What are the best things to do in NYC with tweens? It’s hard to think of a more exciting city to visit with children than New York. From the skyscrapers to the Statue of Liberty, the hot dogs in Central Park to crazy shakes and giant pizzas, this is a city break that you’ll remember forever.
New York is such a fun destination for everyone in the family. We’ve put together a guide to things to do in NYC with tweens. It’s a combination of all those things we most loved on our recent visit, from the touristy sights you can’t miss to fantastic city walks, the best cultural experiences for kids and the foodie treats we couldn’t get enough of.
There are also tips on saving money, avoiding queues and information on booking restaurants and getting around the city. Here’s our guide to the best things to do in NYC with tweens.
Go to the top of the Empire State Building
New York’s most famous skyscraper has starred in numerous films, from King Kong and An Affair to Remember to Sleepless in Seattle. There are good views of Manhattan from other places, like the Top of the Rock in the Rockefeller Center, but on your first trip to New York you really need to see the city from one of its most iconic sights.
The Art Deco building opened in 1931 and the open-air observatory on the 86th floor has been one of the most popular places to see the fabulous NYC skyline ever since. Even the trip up to the 86th floor is part of the experience – there’s a fun video on the ceiling of the Art Deco lifts as you rise up to the observatory itself.
If you get a CityPASS (details below), your ticket gives you access to the Empire State Building during the day and again that same evening so that you can see the city lit up at night as well.
The Empire State Building is open every day from 8am until 2pm. Adults, from $38; children, from $32; under 6s, free. The best time to visit to avoid the queues is between 8 and 11am.
Ride in a yellow cab
The bright yellow taxi is one of the most recognisable symbols of New York and our kids were determined to ride in one. When it turned out that for short distances, a taxi ride for four was actually cheaper than the subway, we ended up taking quite a few. We found it really easy to pick up taxis and they were much cheaper than the black cabs in London.
It’s a fun way of seeing the sights of New York and our boys loved watching the TV in the back of the cab – they found the adverts hilariously funny so our taxi rides were usually accompanied by raucous laughter!
Walk the High Line
This is a fabulous city walk and one the whole family will love. The High Line was created in 2009 out of an elevated railway track, running through Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. This city park is open to everyone and the walkway, which runs from 34th Street to Gansevoort Street is nearly a mile and a half long.
There are more than 10 entry points along the walkway so you can start and end wherever you like. We chose to do the whole route and I’d really recommend it. There are pop up art installations, great views and play areas all along the walk. On a sunny Saturday afternoon it felt like the place to be.
The highlight for one of my tweens was recognising the Zaha Hadid Building on West 28th Street because Ariana Grande lives in the penthouse apartment.
The High Line is open every day from 7am. It closes at 7pm from December until the end of March, at 10pm in April, May, October and November and at 11pm in the summer months.
Eat a hot dog from a street vendor
Eating a hot dog from a street vendor is one of the quintessential New York foodie experiences. One of the best is right opposite the steps to the Metropolitan Museum of Art so makes the perfect stop for when you’ve got hunger pangs after all that culture. Expect to pay around $2.50.
See the Egyptian temple at the Met
If you only visit one museum while you’re in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the best things to do in NYC with tweens. It’s one of the world’s greatest art museums, rather like the National Gallery and the British Museum all rolled into one.
Our kids were thrilled to find the Temple of Dendur, an entire Egyptian temple, inside the Met. The three-room temple was built by the Roman emperor Augustus around 15BC and has been reassembled in the museum in a beautiful glass-walled atrium.
If your tweens are into Ancient Egypt, the Met is a great place to come. It has one of the largest collections of Egyptian art outside Cairo so you can find masks, mummies, jewellery and the Tomb of Perneh. There’s lots to see in the Greek and Roman halls as well as an impressive collection of European paintings including greats like Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso.
The Met is massive so be selective about what you see especially with kids in tow. It’s worth coming in the morning while you’re still fresh. If you do come in the afternoon, leave plenty of time. The museum closes at 5.30pm but they start trying to make you leave soon after 5pm.
There are some excellent free activities for families. Art Trek takes place on Saturdays for children aged from seven to 11 and there are interactive artist-led workshops in the school holidays. #MetKids is a digital programme for 7 to 12-year-olds with fun facts, a time machine, videos and ideas of ways to get creative.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is at 5000, Fifth Avenue beside Central Park. The museum is open every day from 10am. It closes at 5.30pm from Sunday to Thursday and at 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Adults, $25; over 12s, $12; under 12s, free.
Find the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park
Not far from the Met, on the eastern side of Central Park near the East 72nd Street entrance, you can see the bronze statue of Alice in Wonderland sitting on a giant mushroom with the Mad Hatter, White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat.
Central Park runs from 59th to 110th Streets and its 843 acres make for a brilliant playground for families whatever time of the year you’re visiting. In the winter there are skating rinks and in the summer there’s a boating lake and model boats on Conservatory Water. There’s a zoo, plenty of children’s playgrounds and even a castle – the 19th-century Belvedere Castle near the top end boasts some of the best views in the whole park.
Get your kids to look out for Hans Christian Andersen’s statue too. Storytelling sessions take place here during the summer months.
Wander around Chinatown
Walk from Columbus Park to Mott Street in Lower Manhattan and you’ll feel as if you’ve entered another country. New York’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese-immigrant community outside Asia. You’ll find shops selling paper umbrellas and chopsticks and food markets with buckets of live eels and crabs.
This is a wonderful place to eat. The restaurants here sell dumplings, steamed buns and dim sum. You can find Vietnamese, Indonesian and Thai food as well as Chinese. We had delicious spring rolls and bowls of pho (steaming hot Vietnamese noodle soup) from the aptly named Pho Bar, at 43 Mott Street.
From Chinatown, continue north up Mulberry Street and you’ll get to Little Italy, another neighbourhood area worth exploring.
Have a crazy shake at Black Tap
I’ve wanted to try one of these incredible-looking milkshakes ever since I saw them on Instagram so a trip to Black Tap was always on our list. We were greedy enough to have one each and I can assure you that they taste every bit as good as they look although they are very filling – they’re more of an ice-cream sundae than a milkshake. Don’t plan on eating the delicious-looking burgers as well unless you’re prepared to share your shakes! We weren’t, although we did share a plate of fries and they were really good.
There are three Black Taps in NYC – Lower East Side, Soho and Midtown. They don’t take reservations but you can usually leave your name at the door and return when they have a free table.
Walk over Brooklyn Bridge
Walking over Brooklyn Bridge had always been a dream of mine but it wasn’t until I came to New York with the kids that I finally made it – and it was honestly one of the highlights of our trip.
The Brooklyn Bridge links the island of Manhattan to Brooklyn. When it was completed in 1883 it was the largest suspension bridge in the world and the first to be made out of steel. The walkway along the bridge is only for cyclists and pedestrians and it’s about a mile to walk from one end to the other, so a relatively easy two miles if you’re just planning to walk there and back again.
This has to be one of the world’s greatest city walks. There are magnificent views of Manhattan and the river. We all loved it and have to agree with the poet, Walt Whitman, who said that the view from the walkway was “the best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken.”
Find Fantastic Beasts in the Woolworth Building
We’ve had a lot of fun looking for the Harry Potter sights in London and Lacock so finding some of the Fantastic Beasts filming locations in NYC was always part of our plan. The Woolworth Building was used as the headquarters of Macusa, the Magical Congress of the United States of America, in the film of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
The Woolworth Building was one of the first skyscrapers to be built in New York. It was completed in 1913 and it was the tallest building in New York until 1930. It’s a really beautiful building. The stunning marble lobby has a high ceiling covered in mosaics and stained glass. You can step inside the entrance but you won’t be allowed all the way in – just enough to gaze in wonder at the beautiful entrance hall.
You can see why this building was chosen as the magical headquarters. There are even gargoyles of bats and wildlife around the entrance. When J K Rowling came to inspect the building, she knew she’d found the right place when she looked up and found a stone owl above the entrance.
The Woolworth Building is near City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge subway stations so is easily combined with a walk across Brooklyn Bridge and a wander around Chinatown and Little Italy.
Try New York’s best pizza at Lombardi’s
New York is famous for its pizzas and the first pizzeria in NYC was opened by the Neapolitan immigrant, Gennaro Lombardi, in Little Italy in 1905. The delicious thin crust pizzas here are made in a coal oven and are still some of the best pizzas in New York.
You can visit the original restaurant in Spring Street but we tried out the one in Chelsea. We loved the interior – all red and white checked tablecloths, black and white framed photos and chandeliers. I could imagine The Sopranos eating here. The pizzas were absolutely delicious. They’re really big so you can easily share one between two people.
Lombardi’s is at 32, Spring Street in Little Italy and 290, Eighth Avenue in Chelsea.
Find the real Winnie-the-Pooh in the New York Public Library
We were so excited to find Christopher Robin’s real teddy, Edward Bear, here along with Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga and Tigger. We live near the real Hundred Acre Wood so our boys have grown up playing Pooh Sticks and following in the paw prints of Winnie-the-Pooh so this was really special.
The New York Public Library is worth a visit in any case. It’s one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, with grand staircases, white marble halls, enormous arched windows and chandeliers. The Beaux-Arts building on 42nd Street looks more like a palace than a library and one of our boys was so entranced in the Rose Reading Room that we lost him – we found him later, sat at one of the desks, absorbed by a book he’d picked up.
Lots of tweens love the Land of Stories books by Chris Colfer. Our boys were particularly excited about seeing the library because the last book in the series is set here and they wanted to see the famous marble lions that guard the entrance.
Get your kids to look for all the other animals hidden around the library. If you look closely you can see dolphins, griffons, bees, dogs and beavers carved into some of the ornate decorations.
Tip: Take your children to Bryant Park after your visit. This gorgeous park is right behind the library and is the ideal place for kids to run off steam.
The New York Public Library, 476 Fifth Avenue, is open every day. Mondays, Thursdays to Saturdays, from 10am until 6pm; Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 10am until 8pm; Sundays, 1 to 5pm. The library is closed on Sundays in July and August. Entrance is free.
Have a cupcake from the Magnolia Bakery
This old-fashioned style bakery in Greenwich Village kickstarted the cupcake craze back in the 1990s and it’s still the place to come for a good cupcake. If you visit the original shop on Bleecker Street, you’ll probably recognise it from old episodes of Sex and the City – Carrie and her girlfriends used to come here in the television series.
My kids may not have seen Sex and the City but they can never resist a good cupcake!
Magnolia Bakery, 401 Bleecker Street.
Get the ferry to the Statue of Liberty
Getting up close to the Statue of Liberty makes our list of things to do in NYC with tweens because it’s the thing our kids were most keen to do when they heard we were coming to New York. Getting on a ferry and sailing over to Liberty Island was a thrill for all of us. It’s always great to see a city from the water and it’s not until you see the statue up close that you realise just how big it is – it’s 93 metres tall and it’s even more impressive as you sail towards it and then walk all around it on the island itself.
The Statue of Liberty was a gift to the United States from the people of France and was unveiled in 1886. It’s become a symbol of freedom throughout the world and the boys were genuinely excited to see it, spot the gold-leaf coated torch and look at the amazing views of New York.
You can pay extra to visit the observation decks in the pedestal and crown of the statue (although you have to book a couple of months in advance if you want to climb up to the crown), but we really enjoyed just walking around the base of the statue in the winter sunshine.
A ferry ticket to Liberty Island also includes a stop at Ellis Island where you can find out more about the 12 million immigrants who passed through here between 1892 and 1924.
Book ferry tickets to the Statue of Liberty with Statue Cruises. You can get tickets by turning up on the day but to avoid the long queues it’s best to book reserve tickets. Adults, $18.50; children up to 12 years old, $9; under 4s, free.
Buy some sweets from Dylan’s Candy Store
We have to thank my blogging friend, Corey from Fifi + Hop and her tween girls for introducing us to this great sweet shop in Union Square. It’s in the building that was once home to the Andy Warhol Factory and now it’s a temple to the most colourful, wonderfully eccentric sweets we’ve ever seen. You can find all kinds of sweets here from the retro section with sherbet dips and Bubble Gum cigarettes to every flavour of jelly bean. There are lots of Harry Potter-themed sweets and chocolate bars in weird and wonderful flavours like potato chips (crisps), pizza and bacon. We couldn’t resist the gorgeously colourful lollipops.
Dylan’s Candy Store, 33 Union Square West.
Gaze up at the zodiac ceiling at Grand Central Terminal
The zodiac ceiling in Grand Central Terminal has to be seen to be believed. The 12 constellations are painted on the vast ceiling of the Main Concourse in gold leaf with 2,500 stars, some of which are illuminated. It’s a gorgeous sight as is the whole station, which is easily one of the world’s great railway stations. Once you’ve admired the inside, take your kids outside the building to see the Tiffany clock where they’ll find statues of the Greek gods of Mercury, Hercules and Minerva.
Tuck into a bowl of fresh pasta at Eataly
The best Italian food market in New York is at Eataly, an NYC institution and a temple to Italian food and drink. This is a fun place to take kids – there’s a buzzing atmosphere in the food hall, with lots of stalls and restaurants serving every kind of Italian food you’ve ever imagined.
For a simple, delicious bowl of pasta just order a Spaghetti al Pomodoro (spaghetti with tomato sauce) at La Pizza e La Pasta. Reserve ahead to be sure of a table.
Eataly NYC at Flatiron, 200 Fifth Avenue.
Find the Friends’ apartment in Greenwich Village
I spent a lot of the 1990s watching Friends on television every Friday night so I was really excited to see the outside of the apartment building where Monica and Rachel live. My kids’ generation are just starting to watch Friends now that it’s available on Netflix so it’s well worth taking a detour to see the building while you’re wandering around Greenwich Village.
You can find the Friends’ apartment at 90 Bedford Street at the corner of Grove Street. You can’t go inside. All the interior shots for the show were filmed in a studio in California. It’s an easy walk from West 4th Street subway station.
Get a sugar rush with a smoking cocktail at the Sugar Factory
One of our tweens was desperate to visit the Sugar Factory and try one of their famous alcohol-free cocktails. The fizzy drinks come in massive fish-bowl sized glasses with straws for everyone on the table and are decorated with sweets like gummi bears and lollipops. When the waitress serves it, she adds liquid nitrogen so the smoke bubbles up like a witch’s cauldron which makes it a lot more fun.
It’s the ultimate sugar rush but the kids loved it. The food here continues the fun theme, with mini rainbow burgers and burgers covered in white chocolate sauce.
The Sugar Factory is in the Meatpacking District so it’s a good place for lunch after walking the High Line.
Sugar Factory, 835 Washington Street.
Tips and Tricks for visiting New York with tweens
by getting a New York CityPASS. The pass includes admission to six of New York’s most famous attractions including the Empire State Building, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Statue of Liberty and the American Museum of Natural History.
The New York subway is easy to use and will take you most places in the city. A single ticket costs $2.75. It’s worth buying a MetroCard which you can top up with money to use on the subway system. Up to three children 44 inches tall and under can ride free on subways when they’re accompanied by a fee-paying adult. Our boys are unfortunately taller than that so they had to pay the adult fare. On short trips it worked out cheaper for the four of us to get in a taxi.
Taxis from JFK airport to Manhattan charge a flat fee of $52 plus extra for tolls.
As a family we love visiting museums but on this trip there was so much else to see that we only ended up visiting the Met. Take a look at Fifi + Hop’s great guide to the Best Family-Friendly Museums in New York to find out which ones to visit.
Visit the parks
When your kids have had enough of cultural sights and walking around, take them to a park. There are some excellent parks in New York right in the city centre. Central Park is a must on any visit to NYC and Bryant Park makes a great stop after a visit to the New York Public Library. Washington Square in Greenwich Village has a fun playground too.
Tweens like being given responsibility and mine really enjoyed taking turns leading the rest of the family on a self-guided walk. They’re given control of the map and can tell everyone else where to go and what to look out for on the route. We really like the suggested walks in the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides which have easy to follow maps and information and stories on the best things to look out for.
New York’s restaurants are often really popular so it’s well worth planning ahead and reserving some of the restaurants you most want to visit. Most restaurants have a booking facility on their website and if a restaurant doesn’t take reservations you can usually visit a few hours ahead and leave your name on the door.
Finding out more
For more information on visiting New York, take a look at the website, www.NYCgo.com which has lots of information on places to visit, restaurants and things to do. There’s even a useful section on visiting NYC with kids.
Planning your day
Nobody wants culture fatigue so mix up cultural visits with walks and stops for foodie treats to keep everybody happy. We find that long walks and museum visits are more successful with the promise of something sweet and tasty afterwards.
Schedule some downtime
Be sure to schedule in some relaxation time for all of you. Most tweens will need their downtime after a busy day of sightseeing and an hour back at your apartment or hotel room where they can read, watch TV or look at their phones can be all that’s needed for them to perk up enough to go out again in the evening.
Where to stay
The right hotel choice can make the difference between a good family holiday and a great one. We loved our family suite at the Roger Smith Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Take a look at my review to find out why.
How long to stay for?
We spent five nights in NYC which gave us four full days to explore the city. This felt like a good amount of time to do all the things we wanted to do. If you’re coming from Europe, the time difference works in your favour on arrival. You can get a good night’s sleep and be ready to hit the ground running in the morning.
Do you have any other ideas of things to do in NYC with tweens? Let me know in the comments below.
For guides to visiting European cities with children, take a look at The Best City Breaks for Families in Europe – Part One and Part Two. You can also find more city guides by checking out the City Guides section in the menu.
This post was chosen as one of Lonely Planet’s top blog posts of the month in March 2019.
Disclosure: We were very kindly given two New York CityPASSes to enable us to visit some of the attractions mentioned but all opinions are honest and my own.