New York City makes a magical vacation spot for families year round. From its world-class cultural institutions to the bright lights of Broadway, towering skyscrapers, history-steeped, old cobblestone streets, and well-known landmarks, there's plenty to entertain your family whether you're here for a day, a week...or even longer.
While a vacation in the concrete jungle can be an action-packed experience, it can also be a challenge. Read on for our parent-tested tips to make your New York City family vacation one to remember.
There's so much to see, you just can't see it all—and that's okay! (We promise!)
1. Pack a sense of adventure and a lot of patience. New York City is a busy, booming town. You're seldom afforded a quiet moment—it's not called the city that never sleeps for nothing—and knowing this going in makes your visit more enjoyable for everyone. Keep in mind even your best-laid plans may hit a few speed bumps (or transit delays!) so plan accordingly. Give yourself plenty of time to get to your show/tour/destination and have a plan B, just in case.
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Hop on a train for a real NYC experience. Photo by Meagan Newhart
2. Buy a MetroCard and use it! Sure you can summon an Uber or hail a ubiquitous yellow cab, but a ride on the real-deal subway is all part of the urban experience. For starters, it's cheaper and safer if you have a car seat-age kiddo (while technically car seats aren't required in cabs and for-hire vehicles, I've never been one to take that chance). You'll also rub elbows with real New Yorkers (especially at rush hour!). The current MetroCard fare is $2.75 per ride, though if you're in town for a while, consider purchasing unlimited MetroCards (a one-week card runs $32). Each adult will need their own; up to three kids under 44 inches are permitted to ride for free with every paying adult.
A lightweight stroller will be a life-saver when it comes to naps, subway stairs, and fitting through tiny NYC doorways.
3. Light-weight strollers are the way to ride. Speaking of little people, if your child is still stroller-riding age (or even slightly older and not used to walking long distances) a lightweight umbrella stroller will be your best friend. It's much easier to carry up and down subway stairs. Elevators are few and far between, and frequently break down. Heed these tips for subway stroller etiquette. Another bonus: You can loop shopping bags, snack bags, and other gear over the handles or in the seat when your kid isn't riding. For babies and small toddlers, a carrier or wrap is definitely the way to ride and roam!
4. Don't try to do it all. It's easy to walk into a museum like The Met or the American Museum of Natural History and want to see Every. Last. Exhibit. Speaking from experience, I can tell you, you're setting yourself up to fail. Grab a map, consider the special exhibitions or the famous artists therein and pick a couple of must-sees you want to cover on your trip. Anything else is a bonus, and when you're tired or the kids are restless, give yourself permission to head out. You can come back another day or another trip. Consider working some of the city's most kid-friendly museums into your itinerary and check our Restaurant Guide for family-friendly picks near popular cultural spots.
RELATED: 10 Must-Sees for NYC Visitors With Kids (That Aren't Times Square)
Take the train out of Manhattan to Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.
5. There are five boroughs. It's easy to plan an entire vacation without leaving the island of Manhattan (Heck, sometimes I have to remind myself to get out of the borough!), but New York City is so much bigger. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge, and play in the amazing Brooklyn Bridge Park once you're on the other side. See the gigantic Bronx Zoo like a local and visit the nearby New York Botanical Garden. In Queens, Flushing Meadows Corona Park overflows with family-friendly spots from the New York Hall of Science and Queens Zoo to the Mets' Citi Field and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. A ride on the Staten Island Ferry is thrilling and also FREE. Once you're across the harbor, there are tons of family-friendly destinations within walking distance of the terminal.
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Hop the Staten Island Ferry and explore some amazing museums and green spaces in the borough.
6. Leave some time for downtime. Sure, there's plenty to see, but you don't want to return to reality needing a vacation from your vacation. Plan some time that's unplanned. Maybe that means lounging in the shade while your kids run out their sillies at one of our destination playgrounds during the warmer months, or grabbing a hot cocoa and doing some people-watching at one of these winter gardens on a cold weather day.
7. Get off the beaten path. While there's something to be said for visiting those big tourist draws, you'll get a feel for the real New York if you veer away from the popular spots. Stage a gastronomic tour of Queens or the Lower East Side. Skip the popular (and packed) Dylan's Candy Bar for one of these old-school candy spots. Skate at Central Park's Lasker Rink instead of the much more crowded Wollman Rink. Consider renting an AirBnB or VRBO instead of staying in a glitzy motel; make a typical neighborhood home for your stay. You get the picture: Real New York is a big, diverse, fun-filled place.
8. Pack a bag of tricks and have a potty plan. I've got a designated snack bag that comes with us whenever we've got a day of city adventuring planned. Everyone brings a water bottle, too. Long train rides also mean everyone has a subway book to pull out and peruse on our way to the destination. I'm also constantly armed with wipes, hand sanitizer, and a few Band-Aids. Put your phone on power-saving mode and bring a backup battery charger, especially if you'll rely on it for maps, navigation tips, and mobile tickets. Bathroom breaks are a must, before we get on the train; when we get off the train...generally, anytime I know there's a clean(ish) bathroom nearby, everyone is going to try. In a pinch, head for the nearest business. Even if there's no public restroom, I've rarely been turned away when I've had potty-dancing kid at my side. And yes, I've been known to drag a kid with me when they didn't have to go, because they are much harder to turn away!
9. A little skepticism is healthy. If there's a show/tour/landmark you really want to visit, plan ahead and purchase your tickets or book your tour in advance from an authorized vendor. Don't allow yourself to be near the Statue of Liberty or outside a theater and left to deal with possible ticket scammers or those who will overcharge you. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is...like that time last October when my family was offered four tickets to a Yankees playoff game. They were fake; thankfully they were given to us. I wasn't out any money, but I had two very disappointed kids and a huge wish of bad karma for the man who passed them to us!
10. I swear, New Yorkers are nicer than our reputation. Don't let one bad apple ruin the whole bunch. I've answered many a question for a tourist. Helped them carry a stroller up the stairs. Pointed them toward the right train or offered to snap a family picture, and I've seen many of my fellow urban dwellers do the same. So, ask away and enjoy this beautiful city we call home.
For inspiration planning your trip, see our list of splurge-worthy NYC experiences, and our NYC kids bucket list. Our jam-packed events calendar is continuously updated with new fun, family-friendly picks and you can sort by date, cost, or neighborhood.
Photos by the author unless noted