There's something magical about being out on the water in New York City. Whether you are sailing down one of the rivers, rowing out on a lake or cruising on the ocean, it's a lovely and relaxing activity, and a great way to stay cool on a summer day. It's also an opportunity to see the city from a whole new perspective.
Countless operators offer all kinds of boat tours around NYC. So the question for parents is, which ones are truly family-friendly? After all, once you're on the water you're committed to the ride regardless of tantrums, seasickness or boredom.
To help you figure out which NYC boat rides work best for your family, we've broken them down by type (great for tots, wildlife watching, DIY rides, etc.) and highlighted some of our kids' personal favorites. You can find more seasonal activities in our Summer Fun Guide. Looking for a FREE kayak, rowboat or canoe session? Check out these spots around NYC this summer.
Best for Getting Wet
Shark Speedboat Thrill Ride or The Beast
Shark departs from Pier 16 at South Street Seaport.
The Beast departs from the Circle Line dock at Pier 83, 42nd Street and 12th Avenue.
If your family's objective is to get a bit wet, then the Shark or The Beast are for you. Both rides are high-adrenaline, 30-minute speedboat tours that go out into New York Harbor, zip past the skyline, stop for photo-ops by the Statue of Liberty and race home, splashing loads of water onto their passengers. That will cool you down! I enjoyed The Beast with my 8-year-old son and his buddy, and it was quite a thrill. Children must be at least 40 inches tall.
RELATED: NYC Beaches, Pools, Water Parks and Splash Pads Guide
Bring Venice to NYC with a gondola tour in Central Park. Photo by Shinya Suzuki via Flickr.
Best Virtual European Vacation
Venetian Gondola Tour
Departs from Loeb Boathouse in Central Park, 72nd Street and Park Drive North.
Year-round weather permitting
Can't make it to Venice this year? Head over to Central Park for an authentic Venetian Gondola Tour on the lake. This ride requires advance reservations, but it's sure to leave a lasting impression. Boats can fit up to six passengers. Call the boathouse at 212-517-2233 to make a reservation.
Best for Playing Tourist
42nd Street Circle Line
Departs from the Circle Line dock at Pier 83, 42nd Street and 12th Avenue.
Yes, it's for out-of-towners, but this ride offers million-dollar views of Manhattan’s glittering skyline and a view even locals can appreciate. From its Midtown location, the Circle Line cruises all the way around Manhattan, pausing for photo-ops near the Statue of Liberty. (If you want to actually visit the Lady, which we've done—read the review!—that's an entirely different boat ride.)
RELATED: 5 NYC Ferry Rides with Kidtastic Landings for Fun Day Trips
The East River Ferry makes stops in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. Photo by Shira Kronzon.
East River Ferry
Departs from various locations on the East River.
While definitely more of a commuter boat than a sightseeing vessel, the East River Ferry is a relaxing way to visit the waterfront neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn, and my family's favorite way to get to Brooklyn Bridge Park. Buy an all-day pass so you can hop on and off as much as you'd like—it's much more enjoyable than the tour buses. Download our handy guide to find out what to do at each stop along the way.
Read our 10 Fun Things to Do with Kids at the Long Island City Waterfront if you're headed for Queens!
Best for DIY Fans
Depart from Loeb Boathouse in Central Park, 72nd Street and Park Drive North.
If you want to be the captain of your own vessel, a rowboat's the thing. Rowboats can be rented from Central Park's Loeb Boathouse and enjoyed on the adjacent 22-acre lake. Read about other paddling options in NYC.
Departs from various locations.
Mid-May to mid-October
A number of volunteer organizations offer walk-up, no-cost kayaking to anyone who can swim at locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Rules and schedules vary so read our in-depth post on kayaking with kids for more information.
Pedal boating and kayaking
Departs from LeFrak Center at Lakeside, 171 East Drive in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.
Pedal boating and kayaking have been mainstays at the Lakeside complex on Prospect Park's freshwater lake since 2014.
Junior pirates and mermaids will enjoy a ride aboard the Clipper City. Photo courtesy of Manhattan by Sail.
Best for Playing Pirate
Clipper City Sail
Departs from Slip 2 at the Battery.
May to mid-October
Looking for something a bit less commercial feeling but still want to put the wind in your sails (couldn't help it)? Manhattan by Sail offers a variety of sightseeing trips aboard its two magnificent sailboats, including a voyage on the Clipper City, where junior pirates, mermaids and sailors cruise to the Statue of Liberty by day or night. You'll feel like a real sailor!
Best for Catching Your Own Dinner
Marilyn Jean IV
Departs from Pier 6, 2100 Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
This deep-sea fishing party boat provides everything you need to catch the big one: rod, reel and bait. Plus, the crew cleans and packs your catch, which, depending on the season, can include striped bass, bluefish, sea bass, or cod. During peak season, the boat offers day and night jaunts, and you can bring a cooler with snacks if you don't want to buy them on board. You must reserve your spot in advance.
Best for Watching Wildlife
Depart from Pier 16 at South Street Seaport.
Various dates, see website for complete schedule.
New York Water Taxi hosts eco-tours with Audubon Society naturalists. Head north to the Bronx or east to Queens to marvel at birds who live right here in NYC, including black-crowned night herons, the glossy Ibis, double-crested cormorants and egrets. We went on the Jamaica Bay Eco Cruise, and it's great for older kids interested in nature.
Whale and Dolphin Watching Adventure Cruises
Depart from Riis Landing at the intersection of State and Heinzelman Roads.
The American Princess Fleet is the only whale-watching operator in NYC. Cruises depart from Queens' Jacob Riis Park. These summer-only outings recently started for the season and already passengers have spotted playful dolphins and humpback whales.
Best for Penny Pinchers
Staten Island Ferry
Departs from Whitehall Terminal at State and Whitehall Streets, Manhattan; St. George Terminal, Bay Street, Staten Island.
See the Statue of Liberty from afar at no cost on the Staten Island Ferry. A one-way trip takes 25 minutes and offers magnificent views of New York Harbor. While waiting for your return ride, check out the Manhattan skyline from the terminal's outdoor patio. Watch the fish swimming in the two giant freshwater aquariums in the waiting room or grab a snack. Better yet, explore the family-friendly neighborhood of St. George, or check out these 30 Fun Things To Do on Staten Island This Summer, a list created by our Staten Island mom to two.
Who can resist an evening boat ride to and from Ikea? Photo by Chun-Hung Eric Cheng via Flickr.
Ikea Water Taxi
Departs from Pier 11 at South Street and Gouverneur Lane.
The Ikea ferry is a convenient way to get to the megastore in Red Hook, Brooklyn, but also a fun and sometimes free ride. If you go on the weekend, the trip is gratis. On weekdays, you pay $5 each way, but you can redeem your ticket for a credit toward your purchase of $10 or more. Children younger than 6 ride free at all times. Purchases must fit in a large Ikea bag to be allowed on the boat.
Best for Landlubbers
Kerbs Boathouse Cafe and Central Park Sailboat Concession, 75th Street on the east side of Central Park.
If you prefer the kids to do their boating from solid ground, they might enjoy sailing a model boat around the Conservatory Water in Central Park. Miniature boats can be rented for a classic New York scene that was immortalized in E. B. White's Stuart Little.
A version of this article first published in June 2010.
Top image: The Shark offers a thrilling water adventure around New York Harbor. Photo by Smart Destinations via Flickr.