Gargoyles, Art and Scavenger Hunts at NYC's Cathedral of St. John the Divine
My family and I have a long personal history with the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, a beautiful cultural destination in Morningside Heights. It's where I went to elementary school as a child, and where my 9-year-old daughter now attends summer camp at ACT, an early education and recreation program located under the stately building.
For those who don't live nearby, the Cathedral offers lots of enriching drop-in fun for visitors of all ages and denominations. From medieval-themed sleepovers and family art workshops, to fabulous annual festivals and art installations, to exploring amazing stained-glass windows, neo-Gothic architecture and landscaped grounds, a trip to the Cathedral makes for a transcendent and mostly FREE family daycation.
An Episcopal house of prayer that holds more than 30 services a week, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine welcomes visitors of all faiths and also hosts many secular programs. Construction on this neo-Gothic wonder started in the 19th century and it's still unfinished (though you can't really tell from looking at it); still, it's one of the largest cathedrals in the world. Kids love running up (and down) the steps to the stunning entrance, and examining the interior, where you'll find story-filled stained-glass windows, awesome arches, stunning statues and a diverse array of artwork. Although daily tours are offered for a fee, families can go on self-guided explorations with the help of FREE activity sheets obtained at the visitor center. Bring paper and pencils! Sketching and rubbings of the decorative floor are encouraged.
The Cathedral's 11-plus-acre grounds are also open to the public during daytime hours. There are two playgrounds—one just inside the entrance on the left, the other hidden to the left of the Cathedral School—but they're often reserved for students. However, you can still romp on the Pulpit Lawn, stroll through the Biblical Garden and marvel at the massive Peace Fountain. Also, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the three resident peacocks that wander freely.
Although families can check out the Cathedral and its grounds on any day, for a more interactive experience, consider visiting for a special event. The Cathedral offers Children's Workshops twice a month on Saturday mornings, where kids can make seasonal crafts, or try medieval arts like carving limestone, creating illuminated letters and weaving. These sessions are meant to engage parents and kids, and are inexpensive (less than $10 per child-adult pair).
If it's too cold or rainy to be outside, the aforementioned ACT offers drop-in weekday sessions in its Indoor Playstation from December through March—it's the cheapest play space in Manhattan.
The Cathedral also hosts one of my favorite annual events the first Sunday in October: the FREE Blessing of the Animals, which marks the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Animal lovers of all faiths can bring their pets to be blessed. Although the no-cost tickets for the morning service in the Cathedral sell out weeks in advance, you can show up at noon to watch the procession of exotic creatures, including a hawk, a camel and bees. You can also get your dogs, cats or other pets blessed by clergy on the Pulpit Lawn in the afternoon. Face painting, a petting zoo, live music and performances are also on tap.
If you're up for splurging, both in terms of time and money, the Knightwatch Medieval sleepovers are truly memorable. Enjoy a medieval dance lesson, art workshop, scavenger hunt/interactive show and celebration before the lights go out and kids can explore the Cathedral by flashlight. My daughter and I did it a few years back and had an amazing time.
Other events of interest to families include the Cathedral School's annual spring fair in May, a paper-crane festooned Peace Tree over the holidays and the New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace. Of course it's worth checking the calendar for special one-off events. The Cathedral often hosts live performances and rotating art installations, as well as religious and social services.
After your visit, head across the street to lunch at the old-school V&T Pizzeria (opened in 1945) and then walk a few doors down to the Hungarian Pastry Shop (opened in 1961) for dessert.
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is located at 1047 Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street. It's open daily from 7:30am-6pm and admission is FREE though donations are accepted.
Read all of our posts about exploring Morningside Heights with kids.