A trip to New York may seem daunting when you have children. The sheer scale of the Big Apple can feel overwhelming when you first sit down to start planning your trip. But it’s all manageable, with a bit of organisation, and there’s no reason why kids can’t enjoy the city as much as the adults in your group. Helen took her family to New York for Christmas, and has some tips for getting the most out of New York when you have children.

Family trip to New York Itinerary

First of all, you need to think about where you will stay. We booked a mid-town hotel, knowing that we’d want to be central and do some walking, but wherever you stay, it’s always easy to flag down a cab to your next destination, and travelling in a big yellow taxi is an essential part of the experience. I’ve broken down our itinerary to maximise what you can cover in the least amount of time, so you’ll go home feeling like you’ve really done a good chunk of New York.

Day 1: Essential Sights of New York

  • Walk out for an early breakfast at Urbanspace Vanderbilt on East 45th Street. A deli-market food service venue, Urbanspace has pretty much anything you could want for breakfast, from delicious power smoothies to giant doughnuts and fabulous coffee. Grab something to go, or take a seat on one of the benches for a brilliant foodie start to your holiday.
  • Continue your walk down to the Empire State Building and take the lifts straight up to the observation deck for your first glimpse of that iconic New York skyline. Getting there early means minimal queues, but if you have a CityPASS you’ll bypass the ticket desk and be on top of the world in minutes.

Close up on the Chrysler building from the Empire State

  • When you’ve had enough of the view (could you ever?!) head west along W 34th Street towards Macy’s, with a spot of window shopping along the way. Macy’s is one of the three New York City stores you have to say you’ve seen, even if you don’t go inside. The window displays are spectacular – when we were there they’d really gone to town for Christmas, and we were able to play a pinball machine inside the window using controls outside! Genius.
  • Next, walk up 6th Avenue to Bryant Park. At Christmas this small green space is definitely the best place to ice-skate (the rink at the Rockefeller Centre is traditional, but it’s just too busy to be fun. But throughout the year you’ll find various mellow things to do there, including a traditional carousel, petanque and table-tennis. By now you’ll be hungry again, and you’ll find a delicious bakery, waffle kiosk and café, as well as the lovely Bryant Park Grill, if you’re in the mood for something more formal.

Times Square is a must, but pick your time!

  • By now you’re probably going to feel shattered, so it’s a good time to head back to your hotel for a couple of hours. But it’s worth a quick trip out once the light goes to take in the sheer cacophony of colour in Times Square. This gaudy, and completely crazy section of the city isn’t somewhere you’ll want to spend a lot of time with young children, but you do have to see it to believe it. If you have a teenaged girl, be prepared to spend lots of time in make-up heaven, Sephora. Have dinner at Junior’s Cheesecake – think awesome burgers and more cheesecake flavours than anyone could ever sample. Share – the portions are huge!

Day 2: Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty

  • Today is a good time to head out of the city for some culture and green space, so plan to spend most of your time on Liberty and Ellis islands, courtesy of Statue Cruises. You can see the statue from most of the boat cruises, including the Circle Line tours, however, the only way to set foot on the island is via Statue Cruises. Departing from Battery Park in the financial district of the city, the boat tour takes you first to Liberty Island, where you can take an audio tour of the statue and surrounding area (child and adult versions available – we always take the child recording, it’s much more fun!). The queues are long, and ticket numbers are limited, so this is definitely one to book in advance. For families with older children, you can also book to climb up inside the statue to the crown, which is so much fun, and well worth doing. Again, tickets are limited, and there is a specific booking window, so stay on top of the website for ticket releases. Be prepared also for stringent security checks (airport style), and a limit on how much you can carry for the day. Although buggies and strollers are accommodated, you’ll need to leave bulky items in lockers once inside the statue museum.

  • Once you’re finished with the statue, hop back on the boat to transfer to Ellis island, home of the Immigration museum, which is a fascinating look at the history of migrants arriving into New York for the first time. You can buy a pretzel on the boat to keep you going (they’re giant – you won’t be hungry).
  • Head back over the mainland, where – if you have the energy, and slightly older children – it’s worth taking the short walk to the 9/11 Memorial. You don’t need to visit the museum, simply spending a few quiet moments taking in the monuments is all you need to get a sense of the enormity of what happened here. My children are 9 and 12, so they were able to understand and appreciate its importance.
  • Hop in a cab for the short ride to Crif Dogs, the famous East Village hot dog joint where – if you’re lucky after your meal – you might gain entry to the secret bar Please Don’t Tell. Obviously I can’t tell you more, but trust me, you’ll love it!

Day 3: Like a Local

  • By now you’ll be ready for some of the real New York, so head over to Greenwich Village or Tribeca to wander the brownstone streets, browse the cool shops, and duck into some trendy eateries. Bleecker Street is a wonderful stretch to indulge in some shopping, and Bleecker playground will give younger children somewhere to let off steam when shopping gets tedious. In Tribeca, you’ll want to have brunch at Bubby’s, where you’ll find buttermilk biscuits alongside fluffy pancakes, cheese grits and an incredible Eggs Benedict. Fill up, and make it last all day!
  • Late afternoon head down to the Seaport District, a newly developed area close to Brooklyn Bridge, where you’ll find yet more cool shops and bars, right next to the financial district. What you’re really here for though, is the iPic Cinema; iPic is probably the best public cinema experience you’ll ever have, with reclining seats, blankets and cushions, and a button on your table to summon a waiter to deliver cocktails and dinner right to your seat. A brilliant way to spend an evening, and have some down time with family on an otherwise hectic holiday.
  • Before you leave, a visit to IT’SUGAR will become crucial to your children (and if I’m honest, the adults too). This is a candy shop paradise, with giant versions of everything you could imagine, including the world’s largest gummy bear. Just don’t eat it all at once.

Day 4: Brooklyn

If you’re debating whether it’s worth making the trip over to Brooklyn, let me convince you. It really is. Brooklyn is where you live if you can’t afford Manhattan, so it’s another notch down the mellow scale, and consequently it’s a whole different experience. You’ll find more green spaces, more people walking dogs, more eclectic stores, and some very cool food outlets.

  • Get up early and take the subway to Greenpoint Avenue, then it’s a short stroll down Manhattan Avenue to Peter Pan Donuts, where you can totally get away with eating a doughnut for breakfast. It doesn’t look much, but be brave; behind the tiny counter lined with locals are some of the best doughnuts you’ll ever find. We had gingerbread, coconut and caramel, and the kids still say it was one of the best parts of our whole trip!
  • Then simply wander the parks and shops until hunger makes you crave pizza. (Your Brooklyn day is going to be all indulgence, I’m afraid, but it’s so worth it). Walk down to the harbour under Brooklyn Bridge, where you’ll need to hop in the queue at Juliana’s. You may well wait up to an hour, but hang in there – this is a pizza experience you won’t want to miss, trust me. Take it in turns to queue, and fill the time photographing the incredible views, or wandering round the local shops.

  • Walk off all your indulgence along the promenade, or take a boat ride in the harbour until you can manage to fit some more food in, because you won’t want to miss Farmacy, the kind of soda bar you will never find in the UK. Root beer floats, and peppermint milkshakes vie for attention with gorgeous cakes in this old-fashioned soda joint on Henry Street. I came away wishing our kids had somewhere just like it to hang out in the evenings with their friends as they grow up.
  • If you have the energy, and your kids are old enough, see if you can take in an ice-hockey game at the New York Islanders stadium. An ice-hockey, basketball, or baseball game is one of those things everyone needs to see at least once in a lifetime, and a trip to New York is made extra-special with tickets to the game.

Day 5: Central Park, Rockefeller and 5th Avenue

  • No trip to New York would be complete without a visit to Central Park, and there’s so much to do there, and so much ground to cover that you’ll never do it justice in a day. Rather, take your time dipping in and out on a number of visits; pick and choose your experience, be it ice-skating, boating on the lake, or a horse and carriage tour. There’s even a zoo in the park, and the High Line trail lets you see the city from a unique angle as you walk. There are plenty of snack stalls to keep you going, but if you want somewhere authentic for a classic New York diner experience, head north for a grilled cheese and milkshake at the Lexington Candy Shop.
  • Save space for dessert, because you cannot think of leaving Lexington Avenue without a visit to the Sprinkles Cupcake ATM. Why anyone would want to buy their cupcake in store, when they can choose to have it served to them by an ATM is completely beyond me. This has to be the best invention in the world, ever, and we watched the screen as our choices were packaged, only to appear at the hole in the wall for us to take away! Again, genius Americans.

  • Next take a cab (or walk off that cupcake) to the Rockefeller Center, where you’re going to want to reserve a visit to the Top of the Rock for later in the evening. You can’t reserve a time in advance, but you can in person on the day, usually for a couple of hours later – you’ll never walk straight in, there’s always a wait. What you want is to see the city after dark, with all the lights blazing, but you’re going to fill your waiting time with some seriously iconic window shopping.
  • Head out onto 5th Avenue and, starting at Saks, work your way along the most glamorous shop windows in New York. It was here that my daughter and I realised we were going to have to make a return visit some day, without the boys, who found shopping without a list somewhat bewildering! We saved the day by taking them into the Lindt chocolate store, where they found never-before-seen flavours, and letting them browse the Adidas superstore while we gazed at Vivienne Westwood. Keep going, if you can, until you find Bloomingdale’s, the third must-see New York shopping icon, then either walk the other side of the street back to the Rockefeller Centre, or take a cab if you’re all shopped out.
  • Don’t skip the Top of the Rock. For one thing, you really do need to see the Empire State Building from the other side; for another, it’s the only way you’ll see quite how giant Central Park is, and the statement it makes on the New York landscape. Buy the guide, and spend an hour trying to figure out which buildings you’re looking at.

  • End your day at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where classic American favourites are served by aspiring Broadway performers, complete with song and a hint of Disney for the kids.

Day 6: American History and a Tour

  • On your last day in New York, you only really need one meal, and that’s the enormous breakfast you’ll get at Georgio’s Country Grill. There’s no fanfare, it’s not stylish, but it is probably the best American breakfast you’ll find in Hell’s Kitchen. We stuffed ourselves silly with blueberry pancakes, corned beef hash and eggs every which way, all washed down with plentiful coffee and milkshakes. Seriously, we didn’t need to eat again that day.
  • From Georgio’s walk west to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, another one that’s covered by the CityPASS. We almost didn’t do this, but it was pouring with rain and we wanted somewhere with shelter. We were so glad we did. First of all, what child doesn’t want to explore a real active service submarine? World War II aircraft carrier Intrepid is a colossal ship, full of fascinating stories about its history, as well as flight simulators and a quite thrilling number of fighter jets on deck. For an extra payment, you can also visit the inside of Concorde, and the Space Shuttle Pavilion which houses the Enterprise shuttle. My 9 year old son was in heaven.

Exploring the submarine at Intrepid

  • Head back to central NYC for a completely cheesy but totally necessary experience. One thing we were determined to do on our trip was a sightseeing bus tour. We’ve always wanted to do a London bus tour, but never got round to it, and there was no way we were missing out in New York. As well as our CityPASS, we had the New York Pass, which gave us discounted access to over 90 attractions in the city, and included in the price of the pass were two options on a sightseeing bus. Now, you can do the traditional tour; but we wholly recommend The Ride instead. Like a theatre in a bus, this tour gave us all the highlights, but with an added dose of entertainment, both inside the bus, and on the streets. Our kids loved it, and it wasn’t long before the whole family were bellowing along to New York, New York! 

So there you have it. All the must-do experiences for a family trip to New York. Did we miss any that you’d recommend? Let us know in the comments.

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A must-see itinerary for a family trip to New York, that guarantees you won't miss any of the best bits whilst keeping the kids happy. Click through for the full itinerary.