activities and Places to Play
22. We were very excited when the first Michaels opened in NYC. It's Mecca for crafters on the Upper West Side. You can find just about anything you need for any art project, plus there are free or inexpensive workshops and birthday party packages. Visit the website before you go to download current coupons.
23. Michaels is just one of many crafting spots on the Upper West Side. In fact, there are so many, we wrote an entire post dedicated to crafting on the UWS. We're not just talking the usual ceramics, although you'll find that at Make Meaning and Little Shop of Crafts. But you can also knit, bead, make your own books and even participate in a Medieval Arts Children’s Workshop.
24. Broadway in the 70s and 80s is chock-full of coin-operated rides. Yes, most of them are in terrible condition: the paint is chipping and sometimes pigeons have used them as a dumping ground. But break out your wipes and a couple of quarters, and a quick ride will put a smile on any young kid's face. Raven says that she and her daughter turn this into a kind of scavenger hunt to see who can spot more rides as they stroll.
25. One coin-operated ride is located outside a semi-secret tot spot: Essentials Plus. A few years back, actress and mommy blogger Amy Wilson wrote a guest post for Mommy Poppins with "insider" UWS info, and she raved about the toy department on the second floor of this store, which includes a large Thomas the Tank Engine train table display where kids can play as long as they want. And they do—no one ever throws you out. And it costs nothing... assuming you can make it out of there without buying a toy. (The Thomas installation is not for sale.)
26. The JCC in Manhattan is also a great play spot, and it doesn't need to cost a thing. November to March, the community hotspot hosts R & R: Shabbat at the JCC on Saturdays from 2-5pm. Families can check out the facilities and programs, and kids can play games, do arts and crafts, catch live entertainment and just chill. (And in case you're wondering, you don't need to be Jewish to enjoy.) The JCC also offers volunteering opportunities for all ages on Martin Luther King Day, September 11 and certain Jewish holidays.
27. The UWS is such an iconic neighborhood, lots of children's books and young-adult novels have been set here. So many in fact, that you can create your own literary tour. Late author Madeleine L'Engle (of Wrinkle in Time fame) lived and worked on the Upper West Side, so it's no surprise that the area featured prominently in her works, like The Young Unicorns. Rebecca Stead, whose work is aimed at adolescents, was born and bred on the Upper West Side and sets her books there. And many picture books use UWS as a backdrop, like The Lonely Phone Booth and Alice the Fairy.
28. Although many of the independent bookstores that once covered the neighborhood have sadly closed, there are still wonderful library branches, including the recently renovated St. Agnes and Bloomingdale, which both host free programming for kids of all ages.
29. If you're looking to buy tomes, Goddard Riverside's massive annual book fair takes place in November. All proceeds go to the community center’s many offerings, including a senior center, after-school programs and camps. New books are 50% off but wait until the fair is winding down on Sunday afternoon and you'll find even better bargains. There is even an entire room devoted to children’s titles.
30. Public art is always popping up all over the city, and the UWS is no exception. Right now, the Broadway Mall Association is featuring the whimsical animal sculptures of Peter Woytuk from Columbus Circle all the way up to 168th Street through April. Of course, Riverside Park and Central Park are also home to many permanent statues, monuments and memorials, like the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument and Strawberry Fields.
Did we miss one of your favorite UWS spots or attractions? Share your knowledge in the comments below.