If you feel like you've already exhausted your favorite NYC museum or indoor play space, why not try a nearby public atrium or garden? New York City is full of semi-secret indoor public spaces, as well as not-so-secret gardens perfect for staving off cabin fever this winter with an antsy child.
Finding an indoor, tropical hideaway right in your neighborhood can be a real winter lifesaver. My son was a winter baby, and when he was a newborn, it was freezing everywhere. We found our own indoor oasis just a few blocks from our Midtown apartment, in the lush, green garden that occupies the atrium of the Ford Foundation building. There are a number of similar indoor public spaces dotted around the commercial areas of Manhattan thanks to a zoning initiative in which the city granted buildings the rights to additional air space (i.e., taller buildings) in exchange for indoor and outdoor public areas.
Bonus: Public atriums are FREE to wander into, and many offer seating, snacks, Wi-Fi, and public art. Some gardens are so steamy and warm you'll feel as if you booked a tropical getaway. (This is why we love New York, right?) Here are 12 of our favorite kid-friendly indoor urban oases for NYC families.
Manhattan's FREE Indoor Public Atriums
Sculpture pieces are always on display in the public atrium at 590 Madison Avenue. Photo courtesy of Andrew Russeth via Flickr.
590 Madison Avenue — Midtown East
At 57th Street
Open daily, 7am–6pm
This glass structure is a real find in Midtown East. There is plenty of room, with tons of tables and chairs. Get lunch, coffee, or gelato at the Obika Mozzarella Bar, then check out the current sculpture on display or watch birds fly between bamboo thickets.
United Nations Headquarters — Midtown East
801 First Avenue, at 45th Street
The United Nations might not seem like a place for a family to spend the day. But once you make it through security, it has everything you need for an hour or a day out with kids. The lower concourse features a warm public seating area, an old-school coffee shop, and a few gift and book shops with international flair. The upper entrance has a changing display of global art. You can also take a tour as long as your child is older than 5. Extras: The UN has its own postal service and issues its own stamps. Send a postcard from the UN Post Office on the public concourse.
Urban Garden Room — Midtown West
One Bryant Park, 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue
The Bank of America Tower houses this small, yet very green atrium, where four leafy sculptures adorn the public space. Designers see it as an extension of nearby Bryant Park and also as an homage to the building's LEED Platinum rating. There are tables to lounge at, but Midtown office workers are quick to snap them up at midday. Extras: While there's not much in the way of amenities inside, you're across the street from Starbucks, Whole Foods, and all of Bryant Park's offerings.
The Ford Foundation Building — Midtown East
320 East 43rd Street
Entrances on both 42nd and 43rd Streets west of First Avenue
Open to the public Monday–Friday, 8am–4pm, closed holidays
On a typical day you will find people sitting on portable stools sketching the foliage, little kids learning to navigate the stairs, and, of course, tourists. There is no seating nor any public bathrooms; people sit on the ledges and stairs. I don’t recommend any sort of loud or boisterous activities here since it is an office building and definitely a quiet-time place. However, it is perfect for chatting, reading, nursing, and drawing. Children enjoy exploring the green spaces and throwing coins into the wishing well (all money collected is sent across the street to UNICEF). The garden is impressive, but equally so is the landmarked building that houses it. Built in 1963 for the Ford Foundation, the building is a giant steel-and-glass cube, with a full-sized open atrium in the center. It was green way before its time. To keep the beautiful oasis from becoming a drain on the city’s water supply, the roof collects water for use in the fountain and for watering plants.
If your children get antsy and need to get running again, the Tudor City playgrounds are two minutes away and accessible by taking the stairs directly to the left once outside the 42nd Street entrance.
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The David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center offers plenty of sitting areas, plentiful snacks, and, of course, entertainment. Photo by Mark Bussell for Lincoln Center
David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center — Upper West Side
Broadway between 62nd and 63rd Streets
Monday-Wednesday, 8am–9pm; Thursday, 8am–9:30pm; Friday, 8am–9pm; Saturday, 9am–9pm; Sunday, 9am–6pm
Tourists might flock to the David Rubenstein Atrium to score deals on shows, but locals know it's a great place to mingle. The two-story atrium has a beautiful floor-to-ceiling fountain, vertical gardens, and plenty of places to lounge. There's a 'wichcraft cafe on site as well as free Wi-Fi. Extras: Plan your visit around the weekly free performances or monthly LC Kids events.
Rotating art exhibits, free musical performances and a smoothie bar make 180 Maiden Lane a family-friendly destination. Photo courtesy of 180 Maiden Lane
180 Maiden Lane — South Street Seaport
Between Front and South Streets
Open Monday-Friday, 8:30am–5:30pm
Light-colored wood, brass, and lots of glass create an elegant, light-filled atrium steps away from South Street Seaport. Well-stocked seating areas provide space to lounge and a regularly changing gallery of artwork keeps you coming back. More perks: free lunchtime musical performances and a coffee shop and smoothie bar provide essential fuel.
60 Wall Street Atrium — Financial District
Between William and Pearl Streets
Open daily, 7am–10pm
This space looks like a grand hotel ballroom from yesteryear, with soaring vaulted ceilings of silver tile, gigantic palm trees and plenty of cafe tables and chairs. Chess and backgammon players get there early to stake out tables. Grab a bite at one of the two take-out eateries. The space is cavernous and well designed with a fair amount of seating (and noise). Extras: Free Wi-Fi and easy access to the 2/3 subway.
The Winter Garden at Brookfield Place — Battery Park City
230 Vesey Street, near West Street
Open Monday - Saturday, 10am-8pm, Sunday - 12pm-6pm
This magnificent glass atrium, flanked by two massive marble staircases and decorated with enormous palm trees, offers tons of shopping and many fine dining and take-out restaurants, including the kid-friendly Hudson Eats. Don’t miss the world-class views of the Hudson River, especially at sunset. The seasonal ice rink is a must-try too.
For more ideas, you can find a complete list of indoor and outdoor public spaces on the city's website, or this neighborhood-by-neighborhood search.
Indoor Gardens in NYC
The Conservatories at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — Crown Heights
990 Washington Avenue, at Crown Street
Open Tuesday–Sunday; 10am-4:30pm
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Conservatory boasts five distinct indoor areas, each reflecting a different climate. In the steamy Aquatic House, you'll find waterfalls and green foliage cascading from ceiling to pond. Delicate and colorful orchids are safely ensconced behind glass. The dry Desert Pavilion is filled with spiky cacti and hearty wildflowers, largely from South America and the African continent. The Tropical Pavilion features lush plants and trees, and has a 65-foot ceiling to accommodate the tallest arbors. The Warm Temperate Pavilion is the place to visit in February and March, as many of the vibrant African plants are in bloom. The winding path leads to a restful viewing point, making this pavilion a personal favorite. The Bonsai Museum is home to 350 miniature trees, one of the largest collections outside of Japan. Children will be fascinated by these tiny woody plants, which look as if they sprung magically out of a storybook. The FREE winter weekday admission is an added incentive to visit now.
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Wave Hill’s conservatory houses cacti, vibrant tropical plants, and more, creating a beautiful escape on winter’s gray days. Photo courtesy of Wave Hill.
The Conservatory at Wave Hill — Riverdale, the Bronx
675 Independence Avenue, between West 249th and West 250th Streets
Open Tuesday–Sunday; hours vary
This beautiful 28-acre garden and cultural center is a glorious destination in warmer months, but in the winter you can marvel at its Conservatory, a trio of glass houses that contain delicate flora. There's the Palm House, home to vibrant South African bulbs; the Cactus and Succulent House, featuring plants from dry climates; and the Tropical House, hosting a variety of plants from humid regions. Creative Family Art Projects on the weekends are always inspired by nature.
Tropic Zone: The Rainforest at Central Park Zoo — Upper East Side
830 Fifth Avenue, at East 64th Street
Open daily; hours vary
This two-tiered, indoor jungle is a hotbed of animal activity. You'll feel like you need to duck to avoid low-flying exotic birds (and their poop—watch out for it!) You'll also spy sapphire-colored poisonous frogs, lemurs, and golden lion tamarins through the lush-green foliage. Don't worry: They're all safely behind glass, but the continuum of trees and greenery gives the impression you're in the wild.
It might be chilly outside, but the Aquatic House in the Haupt Conservatory is always a tropical escape at New York Botanical Garden. Photo courtesy of NYBG
The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the NYBG — Bronx Park
2900 Southern Boulevard
Tuesday-Sunday, 10am–5pm and some holiday Mondays. Visit the website for a complete schedule.
The always-in-bloom Enid A. Haupt Conservatory offers a retreat from cold New York winters. Around the holidays, catch the must-see train show housed here. The rest of the year, you'll find special exhibits, including the annual orchid show, while plenty of fauna and flora call the space home day in and day out. When you're done checking out the greenery here, head to the Everett Children's Adventure Garden, where there's always family-friendly programming to enjoy.
This post was originally published in January 2010 and is updated annually. Louise Finnell contributed additional reporting.