New York is one of those places, like Disney World, that is a child’s travel rite of passage.
For a first trip, stick with Manhattan, the classic microcosm of the world. There’s no major influence, theme, subject, attraction, or trend that in some way isn’t touched or reflected in the work, play, creativity, commerce, ingenuity, and world-class chutzpah that unfolds in the canyons of this great urbanity.
Kids, of course, will be dazzled by its sheer striding-of-the-globe personality (adults are too) and delight in what it offers visitors: all those A-list attractions like the Empire State Building; France’s gift to America, the Statue of Liberty; the often overlooked Children’s Museum of Manhattan; and Central Park (don’t miss the Alice in Wonderland sculpture and Strawberry Fields, a tribute to John Lennon).
And then there’s the “real New York”—Katz’s Deli; Wall Street, where New York City began; Grand Central Terminal; the subway that is the city’s true artery; and neighborhoods of Little Italy and Chinatown.
First, dispense with the myth that New Yorkers don’t care about you. “This is not an anonymous city,” says John Keatts, actor and author of Tales of New York. “Someone gets lost, struggles with a map in the subway, and help is there. Every day people tell me how surprised they are that folks are willing to help others. Kids are especially cherished.”
The best way a child can understand Manhattan is to leave it—on the Circle Line Cruise. As a New York cabbie would say: “Nothin’ better.”
“This city is great because of the water, because of the ports,” says Keatts, who is also a Circle Line guide. “You see the city differently when you’re on the water. Even New Yorkers say that. Kids are astonished at seeing the city’s broad strokes. It’s like a poor-man’s astronaut view of Earth. On the water you see big sections of the city that you miss walking among buildings.”
Circle Line cruises run year-round. April to October, when outer decks are comfortable, is prime time—kids can feel the wind and see the water up close. The three-hour cruise (attention-constrained youngsters can take a two-hour semicircle trip) is a 35-mile circle of the island with a little harbor detour: Downriver from 42nd Street on the west side of the Hudson River, past the Empire State Building, Chelsea, Greenwich Village, into the harbor past Ellis and Liberty Islands; up to the Brooklyn Bridge; then past Wall Street and Midtown (Chrysler and Empire State Buildings); to the mayor’s Gracie Mansion; from the East River into and out of the Harlem River to catch Yankee Stadium; and north into the Hudson to Inwood Hill Park and the George Washington Bridge; then back to the beginning.
This brings home that Manhattan is surrounded by water, but “the biggest comment I get from kids is: ‘Why all these bridges?’ ” says Keatts. “I answer, ‘How do you think Manhattan got its food today?’ Manhattan is an island. A hundred years ago the Brooklyn Bridge was brand-new. Back then, there was no bridge over the Hudson River. The George Washington Bridge wasn’t there until 1931 because it had to cross the widest and deepest spot. Now we have 2,027 bridges in all of New York. The point is the water affects almost everything you do every day.
“The Brooklyn Bridge gets the most questions,” Keatts continues. “We tell people about John Roebling, who had built a bridge over the Ohio River with a new material called steel, a light, strong metal that was relatively inexpensive. He designed the Brooklyn Bridge with steel—you couldn’t build it with iron because it would have been too heavy to support with cables. Today, the bridge seems small, but in 1883 it was almost half again as long as any bridge in the world, the tallest ever in North America. People were terrified because the bridge was so long; they were afraid it would fall down. So Brooklyn and New York hired P. T. Barnum circus elephants to walk across it to prove it wouldn’t. It changed architecture around the world. It was called the eighth wonder of the world. The Empire State Building would not be here without steel, which is true of most buildings in town.”
Keatts suggests you come to the city armed with questions, which is the great currency between parents and kids. He’s used to fielding questions on virtually everything about New York: “What’s the Statue of Liberty made of?” “How many bridges are there?” “What are the water tanks on the Upper West Side?”
A Circle Line tour teaches kids geography, creativity, and why things are the way they are. “Being on an island changes how humans do things,” says Keatts. “The city is here because of the water. Manhattan is about 11 miles inland from the ocean. It’s a perfect natural deepwater port secluded from storms. It’s what helped make this city great.”
Know Before You Go
Object of Wonder: Kids of all ages love Alice in Wonderland, but New York kids have a special statue located in Central Park. It’s an 11-foot-tall bronze of Alice and her friends designed for children’s climbing pleasure.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Where to Stay:
- Novotel New York, Times Square: This family-friendly hotel allows up to two kids under the age of 16 to stay for free, and also gives them free breakfast at its restaurant Café Nicole. With a terrace overlooking Times Square, it has an ideal location in the theater district.
- Le Parker Meridien, West 57th Street: Kids can splash in this hotel’s rooftop pool after a long day of sightseeing. Just two blocks south of Central Park, it’s close to the Museum of Modern Art, and Carnegie Hall.
- Hotel Edison, Midtown Manhattan: Only a few blocks from Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, this hotel offers combo suites ideal for families. Featuring the grand art deco style so characteristic of New York’s most iconic skyscrapers, it’s named for inventor Thomas Edison, who originally turned on the hotel’s lights by remote control in 1931.
Where to Eat:
- All Natural Hot Mini Cakes: This place symbolizes New York’s nonstop pace. For a sweet treat on the go, try this beloved tiny stand in Chinatown, where 15 puffy cake morsels costs little more than a dollar.
- EJ’s Luncheonette: Located on the Upper East Side, this restaurant is known for its kid‑friendly atmosphere. With grilled cheese, milk shakes, and chicken nuggets in the shape of dinosaurs, it will be hard not to find something for even the pickiest eater. It doesn’t take credit cards, so be sure to have cash on hand.
- Grimaldi’s: For a taste of famous New York pizza, check out this spot under the Brooklyn Bridge. Be prepared to wait in line, because the place is known for its coal-fired pizza.
- Katz’s Delicatessen: Since opening in 1888, this ultimate Lower East Side deli has perfected and expanded its menu with plenty of options, including hot dogs with fries, deli sandwiches, and knishes. The portions are generous, so they can be split between two kids.