New York City will always hold a special place in heart as the background to where I fell in love with my husband. Back then we were broke college students. I was living in a Brooklyn apartment with seven other people and one bathroom. We would go on cheap dates like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and eating hot dogs.
A lot has changed for us since then. While we have a little more money, we are still very budget conscious, especially in a city where it is easy to spend a lot. And while we would still be happy just walking around the city, with two young children we need more family friendly activities that kids get excited to spend time visiting the attractions.
Here are some of our picks for the best budget-friendly, kid-friendly activities in the city that never sleeps:
Staten Island Ferry – A lovely free boat ride with views of the city. The Ferry runs seven days a week around every half hour between the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Manhattan and St. George Terminal on Staten Island. Best not to ride during rush hour when the ferry can be crowded. For parents looking to relax, it also serves beer.
Bronx Zoo on a Wednesday – Any day of the week is great to visit this world class 265-acre zoo. But while normally it costs $19.95 for an adult general admission ticket, general admission is free all day on Wednesdays!
American Museum of Natural History – A fascinating museum for kids and adults alike. The exhibits include information about the history of cultures throughout the world as well as animals. A highlight for everyone is the collection of dinosaur skeletons and bones. There is also a discovery room with interactive activities aimed at kids 5-12 years old. The museum has a suggested donation admission policy, making it possible for a family on a budget to visit and pay as they are able.
Central Park – Where kids can let go of holding a grown up’s hand and finally run. This massive park offers a lot of treats for kids with highlights like the boat pond, storybook statues and 21 great playgrounds. If you have some extra money, there are some great family activities in the park. The Central Park zoo is also lovely It has a petting zoo and is smaller than other zoos making it a great choice for younger children who get overwhelmed or families who have tight time restrictions. Older children might want to rent bikes to explore the park in the summer or take the family ice skating at Wollman Rink in the winter.
The Highline – A public park built on an old elevated rail line. I know a walk in a park might be a stretch for young kids but older ones will enjoy the experience of being up high and there are fun parts where the old rail lines are visible and a framework of steel beams above sunken areas provide areas to play.
Art Museums — Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Ok, I know that an art museum is not on the top of the list as a child friendly activity but if you can get (bribe) them to go, the MoMA is free for children 16 and under and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a suggested donation for adults and is free for children. Bring a pad of paper and some colored pencils for each member of the family, choose a masterpiece to draw and compare your pictures. On the weekends MoMA offers free family art workshops, tours specifically for four year olds, as well as gallery talks for children. The Met offers a free story time for young children.
Children’s Museums — Children’s Museum of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum -Two museums that children will love. Both museums have free hours; the Brooklyn Children’s Museum is free every Thursday afternoon from 2-6 pm and the Children’s Museum of Manhattan is free on the evening of the first Friday of the month. Be warned that they will be crowded during free hours but if you don’t mind, they are both great places to play.
Toy Stores — Toys R Us Flagship store and FAO Schwartz – Both stores offer great opportunities for kids to play for free. The trade-off is of course being in a toy store. If you prep kids that there won’t be any shopping (or whining!) these stores can be a lot of fun.
New York Public Library – This iconic building is fun to explore just for its architecture. But every location of the libraries offer family programs like preschool story times.
Playgrounds – New York has many large, innovative playgrounds for taking a break from museums and letting children run around. Some of my favorites include Pier 25 at the Hudson River Park, the Imagination Playground in Burling Slip and the Heckscher Playground.
If you have some extra money there are almost limitless other possibilities of course such as catching a Yankees game, going to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, seeing a Broadway show, going to the top of the Empire State Building, and countless other museums and play areas. The most important thing is to remember to balance adult and child centered activities and to plan a leisurely pace without overscheduling. No matter what your budget, New York is an amazing city and your family is sure to have an unforgettable experience.