Best Activities for Families Visiting New York City

Aug 23, 2019

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You’ll never run out of fun things to do for the entire family in New York City and, believe it or not, a trip to the Big Apple doesn’t have to drain your savings account to be spectacular.

There are plenty of affordable but fun ways to keep children engaged and entertained in New York City all year round. While Manhattan can be very expensive for lodging and parking, families on a budget will find it surprisingly easy to enjoy classic New York activities at a reasonable price.

Here are our favorite activities in New York City with kids — none of which will break the bank.

Related: Best Hotels for Families in NYC

See a Broadway Show

No, that’s not a typo. Experiencing the magic of a Broadway show is a surefire win with the entire family, and there are a number of ways to save big on tickets.

Before your New York vacation, you can start browsing the discount and special offer codes on BroadwayBox.com. Or, if you have time and patience to spare during your trip, you can even wait in line at a TKTS booth in Times Square, near Lincoln Center or at the South Street Seaport. Here, you could score tickets as much as half-off for select same day and next day shows. I’m also a huge fan of the TodayTix app (if you have a specific show in mind).

If you’d rather buy tickets ahead of time, the Broadway Roulette ticketing marketplace is perfect for flexible families.

With Broadway Roulette, you’ll pay between $49 and $59 per ticket and can book seats up to three months in advance — but you can’t choose the show you’re going to see. You can, however, eliminate up to four shows you definitely don’t want to watch, and indicate a preference for a musical. Parents can even play a game of “family-friendly roulette,” which guarantees that all the performances are suitable for little ones. Current shows available on Broadway Roulette include Frozen, Aladdin, The Lion King and even “jackpot” hits like Harry Potter.

Whether you’re spinning the roulette wheel or selecting from discounted, last-minute tickets, use a credit card that pays a bonus on entertainment spending when you’re ready to buy.

Just be aware that most theaters, even the family-friendly ones, have a minimum age of at least 4 to attend. And the recommended age for most productions (even Disney musicals) is 6 or older.

Related: Best Broadway and Off-Broadway Shows for Families

New York City
Broadway (Photo by Eric Hsu / NYC & Company)

Play in the Park 

On the densely populated island of Manhattan, there are more than 1,000 parks, playgrounds and urban green spaces for families to enjoy when they need a break from the concrete jungle. It’s no surprise that New York City does parks so well: most people live in high-rise apartments and use city parks as their backyards.

In general, you’ll find small playgrounds scattered across the city every few blocks, but don’t limit yourself to whatever you stumble upon. Some of the especially beautiful parks are filled with local history and will keep both parents as well as children entertained.

These are four of our favorite New York City parks — and they all have free public restrooms, too.

Central Park

There’s a reason why Central Park is iconic. Not only is it the city’s best known and biggest green space, it’s downright beautiful every season, and large enough for a full day’s worth of entertainment. Spending time in Central Park’s 834-acres is a way to enjoy unstructured fun away from traffic.

Come here with your kids to take a nature walk, climb the rocks and check out the various playgrounds. There’s also the Tisch Childrens’ Zoo, an amusement park with rides (it becomes a skating rink in the winter), and rowboats your family can take on the lake for $15 per hour (cash only).

(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Should you venture out to Brooklyn (and you should, if you have time), Prospect Park in Brooklyn is fantastic and even has its own zoo, that is more manageable in size than the Bronx Zoo. Tickets to that 12-acre zoo are $10 for adults and $7 for kids. Speaking of the 265-acre Bronx Zoo, admission there is pay-what-you-wish on Wednesdays, otherwise $23 for adults and $15 for kids.

The High Line

The High Line is a 1.45-mile-long park that opened in 2009 as an effort to preserve the abandoned, elevated railroad track that spans the Chelsea neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side. The High Line is a great place to admire the city from above (sans stress and traffic) while checking out art installations, food and drink vendors and even splashing around in the water feature on hot, sticky New York Days — with the children, of course.

Photo by Boogich via Getty Images.
Photo by Boogich via Getty Images.

We recommend starting at the 11th Avenue and 30th Street entrance near Hudson Yards so you can check out the Hudson Yards Vessel. (Book free tickets in advance if you want to climb up.)

(Photo by Sara Wass/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Sara Wass/The Points Guy)

From there, you can walk above the streets on the High Line to Chelsea Market in about 20 to 30 minutes. Inside the market, your crew can eat and shop in some fun, funky stores in air-conditioned delight.

(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Pier 51 Playground

Another example of repurposing a formal industrial areas is Pier 51, part of the Hudson River Park. Now hailed as one of the best playgrounds in New York City, the jungle-gym design pays tribute to a military fort that was once located nearby. The giant water gushers and spill buckets are the main attraction for kids at this playground — especially on a hot, balmy day.

Domino Park

Located in hip Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Domino Park is one of New York City’s newer parks, which just opened in 2018. The former sugar factory is now a five-acre public park that preserves much of the factory’s original layout. Domino park features a playground, sweeping lawn and fountain courtyard. Need another reason to get your family to Brooklyn? There’s no better way to get a Manhattan skyline view.

Photo by simplethrill/Flickr

This place makes our list of the coolest things to do in Brooklyn with kiddos — don’t miss the nearby tacos, either!

Visit a Museum

New York City is home to a dizzying array of museums that are fun, educational and cater to virtually every interest. The best part is that many of New York’s most prominent museums (including child-focused institutions) offer free days or “pay as you wish” admission.

Additionally, Bank of America’s “Museums On Us” program grants cardmembers free access to more than 175 museums across the country: including several not-to-miss New York City museums, including the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and the American Museum of Natural History on the first weekend of each month.

These are just a few of our favorite New York City museums for families.

Photo courtesy of the Intrepid Air and Space Museum
Photo courtesy of the Intrepid Air and Space Museum

Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

This Hell’s Kitchen museum offers free admission for children ages 4 and under, and Bank of America cardholders get free admission on the first full weekend of every month.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Located in Central Park, children 12 and under can access The Met for free, while New York State residents and New York, New Jersey and Connecticut students can pay what they wish. Free admission for Bank of America cardholders is available during the first full weekend of every month.

Museum of Modern Art

Also known as the MoMA, children 16 and under get free entrance to this Midtown West museum, and free general admission is available every Friday from 4pm to 8pm.

National September 11 Memorial & Museum

Admission to the memorial is free, and admission to the museum is free every Tuesday from 5pm until close, and children 6 and under are always free. Pair your visit to the museum and memorial with a trip to the top of One World Trade. This is not free, but the views are exceptional. While children are admitted, this activity may best appreciated by older children and teens.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Head to this striking Upper East Side museum to see one of the finest displays of contemporary and modern art. Pay what you wish every Saturday from 5pm until 7:45pm. All children 12 and under are free.

Parents looking for a museum specifically designed with children in mind are spoiled for choice in New York City.

Brooklyn Children’s Museum 

Visitors can pay as they wish on Thursdays from 2pm until 6pm at the world’s first children’s museum, which opened at the close of the 19th century.

Children’s Museum of the Arts

At this West Village institution, which has fun exhibitions as well as a series of classes, workshops and activities, you can pay as you wish every Thursday from 4pm until 6pm.

DiMenna Children’s History Museum 

Located on the Upper West Side, children under 4 are free and visitors can pay as they wish on Fridays between 6pm and 8pm. In October, a Harry Potter “History of Magic” exhibit will arrive.

Museum of Mathematics

Your kids could learn to love numbers at MoMath, a Flatiron museum offering free admission and interactive activities for families on Fridays.

Photo courtesy of the Children
Photo courtesy of the Children’s Museum of the Arts

Statue of Liberty

It’s iconic, it’s timeless, it’s worth a visit — especially if you can go early or on an off-peak day that isn’t in the middle of the summer. If you want to actually go inside the Statue of Liberty, as opposed to just taking a ferry to the island, you need to plan in advance. The pedestal and crown access tickets book up weeks and months in advance.

To get to Lady Liberty from Manhattan, you will take a ferry from Battery Park. There’s no extra fee in include pedestal access to your visit if you can snag a reservation, though crown access adds $3 per person. There are 162 steps and children must be 4-feet tall for the crown portion of the tour. Otherwise, to visit the Statue of Liberty children under 4 are free, 4- to 12-year-olds are $9 and adults are $18.50.

(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Of note is that the food at the Crown Cafe right next to the Statue of Liberty is infinitely better than any other National Park Service concessions I’ve experienced, so plan on lunch here if you get hungry before boarding the ferry to head to Ellis Island.

Speaking of which, Ellis Island is very cool and historical, but may not hold young kids’ interest for very long. Additionally, if you do visit both, don’t plan on any other heavy activities in the day as that will fill a good chunk of time.

(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
(Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

That said, tweens and teens might appreciate the ghost tour that is available through some abandoned portions of the island — though that costs extra.

If you just want to see the Statue of Liberty but not actually visit, you can take the free and frequent Staten Island Ferry and wave to her as you cruise by (and back again).

Top of the Rock

The best view of the city is not from the Empire State Building. Instead, head to Rockefeller Center and go up 70 floors to the Top of the Rock. From there, you can actually see the Empire State Building in the skyline, instead of just stand in it.

This is not a cheap view at about $38 for adult tickets and $32 for child tickets (under 6 are free), though you can include it as part of a CityPass if you want to visit many popular NYC attractions for one bundled price. (This includes places such as the 9/11 Museum, Intrepid, Statue of Liberty, etc.) Should you wish to visit around sunset, those tickets are an extra $10 each.

If time is money, then you can cut the security and elevator lines and buy-up to a VIP experience for $75 per person.

Manhattan view from the Top of the Rock (Miguel Sanz / Getty Images)
Manhattan view from the Top of the Rock (Miguel Sanz / Getty Images)

Bottom Line

New York City is a gateway to the arts, has incredible history and there’s no shortage of affordable attractions for the entire family. If you come during the holidays, you have a whole other list of amazing and budget-friendly things to do and see.

Photo by Ben Zucker/The Points Guy
Photo by Ben Zucker/The Points Guy

During your visit, the most important thing to remember is to skip the tourist traps and chain restaurants.

Related: Best Places to Eat With Kids in NYC

Instead, do as the locals do: Grab a dollar-slice of New York City pizza (here are some good picks), pack a picnic and head to the park. Or, spend an afternoon perusing one of the city’s spectacular museums. Even tickets to a top Broadway show can be more affordable than you’d think.

When in doubt, hop on a commuter ferry — seriously — and take a tour of New York City from the East River. Tickets are just $2.75 per adult (children under 44 inches cruise for free) and it’s an unexpected, cheap way to see the City That Never Sleeps.

Want to know more about NYC and all the best spots, check out the podcast episode we have on that exact subject.

Angelina Aucello covers family travel for TPG and blogs at Angelina Travels. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.

Additional reporting by Summer Hull.

Featured photo by Matteo Colombo/ Getty Images

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