If you're looking to see America's melting pot reputation in action, take a family trip to the Lower East Side. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the neighborhood's tenements housed waves of immigrants from a variety of backgrounds, notably Germans, Italians and Eastern European Jews. Although this Manhattan neighborhood has undergone a major transformation in recent years, with spots for knishes and cannoli being replaced by craft cocktail bars and boutique hotels, there are still remnants of its multicultural history that are great fun to discover with kids. The Tenement Museum and the Museum at Eldridge Street both offer engaging peeks at the area's past, along with frequent family programming. Sara D. Roosevelt Park hosts celebrations for Asian holidays in honor of the nearby Chinatown community. A bit further south, NYC's only Latino theater for young audiences, Teatro SEA, presents shows in English and Spanish, and the neighborhood's restaurants reflect the area's diversity with dim sum houses, delicious delis, pizzerias and the oldest candy store in NYC all vying for your appetite.
Of course there are cool, new kid-friendly attractions, too, including a pair of cat cafés, the New Museum, which offers FREE admission for children under age 19, and an amazing, in-progress underground park. Situated from Houston Street to the East River between the Bowery and Canal Street/East Broadway, the Lower East Side is small enough for families to explore on foot in one day, and boasts lots of places to play, both indoors and out.
The 7-plus-acre Sara D. Roosevelt Park (Houston to Canal Streets between Chrystie and Forsyth Streets) is an admittedly odd-shaped green space that's seven blocks long but only one street wide. Yet it's an oasis in an area tightly packed with buildings. In addition to offering traditional attractions, including modest playgrounds, ball fields and a year-round bathroom, it serves as a lively community gathering place. Every winter, the park hosts a pair of massive Lunar New Year celebrations and in fall, a Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Dedicated locals, including residents of the adjoining senior center, maintain the M’Finda Kalunga Garden on the site of a former African-American burial ground. And if you visit early in the morning, you'll spy the magical Hua Mei Bird Garden just south of Delancey Street, where Chinese retirees hang bamboo cages filled with talented songbirds that tweet tunes as the sun rises.
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Hamilton Fish Park offers swimming, a playground and ball courts for area kids. Photo by Daniel Avila/courtesy of NYC Parks.
At Hamilton Fish Park (Houston to Stanton Streets between Sheriff and Pitt Streets), you'll find a playground, ball courts and, in summer, one of the most popular outdoor swimming spots in the city. Actually, there are two pools: an Olympic-size one for adults and big kids, and a smaller, shallow wading pool for tots. There's also an indoor recreation center with fitness equipment, Ping-Pong and billiards, but you need to be a member to enter.
A serene stretch of the 46-acre East River Park (12th to Montgomery Streets along the FDR Drive) runs through the LES. Although there are no playgrounds in this section, you can promenade or cycle along the water, hit one of the many sports fields and, in warmer months, get wet in the spray showers near the Williamsburg Bridge, where the water shoots up randomly from geysers. You can also catch FREE kid concerts at the East River Amphitheatre in summer.
The Coleman Playground Skate Park sits under the Manhattan Bridge. Photo by Steven Pisano via Flickr.
As you wander through the neighborhood, you'll come upon lots of smaller green spaces, like Seward Park (Canal to Essex Streets between Jefferson Street and East Broadway), Luther Gulick Playground (Delancey to Broome Streets between Columbia and Willett Streets) and Baruch Playground (Stanton Street between Baruch Place and Mangin Street), plus a host of community gardens, some of which offer public visiting hours. For bigger kids who scooter or skateboard, you'll find the awesome Coleman Playground Skate Park (Pike and Monroe Streets) just south of the neighborhood's border under the Manhattan Bridge.
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"Preservation detectives" at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Photo by Kate Milford/courtesy of the museum.
Places to Play Indoors
While there are no traditional indoor play spaces on the LES, the nabe is a cool kid culture hot spot. Housed in a stunning historic synagogue, the Museum at Eldridge Street (12 Eldridge Street) offers frequent, hands-on family programming where kids of all faiths can learn about Jewish traditions and the history of the neighborhood. Highlights include the Egg Rolls & Egg Creams Festival every June, which celebrates the adjacent Jewish and Chinese communities; monthly Preservation Detectives Family Programs: educational and interactive hunts where kids explore the space and uncover cultural secrets; a klezmer music party on Christmas; and themed walking tours of the nabe.
Explore the past at the Tenement Museum. Photo by Alina Adams.
School-age kids can learn what it was like to be a LES immigrant at the Tenement Museum (103 Orchard Street), which offers a variety of interactive tours as well as historic neighborhood walks. The best bets for families are the Meet the Residents building tours with costumed educators playing early 20th-century residents of the tenements, talking about their daily lives and answering any questions visitors have. It's a wonderful, hands-on history experience.
Visit the many interactive exhibits at the New Museum on FREE first Saturdays for families. Photo by Anna Fader.
Go back to the present at the New Museum (235 Bowery), which moved into its iconic LES home in 2007. Its exhibits push the boundaries of contemporary art, and are often cutting-edge and interactive. Monthly First Saturdays for Families events are 100% FREE and created specifically to engage kids, with gallery tours followed by a related art project. The museum also hosts a pair of must-do fests in nearby Sara D. Roosevelt Park: its hands-on block party every July, and the biennual Ideas City StreetFest featuring innovations in arts and culture created specifically for urban communities.
Check out NYC's only Latino children's theater as it retells folk tales like La Cucarachita Martina. Photo courtesy Teatro SEA.
Theater more your style? NYC's only Latino children's theater, Teatro SEA (107 Suffolk Street) presents bilingual shows featuring actors and puppets. Some productions are adaptations of well-known folk tales, like Pinocchio/V1iva Pinocho! and The Three Little Pigs/Los Tres Cerditos. Others pay tribute to Latino history and culture, such as My Superhero Roberto Clemente about the baseball legend and The Pura Belpré Project about the first Puerto Rican librarian in the New York Public Library system. Teatro SEA also has a small puppet museum, where you can examine the stars of the stage up close.
Other drop-in places to hang indoors include two FREE NYPL branches: the Hamilton Fish Park Library (415 East Houston Street) and the Seward Park Library (192 East Broadway), which both offer regularly scheduled toddler story and playtimes, after-school homework help, crafts and movie screenings. Kids can enjoy face time with adoptable felines at a pair of cat cafés: Meow Parlour (46 Hester Street) and the Koneko Cat Café (26 Clinton Street). Be aware that both require advance reservations and only allow children during designated hours. If you have a baby, Sunshine Cinema (143 East Houston) hosts Rattle & Reel screenings every Wednesday morning when moms are welcome to bring their infants along. Note that the films are aimed at grown-ups, not children. The Manny Cantor Center hosts a variety of drop-in programs like family yoga, live performances for kids and FREE community celebrations for many Jewish holidays, all open to non-members.
The seasonal Hester Street Fair attracts families all summer for its local eats and wares. Photo courtesy of the fair.
Where to Shop
While there are plenty of boutiques on the LES, most of them cater to haute hipsters. That's OK, you didn't want to spend all your money, anyway! Still, it's worth exploring the funky Hester Street Fair (corner of Essex and Hester Streets) open seasonally from May to October. Peruse aisles of vendors selling vintage duds, handmade jewelry, crafts, home goods and lots of artisanal eats. While My Plastic Heart (210 Forsyth Street) is aimed at adult collectors, kids will go gaga for its selection of custom-designed, high-end toys that make Littlest Petshop and its ilk look bland. And the 70-plus-year-old Essex Street Market (120 Essex Street) is worth a browse. It's set to move into new digs in 2018 but until then, you can experience the original municipal food hall built by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, a beloved remnant of the old LES.
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Pastrami on rye at Katz's is just one of the classic NYC eats you can find at this popular but touristy deli. Photo by Kim Jones via Flickr.
Where to Eat
All that exploring make you work up an appetite? Well good, because the LES is home to some amazing kid-friendly restaurants. Feel like going old-school? Hit the legendary Katz's Delicatessen (205 East Houston Street) for pastrami on rye, bagels with lox and cream cheese, and matzoh ball soup, or grab some knishes to go at Yonah Schimmel (137 East Houston Street), which doesn't have much seating. Another neighborhood stalwart, Russ & Daughters, smartly opened a café a few years back (127 Orchard Street) where you can introduce the kids to chopped liver, smoked salmon and potato latkes with an egg cream chaser—and of course, its perfect New York bagels.
If your family has a hankering for more contemporary cuisine, there's an outpost of the popular The Meatball Shop (84 Stanton Street) serving up its signature dish with lots of different sauces. You can also grab a slice at Nonna's LES Pizza (105 Clinton Street) or share Chinese dishes on a lazy Susan and gaze at the fish swimming in the pond at Congee Village (100 Allen Street). Get breakfast all day at Clinton St. Baking Company (4 Clinton Street), one of our favorite pancake spots in the city.
Ice cream sandwich perfection at Melt Bakery. Photo courtesy of Melt.
Sweets and Treats
Treats are where the LES really excels. Try something exotic—crystalized ginger maybe—or go traditional at Doughnut Plant (379 Grand Street), which changes its menu daily. Opened in 1937, Economy Candy (108 Rivington Street) is an authentically old-fashioned sweet spot with colorful confections packed floor-to-ceiling—go ahead, name any candy, you probably can't stump the family that owns this wondrous place. Want to make your own sweets? Tache Chocolate (254 Broome Street) hosts candy-making workshops for kids and adults. Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC (248 Broome Street) is gluten-free, vegan and kosher, a real find for those with special dietary needs. Meanwhile the delightfully retro Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery (126 Rivington Street) has full-size and mini cupcakes in a rainbow of flavors. Prefer your sweets cold? Melt Bakery (132 Orchard Street) specializes in custom-prepared ice-cream sandwiches served on fresh-baked cookies. Finally, at Il Laboratorio del Gelato (188 Ludlow Street), you can watch the staff make fresh batches of the signature treat through a window as you peruse its list of rotating flavors. There's no seating here, so grab your gelato to go on the way home.
Top image: Old tenements and spring tulips. Photo courtesy of Hester Street Market.