Morningside Heights with Kids: Top 25 Things to Do and Places to Explore
Superficially, Morningside Heights hasn't changed much since I was growing up nearby in the '70s and '80s. Sandwiched between the Upper West Side and Harlem, the neighborhood is still dominated by Columbia University and its students, as well as college kids from the many other schools in the area (hence the neighborhood nickname "Academic Acropolis"). Meanwhile, the gorgeous, neo-Gothic Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and Riverside Church attract worshipers and tourists in equal measure.
Although the area's architecture may be the same, its businesses and vibe are completely different. While some old-school eateries like Tom's diner and the Hungarian Pastry Shop have survived, there seem to be sleek new restaurants on every corner with farm-to-table menus, and most of the ma-and-pa stores of yesteryear have been replaced by chain banks, bars or fast food dining. These days, families almost seem to outnumber undergraduates, as they take advantage of the area's two major, amenity-filled green spaces, Riverside Park and Morningside Park, and large prewar apartments.
Throughout April, we'll be writing about the best places for families to see, eat, play and experience in Morningside Heights. For the purposes of our posts, our geographical boundaries are 106th to 125th Streets between the Hudson River and Columbus Avenue/Morningside Drive. We kick off our coverage with the top 25 things to do in Morningside Heights with kids.
- Enjoy FREE storytimes, puppet shows and readings by famous children's authors, or just curl up with quality kid lit at the recently relocated Bank Street Bookstore.
- Or stroll a few blocks north for FREE storytimes in English, Persian and other languages in Book Culture on Broadway's cozy basement children's room.
- Let your preschoolers get their sillies out by romping in the engaging and inexpensive ACT Indoor Playstation, which is open for drop-in weekday sessions December through March.
- Explore the gorgeous grounds of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine; even when its two playgrounds are closed to the public, you can still enjoy the grassy lawns, landscaped Biblical Garden, massive Peace Fountain and live peacocks.
- Go inside the Cathedral to gaze at its neo-Gothic glory, or try one of its seasonal or Medieval Arts-themed Children's Workshops.
- Make your visit to the Cathedral extra memorable by attending a special event like the annual Blessing of the Animals featuring a procession of exotic beasts (first Sunday in October) or doing the interactive Knightwatch Medieval Sleepover.
- Explore an attraction-packed, mile-long stretch of Riverside Park featuring tennis courts, multiple tot lots and playgrounds, swing-a-rings, a skate park and...
- Grant's Tomb, a.k.a. General Grant National Memorial, with a visitor center where families can learn about the Civil War hero and U.S. President.
- Wake up and smell the cherry blossom trees at Sakura Park, which is simply gorgeous in spring.
- Grab one of the biggest and cheapest slices of pizza in the entire borough at Koronet Pizza, which is always filled with families.
- Indulge in a carb-heavy brunch at the homey Kitchenette Uptown, famous for its baked treats and milk shakes.
- Enjoy no-cost kids' programs at the state-of-the-art Morningside Heights Library, which hosts regular storytimes, playtimes and movies.
- Explore the elevated northern edge of Morningside Park, the divider between Morningside Heights and Harlem, featuring alcove sprinklers, benches and breathtaking views. If you decide to go down into the green space, check out our slide show of the park.
- Need a more contained place to let your tots play? The gated West 113th St. Play Garden features a swing, a climbing structure, room to dig and a hose in summer; it's a neighborhood secret!
- Craft beautiful lanterns and then show them off in a nighttime illuminated parade at the annual Morningside Lights festival.
- Experience a slice of vintage New York while paying homage to the Seinfeld gang at old-school diner Tom's Restaurant, whose facade served as the exterior of the sitcom's Monk's Café.
- More old New York: Grab pizza or pasta for dinner at the iconic V&T Pizzeria (opened in 1945) and then head a few doors down to the Hungarian Pastry Shop (opened in 1961) for dessert—be prepared to fight for a table as Columbia students are always there studying.
- Even if college is still years off for your kids, they can enjoy exploring the gorgeous Columbia University campus. The grounds are open to the public and you can even download a self-guided tour—children love running on the lawns, cycling on the paths and climbing up and down all the steps.
- Columbia also offers lots of affordable community programs and services to families living in the area, including health care, tutoring, arts, sports and the beloved Barnard babysitters.
- Hit the Columbia Greenmarket on Thursdays and Sundays for fresh food directly from nearby farms.
- Browse stylish footwear and adorable accessories at one of the neighborhood's only kids' shops, The Shoe Tree.
- Desperate for a last-minute gift? The tiny Superior Toys (on Broadway between 111th and 112th Streets) has dolls, cards and offbeat tchotchkes.
- Chow down on scrumptious sweets, including truffles, creams and even sugar-free treats, at Mondel Chocolates.
- Marvel at the beauty of Riverside Church from the outside, and then go inside and enjoy a FREE tour on Sunday mornings; it's also worth checking its calendar for family events and performances.
- Go on a DIY Madeleine L'Engle walking tour. Many of the late author's YA novels are set in Morningside Heights, including The Young Unicorns, and she was also the longtime librarian at the Cathedral Church St. John the Divine.