The Upper West Side of Manhattan is one of the most famously family-friendly areas in NYC. I've lived on the UWS since I was just a tot and raised two children (now teens) in the same apartment where I grew up, so we're all very passionate about the neighborhood. (That's part of why we've covered it so extensively in the past.)
Roughly covering the area from Lincoln Center to 106th Street and Riverside Park to Central Park, there are a slew of kid-centric hot spots and activities in this massive neighborhood. It wasn't easy, but we've whittled down our list to 30 top picks for things to do with kids on Manhattan's Upper West Side. While you're sure to find the obvious ones (hello, American Museum of Natural History and Children's Museum of Manhattan), we also included lots of offbeat ideas and unusual info about the familiar attractions.
Arts and Culture
Fossil digging activity at the American Museum of Natural History's Discovery Room. Photo by R. Mickens/courtesy of the museum.
1. Most NYC families have taken their kids to the American Museum of Natural History at least once. But have you explored some of its lesser-known sections and activities? The Discovery Room encourages hands-on exploration of everything the institution covers, from anthropology to zoology. Kids can build a life-size dinosaur skeleton, romp in an interactive tree house, play memory games with fossils and much more. An intimate and engaging space, it's not surprising that the 40-minute sessions fill up quick! To ensure your spot, be sure to pick up your free pass at the Discovery Room entrance as soon as you arrive at the museum. Middle schoolers might also want to try one of the museum's sleepovers, a splurge, but perfect for a special birthday coming up.
2. In addition to the ever-popular Adventures of Dora and Diego exhibit, the Children's Museum of Manhattan continually offers new exhibitions (see our review on its latest exhibit, America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far), plus amazing programs and activities, especially on weekends. Catch concerts by local kids' bands or participate in hands-on workshops with arts professionals—all free with museum admission. Even though my kids are almost grown, we attend the museum's gospel concert on Martin Luther King Day every year.
RELATED: Dinosaurs Among Us at the American Museum of Natural History
The DiMenna Children's Museum has many interactive exhibits that spotlight the city's history. Photo courtesy of the museum.
3. The New-York Historical Society is home to the family-friendly DiMenna Children’s History Museum, a fun and interactive way for kids to explore New York City and its history. Families can enjoy ever-changing exhibits—The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems is currently on display—as well as kid-friendly programs and events.
4. For a top-notch lineup of bands and shows, plus film and book events aimed at children, check out the Just Kidding family performance series at Symphony Space.
5. Vital Theatre Company mounts musicals to please very young theatergoers, usually based on popular picture books like Pinkalicious and Angelina Ballerina. Twinkle Tames a Dragon is playing this spring.
6. While many offerings at Lincoln Center are aimed at adults, the Little Orchestra Society presents classical concerts for young people, the Big Apple Circus mounts an annual show, the Metropolitan Opera always has a family-friendly holiday offering and, of course, there's the annual Christmas production of The Nutcracker. The newly launched Lincoln Center Kids offers year-round family-friendly entertainment and, in summer, the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival always features a family day. Plus, there's that awesome fountain year-round!
Parks and Playgrounds
7. Central Park is a destination in its own right. However, the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre is an Upper West Side gem and the charming stringed puppets are the stars. Admittedly, it ain't a Broadway show, but with insanely cheap ticket prices, short shows and post-performance sessions where kids can meet a puppeteer, it's a great choice for first-time theatergoers.
Head to Belvedere Castle for great views. Photo by Raido via Flickr.
8. Also in Central Park: A fully functional weather station at Belvedere Castle, where you can borrow free birding discovery kits during warmer months.
RELATED: See NYC's Best Destination Playgrounds
Build sand castles at the adorable frog sandbox at River Run Playground. Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim via Flickr.
9. Like Central Park, Riverside Park has many destination playgrounds including Hippo, Elephant, River Run Playground and Dinosaur Playgrounds. In warmer months, the Riverside Park South extension and Pier I host lots of annual family-friendly events like Mamapalooza in May and the West Side County Fair in September.
10. Riverside Park's Boat Basin Cafe is a great outdoor dining spot for families. It's also fun to look at the houseboats docked at the Boat Basin—yes, there are people in NYC who actually live on houseboats!
11. There are also lots of smaller green spaces that break up the urban landscape on the UWS. One of our favorites is the West Side Community Garden. Local families plant tiny plots that produce fresh veggies, fruit and flowers for their tables. Become a member and also enjoy its annual events, like an arts and crafts fair, a Fourth of July barbecue and alfresco Shakespeare in the summer.
12. Zabar's is an old-school Upper West Side institution. Foodie families will be in heaven browsing gourmet goodies from around the globe, both exotic (caviar, all kinds of cheeses) and familiar (bagel with a schmear.) Ask nicely at the smoked fish counter and your kid will likely get a free taste, and other free samples are often available.
13. Speaking of old-school shops, although the Upper West Side is constantly welcoming new businesses, a few stalwarts still survive, in addition to Zabar's. There's a pair of veteran shoe stores—Harry’s Shoes and Tip Top Kids— where your kids' feet will be properly measured, and the salesperson will dole out a departing balloon.
14. Of course, some of the newer stores are worth visiting, too, especially when it comes to kids' clothes and gear. If you've got a baby or young child, there's Giggle, Z' Baby and Albee Baby.
15. For more retro browsing, try Westsider Rare & Used Books, which is filled with second-hand books, including kid lit. A second location on 72nd Street sells LPs and more! You can finally show your kid what a record looks like.
16. We have to cheat a little now to send you just north of our boundaries to Bank Street Bookstore, which relocated to the corner of Broadway and 108th Street a year ago. Not only will you find rows and rows of kid-lit, along with knowledgeable staff to help you find the proper text for any occasion, you can enjoy its five-times-a-week story hours, or Sunday afternoon puppet shows.
17. We realize farmers markets aren't shops per se, but there are a handful of good ones on the Upper West Side, and they're a lot less mobbed than Fairway, Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. My family and I frequent the 97th Street Greenmarket, which is open Fridays year-round, and often features entertainment and activities, like live music and cooking demos.
18. Another outdoor shopping destination: the GreenFlea in P.S. 334's schoolyard and building. Every Sunday morning, you can find a variety of vintage and new items—clothes, toys, jewelry, cool knickknacks—both outdoors and inside. There are even seasonal refreshments, like warm cider in winter and fresh produce in spring.
RELATED: Best Local Bookstores for Kids
Magnolia dishes out its trademark confections from a bakery on the south end of the Upper West Side. Photo by Alexi Ueltzen via Flickr.
19. I have to give a shout-out to my favorite cupcakeries: Magnolia and Baked By Melissa.
20. Alice's Tea Cup is a treasure for locals and visitors alike. This whimsical tea house inspired by Alice in Wonderland features a delicious menu (the scones and homemade jam and cream are amazing!) and countless tea options, plus merchandise including fairy wings, wands and necklaces to add a touch of magic for little ones.
Activities and Places to Play
21. One spot that surprised me when I first walked in is The Baseball Center, located in the basement of the Apple Bank on 74th Street. The 15,000 square foot facility offers camps, after-school programs, birthday parties and plenty of batting cages where you can perfect your swing or work with a professional coach one-on-one to enhance your game. The Baseball Center also has its very own baseball league, as well as competitive travel teams for more experienced players.
22. We were very excited when the first Michaels opened in NYC. It's a mecca for crafters on the Upper West Side. You can find just about anything you need for any art project, plus there are free or inexpensive workshops and birthday party packages. Visit the website before you go to download current coupons.
23. Engage in some educational fun at the STEM-centered RoboFun, which offers plenty of classes, camps and birthday party fun.
24. Broadway in the 70s and 80s is chock-full of coin-operated rides. Yes, most of them are in terrible condition: the paint is chipping and sometimes pigeons have used them as a dumping ground. But break out your wipes and a couple of quarters, and a quick ride will put a smile on any young kid's face.
25. The JCC in Manhattan is also a great play spot, and it doesn't need to cost a thing. November to March, the community hot spot hosts R&R: Shabbat on Saturdays. Families can check out the facilities and programs, and kids can play games, do arts and crafts, catch live entertainment and just chill. (And in case you're wondering, you don't need to be Jewish to enjoy.)
27. Libraries are wonderful spots for families to enjoy good reads and free programming for all ages. The Upper West Side is home to the St. Agnes and Bloomingdale branches.
28. Goddard Riverside's massive annual book fair that takes place in November is not to be missed. All proceeds go to the community center’s many offerings, including a senior center, after-school programs and camps. New books are 50 percent off, but wait until the fair is winding down on Sunday afternoon and you'll find even better bargains. An entire room is devoted to children's titles.
Central Park's Imagine memorial in honor of John Lennon. Photo by John Wisniewski via Flickr.
29. Public art is always popping up all over the city, and the UWS is no exception. The Broadway Mall Association features an ever-changing display of art. Of course, Riverside Park and Central Park are also home to many permanent statues, monuments and memorials, like the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument and Strawberry Fields.
30. If you're looking for an indoor romping spot, the Upper West Side is home to many members-only place places including NY Kids Club, apple seeds and Super Soccer Stars.
Did we miss one of your favorite UWS spots or attractions? Share your knowledge in the comments below.
Top photo: Catch some stars at the Planetarium at AMNH. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/courtesy of Library of Congress.
This post originally published in November 2011.