New York City is the perfect destination for families with older kids! We just returned from four jam-packed days in NYC and our only regret was not staying longer - and that includes the kids! There was so much for us to to see and do that we only crossed half of the cool stuff we wanted to get to off our list.
We had a great time with our tween and teen in NYC and I want to share some highlights of our trip - along with tips to make your travel there more fun!
So, now, a guided tour of our amazing and memorable NYC experience!
Before we left, we sat down as a family and went through NYCGo.com so everyone could weigh in on what they wanted to do on our trip. Everything we needed to know about travelling to the Big Apple was there. For example, did you know there's free wifi all over NYC? There's also a huge section on what to do and how to save money on attractions. Fair warning - New York City is not cheap, and planning ahead will definitely save you money. We went with the New York CityPass option which allows you to skip ticket lines and save 42% on admission at NYC’s top six attractions.
Getting to NYC from Toronto is especially easy these days. We flew from the Island Airport on Porter which makes travel to the U.S. painless. The new tunnel to the airport is brilliant, and no longer were we dependent on the ferry schedule to get to the island. And unlike other large airports, line ups at Porter are tiny, and security checks are quick and done with a smile. We arrived in NYC relaxed, excited, and raring to go!
In terms of hotels, there are countless places to stay in NYC, even a bunch that are pet friendly. We stayed at the Millennium Broadway and can't say enough good things about this lovely grand hotel. First - location! Half a block from Times Square and nestled amongst some of the most famous Broadway theatres, we were in the epicentre of the action. Staying high up on the 50th floor let us get away from any chaos and noise and enjoy a stunning view.
Second on the list of benefits is the size of our lodgings. Traveling with a teen and tween means we need a second room. The Millennium Broadway has one bedroom suites perfect for families: King size luxurious bedroom for the adults, and a queen size pull out and single cot for the kids in another room. There's even a second bathroom! Plus, we had service with a smile the entire time.
To be honest, the happy vibe in NYC was a bit of a shocker. Before our trip, I was nervous about safety and attitude. I am happy to report New Yorkers were surprisingly polite and helpful wherever we were, going above and beyond to make our day. Even the tough looking guys out on the street selling tourists bus tours and attraction passes were surprisingly quick to stop to chat and give us directions. Blown. Away.
New York City with my teens was an absolute hit. Keep in mind, we squeezed this all in less than four days!
Double Decker City Bus Tour
We jumped on Big Bus Tours to get a lay of the land. With on/off privileges, you can use the bus as a shuttle service when you're tired of walking with the benefit of colour commentary while driving past well-known landmarks and neighbourhoods.
A few steps from our hotel is the throbbing, pulsing epicenter of Midtown Manhattan and probably the most iconic area of NYC. Plan to spend family time people watching and gape at all the crazy quirkiness. My son had a heyday taking photos of all the madness and characters that make Times Square so much fun. Bonus: it's free to hang out!
Radio City Music Hall Tour
Nothing like sneaking in a little history. Fantastic tour lead by a knowledgeable, charming guide who wowed us with tales of the history of this incredible state of the art theatre built in 1932 which continues to be one of the most prestigious theatres in the world. Plus, you get to meet a Rockette and hear first-hand what it takes to become one.
Definitely a highlight of our trip was renting bicycles and exploring Central Park. Within the 800 acres of well maintained park space, there are a variety of outdoor stages, a carousel, a zoo, restaurant, and playgrounds. We headed to the lake in the middle of the Park where we rented row boats, the skyscrapers of Manhattan surrounding us in the distance. Of course the kids were charged with rowing to burn off any extra energy. You can easily spend much of a day here.
This new elevated park is brilliant on so many levels. (See what I did there?). Built on a railway trestle that runs above the streets of Manhattan abandoned for 30 years, the High Line brings greenery and street art to the NYC concrete jungle overlooking the city streets. Awesome for families to get out and run around! Plus, it's free! We jumped on the High Line at the foot of the indoor Chelsea Market which is also a must visit.
Empire State Building
I've been to NYC so many times, but never visited the iconic Empire State Building until I brought my family this time. The panoramic view of NYC from the 86th floor is incredible, the history of how the building was built is fascinating, and really, you haven't seen NYC until you've done the Empire State Building!
We knew we wanted to go to a show but couldn't decide on which one, so we were late to book tickets. Luckily, there is a full time concierge at the Millennium Broadway Hotel whose only job is to find Broadway tickets for hotel guests like us. I was shocked he was able to score us tickets for a Saturday night performance of Matilda, the hottest show on Broadway, the day before the show. Granted, the broker he bought them from charged more than face value, but the seats were good and....BROADWAY. If I was more organized, I would have bought them right here on NYCgo.com. Or, if you have time to wait in line, you can head to one of the three TKTS booths the day of the show to score discounted tickets. For the record, Matilda is a spectacular piece of theatre and perfect for all ages.
The building's architecture is as interesting as the modern art inside. Go there and expand your kids' (and your own) brain.
This was a blast for the whole family!! The bumpy, wet, high speed boat tour to the Statue of Liberty was definitely a highlight of the trip. We got soaked, laughed a lot, and saw the Statue of Liberty close up from the boat.
This was a non-negotiable destination for me. Part of traveling is to learn about the world, and it was important to me that my kids (and I) see this memorial first hand to pay our respect and expose them to important issues the free world is grappling with.
We used the Big Bus Tour to take us to neighbourhoods like Soho, Greenwich Village, and Washington Square. In the end we walked much of the way in order to explore the nooks and crannies of all those unique neighbourhoods and feel the local vibe. I think it's so important when traveling with kids to have unplanned time to just fool around, discover, and try to experience the 'hood like a local.
Rock'n Roll Neighbourhood Photography
NYC really has something for every age. Being a bit of a rock'n roll family, we really wanted to recreate these iconic New York City Album covers. There's a list of famous album jackets shot in NYC, and it would be a blast to spend a day photographing various family members re-enacting rock'n roll history.
We were so close to the Brooklyn Bridge when we visited the 9/11 Memorial, but were just way too tired after having walked across half of Manhattan. Walking across the Brooklyn bridge is definitely on our next visit to NYC. Also, A Slice of Brooklyn tour is supposed to be a fantastic guided bus tour of Brooklyn pop culture landmarks and includes a stop for some of the best pizza.
The Tenement Museum
When I asked my friends what their fave NYC destination was, a majority of them raved about the Tenement Museum, an interactive space that brings the history of NYC immigration to life. If we could have been in NYC for an extra day, I would have made time for this.
Imagine enjoying Sunday brunch while enjoying the world famous Harlem Gospel Choir. My husband is still weeping that we didn't have time to head to BB Kings Blues Club and Grill this time around.
I walked by Bloomingdales, Macy's and a score of groovy boutiques without going in. I should win an award for self-restraint. I know, I'm a saint.
Full disclosure: I'm not a foodie but love finding interesting, cost effective restaurants that everyone in my family will enjoy. With that in mind, here are a few eating establishments we visited you should add to your New York City itinerary.
Teens Love Food - Don't Overlook Street Food Vendors
Technically these aren't restaurants, but we did eat street food...a lot. My daughter was obsessed with street pretzels which you can find on most corners. Smoothie stands are also popping up everywhere. If you're on the go with two kids with bottomless tummies like we were, make sure you have cash on hand for street food.
Ellen's Stardust Diner
The most fun dining experience was definitely Ellen's Stardust Diner. Every server is a talented Broadway-calibre performer waiting tables in between acting jobs. While the food is standard diner fare, the experience of having the wait staff break out in song on a makeshift stage in the middle of the restaurant is a blast.
Located right across the street from the Millenium Broadway Hotel, Virgils is authentic, down-home BBQ. Head here for huge portions, quick service and a casually upscale meal.
A classic, clean diner a block away from the Millennium Hotel, we had breakfast here every morning. Not too expensive, quick and yummy.
Every trip needs a culinary splurge where we treat ourselves to an upscale dinner. Located in the iconic Rockefeller Center, in the winter the cafe has a stunning view of their famous skating rink. In the summer, it becomes a gorgeous outdoor oasis in the heart of Manhattan.
Not only was our meal absolutely delicious, the service was exceptional. Although the cafe is elegant, to my delight our server was personable and happy to have kids in the restaurant. They made our meal a memorable dining experience and I still dream about the steak I ordered.
An added bonus was how unbelievably careful the entire staff was with my daughter's food allergies, with the chef bending over backward to ensure my her meal was safe and yummy. Rarely can my daughter have guaranteed nut-free desserts. Thanks to the Rock Centre Cafe, it was safe for my daughter to have a fancy night out and indulge in each of these magnificent creations!
Can you believe we crammed all of this into four days? New York City is a perfect playground for families with teens and tweens. My kids are already asking when we can go back.
I hear NYC is beautiful at Christmas. Hmmm......
I had a weird and wild childhood. Weird as in good, I guess.
When I was six years old, my crazy-kind-of hippy parents bought a summer camp IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. Seriously. It's almost 50 years later and the village of Arden, Ontario is still in the middle of nowhere. Since I was six and my sister was three, we would hang out in the back seat of our car listening to 8-tracks of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Crosby Stills Nash and Young, read books and play car games every weekend as we shlepped the four hour drive to camp. Did I mention this happened almost every weekend ALL YEAR LONG? What sane family drives four hours to the middle of Nowheresville with absolutely nothing to do? If you've ever visited a summer camp in the off season, I can assure you, it's a ghost-camp.
My sister and I got used to being on our own in the great outdoors and making our own fun. We'd run over to the main camp, kick balls, and jump on the trampoline (with no netting, obviously), then go to the rockiest point by our cottage and climb on the rocks. We spent hours by the lake catching minnows with no one to supervise us in case we fell in. We lived, played, and lazed outdoors. My parents had no idea where we were at any given time. This was the same way my mom was raised.
In many ways, it was an ideal upbringing for this city girl, teaching me to be comfortable in the country, never expecting to be entertained by adults, and being able to run free like a colt. My friends envied me. But all I longed for was to be able to spend time with them on my street in the city.
"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone..."
The city was equally carefree and unsupervised for us. If you grew up in my generation, you too probably have stories of taking off in the morning with a gang of friends and showing up at home when the sun went down. We hung out with the kids on the street, walked or biked all around the hood to our friends' places and only came home when our tummies grumbled. Once again, my parents didn't have a clue where we were.
When I was eight, I was showing the neighbourhood kids how cool I was by trying to ride my bike with no hands. The next thing I knew, I woke up in my neighbour's arms as she carried me to my parent's home, my chin split open, blood pouring down my shirt. Luckily my parents were home to drive me to the hospital for stitches.
When my sister was seven my mom got a phone call from a different neighbour letting her know that my sister had fallen off the monkey bars at our local park and had probably broken her arm. Once again, my parents visited the emergency with their wild child, this time to get an arm cast.
What's the moral of the story here? If you're suggesting parents back then were lax, I would disagree. The bigger picture for me is how my parents trusted we'd be okay. And 99% of the time were fine. We were outdoors, having a rich, fun-filled youth full of adventure and energy. I made some mistakes and learned from them. To this day, I still never let go of my bike's handlebars and panic when I see my kids letting go.
Have you seen this video from Nature Valley that's gone viral?
When I first saw it, it hit me in the gut because it's true. Even though I was raised by parents who gave me a childhood filled with freedom, I'll admit I am much more conventional and fear-based in the way I raise my kids. It's not something I'm proud of.
However, my parent's values and voices are still deeply embedded in my heart and head, and unconsciously inform the way I'm raising my kids.
I grew up without a care in the world. My parents trusted the world would take care of me as I stumbled my way through childhood into adulthood. But my generation is burdened with too much knowledge, guilt, and fear to let our kids just be. And our kids are paying the price.
We can limit the number of HOURS our kids are online or in front of a screen, but if we don't let them roam free like we did as kids, what the heck do you think they'll fill all those hours doing?
It's my loud opinion that helicopter parenting is the cause of screen dependent kids who won't have the self-confidence to find their own way when they are finally allowed out alone. Trust me, I struggle with that pit of fear when I let my eleven-year-old daughter go to the park around the corner on her own to run around with her friends. I have to b-r-e-a-t-h-e and trust the universe will protect her and hope the common sense rules I've drilled into her head kick in. She has a fully charged phone with her and she's with her friends. I want her outside, running free, out of breath, cheeks pink, throat hoarse from laughing and testing herself away from me.
My fourteen-year-old son went on a five hour hike along the Bruce Trail with his buddy the other day. Was I nervous? Of course. Could something happen to him while he and his friends explored the great outdoors? You bet. But I took a deep breath and let him go to test himself. I crossed every part of my body hoping he and his buddy would make it home in one piece. They did. And he hasn't stopped talking about his adventure since.
So I have to give a big shout out to Nature Valley for making their video and going out on a limb to show parents where we may be failing; to remind us to make sure our kids are outside, playing, and having a childhood full of rich, carefree memories just like most kids from my generation did.
On September 20th, Nature Valley is asking for you and your family to get outside and explore nature for at least an hour and then share your adventures online using the hashtag #RediscoverNature and #MyBanff for a chance to win a trip to Banff (full details below). It's a no-brainer. Can you do it?
And on a more personal note, I also want to thank powers that be at Nature Valley for recognizing nut allergies with their new Lunch Box collection of nut free granola bars. My daughter deals with food allergies and is thrilled she can bring these to school!
And speaking of shout outs, I also want to thank my still-hippy-ish parents for my weird and wild childhood. I would not be who I am today if you didn't let me learn confidence by trusting the universe and letting me run free and letting me fall (off my bike). This parenting thing's really hard.
Have you met my mom yet? This is how she was raised to play in the 40's...clearly the beginnings of a future hippy.